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Shawn Vestal: From the ground up, growing calls for a more robust, unified effort on homelessness

The Beacon is a day-services center in downtown Houston that serves as the front door to its system of housing the homeless. Houston's Coalition for the Homeless has seen a 64% reduction in homelessness since 2011.
The Beacon is a day-services center in downtown Houston that serves as the front door to its system of housing the homeless. Houston's Coalition for the Homeless has seen a 64% reduction in homelessness since 2011.

When a group of Spokane leaders went to Houston looking to make a short documentary about that city’s system for managing homelessness, they wanted to find an encampment to film.

Encampments, after all, are the signals of our growing challenges with homelessness, from the so-called Camp Hope along Interstate 90 to all the camps in Seattle and Los Angeles and Portland and San Francisco …

In Houston, though, a regional metro area with more than 6 million people, it’s a different picture.

“We were trying to find an encampment and we couldn’t find it,” said Frank Swoboda, the founder and creative director of Corner Booth Media, who was struck by how little visible homelessness he saw there.

“It’s way less,” he said. “They’re 10 times the size of us, and it’s way less. So they’re doing something right.”

Stories of cities that are doing something right are sources of hope for cities like ours, which has so continually fallen behind the problem – a fact that was thrust into stark relief this week by yet another communications debacle around a proposed 250-bed shelter on East Trent Avenue.

But after years of stasis and insufficient action, there are efforts taking shape that are coming not from government leaders but from others in the community who are impatient with the lack of progress.

Swoboda’s Corner Booth Media has begun working on a series of short films intended to educate the public about the nature of the problem and possible solutions and to galvanize public support for an effective response. One of these 12 films will focus on Houston and its success in housing and helping people.

The effort was initiated and driven in part by Ben Stuckart, head of the Spokane Low-Income Housing Coalition and former City Council president. But the participants insist that avoiding politics is a chief goal, and to that end, they’ve drafted the participation of Gavin Cooley, who served as chief financial officer for all five of the strong mayors who preceded Nadine Woodward and who is among the most effective cross-party problem solvers in the city.

“I’m coming into this from an agnostic viewpoint,” Cooley said. “I don’t have any real preconceived notions.”

Meanwhile, a different group including the downtown business community – which for years has been vocally opposed to new homeless services and focused primarily on policing the problem – has for the past several months engaged in a deep dive into studying the problem and pressing for solutions that put shelter and assistance at the forefront. It’s an evolution that has drawn some support from unlikely quarters – including from Julia Garcia, the longtime activist who established Camp Hope.

“Our focus is to connect people to services to help improve their lives,” said Chris Patterson, a former Woodward administration adviser and regional administrator with the federal Housing and Urban Development agency who is spearheading that effort. “That’s it. It’s that simple.”

‘The No. 1 factor is the table’

Patterson is leading the Hello for Good coalition, whose steering committee is made up of several prominent downtown property owners. Hello for Good commissioned a consultant’s report and sent it to the city in February.

The report acknowledges the need for more housing and services. Among its “deliverables” that it suggests are opening a new emergency shelter, expanding treatment services for mental health and addiction, adding outreach workers, improving the system’s coordination, and targeting services the different sub-populations among the homeless. It also says the city needs to “enforce effective policies” around camps, the sit-lie ordinance and other issues.

Hello for Good is also hosting a symposium on May 10 headlined “Homelessness, Compassionate Capitalism and Leadership,” with representatives from San Diego – a city that, like Houston, has drawn attention as a community with positive solutions to the problem.

The group says it’s ready to spend money to support solutions, though the details, or amount, of that support haven’t been publicly detailed. It could elect to help provide services at the proposed shelter on East Trent – if that proposal advances – such as on-site access to treatment for mental health or addiction or job training, Patterson said.

Given their respective starting points, these two groups share a few remarkably similar goals, reflecting what seems to be movement toward some common ground: building a truly unified system, rather than a series of disparate parts; adding housing to the system, but not just housing; expanding the services that address root causes; and developing individualized solutions at a per-person level.

“The No. 1 factor is the table,” Patterson said, gesturing with both hands toward the conference table during a recent interview. “Putting everyone at the table together.”

Cooley sounds the same message.

“If you don’t get every single one of the parties in the room and somehow marching to the same tune, you won’t make a dent in homelessness,” he said.

‘They took my hand’

This, of course, is what one might expect from political leaders – something more robust than semi-regular discussions among elected officials. And it would require a lot of time and effort to push past the talk and toward action, which will necessarily require hard decisions and difficult compromises.

The problem as Cooley sees it, is that we’re “one-offing” our approach to homelessness, trying to add a shelter here or a warming center there instead of creating a unified system with centralized control and funding.

That’s what he and the Corner Booth team saw in Houston, where the number of homeless residents has dropped by 64% since 2011, according to the most recent point-in-time count.

