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Shawn Vestal: Preventing homelessness a worthy goal

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Some 3,000 Spokane County kids don’t have a home of their own to go to after the school bell rings.

About three-quarters of them are “doubled-up” – staying with family or friends, dangling dangerously near to living in a car or on the streets or in a shelter. The prospect of having nowhere to sleep is real, but not yet a reality.

If they cross that line, they have access to a “somewhat extensive and diverse services,” according to a recent report by two Eastern Washington University researchers.

But there is little help to keep them housed, and the report argues that it would be effective and efficient to do so – to focus on rental assistance and other help at the front end to try and prevent homelessness. It’s an ambitious and proactive suggestion; it would also be a financial and logistical challenge for those who are already working on the problem with limited resources.

Timothy Hilton, an associate professor of social work at EWU who co-authored the study, gets that. But he said that a carefully designed and focused diversion program that offered small cash awards to keep families with children in housing could be cost-effective.

On average, it costs $16,000 a year to provide services to a homeless family in the current system, he said. What if, for the same amount of money, eight or 10 or 16 families were helped to avoid homelessness?

“It you have a problem like lack of child care, you provide child care services,” he said. “If you have a problem with housing instability, it really gets at the larger issues of poverty, employment and structural inequality.”

The report was produced for the Priority Spokane project, which has identified fighting “at-risk homelessness” as a chief goal this year. A big part of the report was simply identifying the size of the problem here, and it’s substantial. Spokane County’s rate of homelessness is 33 percent higher than the state average.

Homelessness and poverty create unique obstacles for students.

“If I don’t really know where I’m going to be spending the night, or what I’m going to be doing over the weekend, or whether I’m going to have hot water, or whether I’m going to have to share a couch with my sister or brother, it’s hard to think about … learning to read or do mathematics,” said Lorna Spear, the director of early learning and intervention for Spokane Public Schools.

Schools offer a wide range of services to help homeless students. But the idea of identifying families at-risk of homelessness and trying to intervene – for schools as well as social service agencies – would be a financial and logistical leap.

In the current social services atmosphere, homeless prevention is not the priority. Federal dollars are restricted for homeless services – unless cities can establish that they have basically reached “functional zero” on homelessness among key populations, and are granted more spending flexibility – and funding for rental assistance has dried up.

Hilton, who co-authored the study with EWU assistant professor of children’s studies Deanna Trella, proposed a modest front-end program in his paper. He argues that a program that identified families with children in school who are at risk of becoming homeless, placed them with a case manager and provided modest front-end help if they face a financial crisis – $500 or $1,000 to prevent an eviction, say – that it would pay dividends.

His paper proposes a very specific and tailored diversion program that would provide up to $2,200 in assistance for families in crisis or who are doubled up. He estimates that doing so for 60 families would cost $150,000, for staffing and grants, and that if the program was even moderately successful it would save money – a “return on investment of more than $2 for every $1 spent.”

“This program would be cost-effective (from a public cost estimate) if just 1 in 6 families served avoided homelessness as a result of this program,” the report says.

Finding the money to do so would be a challenge, and any such program would require collaboration among several different organizations – most of which are already overtaxed trying to help the homeless.

It’s a time of evolutionary thinking about homelessness. Philosophically, the city of Spokane and other agencies that deal with poverty have evolved toward a “housing-first” approach, which focuses on getting a homeless person or family into shelter before addressing other problems. The previous model, roughly speaking, was based on a “continuum of care” model that focused on making people “housing-ready” and moving them from emergency shelter to transitional shelter to independence. It also often included requirements, such as sobriety.

One of the criticisms of homelessness prevention is that, in an atmosphere of limited resources, it is vague and hard to measure. If someone is homeless and you put them in a home, there is a direct and simple way to assess what you have done. If you provide $500 to help a family stay in their apartment, however, there is much less certainty around cause and effect.

“With Rapid Rehousing, we can document the person we’re serving is homeless,” said Jonathan Mallahan, the director of community and neighborhood services for the city of Spokane, referring to a new Housing First program. “With homeless prevention, you’re trying to take an educated guess that the person will be homeless if we don’t help them now.”

At this point, prevention is more of a discussion topic than a concrete proposal in Spokane County. But Hilton said he’s begun hearing early ideas about potential ways to try and move the idea forward, and he believes it’s worth a try.

“It’s a massive problem,” he said. “You can’t just wave a magic wand.”

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