Helping homeless requires a coordinated approach

The OlympianOctober 16, 2013 

South Sound Foursquare Church administrator Brad Morrill cautiously approaches a recently abandoned campsite on Olympia's west side in February 2011 during the Thurston County Homeless Census.

STEVE BLOOM — Staff file

The urbanized areas of Thurston County have worked together beneficially on a number of successful public regionalization projects, among them are wastewater treatment (LOTT) and public transportation (Intercity Transit). In an area where it’s often difficult to delineate Tumwater from Lacey from Olympia, the consolidation of certain public services makes perfect sense.

Is it time to apply this approach to homelessness?

Today, a patchwork of well-meaning South Sound organizations are taking on a variety of well-intentioned programs related to homelessness without any recognized central coordinating authority or structure. That has resulted in too many entities — both public and nonprofit — chasing too few dollars.

What we have is an uncoordinated system and a silo approach to planning and funding. It has inhibited our progress toward minimizing homelessness. It has built in a duplication of services, disjointed delivery and unnecessary competition for diminishing dollars.

That’s not efficient for the homeless trying to use the system or in allocating our limited resources. Other counties have done better.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness offers performance-improvement clinics focused on creating a plan to reduce homelessness and determining the most appropriate governance structure to implement it. Whatcom County paid more than $8,000 for the program, which produced a centralized coordination of housing resources and a single point of entry into the homeless-care system.

On Nov. 14, the housing division of the state Department of Commerce is gathering a number of South Sound agencies in Olympia in an attempt to replicate the national clinic on a low-cost basis.

Kitsap County has implemented a consolidated granting process that set priorities based on measurable outcomes. Both Kitsap and Whatcom and others, such as Pierce and Snohomish, have created successful coordinated entries — a single front door — into their complex systems of services for the homeless.

It’s easier to coordinate government entities, as Thurston County has done with wastewater and transit. It’s more difficult organize a multitude of nonprofit organizations, each with a passion for its own specific mission.

But so far, Thurston County has not successfully coordinated homeless services in the public or private sectors.

In the mid-2000s, the Legislature directed county auditors to apply a surcharge on all recorded documents, and to designate the funds to support local projects to homelessness. To distribute those funds, Thurston County formed the Home Consortium, an advisory board comprised of eight elected officials.

In the same vein, Lacey, Tumwater, Olympia and the county created the Human Services Review Council to help coordinate and provide funding recommendations for other services.

But the system is bigger and more complex than these efforts. It includes programs and funding that involve law enforcement, criminal justice, mental health, chemical dependency, hospitals, schools, veterans’ assistance, Medicaid and welfare agencies.

We hope all of these agencies go to the table at next month’s performance-improvement clinic. If they do, and they can find a way to start working together, a new coordinated approach to homelessness is possible in Thurston County.

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