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Homeless aid revamp apparently paying off

Among all the reorganizing and rethinking under Mayor David Condon, it can be hard to connect what’s happening at City Hall with what’s happening outside it.

But there are signs that one of these efforts is paying off in very real ways on the streets – by getting people off of them.

The city’s annual Homeless Census showed a notable drop again this year. Homeless people are a notoriously difficult population to count, and we should be wary of these figures, and should reserve judgment about what may have brought them down. Nevertheless, the one-day count on Jan. 24 turned up 1,030 homeless people in the city, a drop of 13 percent from the previous year. In 2006, the first census turned up 1,592 homeless people.

These figures follow a new effort to coordinate and improve city services for the homeless. Condon combined two departments – Community Development and Human Services – in an effort to bring separate programs targeting the homeless together. Instead of several different boards allocating the various grant and government funding, there is now one large board. And city officials are participating in wider community efforts to collaborate and be creative in addressing the stubborn, seemingly intractable problem of homelessness.

At the bottom of all these efforts are simple, straightforward principles: Those who are working with one aspect of homelessness – such as mental health treatment – should be talking regularly with those who work with others – such as shelter housing. And efforts to help the homeless should be tailored to the individuals and families, not locked in bureaucratic habit.

“There are a whole lot of ‘silo’ed services,’ ” said Lee Taylor, the director of Project Access, a project of the Spokane County Medical Society that provides free medical care for people who can’t afford it.

Taylor is heading up one effort to broach the silos – the “Hot Spotters” team. The team is made up of people who work with the homeless in different ways, in an attempt to identify individuals with the most stubborn and persistent – and therefore costly – problems. The chronically homeless often move in and out of programs meant to help them; they exhaust benefits, fall off the wagon, fail to take care of themselves – and wind up in the same place as before. The Hot Spotters team tries to identify and block the gaps in services or communication that lets that happen.

A recent example: The Hot Spotters were tracking a man who is a “frequent flier” in local emergency rooms, and trying to get him into a permanent place to live. They helped him into an apartment; he very quickly managed to find himself unable to cover the rent – the sort of trigger that could leave him on the streets again and returning to the most expensive crisis services. The Hot Spotters saw the problem coming, and a city representative on the group was able to quickly find flexible funding to help keep the man in his apartment, Taylor said.

In other words, all of those folks are meeting regularly and asking themselves, “OK, what can we do collectively as we’re coordinating to help this individual stabilize his or her life?” said Jerrie Allard, the director of the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department.

Allard said that the city’s approach to providing services for people has been restructured – or destructured, perhaps. Instead of a somewhat rigid, one-size-fits-all pathway from homelessness to permanent housing, which involves as much as two years in temporary housing, the city and others are trying to tailor services more specifically to the individuals’ needs, Allard said. The idea is to get away from a rigid, preconceived series of services toward tailoring a plan for success based on the individual.

“When we bring you into the system, we’re talking about how we can help you get out of the system and have your needs met,” Allard said.

That means that in some cases what’s needed is something more intensive and hands-on, like the Hot Spotters. But in others, Allard says, it results in homeless families who need a less comprehensive program – people who just need a boost to get back on their feet. Those folks don’t need the kind of long-term housing that the chronically homeless do, and so the city has stepped up its “rapid re-housing” efforts.

At the bottom of the efforts at City Hall – and in the wider community of organizations that help the homeless – is a recognition that rigid structures and bureaucratic silos don’t fit neatly into the highly complicated and highly individualized problems of the homeless.

“Everyone who is homeless has a unique story, and they have unique needs and they have unique strengths as well,” Allard said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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