SPOKANE, WASHINGTON - When President Obama proposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 to boost a failing economy and put Americans back to work, critics were quick to pounce. "Billion dollar boondoggle," they charged.
Things didn't turn out that way. To the contrary, some 38,000 Recovery Act projects big and small across the country put hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans to work rebuilding roads and bridges, retrofitting and extending the useful lives of aging apartment complexes, jumpstarting developments stalled because credit had dried-up upgrading deteriorating sewer and water systems, reclaiming abandoned homes.
But the Act was more than bricks-and-mortar. It taught lessons too. Like those learned by homeless providers in Spokane.
Remember the last homeless person you saw? The solution probably seemed obvious. A shower, a good meal, a job and a roof over their heads. And maybe a few days in detox. Simple as A-B-C.
But one-size doesn't fit all. Some are homeless for a host of reasons. Others for just one or two. Like Gregory Wright, a single father of a two-year old boy. All he needed was a place to live, a place where, he told Jody Lawrence-Taylor of The Spokesman Review, he could get "stabilized." Unfortunately, she reported, "the prospects of finding one in Spokane are practically zilch.
Thanks, indirectly, to the Recovery Act, they're not-so-zilch anymore. As passed, one of the smaller components of the Act was HUD's Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program to allocating $1.5 billion to more than 500 local governments to enable local homeless agencies to provide faster, more flexible, more targeted responses to the needs of the homeless.
"Often times," HUD Secretary Donovan observed "a little bit of financial assistance can make all the difference between finding or keeping a stable home and being forced to live in a shelter or on the streets." By the time Recovery Act funding expired in 2012, the program had helped almost 1.4 million Americans avoid or end their homelessness, more than 2,000 in the Spokane area.
With the end of Recovery Act funding, of course, the City could have shut down the program. Instead, it identified alternative local, state and HUD funding and, in collaboration with the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities' St. Margaret's Shelter; SNAP, Volunteers of America's Alexandria House and Aston-Bleck apartments; Transitions' Transitional Living Center, Family Promise and the YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter the City launched its own version of the program - Homeless Families Coordinated Assessment.
Which is why Gregory Wright and his son were in luck when they visited the Salvation Army, the new project's lead agency, hoping to just "get stabilized." Based on his assessment, he was put up for three days in a motel, then a few days in an emergency shelter and then enough to pay the first month's rent in an apartment. At the end of that month, he'd found a job and was paying his own rent.
"Quick turnaround" is the key, said the City's Sheila Morley. "It's about making a shift in how things are happening. The problem was people would call and say: 'I'm homeless, can I get on a list?' And they would go into the first place that opened up. Often that wasn't where they needed to be." People are now "assessed immediately, and put on the track they need," Morley noted, "which saves the system money."
It's working. In just 6 months, the program's helped more than 900 families avoid or get out of homelessness. "One size-fits-all approaches don't work," Morley noted. "Everyone doesn't have the same need or face the same issues. Our system looks at each person individually and provides the correct level of assistance needed to end their housing crisis as quickly as possible. That fixes the problem faster, makes more efficient use of our limited resources and allows us to serve more people and, yes, serve them better."
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