Sunday, July 10, 2016

It's All About Relationships

That’s what many in our community say, anyway, when they talk about helping those in need, “It’s all about relationships.”  Except, we’ve noticed, when it comes to the U.S. government.  

Maybe more than people elsewhere, Oregonians take pride in doing things without government assistance.  And they seem to dislike especially the idea of the “strings attached” to federal funding.  Why this is, we do not know. Perhaps they or someone they know has had some sort of frustrating experience with a federal program.  Some may even feel active hostility toward federal “interference” with local systems they like to think are working pretty well.  But, in fact, are they?  

That’s the kind of uncomfortable question communities committed to ending homelessness have to ask themselves.  It’s the kind of question we in Salem and Marion and Polk Counties should be asking ourselves.  Maybe one reason we don’t is that we don’t know where to begin, and we don’t want to ask the people most likely to be able to help -- the federal government.  But in not knowing where to begin and not wanting to ask for help, we have  come to resemble our greatest challenge -- the chronically homeless.  Ironic, isn’t it?  

It doesn’t have to be this way.  We don’t have to keep being part of the problem.  But to be part of the solution, we will need to relinquish false pride in the way we’ve always done things.  Homelessness is a complex, national  problem for which there are no non-complex answers.  It’s time we stopped going through the motions and got serious about federal homeless assistance programs.  The alternative is to admit we just don’t care enough to bother.  

If you decide you’re willing to give it a go, read on.  Here, in one place, is a plain-language overview of the federal program that people who care about poverty and homelessness need most to know about, and how it’s working, and not working, in Salem and Marion and Polk Counties.

HUD’s Continuum of Care Program

In 1987, Congress passed the first federal law specifically addressing homelessness. The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987,  later renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, provides federal financial support for a variety of homeless programs administered by The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAP).  See here.

Initially, HUD did not impose any requirements for systemic planning at the local level.  However, beginning in 1994, HUD began requiring communities to submit a single application, rather than allowing applications from individual providers. HUD’s intent in creating this structured process was to stimulate community-wide planning and coordination of programs.  See here.

In 2009, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (Act) was amended by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH Act). Among other changes, the amended Act consolidated three separate HUD homeless assistance programs (Supportive Housing Program, Shelter Plus Care program, and Section 8 Moderate Rehabilitation Single Room Occupancy program) into a single grant program, known as the Continuum of Care (CoC) Program. See here.

HUD wants communities participating in the CoC Program to think of their homeless services delivery systems as a “continuums of care” or CoCs.  The regional entities that oversee the homeless services delivery systems are also called continuums of care or CoCs.  Oregon has seven CoCs - Central Oregon CoC (Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson Counties), Clackamas County CoC, Jackson County CoC, Lane County Coc, Portland/Multnomah County Coc, Washington County CoC, and the Balance of State or Rural Oregon CoC (ROCC).  Marion and Polk Counties are in ROCC with 26 other counties. 

The HEARTH Act also revised and renamed the Emergency Shelter Grants program, now called the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) Program.  In Oregon, pursuant to ORS 458.505, the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department (OHCS) makes ESG and other federal housing assistance funds available to communities through local “community action agencies”, which are responsible for coordinating the use of the funds to serve the community in accordance with state standards.  Although the requirements of the CoC and ESG programs are different, HUD expects communities to coordinate the services delivered through each program. Note: By “communities”, HUD does not mean just the grant recipients; rather, HUD means the whole community:

The amended Act also codified into law the CoC planning process, a longstanding part of HUD’s CoC application process to assist persons experiencing homelessness by providing greater coordination in responding to their needs. CoCs [meaning, in effect, the CoC administrators] are charged with designing a local “system” [also referred to as the CoC] to assist sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness and providing the services necessary to help them access housing and obtain long-term stability. More broadly, CoCs [meaning, in effect, the CoC administrators] are to promote community-wide planning and strategic use of resources to address homelessness; enhance coordination and integration with mainstream resources and other programs targeted to people experiencing homelessness; and improve data collection and performance measurement.  See here.

The need for this kind of collaboration may seem obvious, but it’s not how HUD and its grantees have operated historically.  For a very long time, homeless assistance programs have operated largely independently of one another.  In other words, in silos.  Everyone doing their own thing, where some get federal money, some don’t, most are having to compete with each other for the community’s limited attention and funds, many are following their own or their donors’ models of how services should be provided, and are hesitant to admit mistakes or examine whether a program or model is actually doing what it’s intended to do.  So, HUD has been working to make clear:        

A critical aspect of the amended Act is a focus on viewing the local homeless response as a coordinated system of homeless assistance options as opposed to homeless assistance programs and funding sources that operate independently in a community. To facilitate this perspective the Act now requires communities to measure their performance as a coordinated system, in addition to analyzing performance by specific projects or project types. See here.  [Emphasis added.]

