The Committee to End Homelessness, a county-administered clearinghouse for the many groups working on homelessness-related issues in King County, started in 2005 with the explicit, state-mandated mission of eradicating homelessness in King County. But despite successful efforts to increase housing for formerly homeless people over the intervening decade, King County didn’t come close to reaching the ten-year goal. Instead, homelessness in King County has increased dramatically since 2005, and the committee is now searching for a new direction forward.
Part of that direction? A new name (one that presumably won’t include the phrase, “end homelessness”) and a new communications strategy.
According to a request for proposals issued by CEH and the United Way of King County, the committee plans to hire a communications consultant, at an estimated cost of $50,000 to $75,000 for five months’ work, to “re-imagine the continuum of homeless services in King County to better fit the needs of our homeless neighbors, and to re-invigorate the multi-faceted network of partners engaged in homeless issues.” In addition, the consultant would come up with a new name and logo for the committee.
“While our community has achieved success and learned from our mistakes, the overwhelming increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in King County generates skepticism from our key audiences—system stakeholders, elected officials, and concerned community members—that homelessness is a solvable social issue,” the RFP continues.
By “overwhelming,” the want ad is referring to the stunning 21 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless (people sleeping outside) during the January 2015 One Night Count of homeless people in King County. That overnight winter count found more than 10,000 homeless people living in King County, either outdoors or in temporary housing or shelter, which is itself an 8 percent increase over the number counted in 2014.
CEH director Mark Putnam, one of three King County staffers charged with administering the plan, says the new message is in no way an admission of defeat. Instead, he says, the branding push is aimed at spreading the group’s new emphasis on making a homelessness rare, brief, and one-time crisis. (Along with the new branding, there’s a new strategic plan, which fleshes out how CEH plans to move toward that goal.)
“In 2014, there was a general realization that we weren’t going to meet our targets,” Putnam says. “When you look ten years out, you think you might be able to achieve such an audacious goal. [In reality] no community has been able to meet the goal.”
One significant issue (in addition to the booming economy and the resulting rent increases) is a lack of funding for traditional shelters and very short-term housing, which have been sidelined in favor of what’s known as “permanent supportive housing,” which provides formerly homeless people not only with housing but with mental health counseling, job training, and other supportive services. These services, while invaluable for those who need them, cost a lot of money, and are of little immediate use to people forced to sleep outside in the winter because there are no shelter beds. Putnam says half of all homeless people in King County are newly homeless, and many have jobs but simply don’t make enough to keep a roof over their heads.
Putnam says CEH recognizes this disconnect between the need and the amount of available shelter, and is trying to address the problem by giving people short-term housing outside the shelter system, known as “shelter diversion.”
“We’re asking them, is there anything we can do to get you housed tonight? We ask, where have you stayed in the past, is there any financial assistance you can get, can we drive you somewhere?” And they provide direct cash assistance, mostly from private funders, often to put families up in motels and give them lifelines to more permanent housing. The average cost of such direct assistance, Putnam says, is about $1,300 per family, but the investment saves money in the end by reducing demand for shelter beds and giving people a lifeline to help them stay off the streets.
But ultimately, all the efforts of CEH’s hundreds of partner organizations weren’t enough to end homelessness. Nor were they enough in 2005, when the aspirational ten-year plan was adopted. “If there had been a natural disaster and there had been 3,700 people sleeping outside in January, the governor would have declared a state of emergency,” Putnam says. Instead, it’s 2015, and the committee to end homelessness has a new, sharper, less sanguine purpose.