Special report: Can homelessness end in 5 years? Here’s how the numbers stack up

Part two of a special report (see part 1 here) 

 Service providers interviewed by the PostGlobe about the King County 10-year Plan To End Homelessness seemed enthusiastic about the new services available for the homeless because of the plan, and about the cooperation between service providers and government.  However, few predicted that homelessness could be ended in King County by 2014. And none of them could think of a homeless program that would be able to close for lack of demand.

 Shelters are still turning away people who need a place to stay, and none of those interviewed has seen a decline in the proportion of people of color who are experiencing homelessness, an outcome that the plan predicted by 2010. (See “Status Update” sidebar below.)

 So far, a combination of federal, state and local funds have built or committed nearly half (4,111) of the planned 9,500 units of permanent housing for the formerly homeless, according to Bill Block (pictured at left), project director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County.

 Block said he still believes that homelessness can be ended by 2014, but it depends on additional federal funding.

 A challenge in gauging progress of the effort to end homelessness is that it’s easy for government leaders to talk about what government is doing. But ending homelessness is about a change on the street and at the doors of emergency shelters, and there is not much data that can show a dramatically changing picture of homelessness in King County, if there is one.

 The Homeless Management Information System proscribed by the plan is not complete. Its databases can provide information on 12,963 homeless people for 2008, and that dataset only has information from 68 percent of the agencies that serve the homeless in King County. The information system was required by HUD as a condition of getting federal funds, and the plan to end homelessness envisioned that it’d be complete this year. The system is supposed to show if the county’s services are making progress in reducing the numbers of people who become homeless – and the length of time they stay homeless.

  So far, it’s only able to provide a partial snapshot, not a story of progress in the efforts, making it difficult to say how much the homeless population is benefiting from the new style of services.

 Another snapshot of the homeless situation is the One-Night Count of the homeless conducted by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness each year. The coalition’s volunteers found a 5 percent reduction in the number of apparently homeless people outdoors, from 2,827 in 2009 to 2,675 in 2010. Block said this was a sign of progress in a recession when other cities are seeing an increase in street homelessness.

Graphic of 2010 Count Stats by Area

Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that he’s been encouraged by all of the new housing that’s been built since the 10-year plan was adopted, but he does not have much hope that 2014 will have any improvement that can be called “ending homelessness.”

 Demand for space at the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s shelters, which serve 300 people a day, has remained high. He said that in 2009, the program ran at 98 percent occupancy, often turning away people who needed shelter. The main problem, he said, is that the 10-year plan can’t control the things that lead people to become homeless.

 “The Department of Corrections understands that they shouldn’t release a guy when he doesn’t have a place to live, but legally, when his term is up, he’s got to be let go,” said Hobson, pictured at left. He does not expect that the DESC will be able to end any programs, adding, “9,500 units of housing is not enough, but I thought it was better than nothing. I thought it might reduce the number of people on the street, but as years have gone by, and we do our point-in-time study, basically it’s the same.”

 Despite the continuing high demand for emergency shelter, there are a few bright spots in the overall picture of homelessness that show some effect.

 One is the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s permanent housing building at 1811 Eastlake, which serves 75 chronically homeless severely alcoholic people. At 1811 Eastlake, residents are allowed to drink alcohol in private. Staff members of the DESC recruited residents by seeking out homeless alcoholics who regularly turned up at Harborview Hospital’s Emergency Room. The idea was that if the residents had a roof over their heads, they would reduce their alcohol use without the restriction of house rules, and they would not end up at the hospital, in a detoxification center, a sobering center, or in another homeless shelter as often.

 Hobson said that 1811 Eastlake costs about $1 million a year to run, with funding coming from federal, state and local governments. It’s an intensively staffed site, with the King County division of mental health and treatment providing certified chemical dependency personnel.

 A group of University of Washington researchers studied the records of the residents at 1811 Eastlake (pictured at left) and found that before they moved in, they were using $4,066 in public services per person per month. Their burden on the system fell to $1,492 per person per month after they were living at 1811 Eastlake. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009.

 Hobson said that the success and the publicity caused by 1811 Eastlake has made it the subject of so many inquiries from representatives of government and law enforcement agencies from other parts of the country, he’s had to put limits the number of delegations that he allows to come visit.

