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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Homeless programs alone not enough to get people off the streets

The Committee to End Homelessness in King County has helped thousands of people get off the streets and into homes. There is so much more left to be done, writes guest columnist Bill Block.

Special to The Times

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SEVEN years ago I joined the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, an extraordinary community effort taking on the issues of homelessness as never before. As I prepare to step down as project director this week, I am proud of all that we have accomplished. At the same time, I am haunted by the faces of the thousands of people who are still suffering through homelessness.

Their faces remind me that, as successful as we have been, our homeless programs cannot alone end homelessness.

Early on in our work, Father Stephen Sundborg, president of Seattle University and a member of our governing board, said it best: “Homelessness is the bellwether for the rest of our society. It tells us whether our education system is working, whether our criminal-justice system is working, whether our foster-care system is working.”

He was so right.

People become homeless when medical costs and the lack of insurance drive them into bankruptcy; when the lack of mental-health treatment leads to a helpless spiral and into jail; when, for many, the only affordable housing on minimum wage is the back seat of the car.

The Committee to End Homelessness and its partners have done nationally acclaimed work to coordinate and maximize funding, build housing, increase homelessness prevention and improve access to the supportive services people need to stabilize their lives.

Despite a severe recession, we funded more than 5,000 new units of permanent housing since 2005, far surpassing the 10-year goals of similarly sized city and county plans. Prevention programs helped more than 5,000 people last year, and 3,000 more moved from homelessness to housing. We replaced a system in which homeless families had to repeatedly call dozens of agencies. We now coordinate family entry with one call and place people on a master list for housing and services.

We have proved that stable housing can break the cycle of jail, emergency rooms and detox centers for single adults struggling with mental illness and addiction. We have shown that stable housing means children do better in school, improving their lifelong prospects. We have learned that addressing the needs of homeless youth prevents them from becoming chronically homeless adults.

We live in a community that has repeatedly demonstrated its compassion for the most vulnerable. The $80 million Veterans and Human Services Levy passed countywide with 69 percent of the vote. The $145 million Seattle Low Income Housing Levy achieved 66 percent approval.

From private citizens to housing and social-services staff to elected officials, people across our region have joined the effort to end homelessness. Together, we have changed the lives of thousands of our neighbors.

Yet we must do more. Our community safety net is more fragile than ever. Despite achieving several small drops in our annual one-night homeless count, we still estimate that more than 5,000 people live in emergency shelter or on the streets.

Our family entry system simplified the task of finding help, but simultaneously identified a tremendous shortfall: 1,745 families on the placement list and only 222 places available. Our veterans are coming home to unemployment and the lack of affordable housing.

Moving forward, we need stronger partnerships and renewed efforts within and across our service systems. We must increase the education and employment services that lead to living-wage jobs. We must divert young men from the criminal-justice system into counseling, treatment and a chance for a better life. We need a return to federal housing subsidies for those unable to afford housing. In constant dollars the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget is less than half of what it was in 1978.

We will benefit from the health-care system’s growing awareness that stable housing is essential to lowering medical costs. In one 75-unit building, providing housing and services to late-stage alcoholics created a $4 million drop in emergency services in the first year alone. We must restore the social-safety net that has been left shredded by too many cuts over the past several years. That work has begun, but much remains to be done.

Last year, the Copenhagen City Council asked to come study what we are doing to end homelessness. When I asked what they were interested in, they pointed to our programs for severely disabled adults, but, they said, “We’re not interested in what you are doing about family homelessness. We don’t have family homelessness. We have a safety net.” And I realized that, 30 years ago, I could have said the same thing.

Homelessness is the bellwether for the rest of our society. Although a generation has grown up with massive homelessness, those of us who are older know that homelessness is not normal. Ironically, we finally know how to help the disabled adult who in prior eras was the face of homelessness, only now to be confronted by a wave of homelessness from people who used to have entry-level jobs that paid enough to cover housing or, when facing troubles, were supported by elements of the social-safety net that we have dismantled.

We know what to do for those who are homeless or on the edge of homelessness. We also know how to keep them from falling off the edge. We need to do both.

Bill Block was project director for the Committee to End Homelessness for King County from 2005 to 2012.

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