Summary: data collection by the municipalities is poor. The Valley should support the regional approach, but all support should be tied to better data collection so we can make better decisions on how the money is used. Regional approach means that we would transport visible homeless to the city for treatment and housing.
Update New Info: Folks, tonight I went to the Washington Policy Center Forum on homelessness. Not a ton of new information but I did manage to speak with two experts and Josh Kerns, county commissioner. I learned something epic!
I am not sure I can trust the housing first solution data. It seems that the questions being used to collect the data, especially here in Spokane may be biased and unreliable. I asked all three of we are collecting long term solution based data and was surprised that not only did all three had substantial doubts about what was collected, but also that data collection methods have changed many times and no effort has been made to regularize the datasets. This is a term used in the monitoring and evaluation world that means to use statistics to control for the change in data collection procedures over time.
Looking at the data I found from other sources I found the same problem.
As a politician, this is infuriating. Gobs of money are going into these programs, and we aren't even reliably controlling for data collection errors.
Therefore, while I will leave my earlier write-up, I have no choice but to revise my policy approach: I think that all Spokane valley funding should now come with the caveat that reliable data modeling must be used to measure outcomes. We should start that immediately with no change in funding levels. I still believe the regional approach is best for dealing with the homeless as I described below, but until we get these data models resolved, I cannot support any funding increases.
Old post:
Ok friends, I'm going to try cover a tough subject in as much detail as I can (sorry for length):
(Disclaimer: I really want your input here, while I have a good deal of experience with the issue and have done a fair bit of research, I want to know citizens thoughts and feelings about the subject.)
Homeless: general homelessness describes a lack of stable, safe, and dependable housing. Folks who may be described as generally homeless fall along a spectrum that could be anywhere from living on the streets, couch surfing, living in a vehicle or temporary shelter, or even in a short term paid solution like a motel.
Chronically Homeless: this category describes folks who fall into the above category but have existed in this state for more than 1 year or who have had more than 4 bouts of homelessness in the last 5 years. Folks in this category have a much greater risk of extreme addiction and/or mental illness issues.
Traditional Model: the traditional model of service for homelessness has focused on service delivery leading to "worthiness" eventually leading to housing assistance as a last transitional step. This model emphasizes sobriety, employment, and other elements on a compliance-based checklist that when all complete lead to housing assistance.
Housing First Model: the housing fist model flips the traditional model on its head. First providing free/cheap housing that is stable and safe, allowing program members assistance programs that help with employment or sobriety without making either a requirement for housing.
About me:
I am first and foremost a pragmatist. I believe that whenever possible problems should only be addressed with the best solutions based on data rather than blind belief. That's not to say that experimentation should never occur, but when it does it should happen in a controlled and testable way using increasingly larger control groups before being universally implemented.
I believe, that we should leverage the data and experience created by cities all around the country, especially cities that are comparable to our own.
I believe that on principle, folks should pay for the services they want, and get the services they pay for.
While I believe that compassion is a wonderful and laudable goal (that should be socially encouraged throughout society), it should not be the primary consideration when the government decides to assist someone, as I believe the government should stay out of people's lives as much as possible. I believe reducing liability, minimizing the ultimate cost to society (ie taxpayers), and maximizing economic returns to society (ie GDP) should be the primary considerations for intervention, especially government intervention.
Criticisms of thoughts on homelessness:
1. Criticism of the general left: The notion that "We should help everyone because they are entitled to assistance and they have some inherent rights to housing"
This is a fallacy. We live in a capitalist country, capitalism depends on acting in self-interest. The notion above turns the idea of capitalism on its head in a way that is difficult to sustain. This creates a slippery slope where defining adequate housing gets more and more complicated (does an adequate house have a couch, how about a TV, etc). It also imposes the expectation that everyone needs to act in accordance with morality that may not be shared by all.
2. Criticism of the general right: The notion that "we shouldn't help anyone, homelessness is a choice, those bums just don't want to work, the survival of the fittest, lock em all up, etc."
For many (if not most) homeless (and almost all of the chronically homeless), homelessness is not a choice. Many suffer from serious mental health issues or lack of any support network (ie family) that make it impossible to escape homelessness without assistance. In addition, not assisting at all actually costs taxpayers more (potentially much more) than assisting. Without assistance homeless folks end up in high cost emergency rooms (average of 5k per visit) , high cost jail cells (including ancillary justice costs such as public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice costs) averaging about $80,000 per inmate per year with all costs included (about $300 per day), or worst of all participate in criminal activities that directly affect society (including additional policing, value of property loss, value of time loss, indirect value loss). A recent Spokesman-Review article estimated that the average cost of an unassisted homeless person to taxpayers is $200,000 PER YEAR!
