Plan and a helping of hope are best tools to fight homelessness
MICHAEL MIRRA AND ALICE SHOBE
In the 1980s new faces began appearing on American streets. Widespread homelessness re-emerged as people warmed themselves over street grates, slept in doorways, and pushed their possessions in shopping carts.
Because these adults were the most visible examples of homelessness, solutions focused on them. In this decade, however, the fastest-growing homeless population is parents with children.
In 2009, 877 Pierce County families were homeless. But there’s hope, especially in Pierce County, where an effort, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is under way to plan Pierce County’s response to this calamity.
The plan builds on nationwide best practices that prevent homelessness, rapidly rehouse homeless families, and build parents’ skills so no child has to experience homeless-ness a second time.
The first step will be a centralized intake system. Families now must call multiple agencies and repeat their stories until they find help. Under the plan, families will call one number. They will speak to trained caseworkers who will assess what the family needs.
These caseworkers will have real-time information on the available resources. This will spare the family and service providers the waste of repeated calls and searches for help. It will better match a family with the help it needs.
The plan’s success still depends on adequate supplies of housing and services, which remain a challenge. However, it will help make the best use of what we have.
The local plan builds on what we learned over the past 10 years. In 2001, Tacoma, Pierce County, and their Housing Authorities collaborated with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to increase the amount of housing with support services for homeless families.
In 2004, this effort, and others like it in King and Snohomish counties, blossomed into a statewide partnership when the state Legislature formed the Washington Families Fund, and the private sector stepped up to match the state’s contribution.
The Washington Families Fund has funded 618 supportive housing units statewide – 126 across Pierce County. Over that time, 53 percent of the adults in these families increased their earned income.
The number of children who attend only one school during the year, instead of many or none, increased by 80 percent.
We learned to distinguish between the bulk of the families who need mainly housing and to help them find it quickly, and those families that also need other types of assistance, such as protection from domestic violence, mental health services or drug or alcohol treatment. We also learned the necessity of collaboration among all of Pierce County’s housing and service providers.
Our region’s effort helped to inform a national understanding of how to do this work. This is evident from the Obama administration’s recently issued plan to end family homelessness. That plan, like Pierce County’s, directs the necessary collaboration among the federal departments.
A recent delegation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took notice of Pierce County’s leadership. At a meeting on Sept. 14, hosted at New Salishan, the federal officials met with representatives from local schools, social service providers, public housing authorities, state and local government, and private philanthropies. We shared our past successes and our incubating plans to stabilize families and schools. Our federal visitors were impressed.
Ever since widespread homelessness re-emerged in America in the 1980s, solutions often seemed out of reach or even hard to envision. The lack of hope was among the greatest impediments to effective responses.
We now have a solid basis of data and experience to show what works and what success looks like. We expect that Pierce County will continue to lead by its example.
It is pleasing to have the federal government take notice of our successes. It will be even more gratifying when our teachers do not have any children in their classrooms unsure of where they will sleep that night.
Michael Mirra is executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority (www.tacomahousing.org). Alice Shobe is deputy director of Building Changes (www.BuildingChanges.org).