Wednesday, May 24, 2017

HUD Seeks to Ease Tensions Within the ROCC

Revised: January 2019

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

HUD called last week.  Seems someone tipped them off there was serious talk about reforming a local CoC.

HUD's stated purpose in calling was to provide information so that any decision would be made with "eyes wide open" as to "what is best for the local area."

There were seven people from HUD on the call, and at least seven people from Marion and Polk Counties, including Commissioners Wheeler and Carlson, Salem Housing Authority (SHA) Administrator Andy Wilch, Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (WVCAA)'s Jon Reeves and Jimmy Jones, Shangri-La's Robin Winkle and Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network (SIHN)'s TJ Putman.  Of course, Jo Zimmer, ROCC's part-time staff, was also on the call.  Not everyone identified themselves.     
Referring to yours truly as "the parties that are floating the idea" and "the parties most interested", HUD shared with the group our response to a set of questions they'd emailed us a few hours earlier.  They said technical assistance could be offered to help overcome the problems identified and asked what other reasons people had for considering a split.

Jimmy spoke about a need-resource allocation imbalance.

Andy said it was somewhat of a political issue, but existing resources were not sufficient and SHA wanted an arrangement that would best serve the local area.

TJ talked about not being able to get Tier 2 funding and said the ROCC was not a "fair playing field."

HUD specifically asked to hear from the State about the situation, but no one from OHCS had called in, apparently. 

Our reasons were summed up as being "a little more on the autonomy side" and the others as "a desire to see more funding."  HUD said they discourage splits because communities don't benefit as much as they expect to.  They said this was mostly due to unrealistic expectations about their ability to perform (compete).  Acknowledging that Salem-Marion-Polk was "not exactly small",  funds were nonetheless, "limited."  How limited?  "We have to think through exactly how the money will be divided", they said, and suggested that Polk, for instance, might decide not to split off.

Photo courtesy The Task Mistress
At that, Andy commented that the population being discussed was around 450,000, that we don't get our pro-rata share of resources and "the areas are integrated on this issue."  Jon Reeves then echoed TJ's comments and talked about not having to compete with so many other projects were we a separate CoC.  HUD emphasized that "pro rata need" was not a guarantee of funding, although it is a factor in the planning and bonus grants, and then said HUD was "afraid a split would result in more constraints" (whatever that means).  HUD obviously has no clue how constraining it is to try and collaborate across 28 counties through an organization that won't even follow its own bylaws.

The call wound up with HUD's re-extending the offer of TA, which "usually goes through the CoC", at which point several on the ROCC board said they thought it would be helpful.  (No one else did, though.)  Commissioner Carlson asked that "the jurisdictions" be included in future discussions.  (That did not happen.)  Jo Zimmer asked whether ROCC gets to vote on the split and was told there would be "a voice on all sides", "heavy engagement", that it "takes time" to ensure "equal distribution" of resources.  It being 5pm Eastern Time on the nose, HUD then hung up.

Was the call a waste of time?  Depends on its purpose.  If its purpose was to elicit information, probably so, because everyone was definitely holding back.  If its purpose was to chill enthusiasm for a split, it may have had some effect.  Especially on those focused exclusively on the resource aspect.  But, chilling is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can, for instance, help manage expectations.

A recent baseline assessment of the Salem, Marion and Polk CoC (see here) shows how much work there is to do before we are in a position to compete effectively for HUD funding.  This is work that should have been done before, but was not, due in large part, we believe, to the lack of accountability and transparency in ROCC's and MWVCAA's structure and governance and to the inability to extract county-level data off the HUD data exchange, or from MWVCAA.  
The May ROCC Mtg
The subject, "Geographical Split - reforming previous CoC in Marion-Polk counties", was on the agenda of the ROCC board's May 24th meeting. There were about 25 participants on that call, including Todd Adkins (HUD PDX) and (briefly) Jimmy Jones (MWVCAA), who don't usually attend.  

As she droned on about the 2017 competition, Zimmer admitted that "when that NOFA drops, it's frenzy, frankly."  We hope Adkins heard that.  It would not need to be "a frenzy" in a local, well-managed CoC.  

There was a brief discussion of system performance measures, with the obligatory begging for projects to clean up their data.  Jimmy's told us that Marion and Polk have very clean data.  Assuming that's true (we can't know, because MWVCAA's not made those reports available, and county-level data can't be extracted from the ROCC data that's on the HUD Data Exchange), we don't especially benefit from it, because local metrics are diluted by those of the other 26 counties.

Ten minutes into the second hour of the meeting, Zimmer got to the "Geographical Split - reforming previous CoC in Marion-Polk counties" agenda item, saying somewhat ominously, "awareness needs to be put out over the CoC just as a matter of process" and "I've not been directly involved in those conversations."

