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Originally published Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 8:04 PM

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Using smarts, we can defeat homelessness

Despite setbacks, there is reason to be optimistic about efforts to end homelessness.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Homelessness is going to be history. I say that because I believe efforts to address it will keep getting better as underlying causes are attacked smartly and money is directed where it can do the most good.

Homelessness has declined across the country since 2007. Government spending to end homelessness is at record levels , but some days, it’s hard to see progress. There is a huge effort to end homelessness in King County, and a couple of years ago agencies working toward that goal formed a coalition, the Family Housing Connection, and created a single phone number homeless families can call for help. But instead of speeding up access to housing, the new system has its own choke point, The Seattle Times reported last week.

The story said, “Of more than 4,000 families who called the hotline between April 2012 and April 2013, only about 680 found housing through the system. Each month, about 20 new shelter spaces open up, but 30 new families call the hotline, so the list just grows longer.”

Sometimes new projects hit bumps, and it is always frustrating, whether your computer’s new operating system falters or a giant drill runs into a buried pipe. Highlighting problems is a necessary step in fixing them, and in this case not a reason to despair.

I’ve visited numerous shelters and housing sites and spoken to people whose lives were significantly improved by the help they got. But I also hear how dire the situation is, how many people are still without shelter, despite the efforts of government and scores of helpful agencies. I see people on the street who haven’t been helped.

Every year, people involved in fighting homelessness go out and count the homeless in King County. This year’s One Night Count happened before dawn Friday and found 3,117 people without shelter. Volunteers found people huddled against the cold in cars and doorways, any place that offered a little shelter.

Most years I read about the count and feel pleased that so many volunteers care. This year I wondered, more than usual, why every year the number is so high. Last year it was lower, 2,736, though more housing has been built in the meantime.

Then a day after I read about the waiting list in King County, I read about a surprising success. It said Utah’s State Homeless Coordinating Committee cut homelessness by 78 percent over the past eight years. The goal is to end homelessness by 2015.

Well, maybe it’s not hopeless after all.

Part of the reason for the delays in King County is that the coalition tries to sort people into the right kind of housing because the member organizations have different requirements.

Utah cuts to the chase. It moves chronically homeless people off the street into permanent supportive housing, and the only requirement is that the people behave themselves.

Utah provides the free housing, not because of bleeding hearts, but for practical reasons. It costs less to provide housing than it does to pay all the community costs that come with having people living on the streets.

Utah’s approach doesn’t cover the spectrum of housing insecurity (it focuses on the two ends — prevention and housing the chronically homeless — rather than on short-term homelessness.

Utah’s approach is called rapid rehousing. Last month, King County announced a pilot program to use the approach here. I suspect the county, which often has led the nation in innovation, will conquer the many challenges involved in battling homelessness.

With the smart application of good research and best practices, homelessness can be beaten.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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