Friday, February 19, 2016

MWHITF: Before we try to solve the homeless problem

West Coast Mayors

Remember the west coast Mayors' summit on homelessness that took place a few months ago?  One of their  conclusions was that "We don't have enough data to even understand what is causing the homelessness we have in the streets of our cities, so data is one of the things we want to do better."

What about the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force?  Do they have enough data to understand what's causing the homelessness in Marion and Polk Counties?  Are they even asking the question?

"Before we try to solve the homeless problem," said the acting Chair at the task force's first meeting, "we need some very basic information."  She then posed eight questions:
1. Who are the homeless in Marion and Polk Counties?

2. Who are the chronically homeless in Marion and Polk Counties?

3. Is there a standard definition of a "chronically homeless" individual compared to a "homeless" individual?

4. Is it important to make the distinction and why?

5. How many homeless people are there in Marion and Polk Counties?

6. Who counts the numbers and how are they counted?

7. Why with all the low-income housing, Section 8 vouchers, grants, etc., can we not place anyone who needs a permanent home into a permanent home?

8. What barriers do homeless people encounter and what services or tools do we currently have to address them?
Did the task force get those questions answered, do you think?  The task force was given some numbers from the 2015 homeless count.**  But is that census, which is generally acknowledged to be the best method for developing valid trend data, a reliable source of information for the task force's purposes?  Researchers say no, that "the question — 'How many people are homeless?' — is both misleading and nearly impossible to answer in any precise way."  The west coast mayors all had the same data, mind, from their own homeless counts, but they found it wasn't enough.  They needed more.  Likely the task force will, too.  
question — “How many people are homeless?” — is both misleading and nearly impossible to answer in any precise way, - See more at:
How about the last two questions?  There was a panel of experts to help out with those.  Did the last two questions get answered satisfactorily, do you think? Here's a recap of what was said. 

Questions for the Panel**

 Citing data from Multifamily NW's
Andy Wilch, SHA Admin
fall report and SMI CRE, Wilch told the task force that there's not enough because the vacancy rate dropped 13% from last spring (2015) and not risen, allowing rents in the Salem area to rise 10%, and landlord incentives to decrease by 28%.  In other words, "demand."  He also cited data from the recent Housing Needs Assessment that, of the 57,000 households in the Salem MSA, 37% earn $35,000 or less, "so it's an economic issue, as well."  He also pointed out that "hard to house" populations cannot compete in the marketplace.

Shelly Wilkins-Ehenger
Wilkins-Ehenger, Administrator for the Marion County Housing Authority (housing outside Salem and Keizer's UGB), said of 700 vouchers issued in 2015, only 128 families had been able to find homes, and the vacancy rate was, according to her information, less than 1%.
Linda Strike, ARCHES

Strike said the clients in the ARCHES programs "like Section 8" had had similar problems trying to rent "even though we would pay for them."  She identified having a criminal history or a "very bad rental" history as barriers.  She said Community Action Agency has a workshop program designed to help homeless individuals overcome such barriers, but the funding for it was coming to an end.     

Craig Bazzi, CARS
Craig Bazzi confirmed that being recently incarcerated acts as a barrier.

Satisfied?  Or are you left wanting to know more?  Do you, like Chief Moore, suspect there are a lot of homeless folks who're not even on a housing voucher waiting list or in some sort of program "like Section 8."  What about them?  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why should we care?  Who is receiving help?  What kind?  Is it working?  How do we know?  What does it cost?  What would it cost not to provide that help?  And what about that last question?  ("Should there be a focus on a subset?") How is that to be answered if we lack data on who is being helped and whether the help is effective?  The west coast mayors ultimately decided to pool their money to develop a template and collect data.  "Beyond data collection, the mayors also hope to study specific programs from each city – such as San Francisco's Navigation Center."  Sound like a good idea to you?

What do you think? Knowing what you know now, what would you do to try and solve the homeless problem?  (Hint: it's okay to say you would seek more and reliable data and information about specific programs in the area.)

**The document titled "Background and Scope" that contained those figures has not been posted to the MWHI webpage.

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