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County must reorganize housing, treatment system

george le masurier Later today, the United Way of Thurston County will convene a meeting of a large group of elected officials, business and property owners and the providers of housing, homeless shelters and treatment programs for people suffering from mental illness, chemical dependency and medical issues.

The United Way hopes that tonight’s meeting and its continuation Friday will create and rebuild relationships among many of those in a position to influence decisions regarding Thurston County’s plan to end homelessness.

Or, in the opinion of some, the lack of such a plan.

But that’s not fair. Thurston County does have a plan, several in fact. And therein lies the problem. Not everyone is following the same plan.

Most of those in the South Sound who have dedicated their lives or careers to helping people rise above their present circumstances share a similar vision of the ideal organizational structure for addressing the community’s homeless, housing and treatment issues.

What has prevented us from achieving this vision? Many of those same providers believe that we have an ineffectual organizational structure to pull everyone toward the common goal they already share.

That common goal looks pretty much like what is known as the ‘housing first’ model, a proven system for moving people off the streets and into housing.

With minor variations, this is how ‘housing first’ works in other communities:

People who are homeless enter the system through a coordinated entry agency (in some cases, shelter), where they are assessed (triaged) to determine their needs.

People who have been homeless for a long time and need intensive treatment support for mental illness, chemical dependency and/or medical issues are provided with permanent supportive housing. Other communities have found this is a less expensive alternative to shelters or repeated trips to hospital ERs or jails.

People who are more capable of independent living and need fewer treatment services, are moved into rapid rehousing — a one-time expense that provides rental assistance to get people off the street and into housing.

There always will be a need for shelter beds in emergencies, and for a robust, well-funded coordinated entry agency to direct people into either rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing. But over time, the need for sheltering should diminish.

One key to making this work is effective law enforcement that gets drug dealers off the streets. Olympia has started to do this, and their success is key to helping people recover from addiction, which is a major cause of homelessness.

So why is Thurston County, so progressive in many ways, lagging behind other communities in effectively addressing housing, homelessness and treatment?

After reorganizing its housing services about a decade ago, the county hired a consultant to develop the first Ten Year Plan in 2005. Some believe the plan has failed to lead to effective action because not everyone delivering housing and treatment programs, including county staff, adopted it.

If everyone in the system — property managers, the county, the city, and providers of homeless, housing, mental health and chemical treatment programs — isn’t all working with the same comprehensive strategic plan, progress will be slow and accidental.

The same consultant is now developing a 2014 Update to the Ten Year Plan. Even a perfect plan — with specific goals and measurable outcomes that clearly spell out the action steps required to end homelessness — cannot be effective in an unconnected government system.

In this vacuum, the housing, homeless and treatment providers submit proposals to the county’s funding sources based on what they think might win them a grant.

That results in a variety of different interests receiving funds, not all of which move us collaboratively toward the same goal.

With a clear long-term vision, South Sound providers would tailor their programs and funding proposals to fill gaps and create a coherent, effective system. In other words, everyone would start pulling in the same direction.

How bad has it gotten? Thurston County’s own public health department has spent more than a year developing a housing road map through the Thurston Thrives initiative. But it doesn’t address any connections to the county’s existing affordable housing, homeless housing, behavioral health or criminal justice planning.

Neither does county funding seem to flow out of these planning processes. It would seem that the county’s approach to funding is to disassemble the existing homeless provider system and rebuild it every funding cycle, without enough thought to the county’s investments in the long term.

We can do better in Thurston County.

The Board of Commissioners should undertake another reorganization of its housing, homeless and treatment programs. Such a system-wide change won’t be easy because it involves many moving parts, but a common vision can set the tone.

It will take leadership, partnership, a collaborative spirit and positive thinking to transform our homeless housing system.

Until that happens, metropolitan Thurston County will lag other cities and counties. And that will undermine the city of Olympia’s inspired efforts to revitalize our region’s downtown core.

That’s our challenge. Who has the courage to take it on?

Perhaps the impetus for change will emerge from this week’s meetings.

George Le Masurier is publisher and editorial page editor of The Olympian.