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Sue Lani Madsen: New regional authority could improve response to homelessness

Homelessness is not a single problem to be solved, it is a complex reality to be managed. Better management is the goal of the proposed Spokane Regional Authority for Homelessness, Housing, Health and Safety.

Bylaws and interlocal agreements have been drafted, led by a team of former city of Spokane management staff that immersed itself for the past year in the homelessness response system in Spokane County.

Gavin Cooley served 18 years as chief financial officer for the city of Spokane under six mayors. When Cooley visited Houston as part of hosting the video series Housing and Help (housingandhelp.org), he was inspired to bring the model back to Spokane. He recruited two former colleagues, Teresa Sanders and Rick Romero, to join him on the project.

“The problem isn’t a lack of money, it’s a lack of collaboration,” Cooley said in a recent conversation over coffee in downtown Spokane.

Quasi-municipal organizations operate with municipal-like powers but focused on a limited purpose. The Spokane Transit Authority and the Spokane Public Facilities District are quasi-municipal entities crossing municipal boundaries to provide services.

“Cities are organizationally not designed to do social services,” Cooley said.

Complex funding sources and tracking requirements for providing services to homeless individuals have caused problems for the city of Spokane and surfaced in a recent Department of Commerce audit. Commerce was stretched beyond its traditional focus on business climate by the governor’s Rights of Way Initiative, which sought to find housing for people living on state right of ways. Homelessness response is not the primary focus of either the city or the Commerce Department.

The proposed Spokane Regional Authority for Homelessness, Housing, Health and Safety could address those problems.

Control and accountability are the core issues for any regional authority. Politicians legitimately ask questions before ceding power. Providers of services see the opportunity for better outcomes for their clients dealing with chaotic lives and unique needs. Taxpayers want wise spending and visible results.

If Houston is the exemplary model, the King County Regional Homeless Authority is the cautionary tale. Board members are selected for “lived experience” on the streets. A video of a recent shouting match between board members went viral, wherein a sex offender nominated to the board was vigorously defended by a board co-chair at the expense of another board member who claimed to have been a victim.

Avoiding Seattle’s dysfunction is on Cooley’s mind. Progressive voices in Spokane have been pushing for a similarly narrow lived-experience requirement. The proposed board structure does have one designated position for someone who has lived homeless, but all experiences need to be heard.

There is the experience of living downtown and stepping over feces on your doorstep. Or what it’s like to take risks on tenants who may not be ready for permanent housing. Or the experience of confronting a homeless man with a machete at your cash register. Or how loss of foot traffic affects your business. Or the agonizing search for a mentally ill loved one in the shelters.

The proposed board structure should reflect the lived experiences of the entire community.

Then there’s the question of accountability for outcomes for an organization whose reason for existence depends on the size of the problem. We know it’s not going to be solved, but we do need a measure of effectiveness. Cooley agreed there needs to be ongoing monitoring. “The status quo never reforms itself.”

The usual metric is the point-in-time count. It’s not as objective as it sounds. The count is never conducted under the same conditions of weather or with the same volunteer idiosyncrasies. I volunteered in January and was assigned to a group sent to survey High Bridge Park in the snow. I was the only one wearing boots and who could read a map, or we would never have left the parking lot. It’s not an ideal year to year metric, but it can provide insights into trends over a longer time.

There needs to be a broad range of metrics. Like tracking police calls for service, anecdotal feedback from front line workers and insurance claims for property damage. Most critical – follow up with the once homeless to see if the change in their quality of life has been sustainable.

The ultimate accountability would be a sunset clause requiring renewal of the interlocal agreement by a new set of elected officials in 10 years, with a required third-party review or timed to coordinate with a state auditor’s performance audit.

Cooley and his colleagues have been working with current elected officials for over a year, and are putting resolutions together and seeking action by cities and the county by Oct. 1. It’s a tough goal in a municipal election year. “It’s not going to get better waiting for new electeds to get up to speed,” Cooley said.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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