Jan 6, 2023 10 min read

What is a regional homelessness authority?

What is a regional homelessness authority?
It should be as easy as conducting a kids choir, right? (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
Table of Contents

There’s broad support for a new approach. Making it a reality won’t be simple.

In a video address ushering in 2023, Mayor Nadine Woodward said her top goal for the new year was to establish a regional homeless authority. This model unites local government and nonprofit service providers under one umbrella to tackle the homelessness crisis. The idea is that centralizing city, county and nonprofit efforts to provide housing and social services for people living on the streets can create a system that is more efficient and less politicized, and that also helps draw in smaller cities and communities in such a way that their limited resources can be more impactfully spent than if each entity in the area tried to set up its own shelter system and services.

It's an idea that bridges entrenched political divides over the response to homelessness in Spokane. City council president Breean Beggs, who’s recently been at odds with the mayor over the city administration’s response to emergency warming shelters and clearing Camp Hope shares the mayor’s desire to build out the regional coalition. “I think that it’s a great solution, and I think everybody who's involved says that we should do it,” Beggs said. “It's not left or right, or pro-homeless or anti-homeless, everyone thinks it would work better.”

The mayor’s office did not provide additional details beyond the announcement as they continue to work out what the system could look like. “More conversations are still taking place that will further inform the thinking,” said city communications director Brian Coddington. “I would expect to be able to provide additional details in a few weeks.”

The concept of a regional homelessness authority is borrowed from Houston, Texas, which is often lauded for its ability to move people from the streets and into housing. Mayor Woodward and County Commissioner Mary Kuney visited the city in late October with a delegation of local business and nonprofit leaders to learn more about Houston’s system. A local intergovernmental agency to address homelessness has also been adopted in the Puget Sound area. After a multi-year organizing process, in 2021, King County, Seattle and other Puget Sound municipalities began to operationalize the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).

Gavin Cooley, who served as the chief financial officer for the city of Spokane for 18 years and now hosts the Housing and Help video series, has been an organizing force to create a regional homelessness response locally. Like the Woodward administration, he was tight-lipped about specific details on the progress being made towards a regional coalition, but he did say that he expects the coalition to get up and running much faster than the multi-year process in King County.

“I expect it to move much, much quicker in Spokane than the KCRHA,” he said. “I’ve never seen this kind of alignment. We’re not getting pushback from nonprofit providers, the business community or politicians.”

The system we have

Currently, the city of Spokane shoulders the majority of financial and operational responsibility for homeless shelter operations in the region. From 2017-2021, the city of Spokane spent more than $36 million on homeless services including emergency shelters, rapid rehousing, outreach and assessments, and transitional and permanent supportive housing, according to a state audit.

While the county recently spent $500,000 to support retrofits at the Trent shelter, they don’t typically contribute to the shelter system. “The city right now is the only one really putting out actual local tax dollars,” Beggs said. “Nobody else is doing that.”

Within the city government, the Community Health and Human Services (CHHS) is responsible for shaping the city’s homelessness response and contracting with service providers. The agency operates within the budget approved by city council and is overseen by the mayor’s office.

Under the city’s strong mayor form of government, there’s very little the city council can do to direct or redirect the agency when they disagree with how the administration choses to operate. The toothlessness of the city council has been on full display during extreme heat and cold events last summer and just last month. During both events, the council was frustrated by the administration’s interpretation and execution of the emergency weather ordinance, but had little recourse other than to vent those frustrations.

The current system also puts the onus on the administration to find locations for shelters and contract with shelter operators — neither of which have gone well. Siting shelters is always a challenging political proposition because of neighborhood backlash. Spokane’s financial fraud fiasco with The Guardians revealed the city’s shocking lack of financial controls in conducting business with service providers.

The CHHS reliant system also lacks key human infrastructure and reliable data to drive decision-making and ensure accountability for service providers. CHHS has had four directors in the past five years and extensive staff turnover. In the state’s audit of Spokane’s homeless program, auditors found that the city wasn’t using a data-driven approach to identify unmet needs or funding priorities in homeless services.

