State joins effort to quickly re-house the homeless

OlympianSeptember 6, 2013 

In my mind’s eye, there is not a whole lot that links communities in Idaho, Utah, New Jersey and Georgia — especially highly effective social services.

What these disparate locales share is the successful use of a pragmatic approach to fighting homelessness.

The template is called rapid rehousing, which seeks to move families off the streets, out of shelters and back into permanent quarters as quickly as possible.

Jason Rodriguez of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs wrote a widely circulated study that demonstrated an extraordinary success rate for families reconnected to permanent living space.

Call it the homeless recidivism rate, which plummets when compared with other housing-assistance models. In a phone interview, Rodriguez explained the traditional path has been for families to spend up to 90 days in a shelter, perhaps two years in transitional housing, with links to social services and job training.

The human and practical toll on families ranges from emotional stress to loss of furniture and family belongings. Rapid rehousing seeks to reduce shelter stays to days, not weeks.

What homeless families have lost is housing, not the desire to be a family unit, or even the capacity to help pay rent or maintain a residence.

They have been whacked by economic and personal trauma that sends them into the streets to live in a car or an emergency shelter. Recovery can be haunted by paper trails of court and credit records.

The Obama administration in 2009 put a national light on an approach that has been used by some communities since the 1980s. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program put federal money and agency support into a three-year plan.

At the end of July, Building Changes, a Seattle nonprofit that deftly links government, philanthropy and housing and service providers, hosted a meeting to assess how Washington was doing.

The event, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, brought together seven counties from across the state and the state Department of Commerce and Social and Health Services and Employment Security Division.

Local and state money is powering efforts around Washington.

In talking to Alice Shobe, executive director of Building Changes, and others about rapid rehousing, it is clear those managing and coordinating the help are making adjustments too.

This is not a comprehensive plan to end poverty, but a clear recognition of the values and strengths of families that need to be quickly sustained with independent living — together under the same roof.

Rehoused families are not cut loose. They receive help to connect with community services, get kids back in school, fine-tune job skills and provide other help so the homeless cycle does not repeat itself.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness describes the approach as helping ensure people are successfully housed and do not return to shelter.

A key component, according to the council, is permanent housing secured in the private market. The council praises a local innovation, the Landlord Liaison Project, begun in 2009.

The program is run by the YWCA of Seattle-King-Snohomish on behalf of the Committee to End Homelessness sponsored by King County, the United Way and the city of Seattle.

The liaison project finds willing landlords and provides them a backstop, says Sue Sherbrooke, YWCA chief executive officer. The effort is to assist homeless renters who have barriers to permanent housing. Landlords who modify their screening criteria are assured their tenants will receive active support services and financial coverage.

Landlords have embraced the program, with 1,411 households having been served as of mid-August. That translates to 171 landlords and 349 properties in King County.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new and promising tool to help deal with homelessness. Talented, caring people on the front lines of the housing crisis are making it work.

Lance Dickie’s email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com.

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