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Shawn Vestal: The shelter system faces deep problems, but Family Promise finds some success

The small corner grocery store at Napa Street and Mission Avenue is being used as a homeless shelter for struggling families by Family Promise, a nonprofit that tries to keep families together while struggling with homelessness. Photographed Tuesday, the building was once Cassano's.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Last year, as the Woodward administration moved toward opening a homeless shelter in an unsuitable warehouse halfway to Post Falls, I asked a local guy with many years of experience in homelessness about his view of the proposal.

He said he wasn’t particularly optimistic. Didn’t think it was a great idea. Wasn’t sure the administration was committed to making it work.

But he was taking, he said, a “harm reduction” attitude toward the project.

Better than nothing, in other words.

Harm reduction, as you probably know, is a philosophy of dealing with people who have serious addictions that emphasizes compassion over coercion. It’s the opposite of abstinence-only, and is the idea behind safe injection sites or needle exchanges – to treat, support and keep people alive even if it’s not a perfect solution.

It’s right there in the name. You’re not eradicating harm. You’re reducing it.

It was a cold, apt metaphor for the Trent plan, suggesting that since we could not expect better, a warehouse without appropriate plumbing or food-service facilities or competent management was better than nothing.

Now, though, nothing might be back on the table. Six months after it opened, and after continual problems and escalating costs, the Trent Resource and Assistance Center is in a huge financial hole, as one-time funding sources dry up.

There is one potential source of funds to push the shelter through the end of this year – in the form of funds from a real-estate excise tax – but a $10 million deficit looms next year. Needless to say, the notion of cutting or taxing to cover that shortfall is anathema.

Meanwhile, everyone at City Hall is scrambling to identify a solution and praying that manna falls from heaven in the form of state or federal funding and that some form of new regional homelessness authority might take shape soon to tackle the problem more effectively.

However you slice it, though, and whoever you blame, this is where we are, after years and years of crisis: The city’s one big supposed solution is on life support after half a year of operation.

It’s tempting to say there’s no good news anywhere on this issue.

But that would be wrong.

On Monday, the executive director of Family Promise, Joe Ader, gave a presentation to the City Council’s Urban Experience Committee, outlining his organization’s success at getting homeless families into housing.

Ader described a high rate of success for a model that is, in many ways, the opposite of the TRAC approach – a series of smaller facilities, scattered through neighborhoods, with intensive case management and relationship-building. Family Promise operates one larger shelter, with 79 beds, and four small neighborhood facilities targeted at specific populations.

It has a focus not just on helping those who are homeless now but also working to prevent people from becoming homeless and to keep those who have been re-housed from winding up back on the streets. Their case managers follow clients for two years after they’ve been housed.

The key metric for public policy, Ader said, should be whether the system is taking in more people in shelters than it is re-housing. Overall, according to city data, 2,894 people entered a shelter in 2022, and 391 exited that system into housing, he said.

“So we have a deficit of 2,503,” he told the committee

Family Promise has shown success in moving people from shelters into housing, Ader said. Last year, 512 people entered its system and 195 exited into housing – that’s a rate, and a cost, much better than the system overall.

Now, the population of adults with minor children is very different from, say, the population of single, chronically homeless men. The whole enterprise of starting up a neighborhood shelter with that sometimes thorny population – from identifying providers to getting the neighbors on board – would be a much different challenge.

But Ader argues that the principles that drive his organization’s approach are broadly applicable. He describes homeless as two-pronged: A lack of housing coupled with a lack of relationships. People don’t wind up on the streets only because they lack housing – it’s also because they lack any kind of support system.

“Really there’s only one common denominator in all of homelessness, whether you’re talking about singles or families or veterans or teens,” he said. “The common denominator is there’s been a loss of community.”

Rebuilding that community is the key to success, he said. And he believes in the possibility of success – even in a time when that seems almost impossibly distant.

“There is hope,” he said. “There are possibilities. … It’s a solvable situation. It’s not easily solvable, but it’s solvable.”

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