[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the building trades since 1995, has a degree in construction management, and is the president of Volonta Corporation.]
Alarmist language and accompanying emergency declarations often shape public policy, but not successful public policy. Tax dollars flow from the emergency-induced public policy to the balance sheets of its most strident advocates. Once funded, such advocates are free to implement programs that support their social vision, but are rarely held accountable to performance measured against clearly stated goals.
A regional example of this phenomenon occurred in 2015, when then-mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, declared a state of emergency, which he asserted was necessary to address the "devastating" homelessness crisis. Supported by the myriad homeless service providers set to receive the additional emergency funding, Murray confidently told the Seattle Times that Seattle "will have more administrative authority and flexibility in contracting for services and distributing resources."
The prevailing narrative of an emergency homelessness crisis was so widely accepted that the city and Seattle Times gave little attention to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) published that same year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In contradiction to the declarations of elected officials, the report showed that homelessness in Washington state had been steadily decreasing over the previous eight-year period, belying the claim of an emergency crisis. Even less attention was afforded to the same AHAR report published in 2019 that measured the change in homelessness for the five years after the state of emergency declaration, showing that homelessness increased by 11% despite the additional funding.
Mayor Murray was correct that the emergency declaration would authorize dramatic spending increases for homeless services. Still, there is little evidence to suggest the increased spending has been effective in reducing homelessness. The lesson: Declarations of a crisis should be supported by evidence, and proposed solutions, once implemented, should be measured for efficacy.
Within most statistics, data can be mined to support almost any narrative or overall vision; in recognizing this axiom, it is vital to pursue evidence-based practices with clearly stated goals, routinely and objectively measured. In short, are our efforts working?
Far from being an expert in the field of social services, I rely on, and am grateful to, the many service providers who apply their talents toward reducing homelessness and artfully navigating the immense web of funding and regulatory constraints that further complicate their job. The causes and classifications of people experiencing homelessness are nuanced, and services for veterans, families, and those struggling with drug addiction or mental health care must differ — and simply sheltering people is not an end in itself.
Pursuing solutions to complex issues requires a plan, a commitment to the plan, and a willingness to abandon approaches that prove ineffectual. Ad hoc responses induced by inclement weather should not be accepted as a substitute for a coherent year-round strategy. We need a central command approach that provides an overarching structure to link the many disparate service providers currently serving their niche demographic.
Fortunately, small cities like Bellingham don't need to create this structure alone, and we can learn from the successful programs of others. For example, the city of San Diego, in partnership with Jewish Family Service, operates safe parking lots for people who are recently, and often for the first time, experiencing homelessness. The lots are safe, secure, and adequately staffed, allowing caseworkers to develop individual relationships and direct people toward appropriate resources. The backdrop to the program's success is a secure environment with enforced rules that prohibit drugs and alcohol, require visitor registration, and holds residents accountable to work toward securing permanent housing.
Community Solutions is another example of a nonprofit that provides a successful blueprint to cities serious about reducing homelessness. Community Solutions provides an overarching structure that partnering cities can use as an overlay to help coordinate their existing services. Cities can use this blueprint to improve their established and diverse social service infrastructure by providing a central command and common goals. I have had the opportunity to visit a Community Solutions partner city and observe firsthand how small changes, like replacing the "point-in-time" count with an individualized "by name" count, can humanize and personalize the outreach team's efforts.
These are just two programs I believe are worth further research and consideration as Bellingham works toward a sensible and long-term approach to reducing homelessness. As our elected officials work toward pragmatic solutions, I hope they resist alarmist rhetoric that is seldom an antecedent of successful outcomes, and are willing to challenge prevailing social narratives in pursuit of measurable success.