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Originally published Thursday, January 29, 2015 at 6:03 PM

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Guest: We can do better, be smarter in how we help the homeless

The investment of millions of dollars to end homelessness has helped — and the data prove that — but we still have a long way to go, writes guest columnist Jon Fine.

Special to The Times


THE latest One Night Count of people experiencing homelessness in King County is jolting: 3,772 men, women and children without shelter — a 21 percent increase over 2014. Doubly disheartening is that 2015 marks the end of King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

Have we collectively failed?

No. We, in King County, have constructed 5,700 units of housing over the last decade, more than 2,100 for people leaving long-term homelessness. Since 2005, 36,000 people have been helped off the streets and into housing, allowing them to move on with their lives.

Are we satisfied?

Far from it. It’s unacceptable that there are still so many people experiencing homelessness, especially in light of progress by other U.S. cities in reducing the problem.

Many factors affect homelessness here. Start with the long shadow of the Great Recession, from which many people have never recovered. To that add the steep increase in housing costs now that prosperity is back, pricing many out of the market. Meanwhile, 86,000 new people have come to King County since 2010, making competition for jobs and housing that much stiffer.

Cuts to state and federal funding haven’t helped, either. Yet, the City of Seattle and King County invest $45 million a year in homelessness services and philanthropies, such as United Way, add millions more. So it’s reasonable to ask whether our efforts could be more effective. I believe the answer is yes.

Homelessness affects people of many ages and backgrounds and the causes are diverse. Yet, there are patterns: the foster kid who ages out of the system and never finds a permanent home; the vet who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and falls into addiction; the domestic-violence survivor who flees home with her kids and little means of support; the man with schizophrenia who avoids his medications and sinks deeper into despair on the street.

After years of work, we know what these patterns are and we know how to effectively help. We know what kinds of services and housing different people need. We know who is at greatest risk and needs the most help, and who is likely to succeed with help that’s more limited.

What we have lacked is the discipline to consistently act on this knowledge. Providers have not always adhered to data-driven strategies when delivering services. And government and philanthropic funders have not firmly insisted upon it — even granting exceptions under political pressure. So promises of “coordinated entry” to the most appropriate facilities and services have frequently fallen short.

This must change.

The obstacles to full participation in a robust coordinated-entry system must be overcome. With resources scarce, we need reliable ways to get people to suitable, cost-effective help, and not default simply to first come, first served. That’s no way to run an emergency room, and it’s no way to run a system for ending homelessness, either. Funders need to make sure the coordinated-entry system works smoothly and quickly, and providers need to get fully aboard.

To extend the medical metaphor, the consequence of less-than-full implementation is that we have too often given the wrong people the wrong dose for the wrong amount of time. We are underutilizing the system that we’ve built. We are not getting people quickly to the right housing and services and — when possible — on to self-sufficiency, creating space for others.

In the near-term, our community urgently needs more shelter beds. But just as urgent is the work of coordinated entry: moving people rapidly from shelter to the type of housing best suited to their needs. Along with greater homelessness prevention — for example, shoring up those about to be evicted with rent and utility help — such an approach can produce measurable progress toward making homelessness rare, brief and one-time.

Going forward, United Way of King County is determined to hold itself and our partners to a higher level of accountability where the data inform decisions and we rigorously evaluate results and commit to continuous improvement. We urge our partners in the provider community, our fellow funders in government and philanthropy, and homeless advocates to make common cause with us. The stakes couldn’t be higher: 3,772 human beings were out in the cold a few nights ago. We have to do better.

Jon Fine is president and CEO of United Way of King County.

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