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Originally published Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 3:43 PM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Pragmatic approaches to fight homelessness

Organizations fighting homelessness are applying creative, pragmatic solutions to persistent problems to stretch scarce dollars, save money and help more people.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Stubborn unemployment rates, a seemingly endless recession and retrenchment in public and private budgets force change.

Anyone looking for solid performance in difficult times should explore the creative pragmatism behind efforts to fight homelessness.

Pragmatism. I love the word because outcomes driven by practical consequences are not only motivated by leaner budgets, but also experience-based recognition there is another way to operate. And then acting on that knowledge.

Washington's state budget woes reach us through headlines, program cuts and lawmakers taking the word into the community. This past Saturday morning, the 32nd District's three legislators met with constituents at the Lake Forest Park Towne Centre. To my surprise — OK, shock — the meeting space — Third Place Commons — was packed. A half-hour into the two-hour session, more than 200 people had signed in.

State Sen. Maralyn Chase, and Reps. Ruth Kagi and Cindy Ryu answered questions and expressed their solidarity with teachers, higher education, hard-pressed families and businesses, and other worthy concerns. Lots of informed empathy, but the key take-away line: there is no money. The point was reinforced this week by another grim state economic forecast.

Stretching scarce dollars is a reality of tight financial times. Plain enough, but Building Changes, a Seattle nonprofit, is coordinating ongoing discussions among government, philanthropy and housing and service providers to make those dollars do a better job of helping the homeless.

Innovators in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties are working across agencies and programs to make deceptively simple changes. Step one: work to keep people in place, preventing homelessness.

Before families end up on the street, more effort is made to help them stay in their current setting — in an apartment or with relatives — as services are rallied to survive a rough patch.

In years past, linking housing and services was a breakthrough. So was a continuum of housing support — emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing.

Now the emphasis is to prevent evictions. As Bill Block, project director of the King County regional Committee to End Homelessness noted, questions get flipped round. Instead of asking "what sort of apartment do you want," the question is "can we make your existing situation work?" Avoiding dislocation reduces family trauma and saves money.

Pragmatism targets extra help for resolving the toughest cases, which ultimately saves money. Helping families means distinguishing their needs for the right services. And not trying to invent a perfect family.

Leaving homelessness might not be about affording rent, but a bankruptcy, conviction or eviction lurking in the past. A Landlord Liaison Project was created to help otherwise self-supporting tenants find a place to stay.

Major efforts are underway to coordinate access to services through one-stop telephone numbers. Instead of desperate families ricocheting from agency to agency, a single call points them in useful directions.

Another guiding principle emphasizes rapid re-entry into housing. Get clients settled, keep kids near their schools and parents near support services.

Money is saved and effectiveness soars when services are tailored to the unique needs of those trying to get off and stay off the streets. Connecting people to education, training and jobs looks to break nasty cycles.

Every piece matters. Gov. Chris Gregoire budgeted money for the Washington Families Fund. Senate approval of Substitute House Bill 1811 is needed to allow telephone consent to release personal information for access to homeless programs. The House was unanimous.

Ending homelessness is about stability. Pragmatism does not overspend, or skimp on assistance.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

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