Auditors found that Spokane’s lack of agency capacity, data driven decision-making and provider accountability has created a myriad of problems that hamper the effectiveness of the city’s homelessness response. Because Spokane doesn’t have sufficient data to track how the providers are getting results in moving people from the streets and into housing, it can’t bolster programs that are clearly effective. Neither can it easily demand better from programs that aren’t getting results, or cut funding entirely.

When programs aren’t meeting expectations, the city hasn’t been able to right the ship. “Of 18 underperforming programs we examined, the city addressed poor performance for only one program,” state auditors found. “Several factors contributed to this, including: lack of processes, system limitations, high turnover in department director and staff positions, and the perception that external factors, such as limited housing supply and few providers, prevent them from taking action.”

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How a regional homelessness authority works

Cooley and the homeless response leaders he interviewed in Houston compare the regional effort to installing a conductor to lead a previously directionless orchestra. The belief is that with the right guidance and better controls like reliable data, services can operate more efficiently. In organizing this effort, Cooley is also drawing on existing regional collaboratives like the West Plains Public Development Authority, which unites governmental efforts to develop industry and infrastructure in that area of the city and county.

“(Right now) there are all these remarkable people and remarkable organizations with remarkably great intentions, almost universally failing to deliver the outcomes we need with homelessness,” Cooley said in an interview last fall. “I think what is astounding is that (in Houston) they were able to get all these moving pieces to go in the right direction and collaborate and work together and work off the same plan.”

The results speak for themselves. According to a New York Times deep dive on the Houston model:

During the last decade, Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, has moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into apartments and houses. The overwhelming majority of them have remained housed after two years. The number of people deemed homeless in the Houston region has been cut by 63 percent since 2011, according to the latest numbers from local officials. Even judging by the more modest metrics registered in a 2020 federal report, Houston did more than twice as well as the rest of the country at reducing homelessness over the previous decade.

Obviously Spokane isn’t Houston — especially, when it comes to our rental market. The main resource Houston has drawn on to get people quickly moved off the streets and into housing is one bedroom rentals. The rental vacancy rate in Houston is currently around 9%. In Spokane, the rental vacancy rate has dipped below 1% in recent years, leading to nation-leading rent inflation in 2021. Still, there’s hope that drawing on the Houston model can generate movement on the homelessness crisis.

One way the new regional collaboration could help bolster Spokane housing options is by pulling the responsibility for citing shelters and transitional housing projects out of the hands of the city administration. As it currently stands, the city administration is susceptible to significant backlash from neighborhoods when it chooses to cite housing projects. In theory, this separate entity could shield individual politicians from the ire of people opposing development in their backyards.

In Houston, providers had previously offered an ensemble of services, like outreach, job training and case management, but as the regional organization stepped in to lead the scattered orchestra, each agency was essentially directed to focus on the instrument they were best at.

That’s an approach that can eliminate duplicative efforts and help agencies prioritize services. In Houston, key service providers say their organizations have benefited from narrowing their scope of work and concentrating on their areas of expertise.

Spokane service providers said they see the potential benefits, but also have concerns about pushing the specialization concept too far. A regional approach is “a great way to consolidate funding and create a clear and intentional map of how (service providers) collaborate,” said Hallie Burchinal, the executive director of Compassionate Addiction Treatment (CAT).

But, that specialization can only go so far, she said. Service providers are mission-driven organizations, not cogs in a machine, Burchinal explained. Expecting them to sacrifice existing programs in the name of efficiency won’t fly. “From CAT’s perspective, we’re not supportive of changes that reduce our ability to provide integrated services.”

Staying away from siloing each organization into a strictly defined niche is important to make sure that the people being served have different options for services like treatment. For some people, a peer-led organization like CAT that relies on employees with lived experience with homelessness and addiction is the best fit, for others an organization that centers the educational credentials of counselors and a more clinical approach works better, Burchinal explained.