Most CoCs at least purport to be working toward this new approach, and some are actually doing it.  But how does a community move from silos to “a coordinated system of homeless assistance options”?  One place HUD grantees are expected to start is measuring and reporting progress. So,     

Section 427 of the Act established selection criteria for HUD to use in awarding CoC funding that require CoCs to report to HUD their system-level performance. The intent of these selection criteria are to encourage CoCs, in coordination with ESG Program recipients and all other homeless assistance stakeholders in the community, to regularly measure their progress in meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness in their community and to report this progress to HUD...HUD will use the system-level performance information as a competitive element in its annual CoC Program Competition and to gauge the state of the homeless response system nationally.  See here.  [Emphasis added.]

Now, for reasons alluded to above and others you might imagine, getting “other homeless assistance stakeholders in the community” to measure and report their progress has been a huge, and as yet unsolved, problem.  You might think people working to alleviate poverty and homelessness would understand the need to work together to develop an effective, community-wide service delivery system, but mostly, they don’t.  From HUD’s perspective,

It’s still too often the case that in a given community, one set of programs and organizations are fully committed to a Housing First approach, while another set of programs and organizations still adhere to the idea that people need to be “fixed” or “treated” before they can be successful in housing. In this “tale of two cities,” people experiencing homelessness wind up faced with a kind of “luck of the draw” dynamic, in which the type of help they get depends on where they happen to have landed. Or alternatively, they face a maze of programs and services with competing messages, which often furthers their demoralization and lack of ability to believe what they hear.  See here.

So, not surprisingly, after several years in which the number of people experiencing homelessness has steadily declined, progress, especially for non-veterans, appears to have tapered off.  During this same period, CoC Program funding has been just enough to continue existing levels of assistance.  Clearly, CoC Program resources will have to be “prioritized” in order to make significant strides toward ending homelessness.  According to HUD,

Research and the experience of leading communities is telling us that prioritizing people with the greatest needs, focusing on data and performance, and relying on permanent housing strategies are key to ending homelessness. While communities have used the CoC program and the CoC application process to greatly improve homeless assistance, we also continue to fund many lower-performing projects and ones using outdated program models.  See here.  [Emphasis added.]

To understand what this has come to mean for programs in Salem and Marion and Polk Counties, read on.  It is, as we like to say, all about relationships.         

The Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC)

As noted above, Marion and Polk Counties are in the Rural Oregon CoC, one of seven CoCs in Oregon.  Like all CoCs, ROCC is a creature of a HUD program of the same name.  It is a regional entity that is supposed to promote community-wide planning and strategic use of resources, enhance  coordination and integration, and improve data collection and performance measurement.  Needless to say, it is a work-in-progress.    

Marion and Polk Counties used to have their own CoC, and the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency was its “collaborative applicant.  But that responsibility proved to be beyond MWVCAA’s organizational capacity.  So, in 2011, Marion and Polk Counties merged with ROCC, which is comprised of 28 counties divided into 7 regions.  Marion and Polk Counties, along with Yamhill County, are ROCC’s Region 7.  ROCC itself, and four areas within ROCC, have Con Plans -- Albany, Salem, Grant’s Pass and Corvallis.  

Up until 2008, the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department (OHCS) acted as ROCC's "collaborative applicant" and its "unified funding agency."  That is to say, OHCS was responsible for, among other things, applying to HUD for a grant on ROCC's behalf, and receiving and managing the grant funds.  But, in 2008, OHCS ceased acting as ROCC’s unified funding agency, and the grant funds started going directly to providers/programs.  This loss of departmental support, which brought with it an increased reliance on telephone and video-conferenced meetings, made collaboration more difficult. 

Then, in the fall of 2012, about a year after Marion and Polk Counties merged with ROCC, OHCS found itself in a bit of a
a crisis.  In the “house cleaning” that inevitably followed, OHCS was asked to make some tough program choices, and notified ROCC it would cease to act as its collaborative applicant.  After several rather chaotic months supported by zero paid administrative staff, a new ROCC began to take shape.  The ROCC board was persuaded to impose a 1% fee on grants to pay for one part-time staff, and ROCC just managed to secure about $2.8M in CoC grants.  They got about $100K more in 2013 and $3.1M in 2014.  In 2015, however, things changed.

New leadership at HUD, serious about ending homelessness, made significant changes to the 2015 CoC Competition with several goals in mind.  HUD wanted to see an increased focus on data and performance, better coordinated entry systems and project management, resources allocated to proven projects, and a client-driven approach to services (aka, Housing First).  What was the result? About 270 projects totaling $44 million were not awarded funds.  HUD says they would have been, though, had the CoCs been willing to reallocate existing programs to permanent housing projects using housing-first practices, or new HMIS projects, or new coordinated entry projects.  A few hundred thousand of that $44M was ROCC’s.       

