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Is it winter or spring for homeless? Perhaps both

Alice Shobe sees spring.

Shobe is deputy director of Building Changes, a Seattle nonprofit that leads the way in assessing strategies to end homelessness. Shobe spoke this week to members of the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness at the group’s annual lunch.

City and county councils had to miss it. They were in budget sessions, facing reduced state funding, figuring out where to cut, considering the harm that will come to people as they lose medical and mental health care, housing and emergency shelter.

Still, Shobe saw spring.

The people of Pierce County have built a system that does more good with less money than those in other counties and many other states. Its efficiency is stretching the number of families who can keep, or get, shelter.

Fighting homelessness, Shobe said, has been an effort in which good intentions have evolved toward science.

The first emergency shelters addressed the immediate need of the guys sleeping in doorways. They got a bunk but not much help in dealing with the problems that put them on the street in the first place.

“Then we began to notice that there were families who were homeless, most typically a single mother and two children. In fact, in this decade, families have become the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population,” Shobe said.

“In response, the federal government began promoting a new approach, the continuum of care,” she said. “Transitional housing became the go-to model for serving families. The thinking at the time was that families became homeless because they needed to fix themselves to become housing-ready.”

It was a one-size-fits-all approach to stabilize families with job, parenting and financial literacy skills.

When the Gates Foundation launched its Sound Families initiative in Pierce County a decade ago, it funded 250 units of transitional housing. It also ran a long-term study on how the people who lived in them fared.

The study found that chunks of money were spent on services some families didn’t need.

“What pushes them over the edge is a crisis: domestic violence, a job loss or major illness,” Shobe said. “Yet, because they are poor, they have a very thin margin for error.”

It would have been cheaper to keep them in their homes with rental assistance and the classes they needed.

“That cost averages just $7,000 a year,” Shobe said.

That compares to $45,000 for one episode of transitional housing.

One fourth of the families in the program fell back into homelessness because they had problems beyond the scope of the training. Many of them have chronic medical or mental health issues. It would have been less expensive to settle them in permanent housing with services.

With that data, Pierce County providers rethought every aspect of how they deal with homeless families.

This year, Tacoma Housing Authority collaborated with Tacoma Public Schools on a voucher program aimed at keeping McCarver Elementary School kids in neighborhood housing; that way, they can stay in the same school and improve their grades.

That idea won money from the Gates Foundation, always a good thing.

A centralized intake system streamlined the way a person who is homeless, or facing homelessness, gets the right services. Associated Ministries runs the center, which has vacancy lists, program details and resources for keeping people from losing their homes.

That means a person with a housing crisis makes one phone call instead of 12 or 20. It means people can be matched with the solution that best meets their needs.

It does not guarantee those needs will be met.

In its first eight months, 12,000 separate families have called the center. Many of those found a place in transitional housing, but thousands did not. Some 400 people facing eviction received the help they needed to stay put.

Through all of this, Shobe sees spring.

She may be right. But with more need and less money, it will be a hard winter.

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