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The Seattle Times – What can Seattle learn from cities where homelessness has dropped?

January 24, 2019 / US
By Scott Greenstone
Seattle Times Project Homeless engagement editor

It’s no secret that homelessness has engulfed the West Coast: Rises in cities like Seattle, LA and San Francisco are the reason homelessness in the U.S. has gone up in the last few years while it continues to go down on the East Coast.

Project Homeless has gone to many of those cities looking at what their governments are trying: How San Diego is giving people safe places to live in their cars, how Vancouver, B.C., is betting on small prefabricated homes to end homelessness, and how San Francisco is cracking down on public camping. But reporters went to each of those cities because of their work with a certain population, not the

breadth of homelessness. A reader recently asked us, “What cities similar in size to Seattle have significantly reduced homelessness and how did they do it?”

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Using federally mandated point-in-time counts, we looked at major U.S. cities where homelessness has gone down the most in the last five years: New Orleans, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Virginia Beach, Virginia. All have seen a 40 percent or more drop in homelessness. There are some caveats. Point-in-time counts, conducted on one night in January, are really just an estimate, and methods of counting vary across the country. Tucson, Arizona, saw a huge decrease over the last five years, but part of that is because they changed the way they count, according to Claudia Powell, board chair of the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness.

Point-in-time counts may also be measuring cities’ economies as much as their effectiveness at addressing homelessness. Many of these cities are less expensive places to live than Seattle and other West Coast cities.
“A lot of these systems in (more expensive cities) are housing people faster and faster … because the number coming in, which the homeless system can’t do anything about, is getting bigger and bigger,” said Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Still, point-in-time counts are the most common and standardized measure America has for homelessness. Here is what we learned from cities with the biggest decreases over the past five years.

New Orleans: Experience dealing with a housing disaster

In 2015, first lady Michelle Obama traveled to New Orleans to congratulate the city for being the first in the country to house all of its homeless veterans. “We want cities across this country to follow your lead,” she said. But the

drug treatment. And because the county controls the federal vouchers, it has social workers walking into homeless camps and handing people rent vouchers.

“What we found is that once people’s basic needs are met, their housing needs are met, they’re able to focus on treatment, on employment and the other things,” said James Mathy, the county’s housing director.
Three years later, Milwaukee is on track to the be the nation’s largest county to effectively end chronic homelessness. The Housing First strategy is credited with savings millions of dollars by reducing demand for mental-health and emergency-room care.

Mathy acknowledges Milwaukee had advantages not available in King County, including low rent. But the strategy works, he said. “We really think we’ve found the blueprint not just to ending chronic homelessness but dramatically reducing overall homelessness in our state,” he said.

Virginia Beach: Getting rid of most transitional housing

Transitional housing is the middle step between emergency shelter and an apartment, with staff and services, and stays of a few months to a few years. But often, people staying in transitional housing stay there for the allotted time and don’t have a plan to leave, according to Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“I don’t mean to be pejorative about it, but it can undercut people’s decision-making ability,” Roman said. “It doesn’t teach you how to live in an apartment, it teaches you how to live in a facility.”
In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the average stay for each of the city’s 107 transitional-housing beds was well over 100 days, according to Pam Shine, coordinator of the city’s housing homeless programs. The limit was two years. The whole time they’re in transitional housing, all of those people count as homeless.

So what Virginia Beach did was part accounting and part restructure: It took most of the money from transitional housing and put it toward “rapid rehousing” vouchers so people could go straight from the streets to an apartment. Seattle and King County have done this as well, reducing transitional housing by about a thousand beds since 2015, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, while also dramatically increasing spending on rental vouchers (although that approach has been criticized by some nonprofits).

“We have really taken away the connotation that transitional housing is about sitting for two years and then working on your plan six months before you have to leave,” said Shine.

Seattle Times Project Homeless editor Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

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