Getting to know the many faces of homelessness

On Thursday night, January 23, I joined in the annual one-night Point-in-Time count of people living in homeless shelters, in cars, on the streets and other places not fit for human habitation.

I was not prepared for how many people I saw in my hometown of Spokane, even though I visited only two places. The first person I interviewed that evening at Union Gospel Mission Spokane had the same birthday as my son. Among the others I met was James, with his furry best friend Dori (pictured) at a no-barrier Cannon Street warming shelter.

And I was not prepared for how generous they were with me in sharing painful intimate details of their lives and how each person’s story had a poignant detail that connected me to them.

The loss of a family member or important friend was often the toughest part of the stories people shared. Of all the myriad challenges they faced – unemployment, physical or mental illness, addiction, violence – losing a supportive human relationship seemed to be a common trigger for a life spiraling downward into homelessness.
I was also moved by the people working in both shelters. They were fierce in the belief in what they were doing and in their defense of the dignity of each person.

I’m grateful for what I learned that night.

The yearly count provides a snapshot to help benchmark our progress on making homelessness rare, brief and one-time. Throughout the state, we do this work with dedicated community partners, such as Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, that lead to bringing people inside and moving them toward housing security. You can read more about the similar collaborative efforts in Walla Walla in this story in the Union-Bulletin or check out a new KNKX “Outsiders” podcast in partnership with the Seattle Times Project Homeless initiative.

Bringing everyone inside first is critical. It is a daunting goal, but Gov. Inslee’s proposed budget would give local governments resources they desperately need to dramatically decrease the rate of unsheltered homelessness statewide. The proposed investments can get thousands off the streets while setting the stage for continued investments in permanent solutions.

New local grants would provide $66 million to bring people into shelters – the crucial first step that has proven to work. Another $30 million would create new enhanced shelters with laundry facilities, bathrooms and storage spaces, with additional grants for local governments to clean up vacated, unsafe homeless encampments.

Building on what we know works, the governor’s budget targets additional assistance for vulnerable populations, including 2,300 more individuals qualifying for Housing and Essential Needs, transitional housing for homeless youth, and improvements to programs serving aged, blind and disabled homeless clients.

Our state and local governments also collaborate closely to improve performance of these and other homeless projects. We set clear and measurable expectations in all contracts governing public funds, and we require corrective action when counties and projects don’t meet them.

In the governor’s proposal, The Department of Commerce would receive nearly $850,000 to support our system of affordable housing benchmarks, robust data collection and reporting to measure success, and ensure accountability in statewide homeless system performance. (Find the data and comparative analysis in interactive report cards and accounts of spending on Commerce’s website.)

System improvements, better performance measurement, solid collaboration between federal, state, local and philanthropic partners are all part of the long-term answers to this foremost social and economic crisis.

But we have to get people indoors.

The governor’s proposal is a bold and realistic plan to shelter more people quickly. Ensuring everyone has a safe, decent, stable place to sleep is necessary for any of the promising most approaches to take hold.

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