Got Any Spare Change?

An audacious 10-year plan to end homelessness in Seattle faces the usual problem: not enough money. In fact, federal cuts are on the way.

In the path of an oncoming storm of federal budget cuts, the Seattle City Council this week passed a resolution endorsing a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Approved Monday, April 11, the plan is an ambitious goal set by a committee of City Council members, clergy, businesspeople, and nonprofit groups to "provide a roof over the head of every man, woman and child in King County by 2015." Seattle's Committee to End Homelessness was formed in 2003, three years after St. Mark's Cathedral invited the homeless camp Tent City 3 to temporarily stay on the church's grounds overlooking Lake Union on Capitol Hill. But the 10-year plan was formulated and adopted under the assumption that funding for homelessness programs would remain constant. The reality now is that deep federal cuts in the Bush administration's 2006 budget threaten what has been touted as visionary, if idealistic, social reform. And that reform also is dependent on redirecting money that is being spent on emergency services for those on the street.

The thrust of the plan is to provide new housing and rental assistance to keep vulnerable individuals and families from becoming homeless in the first place and to give those already down and out a place to call home. Providing a permanent home to begin with will be less expensive, goes the logic, than responding to needs ad hoc. "Money spent housing first is much less expensive than emergency response, imprisonment, and all the negatives of having people on the street combined," says Jeff Natter, program director of the Committee to End Homelessness. "Money going into stopgap security will be redirected to permanent housing programs."

The notion of a 10-year plan to end homelessness was first embraced in 2000 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It has been implemented in major metropolitan areas nationwide, and some have seen results. San Francisco saw a 28 percent reduction in homelessness between 2002 and 2004, as well as 40 percent fewer homeless people dying. The plan can work if the money is there. Says Norm Suchar, a policy analyst with the national alliance: "If you don't have people developing new housing, it won't work."

An estimated 9,500 units of housing are needed to end homelessness in King County. The estimated cost of the plan over the course of the 10 years is somewhere between $680 million and $1 billion.

There is concern that redirecting money from street services to provide more actual housing will cause big problems. "Taking funds away from emergency services has to be replaced with more funds," says Seattle City Council member Nick Licata. "If not, there will be more people on the street. I am a little bit suspicious that in 10 years the plan will move funds away from emergency needs that must be addressed." Licata thinks there is more to ending homelessness than just providing housing. "Without proper mental-health care and drug treatment, folks will be back on the street again," Licata says. "A lot of people on the street came from stable families, and they're homeless because of mental-health and drug issues." The 10-year plan could divert money from programs that are keeping such people drug-free or mentally stable, causing them to become homeless rather than preventing that, he says.

Meanwhile, the federal budget promises to impose other challenges. Last month, a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., attracted Licata and fellow Seattle City Council members Richard McIver, David Della, and Jean Godden. They were among 2,500 representatives from cities around the nation whose collective voice was loud and clear: no cuts to federal funds that have become a backbone of city social programs nationwide. The president and members of Congress are pressing ahead with cuts to such major programs as community development block grants and Section 8 housing vouchers for the poor. "I think certain programs can be saved," says McIver. "The question is for how long. I think this administration is persistent in funding tax cuts and wars instead of supporting the community."

The community development block grant is the largest federal allocation for developing affordable housing and revitalizing neighborhoods nationwide. In Seattle this fiscal year, the block grant was $14 million, $700,000 less than what the city had expected. Fortunately, unused money from 2004 was available to cover the gap, but there is no way Seattle will be able to afford to cover the coming federal cuts. Block grants are used for everything from maintaining parks and public spaces to creating neighborhood farmers markets. In some cases, they are the only fiscal resource for homeless care. Seattle uses block-grant money to help 2,500 homeless people move into permanent housing every year. Says Natter: "If the current federal budget goes through, it will have a shattering impact on all social services—health care, mental health, and affordable housing." Homelessness is often the indicator of many other systems having failed. "We saw a dramatic increase in homelessness when mental-health institutions and facilities were closed down," says the Rev. Robert Taylor of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, the chair of the homelessness committee.

