It’s homes that the homeless need — not shelter

Contributing WriterMay 13, 2013 

Sometime during the late ’90s, I had a Pentium II computer. The screen was a CRT; the modem moved data at 15.6kbps. It ran Windows 95, had a 250MB hard-drive and, back in the day, it was the standard mainstream system found almost everywhere.

If you had some time, you could buy Office 97 as a set of 45 floppy discs and install a 300 MB software suite.

Today, if I wanted to, I could download Office 97 in about 10 seconds and then not use it because my smart-phone is more sophisticated and useful than was the best hardware or software anywhere from 16 years ago. Times change and so do we.

Most of the social service programs you see in the U.S. today evolved out of orphanages, workhouses, poorhouses and the Soldiers, Widows and Children’s Pension from the Civil War. As the former gained access to direct government funding from the accounts of the latter, an industry arose.

By all accounts, it was a rough ride: mentally ill folks would endure forced cold treatments, poor children worked 16-hour days and widows without support could be indentured at workhouses. But, it was also the start of widespread societal awareness into the plight of the impoverished, the ill, and the abused that has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past 150 years.

Today, we are in the midst of another leap forward. It has been both realized and proved that the way you reduce homelessness is to house people as quickly as possible. Not a shelter, a home. When dealing with housing services, a sentence shouldn’t begin with the word “shelter” that doesn’t end with the phrase “permanent housing.”

People complain about short-term assistance programs becoming pathways for long-term entitlement enrollment, and they’re right. Most households only need immediate assistance and some guidance; a helping hand back up from whatever knocked them down.

Others, especially the mentally ill or traumatized, including our veterans, need longer-term assistance. But let’s not confuse the two. Eighty-five percent of what we call the homeless population falls into the first category, people needing short-term assistance.

But does rapidly housing folks work? Let’s take a look. The following information is from Interfaith Works’ SideWalk program in Thurston County:

SideWalk’s “100 Homes” campaign has moved 50 people off the streets and out of the shelters and into permanent housing in the last six months — putting the program on track to move 100 people to housing in this one year.

SideWalk uses the Rapid Rehousing approach to meet the goal of their 100 Homes campaign. Rapid Rehousing is a “best practice” promoted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It involves the provision of a small amount of rental assistance (averaging a total of $1,100 per person) followed by strong case management support. SideWalk’s 100 Homes campaign represents the first full-scale deployment of Rapid Rehousing in Thurston County.

In our community, SideWalk’s Rapid Rehousing program participants have moved on to become college students, reunite with family, and find jobs in the community — using their new homes as the springboards for their dreams.

Rapid Rehousing, by increasing turnover in the shelters, is the most effective strategy for increasing the availability of shelter beds and decreasing unsheltered homelessness. Rapid Rehousing assistance is also less expensive than shelter.

Moving forward, SideWalk wants to increase its use of Rapid Rehousing in 2014 to serve even more households and put a real dent in unsheltered homelessness in our County.

SideWalk program director Phil Owen mentions that their Rapid Rehousing program boasts a successful outcome 96 percent of the time. If you’re into grading, that’s an A.

I’m asking you, as a community member, to do two things.

Please support SideWalk’s efforts by volunteering or donating (see walkthurston.org for details). And, contact your elected officials and tell them that you support programs like SideWalk that have excellent outcomes, are community supported and can serve 10 households for what we currently pay for one through traditional programs.

Yes, this will require institutional change and some agencies will make the change and some will choose not to. Let’s make sure that we, as a community, support providers who serve the needy and not obsolete programming that best belongs in the history books.

On that note, anybody want a Pentium II? No, probably not.

Curt Andino is the Executive Director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at curt.andino@spshabitat.org.

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