Friday, December 30, 2016

Ending Homelessness with Data

Slide courtesy Jimmy Jones
This is what homelessness looks like in our community -- to a data analyst.

Since October 1, 2016, MWVCAA's Jimmy Jones and others have assessed the vulnerability of more than 354 homeless individuals in 318 households containing 611 individuals, using a tool called the SPDAT.  So far, their scores range from 2 (less vulnerable) to 17 (very vulnerable).

The graph (left) plots the scores clockwise from highest to lowest.   

Those with scores inside the green and red circles (~5 to 9) are likely to be successful in transitional housing (TH) placements.  Those scoring higher -- which the graph shows is about half of those assessed, have much higher needs, and require permanent supportive housing to be successful.  Our community, meaning Marion and Polk Counties, has virtually no permanent supportive housing (PSH).

What happens when someone needs a certain level of support to succeed, and doesn't get it?  Well, obviously, they're going to fail.  We see that in the child welfare system, for instance.  Traumatized children who act out, lose interest in school, etc., because although they're getting basic-level care, they don't get the care they need.  It's the same situation in homeless housing system.  When we force highly vulnerable people in need of PSH into long-term resort to shelters and camping, they're not going to succeed; they're going to become what's called, "chronically homeless."  This is the primary reason our community has a chronic homeless rate that is twice the national average, according to the most recent data collected by MWVCAA.  It's not just their failure, though, it's ours, too.  

How many Task Force recommendations address this problem?  Zero.

Data of this sort, which MWVCAA intends to continue collecting, is absolutely vital if we are to understand and confront the problems in our community with realistic solutions.  For too long, the City of Salem has relied on the charity of the supporters of the Union Gospel Mission and Salvation Army to take care of its most vulnerable residents while it basically looks the other way, or worse, complains about their lack of success.  As the events of recent weeks have indicated, we've reached a tipping point.  And it's not because Portland is "busing their homeless to Salem", as much as we might like to think so.  Nor is it solely the result of the lack of affordable housing, though that's certainly a factor.  And, housing experts agree, it's going to get worse over the next few years.

It's nice that the City of Salem recently arranged to let UGM use its leased property at 770 Commercial Street (which served as an inclement weather shelter a couple of weeks ago) for its overflow, after Chief Niblock cut it to 28 from the previous no-one-turned-away in inclement weather.  But whereas UGM formerly could shelter up to ~300, now they've got only the 180 beds at the Mission, overflow capacity of 28, plus another 40-60 at 770 Commercial Street.  That's a net loss of ~50-30 shelter beds.  And keep in mind that up to one-half of those in, or seeking shelter, more than likely have higher needs that UGM can provide for.

It's a similar story at the Salvation Army's Lighthouse Shelter.  We spoke recently with one of SA's co-directors, Captain Kim Williams, who came to Salem from Oakland, California about 6 months ago.  She told us she expected Salem's homelessness issues would not be nearly as severe as what she'd left in California.  She was surprised to learn that in fact, it's worse, particularly with respect to the severity of guests' mental health and substance abuse issues, and she's at a loss to know how to help many of them, given her program's (and the community's) limited resources.  Jimmy's data of course support her observations.     

Slide courtesy Jimmy Jones
The Lighthouse Shelter takes in women and families with children. On the master waitlist Jimmy's compiling  according to SPDAT score (most vulnerable at the top) there are, so far, 130 single female head-of-household families with a total of 138 children.  The average SPDAT score for those households is 9.88.  That's outside the range where transitional housing is appropriate. 

Graph at right shows how many of those women report a history of domestic violence.  
The takeaway here is that the more shelters and more affordable housing are not going to address the needs of the most vulnerable -- and most visible -- in our community.  Neither is more transitional housing.  This community needs to make resources available for permanent supportive housing, and prioritize existing resources according to SPDAT scores.  We need to stop putting people where they can't succeed, stop trying to help them by giving them what we have available, and start trying to give them what they need to be successful.  We can do this, and when we do, we will marvel that we waited so long.

Don't believe it?  Listen to this interview with Jimmy Jones, and see if it doesn't change your mind.

In other news, the Housing Stability Council is on track to approve the 4% LIHTC for the Portland Road affordable housing project, an important piece of the project's overall funding package. For a detailed description of the project, see Housing Stability Council January meeting materials here at pp 55-57.

Update 1/2/17: figures adjusted after Statesman Journal reported that UGM has a 60-bed capacity at 770 Commercial St.   

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