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Shawn Vestal: Spokane should be proud of program that combats family homelessness

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Three years ago, Priority Spokane started a pilot project aimed at preventing family homelessness.

It put four community health workers into local schools and gave them the charge of identifying and helping children and families who didn’t have a place to live, or who were at risk of losing their place to live.

“Everybody comes in with different circumstances, different barriers, different experiences, a different story,” said Tami Cunningham, a community health worker at Logan Elementary.

The key to the pilot program – and to its record of success over those three years – is the ability of the workers, like Cunningham, to tailor their help to the different story of each family. The workers, also based in Stevens, Arcadia and Deer Park elementary schools and in Deer Park Middle School, identify what will most quickly get a family back into housing, or keep a family housed, and get them that help, whether it’s help with the rent or transportation, getting a car fixed or negotiating a new place to live, repairing a refrigerator or getting access to health care.

Each community worker has a $10,000 fund to draw on, and the flexibility to use it quickly, to meet whatever immediate needs are looming. Once families are stabilized, they check in regularly to make sure they’re OK.

“These community health workers get to know the students, get to know the families – really get to know them,” said John Kleiderer, chief mission integration officer for Providence Health Care. “It’s not a checklist kind of thing.”

The pilot showed remarkable success and has attracted funding to go on another two years. More than 100 families, and nearly 300 children, were either placed in housing or stabilized and prevented from becoming homeless. That represents more than three-quarters of the students the project engaged.

Of those, 95 percent remain stable and housed today, based on monthly check-ins with the community health workers.

“We know this works,” said Ryan Oelrich, executive director of Priority Spokane and a longtime community activist on the issue of homelessness. “We know this is affordable. So we want this to be expanded to other high-need schools in Spokane County.”

All told, the program spent about $700,000 in its first three years, with funding coming from a variety of sources. Catholic Charities, Spokane’s true saving grace when it comes to the hardest work of homelessness, manages the project. Providence, the Spokane Regional Health District and the Innovia Foundation were the main funders.

The project just received a $550,000 grant from Building Changes, a Seattle-based foundation, to extend the program for two more years in the same four schools. Oelrich said he’s in talks with other governments and organizations to see about growing it into other schools.

A city that was serious about the problem – especially one with Spokane’s high rates of child poverty – would be growing this program into more schools yesterday. It focuses attention on a point within the problem that can have a serious long-term upside by protecting kids from the trauma of homelessness. That’s crucial when you look at trying to win the long-term battle, because the vast majority of people who find themselves homeless are fighting some version of a trauma that began in childhood.

“There’s a rising floodwater from a broken dam, and the vast majority of our resources are focused on pulling people from the water, instead of fixing the dam,” said Oelrich, who has been working on the issue of homelessness from a lot of different angles for several years.

Priority Spokane is one of the true highlights of this city’s response to pressing problems. A coalition of 19 organizations, the group sets a big, challenging goal for itself every few years and then strategizes how to deploy resources to achieve it. It uses research from the Eastern Washington University Community Indicators Project to make smart decisions, and it has shown results. It has successfully worked to help bring down the dropout rates in local schools. The pilot project was part of the previous priority of reducing family homelessness.

The current priorities are reducing the effects of family trauma on children, increasing services for people with both addiction and mental health problems and working on affordable housing.

Unlike so much of the just-concluded campaign blabber about homelessness, the family homelessness project is something for Spokane to be proud of: a serious, smart, sustained effort, based on knowledge and facts, which grew from a commitment by community organizations and leadership that has been in place for years now.

For Kleiderer and Providence, spending money on the program was an obvious way to support community health, given how many family issues are intertwined with housing.

“When we look at what makes a healthy community,” he said, “housing is a huge part of that.”

Priority Spokane didn’t discover homelessness yesterday, and it won’t forget it tomorrow. As anyone with a connection to nearly any school in Spokane knows, we’re not about to run out of the need for people like Tami Cunningham.

“I’ve had other schools, other counselors, other teachers saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we want one of you at our school,’ ” Cunningham said.

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