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Taking re-housing programs to scale: what works and what does not

Report from the Homelessness Leadership Summit

We know what works to resolve homelessness for people:
• Short-term assistance back into housing
• Long-term housing and supports for those with severe disabilities
• Coordinated access into programs that provide the above
• Plan-Implement-Measure-Improve, adopt a cycle of oversight and management

Homeless shelter and housing providers across the nation are taking themselves out of the “ending poverty” game and are instead re-tooling local systems to more rapidly assist people back into housing. Rather than tracking performance in terms of how many people go in and out of our programs, we track performance by how many people leave our programs into stable housing. We are now focusing on outcomes, not outputs.

An analysis of gaps in our local system of homeless housing and services was completed at the beginning of 2013 and local funding has prioritized programs aimed at filling those gaps. Creating coordinated access to shelters and housing programs has been in development over the past year and a written plan will be in place by the end of December.

This is the good news….now for the bad news. While we work to improve the effectiveness of our programs, plugging gaps and coordinating access, resources for this work are shrinking. The largest revenue source the county has to address homelessness, document recording fees, shrunk in the first quarter of this calendar year by 42%. The devastating effects of this drop in resources will be felt soon. Program contracts with reductions in funding took effect September 1. Agencies are struggling to plug funding gaps with private donors, fundraisers, and grant writing. How effective they will be remains to be seen.

At the Homelessness Leadership Summit in May, leveraging additional resources to help fund re-housing activities was the topic of several small group conversations. The main idea discussed was creating a local housing levy to increase resources for both affordable housing and homeless housing. To take this idea more broadly, we could create a local housing trust fund, funded through a variety of sources; philanthropic, individual donors and, yes, potentially a housing levy.

The cities of Seattle and Bellingham have passed levies for affordable housing; Bellingham most recently in 2012. Their levy revenue comes from a property tax assessment of 36 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value, costing the owner of the averaged home less than $7.00 per month for seven years. It will raise $21 million dollars over that time and leverage many times that amount in additional public and private investment. Most of the funds are for production of new rental housing, affordable to very low-income households and for preservation of at-risk, affordable housing. There are smaller amounts of the levy funds dedicated for rental assistance and supportive services to help new special needs housing operate successfully. There is a modest amount of funding for low-income homeownership and workforce housing, and an opportunity fund to provide short-term loans for the purpose of acquiring land for future affordable housing development.

As an outcome of the Homelessness Leadership Summit, there is a small group meeting to learn more about how a housing levy would work and to determine the feasibility of creating such a campaign in our community. If you, dear reader, would like to be involved, please email me at coordinatethurston@gmail.com.

The hope expressed at the Home-lessness Leadership Summit was that creating affordable housing and the capacity to quickly resolve homelessness, for those in our community faced with that reality, would at the same time revitalize Olympia’s downtown. It would do this by creating housing that the people who work there could afford to live in. Today, a downtown employee earning minimum wage would have to work two full-time jobs to afford the average downtown apartment.

I want to emphasize that a housing levy is only one method of creating the desperately needed resources to respond to the growing issue of homelessness. But is an important option that would be irresponsible to not seriously consider.

The numbers of kids in public schools experiencing homelessness soared from 1,123 a few years ago to 1,584 last school year. The number of people left on the street during our annual one-day count each January rose as well; from 237 in 2013 to 263 this year.

We know how to effectively rehouse people experiencing homelessness, even those with the most difficulty accessing and maintain housing due to chronic mental and physical health issues. And we know how to do it faster, more effectively and for less cost than ever before. We simply need the resources to take our crisis response system to scale.

This article is the third in a series coming out of the Olympia Homelessness Summit held in May of 2014. The Summit was meant to be a convening of leaders, but was also meant to be the start of a longer community conversation.

Please visit the Facebook page dedicated to continuing this important conversation: Homelessness Leadership Circle of Olympia.

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