The prospective 2006 federal budget will eliminate community development block grants and 17 other public funding programs, mashing them into the new Strengthening America's Communities Program, which will be overseen by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This consolidated program will have 30 percent less funding than today's block grants and the 17 other programs combined. Section 8 housing subsidies will be up nationally by $1.1 billion in 2006. This sounds good, but the budget entails a gradual decline after 2006. Section 8 was established in 1974 to help those with low incomes get housing in the private sector. Participants pay at least 30 percent of their income toward rent, and the Section 8 program covers the rest. By 2010, 370,000 fewer families around the country will receive assistance, by one estimate.

Taylor's office at St. Mark's overlooks Tent City 3, a hundred or so tarps and tents in the parking lot. Off in the distance is the downtown metropolis. Despite budgetary issues, Taylor has faith in the plan to end homelessness within 10 years. Says Taylor: "We're not going to live with the idea that we can manage homelessness—we're going to actually say that we're going to end it. There are strategies being developed so that by 2015, people will look back at 2005 and say, 'Wow, can you believe what they lived with?'"

This is a bold statement when the federal budget for programs to care for those less fortunate is about to be reduced. "It's really rather frightening," says Kim Sather, an emergency services manager at the Compass Center in Seattle, which provides shelter for 80 people every night. "The streets are going to get a lot meaner." The 10-year plan to end homelessness is to be funded by local government money and private organizations that will provide a certain financial cushion, but federal funding is a vital piece. The King County Housing Authority voted on Feb. 15 to stop issuing new vouchers for Section 8 assistance. The waiting list has been closed since 2002. This means that 5,125 needy applicants already on the list will not see any help until new money is allocated. Most of the people on the waiting list are on the verge of becoming homeless, some spending half their income on housing alone.

So between the looming federal cuts in social services and the need to move money from one crucial social service to improve another, there's plenty of anxiety among social workers and leaders. "If those cuts go into effect, we're going to see the amount of homeless in King County go up dramatically," Taylor says of the federal budget. "I suspect the number could be a fairly dramatic percentage increase, maybe as high as 5 to 10 percent." Says Rhonda Rosenberg of the King County Housing Authority: "If Section 8 is cut, you'll have to add another zero to the 10-year plan."

The plan was just approved by the Committee to End Homelessness last month, so it's hard to tell how such an ambitious goal might be received by the general public. "I and other members have been doing a lot of speaking around the county," says Taylor, "and we find that a lot of people want to know about it; they're energized by it. I think it's fair to say that some people feel as though they've had compassion fatigue—they've just been dealing with the issue of homelessness for a long time. I have a sense of people having a new energy, in getting engaged with these huge issues that are solvable."

Besides, the alternative to trying something new isn't so good, either. "It really would be immoral not to try," says Natter, the program director of Seattle's Committee to End Homelessness. City Council member Peter Steinbrueck recognizes that citizens have heard the mantra of helping the homeless many times before. "Sometimes people are thrown off by the title '10-year plan' and scoff at that and are dismissive," he says, "but I think that while it may not be realistic in 10 years, I think the commitment and the strength of the plan is what's important here, and building that commitment. Of course, we probably never will be able to end homelessness. There will also be situations where we don't have the resources that are locked up in other things. The plan is an organizing tool. People want to know that their money is going to be well spent and that it's going to make a difference, and so the focus here is on outcomes and results, something you don't hear about much when it comes to homelessness."

The current method of publicity for the plan is focused not on the average citizen but on getting the message out to local human services groups and potential supporters. Says Adam Bashaw of the United Way of King County, a forerunning proponent of the 10-year plan: "Homelessness is a problem on the street and a very expensive problem for taxpayers. Once people are educated to the importance of the plan, it will gain more support. We can only solve this if we come together as an entire community."

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