Bold action needed to end homelessness in county

August 15, 2013 

Thurston County’s 10-year plan on homelessness is a lengthy, rambling document heavy on data but lacking the singular focus evident in the plans of other counties. That missing clarity revealed itself in the Home Consortium’s scatter-gun approach to appropriating more than $1 million in accumulated recording fees to homeless projects.

If the Thurston County Commission accepts the eight-member advisory body’s spending recommendations, the largest chunk will go toward consolidating and expanding shelter capacity. The consortium would give a relatively small amount to housing-first priorities, which have produced documented success in other communities.

Other counties — from Whatcom County to Hennepin County, Minn. — have embraced housing-first approaches, which are less expensive in the long run and have the added benefit of making existing shelters more effective.

Even the name of the Thurston plan hints at its philosophical approach. Whatcom County calls its plan a “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Whatcom County.” Thurston County, calls its plan the “Thurston County Ten-Year Homeless Housing Plan.”

Whatcom uses half as many pages to state clearly, “The underlying principles … are systems transformation and housing-first approaches rather than adding more shelter capacity.”

Faced with the choice of two competing proposals from Interfaith Works — one to build a low-barrier shelter and another to kick start Sidewalk, the region’s rapid rehousing agency — the Home Consortium chose the shelter, to be called The People’s House.

The decision is an understandable reaction to homelessness within the context of Olympia’s present environment.

A low-barrier shelter addresses several issues at once. The proposed 40-bed facility would consolidate 30 existing beds from a rotating shelter shared by area churches and St. Michael’s Parish, and it adds 10 beds to meet demand. Both of those shelters would then close because volunteers can no longer sustain them. The new shelter would also allow access to individuals typically rejected from other shelters.

The consortium’s recommendation also includes $200,000 to create a 10-bed shelter specifically for veterans to be located at Drexel House. No veterans should ever find themselves living on the street, and they deserve this special treatment from the county.

Sidewalk’s rapid rehousing program is recommended for a $50,000 increase in funding and could get more if the county succeeds in its application for a $650,000 Consolidated Homeless Grant. The Home Consortium should apply the bulk of that to housing-first strategies.

But it’s the Home Consortium’s reluctance to make a bold step to end homelessness that’s disappointing. Our plan leans toward consolidating the homeless in shelters rather than getting them into permanent housing directly, like Sidewalk’s rapid rehousing program.

About 85 percent of our homeless have been on the streets for less than six months and are primarily Thurston County residents. They aren’t the people you see downtown, and they aren’t easily identifiable. But they are the ones who benefit the most from rapid rehousing efforts.

Building solutions for these folks will move us closer to ending homelessness.

The other 15 percent suffer from mental illness, substance addiction or both, and require more intensive support that includes housing.

We can end homelessness in Thurston County. But it will take bold actions including more resources for new programs, rapid rehousing, and reducing support for adding shelter beds. Adding shelter capacity in the past has not reduced homelessness — why would we assume The People’s House will be any different?

Nor will the creation of a low-barrier shelter solve our need for emergency housing. The shelter has already proved to be difficult to site due to opposition by downtown merchants and will not likely be welcomed by many other neighbors.

Rapid rehousing, on the other hand, does not bring this challenge because participants are housed in existing apartments and receive financial and organizational support.

Other cities and counties are not just managing their homeless populations, they are making big strides to end homelessness. We should join them.

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