 He also said that he has to caution people not to talk about 1811 Eastlake as saving the system money, as it’s tempting to think that the new style of services is going to be cheaper.

 “Until Harborview can lay off a physician, it’s not a real cost savings. It’s a preservation of a resource,” Hobson said. “The next cardiac (patient) at Harborview is not going to have to compete with 75 drunks for service.”

 One other bright spot in the homelessness picture is that there seems to be a decline in the number of homeless single women seeking shelter. Al Poole, of the city’s Human Services Department, said that in the winters, the city will open additional severe weather shelters when conditions are especially cold or rainy. The nights when the severe weather shelters are open are a good gauge of the overall size of the homeless population because that’s when those who are most resistant to shelters will want to come indoors.

 Two years ago, the severe-weather shelter that the city opened at Third and Yesler for single women was full, with 40 women. Last winter, the severe-weather shelter had only 18 women.

 Poole said that he does not expect to see any emergency shelters’ programs shut down before 2014.

 “One of the fallacies of the 10-year-plan was that it was written when the economy wasn’t robust, but it was OK. It’s kind of like when I bought my first house, the real estate agent told me my income was only going to go up,” said Poole, pictured at left.

 The recent national debate over health-care legislation gave Poole some perspective about the overall public willingness to solve a problem such as homelessness.

 “I don’t think everybody in America is wedded to the idea that everybody is entitled to a place to stay, just as people don’t think that everybody has a right to health care,” Poole said. American individualism has made it harder to sell the need for these kinds of services, he said. “‘Lifting yourself by your own bootstraps,’ is something that didn’t happen, but it’s still how people think.”

 One of Poole’s colleagues, senior planner Andréa Akita, also at the Human Services Department, said that even though it doesn’t look like homelessness can be ended soon in King County, writing a plan with such a high goal was still a good thing. “If we hadn’t had a bold statement, a bold goal, we wouldn’t have done as much as we have.”

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STATUS UPDATE

The King County 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, written by a committee of government, law-enforcement, non-profit and business leaders of King County, sets out several goals that they believe the county can achieve by 2014. It was adopted by the Metropolitan King County Council in 2005. It sets out a number of results that people will be able to see by certain points in the plan. Below are those markers, plus our status update for 2010: 

By the end of 2010: 

  • The number of individuals and families who experience homelessness will be significantly reduced.

Status: Shelter managers report high demand for both family and individual shelter beds. The Seattle Housing Authority has a waiting list of 11,000 people looking for public housing.


  • Programs that focus on the long-term homeless will show a decrease in client numbers.

Status: Homeless service providers, while encouraged by the number of new units of housing becoming available, haven’t seen a decrease in client numbers.


  • A decline in the number of people living on the streets without shelter will be seen in some areas of the county.

Status: The annual one-night count of the homeless conducted by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness recorded a 5 percent drop from 2009 to 2010 in the numbers of apparently homeless people on the streets.


  • Data collection processes will be in place, including the Safe Harbors Homeless Information System, and we will use these data to mark progress towards our goals.

Status: The Safe Harbors Homeless Information System in 2008 had 68 percent of homeless service agencies in the county providing data, which provides a partial portrait of the population of the homeless. But little data about how long people stay homeless is available. Also, homelessness data for 2009 is not available.


  • The disproportionate number of homeless persons from communities of color will be significantly reduced.

Status: All service providers interviewed for this story said that the proportion of people of color experiencing homelessness has not changed. 

By the end of 2013: 

  • Our infrastructure will be built up such that the public could expect to see a notable decline in street homelessness.
  • Shelter stays will begin to shorten for all populations, and some shelters will close or reconfigure their programs. 

By the end of 2014: 

  • Homelessness will be virtually ended.
  • People who enter into homelessness will have immediate access to housing with appropriate supports.
  • Downsized outreach and emergency services will continue to aid individuals and families who become homeless, but stays in this system will be short.
  • There will be no need for tent cities or encampments.

