[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.
Comments by Readers
Karen SteenFeb 28, 2021
Thank you, Mr. O’Brien, for this timely reality check and solutions-based approach to Bellingham’s housing crisis. Consider also Los Angeles’ black hole of public funding for emergency housing. As with Seattle, I expect inadequate and failed programs are occurring in most west coast cities attempting to manage a national housing and mental health crisis at the local level.
Your suggestions for comprehensive, evidence-based criteria for program development and funding, together with the systemic assessments and recommendations in “The Gristle” and “Beyond Camp 210” (2/3 Cascadia Weekly), offer solutions worthy of public investment and implementation.
I hope City Hall and Bellingham citizens can emerge from the fog of a frontal assault these recent months; consider anew the public safety and fiscal responsibilities of Bellingham; and embrace solutions suggested by you, “The Gristle” and “Beyond Camp 210” (2/3 Cascadia Weekly).
Christopher S HudsonMar 02, 2021
Good article, thank you. Emotional responses to perceived or actual emergencies derail critical analysis, reasoned response and assessment of actions.
Los Angeles is a classic example of throwing money at an inadequately understood social problem and hoping for the best. There is no one I encounter in Bellingham who is not concerned with our complex local homeless situation, which is part of a greater regional situation and part of a national situation. And no one has “the answer.”
I think we need a thorough census of local groups, to determine the details of that population. “The genius of the Founders was taking a tool of government and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government.” (from Census in the Constitution). Self-empowerment!
How many are homeless in greater Bellingham?
....because of financial hardship?
.... or a drug/booze lifestyle choice?
....or untreated mental illness?
....or many other reasons?
I have no idea.
Garrett O’BrienMar 02, 2021
Thank you for your comment Christopher.
Michael LilliquistMar 07, 2021
You bring up Safe Parking as one proven response. Indeed, such programs have been successful elsewhere, including in nearby Kirkland, WA. Unfortunetly there does nto appear to be local support for such a program, even when the City fo Bellingham offerred to help set up and pay for opertion of a Safe Parking program. Last year, the City published an offer of funding, and reached out to local organizations to see who might be interested. In the end, no one replied that theyt were interetested. maybe it was Covid, maybe it was concern about volunteer burnout, maybe it was some other reason. I don;t know. We tried.
If you know anyone who in interetested in giving it a “go,” I can try once again to set up a funding offer from the City. Or, people can do it on their own as a private charity. Wjatever works best.
Garrett O’BrienMar 09, 2021
Thank you for this information Michael, and your continuing work on these issues. It may take sustained effort, addtional funding, and increased outreach to overcome the current inertia.