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Originally published Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 3:30 PM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

A smart investment to end homelessness

A successful public-private partnership to combat homelessness, the Washington Families Fund, is a smart investment of state dollars by legislators worried about the best use of scarce public resources.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Three smart investments by the Washington State Legislature since 2004 have helped families in 15 counties end homelessness.

Pummeled state lawmakers wrestling with a tight economy, bleak revenue projections and grim budget choices rightly agonize about every penny spent. They can confidently renew a $6 million appropriation for Washington Families Fund, an innovative and effective public-private partnership.

The Fund earned bragging rights for an impressive record of achievement over the past five years, but with all eyes looking ahead next week to Gov. Chris Gregoire's revised budget and the state's revenue forecast, stay with the notion of investment.

Legislators need to be reminded that $12 million in state money has leveraged another $14.2 million from 23 funding partners. Maintenance of that partnership will likely attract more private dollars.

No one entity can do it all, so the dynamic of a public-private partnership is an active ingredient, not a label.

Legislators and private grant makers are drawn to the Fund because its mission seeks not only to provide shelter, but also to offer the services that help parents find work, keep kids in school and settle them all in permanent housing.

The public-private partnership at the heart of Washington Families Fund is managed by Building Changes, a Seattle nonprofit serving as a savvy, experienced intermediary between government, philanthropy and housing and service providers.

Executive Director Betsy Lieberman and her staff guide an intensely collaborative effort that has reached 1,181 adults and 1,860 children in 618 housing units. The geographical reach of the help for families stretches from Pacific to Spokane counties.

Lawmakers can be especially confident the money is well spent because no one is more concerned about its effective use than the overseers of those dollars and the private funders. They are constantly looking for and refining what works, with a goal to reduce homelessness 50 percent by 2019.

Those lessons learned are being turned into models and practices for use in pilot programs by Pierce, Snohomish and King counties, and the service providers they help fund.

Washington Families Fund evolved from an earlier campaign to triple the amount of housing for homeless families. Key players, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, were not satisfied with the evident success of their efforts. They wanted to know why the availability of more roofs over more heads had not been enough in too many cases.

Eighteen months of study and review, and exploration of what worked in other places, produced five principles that guide efforts now under way: early intervention and prevention; coordinated access to support services; rapid rehousing; tailored programs, and increased economic opportunity.

Those lessons translate into an immediate emphasis on employment and boosting family income. Intensive case management lays out a plan and how to see it through, remembering each family is different. Help parents, but do not forget to help the children. Combined, coordinated efforts translate into stable housing, with kids going to the same school.

People who need help receive it, and there is success with the toughest cases, but Olympia's decision is about stewardship of state funds.

Continued support of the Washington Families Fund is prudent use of taxpayer dollars by lawmakers properly concerned about the best use of scarce resources.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

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