Cultural affinity can also play a key role, as evidenced by the way organizations serving BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities received funding to function as “trusted messengers” during the pandemic to help members of those communities understand the health implications of vaccinations, overcome stigma, and connect with healthcare providers.

Vulnerable people often avoid seeking help because they don’t feel welcome in a space or understood by the provider, which is why organizations like Feast World Kitchen — despite being primarily a professional development program for aspiring immigrant and former refugee chefs — have begun providing navigation services to the families they serve. “We saw a real need for resource navigation among former refugees and immigrants,”  Feast co-director Ross Carper told RANGE.

Feast isn’t looking to become a navigation agency, Carper says, they’re just filling a gap for a specific community where the organization has built trust. This isn’t a flaw in the system so much as a recognition that people are more likely to ask for help in places they already feel comfortable. “People are slipping through the cracks, and we want our restaurant space as not only a place for commerce, but a kitchen table where we can hash practical things out, like drivers licenses, FAFSA forms — anything that can create barriers for people, we want to relationally remove those barriers.” (Disclosure: RANGE co-owner Luke Baumgarten volunteers on Feast’s board).

Generational trauma is also a consideration. Service providers often have religious affiliations, and many Indigenous people locally avoid religious organizations due to the legacies of colonialism and cultural genocide.

So while the system needs efficiency, it also needs plenty of entry points.

“Autonomy of choice is one of the most important evidence-based practices,” Burchinal said. “We need to maintain choice.”

Opportunities and challenges

Spokane’s homelessness response in general, and especially with regards to Camp Hope, has become mired in politics and divisive rhetoric. Advocates envision a regional collaboration that includes local political leaders, but which is at arm’s length from political infighting, as a way to fill the leadership void and create a more effective and strategic homelessness response.

“In working on homelessness, it’s been clear we don’t have good or consistent leadership at the regional or systems level,” said Zeke Smith, the president of the Empire Health Foundation, which has been tasked by the state in organizing rehousing and service provision for Camp Hope. The benefit of this regional initiative is that it could stand above political infighting and create systemic solutions that unlock additional resources and build service provider capacity, he said.

Cooley, whose career focused on the bottom line of city finances, believes that putting this new leadership structure in place will unlock additional financial resources, not just from local governments but also from philanthropic organizations and the business community. “When everybody's working together … money is never the problem,” he said.

But, council president Beggs cautioned that working together and creating a unified local front to solve homelessness may be easier said than done. “I think the big hurdle is going to be governance, especially, I would say for the county: Are you willing to give up your control?” Beggs said. “Because right now they hang on pretty tightly to the control of their money and on what it can be spent for and not spent for.”

RANGE’s request for comment on the concept of a regional homelessness authority to the county did not result in any interviews or comments from county commissioners.

The other sticking point Beggs foresees is finding common ground on how the regional organization approaches issues like substance use. “The one that's going to be the biggest challenge is [agreeing on shared definitions of] accountability,” he said. For example, Beggs said he’d be wary of requiring people to maintain sobriety in order to access services “For me, it's not a moral thing, it's just that's what seems to work in populations that struggle with substance abuse disorder.”

Mayor Woodward has often taken a harder line on accountability for unhoused people accessing services. She has warned against providers making it ”too easy” for people to be homeless and said that, by not demanding accountability, service providers were in effect enabling people to remain addicted.

In the coming weeks and months, organizers behind the regional homelessness authority effort plan to take their work public. For now, we’re left with a general vibe of broad support, but still reading the tea leaves on the details of how it might actually come together. Big pieces remain unclear, like how the agreement will be structured and how issues like funding and accountability will shake out.

Cooley for one, believes that the political will is creating momentum to figure these things out sooner than later. “After months of preparation, the pieces are coming together rapidly,” Cooley said. “I’m very hopeful.”

Additional reporting by Luke Baumgarten

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