Houston’s system is unified and centrally coordinated across three counties and more than 100 organizations, and it is run by a non-profit, not city government. The funding for the system, which is largely different federal grants, is applied very strategically to eliminate service gaps.

The organization did not raise taxes or expand spending – it coordinated existing resources. It has a robust entry system, a housing-first focus with several options for permanent housing, and it strives to be in personal contact with every homeless person in a three-county region.

“They know where every homeless person is,” Swoboda said.

Cooley, Swoboda, Stuckart and Cara Carlton, a business strategist for Corner Booth, described the Beacon, a day-services facility in downtown Houston, in glowing terms. Homeless people enter, have their clothing laundered and take a shower, receive a “help card” that helps them track their coordinated service plan, connect to services from housing to addiction treatment, and get a good meal.

They then enter a tiered system of housing options, from shelters to permanent supportive housing to subsidized apartments.

“If you get off your seat and want it, they’re going to help you,” said Jerry Hamilton, a 55-year-old formerly homeless man from Houston who is now a volunteer.

Hamilton lived on the streets, served a prison sentence, and returned to the streets, before he was taken in at the Beacon. There, he was connected to treatment for a previously undiagnosed mental illness, put in a shelter and put on a waiting list for a subsidized apartment.

He’s now been in that apartment for about a year.

“They reached out and took my hand, man,” he said.

‘What are some solutions?’

Houston is different from Spokane in some important ways. A big one is its housing market – though its market is heating up like so many, Houston’s is not as drum-tight or expensive as Spokane’s, and research shows strong correlations between housing costs and homelessnes.

The Corner Booth project is aimed at trying to engage the community with the deep nature of the problems and challenges surrounding homelessness, and identifying broad points of agreement on where we might move forward.

“What are some ideas?” Carlton asked. “What are some solutions?”

Hello for Good is asking similar questions. Katy Bruya is the chief human resources officer at Washington Trust Bank, and she has heard concerns about homelessness and safety for years, from employees and customers alike.

As the problem worsened and the concerns of downtown business leaders intensified, Washington Trust wanted to be more active in finding solutions, she said. One of the first steps for the bank was to hire Patterson and put him on the problem full-time.

“We really didn’t want to see downtown look like this,” she said. “Let’s come together and figure out what we can do. What gaps can we fill?”

Patterson, whose background as a foster child informs his approach toward homelessness, had contacts all over the region in the world of housing and homelessness from his time as federal housing official.

While the business group definitely retains an interest in law enforcement as a piece of the puzzle – a desire to enforce and/or refine the city’s sit-lie ordinance is one of its chief goals – its recent work expands that vision dramatically into a call for more services.

Patterson said it was important to him to treat homeless individuals as more than a form of blight – to be respectful of the homeless as human beings. He said Hello for Good is interested in helping provide money for services at the proposed new shelter – but only if the shelter plan is more than a roof with beds.

“We’re not interested in supporting a provider who’s going to warehouse people,” he said.

The sit-lie ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying on city sidewalks during certain hours, has long been a dividing line in local homeless politics, with folks on the left opposing it and those on the right calling for more enforcement of it.

Its enforcement has been limited, to the dismay of some, by our lack of available beds; the prevailing current court ruling prohibits cities from enforcing such ordinances when there isn’t anywhere for them to go.

But that line is one of the places where the debate seems to be evolving, likely due to the growth of the problem itself. Some former opponents of all sit-lie enforcement now support its use, if there are sufficient services available.

And some proponents of strong enforcement seem to have moved toward an acceptance that sit-lie alone – or the enforcement of trespassing or similar laws – won’t solve the problem.

“You can’t arrest your way out of it,” Patterson said. “But you do have to address those who will not abide by the social rule of law.”

‘Very heavy lift’

If the solution to the problem lies in communication and broad-ranging collaboration, then what we’ve seen in the past week with the East Trent shelter proposal emphasizes how far we have to go.

The proposal emerged from a secretive process, not a collaborative one. The number of unknowns – from basic costs to a plan for any treatment or services – is remarkable, and City Council members have balked at approving the plan without more information.

The machinations behind the deal, which involve Larry Stone, a past critic of city homelessness policies, supporter of the mayor, and member of the Hello for Good coalition, are obscure, which fuels suspicions among the administration’s critics.

Meanwhile, the supporters of the mayor and the shelter are upset at the resistance from both the council and the city’s advisory Continuum of Care board, which includes Stuckart.

It’s always easier said than done to eliminate “politics” from the problem. The sources of disagreement are real and they are sincerely held.

The principles being hailed by both the Corner Booth Media project and Hello for Good, and being exemplified in cities where there are more signs of success, are based on acknowledging the differences and working through them – not on battling over individual proposals developed in the dark.

It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly important.

“By all accounts, most cities are failing at this,” Cooley said. “This is a very heavy lift.”

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