Expert Q & A | February 1, 2007
Co-Chair, Sound Families Initiative
Interim Director, Pacific Northwest programs, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
A number of cities across the nation are beginning to better differentiate the type of housing and services provided to homeless persons depending on their needs. Homeless men, women, and children are not homogeneous. They are very diverse and require different types of support in order to access and remain stable in housing. Some individuals and families may need more intensive services; others may need primarily housing assistance. Targeting and “braiding” resources from multiple sources and ensuring the implementation of promising and evidence-based practices are smart ways to approach this problem. Because resources targeting people who are homeless remain limited, it is essential to maximize efficiency and effectiveness in our efforts.
What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
It costs only slightly more to successfully house a person who is homeless than it costs to keep that person on the streets. This message is compelling to all “funders” of homeless programs – whether public or private or citizen tax-payers. From the Sound Families Initiative, a public-private partnership providing service-enriched housing in the Puget Sound region, we know first-hand that the vast majority of families are accessing and stabilizing in permanent housing. Most families report being employed and stable. Although a comprehensive approach to solving homelessness in any community takes a determined amount of political will and ingenuity among dozens of public and private entities, the alternative is drain on taxpayer dollars that far eclipses the kind of investment required for smart local planning to solve the problem.
How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
I’ve always been motivated by my belief that housing is a basic necessity and everyone should have equal opportunity to be successful. I became the director of the Office of Housing for the City of Seattle in 2002 and part of that role included co-chairing the Sound Families Steering Committee, the governing body of the program. In 2005, I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to direct the Sound Families Initiative as well as other grantmaking initiatives aimed at improving the lives of at-risk families and children in Washington state and the greater Portland, Oregon area.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
The outcome data we’re receiving from the University of Washington School of Social Work (our evaluation partner for Sound Families) continues to be a tremendous source of inspiration for all of us working to end family homelessness in Washington state. We have over 1,000 families enrolled in our evaluation – some of whom we have followed for up to three years. More than 90 percent of families go on to obtain permanent housing a year after leaving the program, reliance on TANF subsidies have dropped dramatically, and employment rates are up. Housing with appropriate services works, and it’s a great privilege to have a front-row seat to see how dozens of dedicated grantees are daily bringing hope and stability to hundreds of families in our region.
Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
I think for too many years most people considered homelessness as intractable -- an unfortunate chronic condition that we could maybe curb a little, but not really solve. Today I’m confident that’s changing. Innovative approaches are happening throughout the country, and more and more housing advocates are doing a better job of sharing their stories of success. At the Gates Foundation, we’ve never been so convinced that solving homelessness is possible here in Washington state. We have a healthy mix of optimism and hard-nosed realism in our work – both are grounded in affordable and service-enriched housing models with a proven track record of success.
Read past Take Five! Expert Q & As.