What other cities are getting right when it comes to fixing homelessness

Chronic homelessness is an issue affecting major cities from coast to coast. So it’s understandable that one of the first questions that comes to mind when many Seattleites think about homelessness is, “What have other states done successfully that we aren’t doing to fix this problem?”

Kelly Gardner submitted that question when we asked what you wanted to know about chronic homelessness at the start of our series. 

First, an important caveat: When comparing outcomes from city to city or state to state, it’s important to note that the scale of the problem and underlying causes vary from place to place. Due to our region’s high cost of living, there are more cost-burdened renters in Washington than in many other states — especially the ones not on the coasts. (For more about how housing costs can contribute to chronic homelessness, check out the first story in the series.)

But let’s get back to the bright spots. Columbus, Ohio, is a city that our friends at Geekwire highlighted as part of last year’s collaborative #SeaHomeless reporting day. There, city leaders have banded together to form a Community Shelter Board to oversee Columbus’ entire budget for homeless services and manage the entire system for getting a chronically homeless person into permanent supportive housing. 

Coordination is one area that needs improvement here in the Seattle region, officials say. And it’s a big challenge: Unlike Columbus, our sprawling metro area of 4 million people is home to dozens of city, county, and regional groups all trying to tackle the same problem.

That’s why Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine are pushing for the creation of a new regional governing body that would use funding from both jurisdictions to oversee contracts for all the county’s shelters and re-housing efforts.

But bringing everyone to the table is no easy task. And even if the administrative side of things becomes more streamlined, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any closer to doing what most folks say is crucial to ending homelessness: Provide more housing.

What about Utah?

A few years ago, everyone was talking about how Salt Lake City had “solved chronic homelessness.” Over a decade, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in Utah dropped from nearly 2,000 to 200 as state officials, business leaders, and the Mormon church banded together to adopt a “housing first” model that placed the most vulnerable individuals in permanent supportive housing.  

By most measures, it was a success — at least in the beginning. But Salt Lake City hasn’t built any new permanent supportive housing since 2010, and by 2016, Utah’s progress started to slide the other way as supply fell behind demand. 

“The cost of producing housing has gone up significantly in this state,” Utah’s housing director Jonathan Hardy told Reuters earlier this year. “We’re struggling to keep up.”

Finding ways to lower the cost of building new housing or redeveloping existing buildings to meet the needs of those exiting chronic homelessness is a current focus for many advocates and leaders in the Seattle area. Despite the expense, data from across the country supports permanent supportive housing as an evidence-based model worth implementing and sticking with. 

“That really is the most effective solution that other cities are working on,” says Catherine Hinrichsen, project director of Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness. 

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.