City Hall

System Error

By Dorsol Plants August 19, 2010

Working in a homeless shelter there are two things you learn very quickly: Everyone has their own story, and there is never enough housing or beds to keep everyone inside who wants to be. Every night before closing the day center down you know you're going home, and many of your clients will be outside until you open up the next day. This is a particularly hard to shake in winter; sometimes you show up the next day to learn that someone you've worked with for over a year had a heart attack sitting in the snow or trying to stay warm in a secluded stairwell.

Thankfully, yesterday, the Mayor said he's forming a citizen's review panel to make recommendations on homeless encampment policies, low-income housing, and services. The task isn't going to be easy, and with the economy making budget cuts essential—and the problem worse—it's urgent work.

But before we move forward with new plans, let's assess what we've already got in place.  Before any new services are funded or even researched, let’s get a survey of the existing agencies that provide any type of programs for the homeless. We know much about the Compass Housing Alliance, Urban Rest Stop, and Real Change, but we need to include smaller groups like People's Place and several church and synagogue programs. These programs provide quality services, but lack networks, infrastructure, and institutional knowledge—in part thanks to the high staff turnover at services and shelters. This leads to instances where beds go empty because case workers aren't connected and aren't aware of different services. This means service providers spend too much time reinventing the wheel, networking, and ultimately, making mistakes (such as sending a family to a closed or full shelter), rather than really helping clients. Mishaps like that make building a relationship (or building trust) with clients difficult, and can lead some homeless people to opt for the cycle of illegal camping and arrest.

Domestic Violence Coalitions, for example, discovered they had similar issues with the services they provided and did something about it, creating a National Domestic Violence Resource Network. A similar system at the city level would provide not just a number to call for more shelter numbers, but an actual database that can be maintained to allow shelters to post shelter beds, available services, and even donations that their centers can't use.

By knowing who all the stakeholders are, old and new, big and small, (and what they do), we'd have a better chance of proposing helpful changes to the present infrastructure. While the panel is going to study the possibility of a permanent site for the Nickelsville encampment (and that's a good idea), I think taking account existing agencies is a fundamental change that would provide the foundation for moving forward.

Take the shelter on Roy St. that Mayor Nickels started to house people from illegal encampments. When Mayor McGinn took office, the shelter had a number of vacancies, but because of the funding and bureaucratic requirements—not lack of need—the Roy St. shelter was unable to fill the vacancies. The way to start meeting that need and filling vacancies is to to use what we have now. We just have to know what we have.

The experience I, and a number of my former coworkers, had is that one of the first barriers encountered in getting people off of the street is finding a place for them to go. It’s not as easy as just finding a place that's empty; but one that each person meets the qualifications for. It was frustrating to have a number of people I worked with turned away from one housing option after another because he didn't do drugs or she lacked a serious mental illness. (As a case worker, I actually saw people get drunk to qualify for housing that night.) Every time we turn away people because they weren't “bad enough” to need the help, because they aged out of a youth facility, because they want to stay together as a family, we not only fail to meet a need, but we increase the time a case worker or volunteer spends trying to locate services.

If we are truly serious about ending homelessness under some “10 Year Plan” then it’s time we start actually looking at the services and shelter homeless people need, and then start providing more space and support that will actually help men, women, and children get themselves off the streets and on the path to a better life.
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