Let's begin with the superficial stuff. The report is beautiful. I'm used to one night count reports being done in Word. Maybe a few cool tables, or some fancy-shmancy tabbing, a border of two, but this ... this is something else. Using just black and yellow ink on quality paper and a full bleed, the designers have transformed the annual SKCCH report into something akin to a work of art. It felt too nice to write on. Bonelli Design and Girlie Press, with funding from CEHKC, knocked this one out of the park.
Next, this report has, believe it or not, literary flair. You actually want to read it. Well, most of it anyway. The five pages of charts in the back that break down the characteristics of those in shelter and transitional housing didn't do much for me, although they were lovely. I'm probably just not a big enough dweeb to appreciate them. I compared the breakdowns to those of 2003 and 2000 to see if there was any news and found none. Numbers were either more or less consistent, or the fluctuations didn't tell any story that I could see.
Otherwise, it's the same old story. People of color are disproportionately represented. The vast majority of those in transitional housing are families with kids. About half are between 26 and 54 years old. Most earn less than 30% of median income. Blah, blah, blah. It's good information, but I've never been one to believe that drilling endlessly into the data does much to end homelessness. Rather the opposite, I think.
All the data in the world doesn't change the fact that priorities are driven more by funding opportunities and politics than by actual information. It's not like we're these completely rational creatures who weigh all the data and then make decisions. It's the other way around. Much of the time, decision-making is based on power relationships and institutional self-interest, and then justified by the data.
But some things are more obvious that others.
We need more affordable housing. Many people don't earn enough to pay area rents. Treatment and mental health services are pathetically inadequate to the problem. And on January 25, 2007, a night where temperatures hovered just five degrees above freezing, at least two-thousand-one-hundred-fifty-nine people in King County were literally on the street.
You don't need a federally-mandated Homeless Management Information System to tell you what to do with that. The needs are overwhelming, and we're a long way from needing a more finely calibrated response.
My favorite parts of the report is where the human cost of what this means comes across. And repeatedly we are asked to not lose sight of the fact that these are people, not just bits of data to be crunched for use in the next report to the feds.
As you read the report and examine the tables on these pages, please keep in mind that these numbers represent people living in King County. Every tick mark on every tally sheet that volunteers return with on the night of the count represents a person with the same hopes and aspirations we all share: for safety and health, and for an opportunity to make tomorrow better than today. When people volunteer for the Street Count they are often sobered and outraged by the sight of fellow human beings attempting to shelter themselves clumsily or ingeniously from cold, rain, wind, desperation, and hopelessness. The release of this report is an occasion to recall those emotions – to renew and strengthen our private and public commitments to act on the necessity of ending homelessness.Scattered throughout the report are quotes from homeless people and impressions of those helping with the count that help to convey the colossal human tragedy that these numbers represent.
“The neighborhood where we counted seems more inhospitable to homeless this year than last. There are more gated, locked and brightly lit areas. People last year were sleeping and this year they were walking or sitting in bus stops. We saw 25 this year; 29 last year."But what I appreciate most about this year's report is that the information has been throughly contextualized. We hear about the new areas added and why. We are told that new security measures, fences, and bright lights in the city may have simply driven homelessness further out where it occurs unseen and uncounted. New interviewing techniques are added to help counter the deficiencies of the count itself.
“We saw 49 people in our team. One person was in a car, others were in sleeping bags and blankets, sleeping on the pavement. There were men, women and children. One group I saw looked like a family, with two bigger bodies and two small ones. They were sleeping close together under the doorway of a large building. There was one small bag of possessions, and not much else.”
“We counted 76 homeless [people], mostly in cars and campers near the railroad tracks. There were four people who had climbed in behind a dumpster to sleep—guess it made a good wind block.”
We are cautioned not to make too much of fluctuations from year to year, as there are many variables that may cause these, and warned that the count is inexact. We are reminded that the goal of many who sleep outside is to not be found. We are informed that, since the count was moved from October to the last Thursday of January to coordinate with HUD, comparisons to previous years are not statistically valid, and the decreases of a few percentiles in 2006 and 2007 therefore tell us little. We are made aware that the federal definition of homelessness excludes many who consider themselves so, and that very few homeless people receive benefits outside of food stamps. Less than half receive even this.
We are advised to take this year's reported reduction of homelessness by four percent with a huge grain of salt.
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, however, has no interest in these finer distinctions. According to the USICH website, the United Way, riding on the heels of the success of the Ten Year Plan, needs our help to raise another $25 million.
UNITED WAY OF KING COUNTY, WASHINGTON ANNOUNCES $25 MILLION INITIATIVE TO HOUSE 1000 CHRONICALLY HOMELESS PERSONS.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON. June 2007. The historic Paramount Theatre was the site for an equally historic announcement by United Way of King County President and CEO Jon Fine and 2007-2008 Campaign Chair John Stanton that the United Way will raise $25 million to provide permanent supportive housing to 1,000 of the county's most vulnerable citizens.Awesome. I love the big round numbers and the bold vision. For just $25,000 a unit (because these dollars are so "highly leveraged") United Way is going to get 1,000 chronically homeless people off the street. And all they have to do first is raise $25 million.
Since [the] launch of the King County 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness two years ago, street homelessness has been reduced by 10% each year. Funds raised through this dedicated campaign, will help achieve even more rapid measurable and visible results. The funds will be "highly leveraged through partnerships with the City of Seattle, King County, and the King County and Seattle Housing Authorities," said Mr. Fine. Additional case managers will be hired to do outreach to those being released from institutions and homeless people living on the street , and all housing will include wraparound mental health, and chemical dependency and employment services.
The announcement was made at the United Way of King County 2nd annual "Report to the Community" Breakfast attended by more than 600 business and community leaders. The keynote speaker, Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Scott Carson hailed the effort, and noted that while Boeing " is about making the impossible happen, ending homelessness is not something that is impossible. It's just hard." Campaign Chair and wireless technology entrepreneur Stanton said," We can end chronic homelessness in King County. It's not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. It makes sense for all of us -- individuals and business alike."
Also speaking at the breakfast was Karen Marcotte Solimano, chair of the United Way of King County homeless planning council ("Out of the Rain"), who said that the community's success in ending chronic homelessness would energize efforts to end homelessness for all homeless people.
At ten percent a year, we're pretty much right on track, huh? Just keep the dough coming to United Way, don't make anyone mad or uncomfortable with any talk about "inequality," and we'll make those numbers work somehow.
Anyway, I'm glad someone's being honest. The 2007 report is a nice piece of truth-telling that is clear on both its purpose and its limitations. It tells the story that needs to be told, and doesn't succumb to the self-serving propaganda that we see from the professional fundraisers at United Way and the political appointees at USICH.