So, with HUD getting serious about ending homelessness, ROCC is at another critical juncture.  In 2016, ROCC lags behind other Oregon CoCs (e.g., Clackamas County CoC) in organizational capacity.  It’s not a legal entity, it cannot hold grants, its members are spread all over the state and its volunteer board meets only once per month.  

ROCC Annual Conference in Albany
Speaking at ROCC’s annual conference in June 2016, ROCC’s Program Coordinator, Jo Zimmer, said she believes that increasing ROCC’s organizational capacity is critical, and will only result from strategic planning in collaboration with partners/stakeholders.  She says that planning process should include creating a strong governance structure, which the ROCC board does not provide.  In her view, what’s needed is a steering committee to establish systems and expectations.  But Zimmer’s not waiting around for this to happen.  

In between supporting dozens of service providers across 28 counties as they attempt to navigate HUD’s complex systems and program requirements, Zimmer has researched and mapped all of HUD’s CoC and ESG regulations and grantee guidelines (most of which ROCC has never implemented), and drawn up a long list of proposed standards.  In addition to standards, Zimmer would like to see ROCC adopt all of HUD’s system performance metrics, which effectively would require community-wide collection of Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data (and another HUD goal).  See FAQ 5 here.  Making that happen, she believes, will require the leadership of public officials like those on the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force (member Jon Reeves attended the conference, so let’s hope he passes that message along).  

The potential benefits of coming together as a community to plan and execute a systemic response to homelessness are huge, but it’s not how we’ve done things, and change is hard.  Zimmer is right that the leadership of public officials -- which she describes as the people in a community that other people listen to -- is what is needed.  Sadly, however, she says too many people who should know about ROCC, don’t.  And, if they don’t know about ROCC, they likely don’t have a vision for how we as a community can more effectively deliver services to people experiencing homelessness, and so are not in a position to lead us into the future.

So, you reading this, let’s do what we can to change that.  Let’s reach out to other members of
the community, especially to the ones other people listen to, and talk about changing how we as a community respond to homelessness.  Let’s not keep talking about how some people want to be homeless and how providers are doing the best they can with limited resources.  Let’s help each other learn about the benefits of coordinated data gathering and coordinated entry systems, and overcome our fear of government programs and systems so that we as a community can be more effective.  If it’s truly about relationships, if we truly care about helping those in need, we will do these things.    

Oh, and one other thing.  Our ineffectiveness isn’t just hurting the homeless.  It’s hurting our budgets.  In 2015, 42% of the homeless counted in Oregon were living in ROCC’s geographic area (ROCC is #3 in the nation’s CoCs for the largest number of homeless people).  But, because ROCC is not in a competitive position, we received only 10% of the nearly $32M that the fed awarded to Oregon overall.  And, please take note, we asked for only 12%!  [7/11 Update: per Jo Zimmer, ROCC applied for all the funding to which it was entitled.  The specific amount requested was $3,687,791 vs. $3,081,444 received.]  

Shall we say it again?  Because.we.can’’s.HUD, we "lost" over $600K.  That’s 150% of what the Salem City Council allocates every year from the General Fund for emergency homeless services, and 300% of its CDBG allocation for same.  !   Did we mention that Oregon is currently #2, behind California, for the highest percentage (55.9%) of unsheltered homeless?  Well, ROCC has an even higher percentage than the State (59.6%), which means we’re in the top 10 nationwide in this category.  See here.  For what it takes to be a competitive CoC program, see here.   

Maybe there are times when it’s appropriate to be proud not to accept government aid, but it’s never appropriate when people, particularly children, suffer needlessly as a result.  We are all responsible, and we all need to do whatever is in our power to change how we do things.  So go, learn, get involved enough to advocate for ROCC, especially if you are, or know, someone other people might listen to.  Jo Zimmer is an excellent speaker and ROCC advocate, and will work for food.  [Update 1/26/17: might be time to give up on ROCC and reform the Marion-Polk CoC.]


Jo Zimmer began working for Community Services Consortium in 1996 in the area of housing rehabilitation.  At some point, she became interested in homeless services delivery systems and in 2008, she joined the board of ROCC and began graduate work in public administration at Portland State University.  In 2009, she began working on the 10-yr Plan to End Homelessness for Linn-Benton Counties, and by 2011, she was working for OHCS under Margaret VanVliet.  In 2012, she was offered a job as program director for Jackson Street Youth Shelter, where she worked for about 2 yrs.  Since July 2013, she’s provided services to ROCC as an independent contractor in the position of Program Coordinator.  In addition to the above, Jo has spent much of her adult life working as a volunteer in and for her community.

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