Monday, May 25, 2020

MWV Homeless Alliance Launches in Pandemic

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

As reported in Street Roots, the City of Salem, Marion County, Polk County, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Salem Keizer School District and several other  municipalities are creating  an intergovernmental entity under ORS 190.010 et seq. to operate the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance (Alliance), the new name of the Marion-Polk "continuum of care." Aside from the Street Roots piece, there's been almost no press coverage.  See Holman, A. "Photos: Life as a leader in the pandemic, Commissioner Colm Willis."  (10 May 2020, Salem Reporter.)

The Street Roots article contrasts this latest government effort with immediate need, using quotes from advocate Jean Hendron and the director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, Jimmy Jones, who holds a non-voting position on the Alliance Board.  See Henderson, T.  "Homeless residents, advocates, in Salem area take issue with government response."  (22 April 2020, Street Roots.)

Such comparisons are inevitable, even in a pandemic, when circumstances force a shift in priorities and resources to avoiding contagion.  "COVID-19 Returns Campers to City Parks";  Radnovich, C. "COVID-19: More than 100 medically vulnerable unsheltered homeless placed in Salem hotels." (12 April 2020, Statesman Journal.)  Neither the City nor Marion or Polk county have contributed to the hotel program, but the City did provide chemical toilets and hand-washing stations for the park camping program, which is popular with downtown businesses and unpopular with park neighbors.  See "Has Council 'moved the needle' on Homelessness?"; Woodworth, W. "Salem City Council votes to extend emergency declaration for COVID-19."  (28 April 2020, Statesman Journal.).

Alliance Board Chair Cathy Clark and Vice Chair Chris Hoy 2/13/20
The Alliance Board met for the first time in February.  Most of the meeting was spent approving organizational formalities.  Details in meeting minutes here.  The March meeting consisted of some more approvals (consent calendar), a round-table "Coronavirus Update", and an overview of the strategic plan adopted in 2017 by the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force (Task Force), which Alliance Board Chair Cathy Clark and Alliance staff lead Janet Carlson have urged the Board to revise and adopt as its own.  Both  held key positions on the Task Force and its successor, the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Steering Committee.

Carlson is a former Marion County Commissioner who retired in January 2019, after 13 years in  office, and now lives in Idaho.  The push for the Alliance to adopt some form of the Task Force plan is seen by some as Carlson's "legacy project."

The other two staff are Jan Calvin, an 18-year veteran of the City's Community Services Department who "codified" the 2017 plan after it was adopted, and Carla Munns, former Director of Quality and Transformation at Willamette Valley Community Health (the regional Coordinated Care Organization prior to 2020).

Carlson, Calvin and Munns are acting as consultants to the Alliance under contracts with the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments.  They're paid $85/hr + expenses.  None has expertise in federal housing or homelessness programs, but the cost of hiring qualified, full-time staff is considered prohibitive, a judgment that may prove costly in the long run.

As readers know very well, this is not the region's first experience trying to build an effective, competitive housing and homeless services delivery system, aka, "continuum of care" or CoC.  By "competitive" is meant a system that meets HUD's high standards.  (For more on the region's CoC Program experience, scroll down to CANDO Archive Issues below, and click on "ROCC: Leave or Remain.")

What's fundamentally different about this newly formed CoC -- about the Alliance -- is the direct involvement of local government.  The experience of CoCs across the U.S. is that local government involvement is crucial to ensuring reliable and consistent leadership, community support, staff expertise, transparent processes and accountability for outcomes.  But, while local government involvement is definitely necessary to success, it's no guarantee.

Building a competitive organization will certainly take years, but that doesn't mean the Alliance can take its time.  The Alliance is decades behind where it needs to be in building an effective homeless services delivery system, and decades behind CoCs like the ones in Lane and Clackamas counties.  This means, in effect, that the Alliance is headed into senior finals having completed only the seventh grade.  HUD rewards outcomes, not "best efforts."  There is no "most improved" award for homeless services delivery systems.

One idea is to adopt a strategic plan that works backward from the CoC Program funding competition, which rates CoCs across the U.S. against HUD standards and priorities.  The goal of every CoC is to score above the weighted mean, which is the break point for funding.

FY 2019 Competition "Debriefing Document" for OR-505 (ROCC)

Above is the summary from the Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC)’s 2019 Competition debriefing document (Marion and Polk counties were in this CoC until March, when the Alliance was formed).  This is a HUD-generated “scorecard” that goes to all CoCs to let them know what they need to work on.  The Alliance will receive a similar document after the 2020 competition.

As you can see, out of 200 available points divided into 6 categories, half (100 points) are for  “System Performance” and “Performance and Strategic Planning.”  ROCC scored only 56 points in those categories, for an overall total of 134/200.  That’s 16.5 points below the median, and 23 points below the weighted median.  It's also 4.5 points below ROCC's FY 2018 score.  See "ROCC Fissures Continue to Grow."  The debriefing document focuses on HUD’s high priority areas (for more detail, see the FY 2019 NOFA, which set forth the competition's rules and guidelines).  
Scoring above the weighted mean needs to be the Alliance's first priority in the coming years, which means the board should focus on the categories that offer the most points, namely system performance (60/200 or 30%), coordination and engagement (56/200 or 28%), performance and strategic planning as defined by HUD (40/200 or 20%) and project capacity, review and ranking (29/200 or 14.5%).  For more details on these categories, see the FY 2019 NOFA which lists the priorities (p 5-7), scoring matrix (p 50), and defines “system performance” (p 53) and “performance and strategic planning (p 58), among other things. 
To succeed at what's counted, the Alliance's needs an extremely focused plan, not some mish-mash of a wish list that includes every idea or project that in some way touches homelessness, which is what is on offer.  The Alliance's plan should be carefully tailored to this moment and and this organization's immediate needs.  The Alliance charter states that "The COC is organized to carry out the purposes of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care program as defined 24 CFR Part 578."  Yes, it's true that the program is broadly designed to promote community-wide planning and strategic use of resources to address homelessness.  But, for the foreseeable future, the Alliance Board needs a plan that carries out its most basic function, which is "to assist individuals (including unaccompanied youth) and families experiencing homelessness and to provide the services needed to help such individuals move into transitional and permanent housing, with the goal of long-term stability."  
Collaborative Committee 29 April 2020 virtual meeting
Times are hard.  The pandemic has forced Oregon and the rest of the world into a massive shift in priorities and resource allocation, but it hasn't changed the Alliance's basic function, which is to provide the services needed to help stably house the homeless.   

Under the Governor's Stay Home, Save Lives order, the board skipped its April meeting while staff and committees worked kinks out of the virtual meeting process.  There's some good work going on in committees, but a lot of it's political, and the board needs to understand the work and actively support it. To do that, data, work product and meeting notes need to be readily available -- to the board, to the public and to other members of the Alliance.  A website is not much use if it's not kept current (and it's not).  The danger of not making information available without having to ask for it is that, without a constant flow of accurate, timely information, the Alliance loses credibility, people lose interest, and those that are left are just going through the motions.  It's happened over and over and over.    

The April meeting of the Collaborative Committee had 60 people in attendance.  The May meeting was half that.  After skipping April, the board held a virtual meeting in May, barely making quorum, with no decisions taken.  Declining attendance is never a good sign.  Maybe the answer is fewer meetings, more work outside meetings or more meaningful work inside meetings, less time cheer-leading and updating.  Whatever adjustments are needed, now's the time for the board to dig in to their new roles and learn how to exercise reliable and consistent oversight of the region's homeless services delivery system.  Active leadership is needed, now more than ever.