This was a lie, of course, our having corresponded with her about it last December and discussed the matter at length on December 28th, when she finally admitted that she'd "tried to take a position" (on the reforming idea), but "couldn't, because I can see it both ways."  The fact is, she's known these talks were taking place since last August, when she declined to talk about a possible split on the record with a MWHI Task Force committee.  Nothing prevented her from reaching out, if she wanted to work the problem, but, she didn't.  Instead, she persuaded the board to have a big fat secret meeting, for no particular reason that we could see.
Zimmer informed the board that "a conversation was had with HUD" last week to answer "the myriad questions that arise" when a local CoC seeks to go it alone.  She reported that HUD had warned that "doing so would be a complex and drawn out process" (her words) and that HUD had agreed to provide "TA to help work through this potential split conversation and to work with [ROCC] on strategic planning."  She said "if there is forward movement" and "paperwork and all that moves forward", then HUD would provide an opportunity to have "voices heard."

"I hate to be grey about all of that", she said in closing. 

At that point, Todd Adkins chimed in for HUD, saying he was happy to answer any questions, his office would be putting a request for "TA" up the chain and everyone would have an opportunity to review the scope of work being requested.  He said the view from headquarters was that the talk of splitting was "a manifestation of the stresses and difficulties that balance of state CoCs are experiencing across the country" and that TA could help ease the situation.  There weren't any questions, and the meeting adjourned early, about ten minutes later.

That was the last anyone outside the ROCC inner circle heard about the TA.  The question whether to remain in ROCC or reform the Salem/Marion, Polk Counties CoC appears to be lodged in the Mid Willamette Homeless Initiative Steering Committee, awaiting a "cost-benefit analysis."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

5/16/17 Minutes

Residents: Deb Comini, Valerie Freeman, Paul Gehlar
Organizations: Evan Osborne, Capitol [sic] City Cycleshare
City and County Representatives: Councilor Kaser; Sgt. Kevin Hill, SPD; Courtney Knox Busch, Mayor/City Manager’s Office  
Guests: none 

The regular meeting was called to order at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, at the First Christian Church at 685 Marion Street NE, Salem.  The Chair and Secretary-Treasurer were present.

The minutes of the April meeting were approved by unanimous consent.

Councilor Kaser reported on the City’s Strategic Planning Project process (still in Phase 2) and that there will be an open house at 6p on June 1st at Broadway Commons.  The hearing on the Planning Commission’s recommended code amendments affecting short-term “AirBnB” type rentals, now being offered contrary to existing regulations, was continued to the next regular meeting of the Council on May 22d.  The Citizens’ Budget Committee approved the staff recommendation to include the Mayor’s Homeless Rental Assistance Program (HRAP) in the recommended 2017-2018 budget, along with updates to the Comprehensive Plan, deferred infrastructure maintenance, and a fire marshall position.  
Sgt. Kevin Hill reported the City continues to expect a surge of visitors beginning around August 17 in anticipation of the total eclipse at 10:17 on Monday, August 21st, there will be a "Coffee with a Cop" on Thursday, May 25 from 9 to 11a at the new Starbuck's on Church Street, and that otherwise everything is pretty normal.    

The board heard presentations by Courtney Knox Busch about murals (“Mirror Maze” and “Waldo Stewards”) going in downtown, and by Evan Osborne about a bicycle sharing program similar to one starting up in Corvallis, that he expects to launch in Salem some time this summer through his non-profit, Osborne Adventures.   

There being no other business before the board, the meeting adjourned at 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

News from the Continuum

Revised: January 2019

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Staff Wish List Recommendations - Agenda at 41
HRAP has made it to the top of the staff recommendations for the Budget Committee's Wish List.

The sobering station came in at #9 and the Homeless Initiatives Coordinator position came in at #12, each with a "do not include" recommendation.

The main reason given for the "do not include" was those project proposals' lack of "specificity", leaving open the possibility that they will be funded some time in the future. 

Mayor Bennett announced his intention to establish a sobering station in Salem at his State of the City speech last February.
Mayor Bennett made sure a sobering station was one of the recommendations of the Affordable Housing, Social Services and Homelessness work group.

Sobering stations are generally considered a less costly way to administer emergency services, the alternative being the emergency room, or sometimes jail.  Salem Health staff told us recently that 10 to 12 emergency room beds are occupied by intoxicated individuals at any given time.  Grants Pass, Portland, Eugene and Medford have sobering services of one sort or another.  It's not likely that the need for these services is any less in Salem.  The issue is who is going to pay for the services. 

Costs and administration tend to be ongoing issues.  Sobering stations are expensive ebdeavors and require the right balance of partners to remain viable.  The Mayor's been very candid about the difficulties he's had in "getting to yes" on this project, but he also seems determined, so it's likely the City Council will be revisiting this request in the coming months. 

