Stopping Homelessness Before It Starts

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Originally posted at The Seattle Times.

Does the City Council have the political will to redirect spending for programs that help prevent homelessness from happening?

PREVENTION is Seattle’s best-kept secret to answering homelessness. As the city pours resources into shelters, the city’s homeless population continues to grow. And while sheltering is an immediate necessity — especially with winter just around the corner — it’s only a short-term fix for a long-term problem. That’s where prevention kicks in.

Prevention stops homelessness in its tracks. Although people find themselves homeless for a number of reasons, many people who are on the verge of losing their home can receive financial assistance, case management, education, or some combination of these services, to help them either remain in their housing or rapidly get into alternative housing.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness identifies diversion as a best practice and places a focus on prevention as a solution. The city agrees with the approach. The Human Services Department analyzed homelessness investments and concluded that the city should focus new resources primarily on effective prevention and diversion services. King County came to the same conclusion, moving its focus from a “costly, crisis-oriented response to health and social problems to one that focuses on prevention …”

The conclusion isn’t just based in theory. In 2015, as part of a pilot project, 229 of 371 families were diverted from entering a homeless shelter. So, almost two-thirds of the families in this program could wake up without worrying where they would sleep the next day. Their kids could eat breakfast at home before going to school. These families could do the everyday things that most of us take for granted.

Though prevention models have demonstrated success, funding has stagnated. Currently, Seattle’s budget for homelessness prevention funding is a mere 11 percent of total homelessness investments. This year’s city funding for diversion would only reach 97 families. At that rate, only 60 families would likely be diverted. To put this into perspective, more than 10,000 people are homeless in King County. More children, moms and dads are competing for space with a record number of homeless and those who are the most difficult to serve.

In other words, prevention isn’t funded at a rate high enough for families to benefit.

As a city, we can consider it a great success when a family is sent to a stable home rather than falling into the stressful and uncertain shelter system. Yet, time and time again, we fail to fund prevention services. In 2012, the city called for incremental shifts of funding (2 percent to 4 percent over six years) into homeless prevention and stabilization. But as the city noted in its analysis, “Due to lack of political will and advocacy efforts, this shift in resources did not occur.”

Something has to change. If we expect to eliminate homelessness, we have to change the way we invest. That’s why I will be requesting $1.5 million in homeless diversion services to keep families and youths from entering shelters or significantly reducing their length of stay.

The mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee recognizes that — at a minimum — homelessness should be rare, brief and one-time. HALA recommends increasing the Seattle housing levy to support vulnerable individuals and families struggling with housing instability and homelessness.

And this year, the mayor included $300,000 in his budget to fund a new homeless engagement model that is intended to reduce the average length of stay in Seattle shelters from 140 days to 20 days

The City Council also has the opportunity to put a greater emphasis on prevention in this year’s budget. We simply need the political will to make it happen.