Also, there exists this idea that somehow homeless people don't have the right to use public spaces to be homeless. While I firmly don't believe our law grants a right to a home, I do believe our law grants the right to equitable use of public spaces. If you or I can use a road/sidewalk/park/ building anytime we like, so can a homeless person. We see this being more and more the legal interpretation everyday (for instance look at the recent court decision that stated cities cannot limit sleeping on public property unless they provide sufficient beds for all the homeless). In fact, expanding on this, I believe that if you don't want homeless people to use a public space for some purpose you should be willing to pay them for that service.
While I realize this is a radical idea, I justify it like this:
You and homeless Charley have equal claim to a given sidewalk. You would like to increase your claim by restricting what Charley can do with the sidewalk (for instance you don't want Charley to sleep on that sidewalk because it causes your customers to not want to visit your store), thus you are receiving a benefit at Charley's expense, or put another way you are expecting a service from Charley. You are asking him to give you what is rightfully his. Should you not pay for that service?
I hear the lament already: why should we have to pay for people being decent? Well, see above under criticism of the general left. Capitalism demands that people act in self-interest and we should accept that. Charley being your definition of decent is not in his self-interest and he clearly doesn't share your definition.
Now, this isn't to say that you should have to directly compensate Charley, but you should have some expectation of paying a tax for programs that assists Charley, compensating him for giving up some of his rights to a public space.
Taking this all together, I find that the result of these criticisms brings us to a simple middle ground:
We should do enough to compensate those who are homeless from being restricted in using public spaces to the detriment to society at large, and at the same time reducing taxpayer burden to a minimal cost functional arrangement (ie the least cost option that accomplishes our goals).
Looking at the data, a housing first model seems to be the best approach to actually combating the negative effects of homelessness on the community (general loitering in public spaces, widespread panhandling, reduction in dispersed crime, etc). While this was hard for me to accept at first, it's hard to argue with the mountain of data that suggests that such models drastically reduce the problems related to homelessness, and at fractions of the cost of traditional models or doing nothing:
this is one article but there are many scholarly reviewed pieces describing the trend in data)
Housing first models can bring the yearly cost of 1 homeless person from $200,000 to less than $30,000 through economies of scale, better access to nonemergency healthcare, other treatment services (such as dependency/mental health treatment), as well as job-finding assistance. The emphasis would still be in helping those in care move to self-sufficiency as fast as possible.
Focusing on our region, our regional health board on homelessness, the Continuum of Care, has also been supporting housing first models, as well as a regionally based solution.
In fact, the city of Spokane has been asking to be the regional hub for dealing with this problem for years:
A regional hub has many benefits:
1. It allows services to be centered in one area letting efficiencies of scale take place.
2. It locates the negative aspects of the homeless community to one area, allowing those aspects to be controlled for (ie extra police presence near the homeless shelters, or urgent cares)
3. It eliminates competitive/repetitive agencies in each municipality, reducing overall management costs, and also eliminating the 'cross-shopping' phenomenon where a service seeker (homeless person) would seek overlapping assistance from multiple municipalities.
4. Reduces the size of the overall government as we would have one regional agency dealing with a regional problem rather than sperate agencies in each municipality.
I know this was a lot of information. So let me summarize my plan:
I believe that if the city of Spokane wants to act as the regional hub on a housing first basis, we should support that after all the city has access to the most services and management, as well as a number of housing first units already being created.
This would mean that Spokane Valley would pay some regional fee that would go into that regional program, then folks who are found homeless in Spokane Valley would be transported to the regional hub for assistance. Since I would expect the hub to have bed capacity for all of our expected homeless, we would be able to create strong loitering laws that would keep our streets and parks free of undesirable use, in compliance with the federal court decision I mentioned.
I think my plan would both be best for the homeless (compensating them for loss of use of public spaces through service provision and providing them the best data-based chance at moving out of the homeless condition) and also maintain the neighborhood feel that we have all come to expect (clean streets, family-friendly parks, less crime, etc.). Also, this would be the cheapest option, far cheaper on our economy than what we are doing now.
I'm sure you all have many questions, please feel free to ask. Also, note that this does not have to be the definite or entire solution, it's not perfect, I just think it's our best bet in the short term.


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Video produced locally by artist Micaela Halpin