1255 Broadway NE
On May 16, the Budget Committee voted unanimously to adopt the staff recommendation to include HRAP and not to include the Coordinator position in the 2017-2018 budget.

For a brief time, the Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency was planning to  move The ARCHES Project from the leased space long held on Madison Street to 1255 Broadway NE, formerly occupied by the YWCA, which went belly-up, as they say, in 2013-14, and is now occupied by Family Building Blocks and the misnomered Center for Community Innovation.  However, the upstairs tenants did not care for the prospect of having a homeless day shelter downstairs and, more importantly, had the right to prevent that use. So, as of June 1, MWVCAA is again on the lookout for new digs for The ARCHES Project.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Efforts to Build Local CES Stalled

Revised: January 2019

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

[Originally posted under the title, "Launching a Local CES."]

Diagram Courtesy Jimmy Jones/MWVCAA
In May 2017, Jimmy Jones with the Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA) began a series of meetings whose stated purpose was to develop a local coordinated assessment and entry system (CES).   Jones became Director of MWVCAA's  Community Resources Program in March.

Jones says homeless housing and service providers need a CES because that's the only scientific way to ensure that  emergency housing resources are spent wisely on people who need it most.  He maintains our local programs are currently unable to do that.  Is he correct?      

Until recently, it was anyone's guess.

We've long known that, save about 20 beds, area housing programs are designed to serve medium-needs clients.  However, until recently, we did not understand much about the needs of the homeless in our area.

Now, however, Jones has evidence that a very substantial segment of the homeless in our area are not medium-needs, but high needs.  Very high needs.  In fact, the proportion of high-needs homeless in this community turns out to be more than twice the national average.  Jones says that's in part because most local programs are not designed to serve those most in need, so the need has just continued to grow.

The diagram above illustrates the level of need in Marion and Polk Counties.  It is based on vulnerability assessments of 700 homeless individuals by Jones and MWVCAA staff.  Each one receives a score on a scale of 0 to 20, with 20 being the most vulnerable.  The dark blue line is a graph of all the scores.  Read as a clock, those with the highest needs start at 12 o'clock, and continue along the line clockwise to the center, and the lowest score.  As you can see, it's not until 6 o'clock (yellow arrow) that the level of need in this community begins to match available, medium needs, services.  Medium needs clients score between the red (10) and green (6) circles.

Jones's research says that the "average" client in Marion and Polk Counties scores at the top of the "medium" range for vulnerability, and two points higher than the national average.  Based on that data, one would expect the average Marion/Polk client to have greater difficulty, and take more time, moving from the typical medium-needs, transitional housing program to a stable placement.  This conclusion is supported by anecdotal evidence of UGM and Salvation Army staff about their guests' higher-than-average needs and longer-than-average stays.

So, how did we get here?

Jones says, historically, local programs have tended to accept, first come, first served, those who fit the program's service and screening criteria.  According to Jones, this approach has allowed programs to select lower needs clients from among the many seeking services, and not infrequently amounts to "cherry-picking."  But, as there has not until recently been any standardized assessment method, they sometimes get it wrong.  He says that putting higher needs clients in medium needs programs doesn't work, either.  It's comparable to giving a bed on a maternity ward to someone who needs dialysis.  It's not going to help the kidney patient, and it's going to deny someone maternity services.

How, then, can we as a community ensure that programs and services align with actual need? The answer is actually pretty simple.  First, we want to make sure there are programs designed to serve the full range of needs, but especially those with the highest needs.  Second, providers need to agree that everyone seeking housing and homeless services should be assessed for vulnerability and prioritized to receive services based on their score.  No more first come, first served.  Lower needs clients are diverted, medium-needs clients go into medium-needs programs, and likewise for high-needs clients, only there will actually be a program designed to stabilize them.  That's where the Mayor's Homeless Rental Assistance Program, or HRAP comes in.  That's why we need HRAP.

Now, obviously, the system of coordinated assessment and prioritization described in the preceding paragraph, in which everyone seeking housing and homeless services is assessed for vulnerability and prioritized to receive services based on their score, that system does not yet exist.  That's what this new series of meetings is intended to change.

How "on board" the provider community is with Jones's vision depends on who you ask, but it's probably safe to say they're skeptical.  Skeptical that there's a structural problem, even.  They're used to explaining failures in the system on a lack of resources.  They don't like anyone suggesting that they could be running their programs more effectively, or should be taking higher needs clients. 

Jones was not shy about his message.  He told providers their programs fell short on assessments, data collection and sharing, cooperation and coordination with other programs, outreach, permanent supportive housing, implementation of Housing First principles, shelter options, prioritization, efficiency, effectiveness and partnerships with government and businesses.  A system of coordinated assessment and entry, one participant said, would make their programs more effective, and their work work easier.  But the skepticism remained.