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Sidebar: MONEY SPENT ON HOMELESSNESS

The plan to end homelessness relies on building places to live – so where are they? The recession has made it more difficult to build low-income housing recently because investors used to like to go into a partnership with low-income housing developers during flush times and get tax credits for doing it.

“Now, people don’t have as much income to shelter, so they’re not pursuing those tax credits as much,” said Virginia Felton, spokeswoman for the Seattle Housing Authority. 

Strike No. 2: The legislature has reduced its allocations to Washington state Housing Trust Fund, a major source of capital funding for low-income housing. The state legislature slashed money designated to the fund from $200 million in the 2007-2009 budget to just $130 million in the current budget, said Sean Harrington, Resource Allocation Program Assistant for the Housing Trust Fund.

On the other hand, the $145 million Seattle Housing Levy passed last November is a source of capital funds for low-income housing – in it, $104 million was designated for rental production and preservation, most of which will go to low-income housing for those earning less than 30 percent of median income.  

And here’s where some other money for the homeless comes from:

– In King County, $29.3 million has been spent since 2005 on housing for the formerly homeless, funding 979 units of housing, according to Dan Riebli, Manager of the Asset Management Team at the Housing Trust Fund.  

-In operating expenses, City of Seattle spent a total of $35.2 million on homeless services in 2009, with $25.2 million going to intervention services – shelters and transitional housing. The other $10 million was spent on prevention services and on permanent housing. Altogether, the city has spent $136 million on homeless services since the plan was completed in 2005. 

-The King County government spent $2 million on emergency shelters, $4.7 million on transitional housing and $17.3 million on vouchers and operating support in 2009. Cheryl Markham, program manager at the King County Housing and Community Development Program, said that county funding had remained steady for shelter and transitional programs, and that the county is looking to expand funding for permanent housing. For both the city and county, the operating funds used on homelessness came from a combination of local tax revenue and federal funds.

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ABOUT THE SERIES

 Reporter Eric Ruthford’s story was underwritten by your donations via Spot.us, while photojournalist Mike Kane‘s photos of Dara Kommovongsa and her family are made possible by your donations to Seattlepostglobe. All other photos are from the web sites of the officials and organizations depicted.

  Eric sought answers to these questions regarding the 10-year plan to end homelessness in King County: Now that the time period is half-way through, what benefits are evident so far? Will the new way of addressing homelessness — by providing permanent housing instead of overnight shelter — actually end homelessness, as planned? Having written for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other newspapers and worked as a homeless shelter’s financial director, he is uniquely suited to explore this topic.

 Mike Kane is an award-winning freelance photographer specializing in documentary, editorial and outdoors photography and photojournalism. Until its closure in 2009, he was a staff photographer at the Seattle P-I and before that a Hearst Fellow at three newspapers.

PRIOR BLOG POSTS BY ERIC RUTHFORD:

Is solving or preventing homelessness cheaper than treating it?

Homeless shelters aren’t cheap… and the alternative?

What will it look like when homelessness is ended? Tell us what you’d expect

2 Responses to Special report: Can homelessness end in 5 years? Here’s how the numbers stack up

  • dave98112:

    I have participated in the one night count, about 7 years ago. I have a hard time thinking that seeing a drop of numbers of people counted between one night in Seattle in 2009 and another night in 2010, can be held up with any amount of significance, as a sign of progress. Am I missing something? This doesn’t show anything.

  • Sally Deneen:

    Reporter Eric Ruthford replies:

    The significance of a 5 percent drop in observed homeless persons is indeed questionable. Bill Block of the Committee to End Homelessness says that it is significant because given the economic conditions, and given the increases in homelessness in other cities, the fact that there is no increase is, in fact, a significant accomplishment. He might be right, but it’s difficult as a reporter to write about stuff that hasn’t happened.

    From a statistical standpoint, a 5 percent drop with a dataset as small as this (two similar counts, 2009 and 2010) is difficult to call really significant. I think most statistics teachers would tell you that without more repetition of similar events (counts focusing on the same places as other years) you couldn’t calculate things like standard deviations and margins of error. Volunteers have been doing one-night counts for a long time, but they keep expanding their range. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t lend well to apples-to-apples comparisons.

    Still, these counts are portion of the picture of homelessness, and they are important to read.