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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Dr. Lisa Brown: Strengthening communities by coordinating approaches to homelessness

By Dr. Lisa Brown Washington State Department of Commerce

Most of us encounter people in our daily lives and depicted in the media who are struggling to survive without housing. I pass a homeless camp in Olympia when I walk to work there and also see homeless people throughout Eastern Washington. People fall into homelessness for myriad reasons: medical conditions, addiction, domestic violence or trauma, mental and behavioral health issues, employment barriers, and lack of a support network. Economic and market factors exacerbate the challenges, particularly scarce affordable housing and rents rising far faster than wages – the top drivers of homelessness everywhere.

Everyone deserves a safe, decent place to call home. Across the state we are sheltering and housing more homeless people than ever before, but the need has grown faster than the resources dedicated to it. The magnitude of the crisis often obscures meaningful progress and promising efforts at the state and local levels to meet the goal of bringing everyone inside.

The most effective approaches to preventing and ensuring that homelessness is rare, brief and one-time start with fully knowing the challenges facing the unique individual homeless person. Accurate, timely, detailed information is crucial to understand fully the multifaceted challenges of those experiencing homelessness. Washington state is leading nationally on accounting for every dollar spent on homeless housing services and projects. Even so, we still have plenty of work to do to connect the right resources to individuals and families whose circumstances vary tremendously from person to person, and differ from the stereotypical views perpetuated in some media coverage and political debates.

Tracking and sharing comprehensive data, from point of entry through the continuum of homeless services, will show what’s working, and at what cost. Learning from evidence will ensure our resources focus on the most effective strategies.

Commerce recently released statewide Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless data, an annual one-night count for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The 2019 PIT count shows progress. Overall homeless numbers decreased by about 3%, while the number of unsheltered people decreased by 9.6%. We are bringing more people inside.

Commerce manages the state’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), requiring any service provider receiving public funding to report. Improving HMIS data and transparency is a top priority. All state contracts with housing grant recipients are based on performance, and Commerce works with counties to complete accurate reports on spending and progress. The data won’t be complete until all of our privately funded philanthropic partners also participate – many have begun voluntarily reporting because they see the value.

This detailed data on our state’s investments is available to the public. County “report cards” present results in an interactive map on Commerce’s website, along with year-to-year comparisons and dashboards with all performance data.

Gov. Inslee and the Legislature have taken several steps to address specific drivers of homelessness such as opioid use, access to behavioral health care, and services for those trying to find or keep a job. Business and nonprofit partners are making important contributions across the state. At Commerce, we are aligning programs and service provider performance measures to state priorities, the top priority being those who are unsheltered.

Cities and counties remain the front line for homeless crisis response. Recently passed legislation returning more tax revenue to local governments for rent assistance and permanent supportive housing is a great start. Kudos to the Spokane City Council and the city administration for moving quickly together to take advantage of the opportunity and for evaluating how to increase multifamily housing and density in urban neighborhoods. Local governments need to apply every tool at their disposal to increase the supply of affordable housing in their communities. Bottom line: We need more housing supplied by the private sector and incentivized by the public sector.

Homelessness is not just an urban problem, and neither are the solutions. Communities from Yakima to Walla Walla are piloting some great programs, from street outreach, educational and employment opportunities for homeless youth to intensive supportive services for veteran families.

Dramatic mandates, recently suggested here in Spokane by HUD Secretary Ben Carson, would force people into addiction treatment or into jail, appealing to those who want an easy answer or for homeless people to be out of sight. This is the wrong approach. Behavioral health and substance abuse treatment is already in short supply. That’s part of the problem. Forcing people into treatment is costly, ineffective and inhumane. We can do better.

Local decision-making, with detailed and transparent performance accountability to shared statewide priorities, is the formula we believe will most effectively lead to improved outcomes. The more we know, the more effectively we can direct resources to maximize impact, meet people where they are and create safer and stronger communities.

Lisa Brown is director of the Washington State Department of Commerce.

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