At the end of the hour and a half meeting (during which Jones did most of the talking), the participants were invited to return for a series of meetings designed to cover:  

Jun 13 - Data Sharing
Jul 11 - Housing Placements
Aug 8 - HMIS
Sep 12 - Federal/State Funding Sources
Oct 10 - Shelter Policies
Nov 14 - Special Populations
Dec 12 - "Outstanding Issues, Final Determination"
However, in September 2017, after four meetings (July was canceled), Jones informed those who were still in attendance that he didn't "see any point in meeting again."  He said much had been done since the group's first meeting in May, though "it was all accomplished outside the meetings."

Unfortunately, he did not describe the accomplishments with any specificity, and there is no record of them, including no written CES partnership agreements or standards.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

News from the Continuum

Revised: January 2019

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Since early 2017, Union Gospel Mission has been running what they call a "Search and Rescue Team" operation.  The UGM team has a van but does not have any females on the team, and so they cannot safely transport females in need.  Sometimes they ask Salem Housing Authority staff to ride along.  The team is also young and relatively inexperienced.  Their names are Jonathan and Vince.

Jonathan and Vince go out to Polk County and "up the canyon" on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they restock the van and visit the camps and whatnot in the city.  They ask people what they need, provide what resources they can and offer services through UGM's programs.  While untrained, they're both over 6'4" and familiar with the needs and circumstances of the households they're wanting to help.

Last week at the Citizens Budget Committee meeting, Councilor Andersen moved onto the "Wish List" the $65,000 Homeless Initiatives Coordinator position, citing the need for "intergovernmental cooperation."  Councilor Hoy asked staff for additional information.  On May 8, the Keizer budget committee declined to include Mayor Clark's request for $5,000 for the position in the Keizer budget.

Salem's May 6 Strategic Plan work session
The Citizens Budget Committee did, however, move HRAP to the "Wish List" last week; it will be discussed and, if all goes well, voted in to next year's budget at their meeting on May 15.

As it is now, the proposed program budget is for one year, which means HRAP, as currently conceived, is in the nature of a pilot.

The program has a good chance of success.  All the research points to permanent supportive housing as the most effective approach in dealing with a chronically homeless population.  Without PSH, that population is only going to grow.  For about a third of what it costs a community to maintain residents in the streets and wooded areas, it is possible to leverage existing resources to provide them the housing and services they need.

At the Council's Strategic Plan work session yesterday, the specific recommendations of the Affordable Housing, Social Services and Homelessness work group (below) were reduced to an "overarching" goal statement that combined the affordable housing goals with the social services and homelessness goals.  The result:

"Adequate housing supply and security of housing for those in need, regardless of economic situation or status, with maximized access, resources and services for the homeless."

Ugh.  Why not just say, "End homelessness", and be done with it? 
SS/HLness Goals & Recs at 3

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Reeves Letter re ROCC

Revised: January 2019

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Jon Reeves, Executive Director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA), which receives the bulk of  CoC Program funds going to Salem/Marion and Polk Counties, was recently stirred to opine that "true collaboration must precede a discussion on planning" to reform our local CoC (short for  "continuum of care"), that there is no "evidence that any community partner has the capacity to...operate a CoC", and that local  governments should build a "neutral infrastructure" to "create capacity" to carry out necessary changes in the local homeless services delivery system.  

Reeves's letter was prompted by our report the day before to the Boards of Commission of Marion and Polk Counties and the Mayors and City Councils of Salem and Keizer, that, after four months and more than 50 conversations with various local groups and individuals in some way serving or caring about the local homeless population, we had concluded that there is in the community a consensus favoring a decision to begin planning how we might reform our local CoC, which we gave up in 2011 to merge with the 26-county Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC or OR-505 BOS CoC).

Reeves's response, that "true collaboration" must precede any "discussion of planning" is odd, especially given MWVCAA's historical and admitted failure to facilitate "true collaboration" between area housing and homeless service providers, despite its being the City of Salem's "lead agency" for that purpose. 

The letter doesn't say why "true collaboration" must precede any discussion of planning.  Perhaps the reason is that Reeves wants to control the discussion?  It would seem so, because he then proceeds to "discuss planning" by laying out his view of the current circumstances and the preconditions he believes are necessary to CoC formation.  Specifically, after pronouncing that there is currently no local entity capable of operating a CoC (which is laughable, considering what is operating the ROCC now), the letter "advise[s]" local governments first to build a "neutral infrastructure" to "create capacity."  

If government were to take Reeve's advice, it would first set about to build something ("infrastructure") and leave the planning discussion for later.  Perhaps this is how Reeves does things, but government's not likely to go for it.

It was also rather bad advice-giving form for Reeves, whose agency receives the bulk of local CoC dollars, to fail to declare the agency's self-interest in maintaining the status quo.