Federal homeless expert Paul Carlson has good news for Spokane and its homeless people. Not only can housing be created for the homeless, but it can also provide the seed for further development of neglected neighborhoods. For the city's more than 4,000 homeless people, that could be very good news indeed.
At the Spokane Housing Authority last Friday morning, Carlson, the regional director for the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, showed slides of numerous success stories in Seattle's Cascade, Lake Union and Belltown neighborhoods. About two dozen members of Mayor Jim West's task force on the problem listened to how Carlson went about it, as part of his work for HUD's Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Neighborhoods and landlords might be wary at first, Carlson told the group, but with the "one-two punch of good design and good management," even the South Hill could be persuaded to accept housing for the low-income and homeless.
One striking example is near Lake Union in Seattle. First there was a men's shelter run out of a church basement. Then "workforce" housing built by HUD offered a place for service workers to live near downtown. Now Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen's condo development is rising into the sky. The luxury units will look out over the lake in one direction, and in the other to the church's shelter, which has no intention of moving.
In effect, Carlson says, the HUD development stabilized the neighborhood and attracted other developers, eventually putting high-end housing cheek-by-jowl with homes for the least fortunate.
Another example is the elegant Josephinum Hotel, which both low-income and middle class residents call home, along with wealthy tenants in units on the upper floors. A small plot known locally as a "needle park" had long defeated efforts to make drug users go away. After housing gained a foothold in that neighborhood, however, local dog owners and their pets succeeded where others had failed, and the needle park is now a place where people and canines mingle.
The biggest opportunities, Carlson adds, are often in blighted neighborhoods where property values have not climbed but jobs are nearby.
Another success has been in Belltown, where high-end housing coexists with integrated homeless havens. Bordered by I-5, Mercer Avenue and Denny Way, Carlson saw opportunity in the 20-square blocks. HUD purchased property and built the Kerner-Scott House, a safe haven for hard-to-house addicts and the mentally ill. Carlson credited the Seattle Housing Authority and private organizations like the Plymouth Housing Group with the foresight to start putting money into Belltown 20 years ago.
And permanent housing does make a difference in people's lives. Carlson showed a photo of a longtime client, "Eddie," who was homeless for 10 years. Carlson's first six attempts to place him in housing were unsuccessful, a common pattern for the chronically homeless. At one low point, Eddie even attempted suicide. But he survived, and finally, on the seventh try, Carlson found Eddie a place he could call home.
Training landlords and resident managers in how to deal with the homeless is crucial, Carlson advises: "Train property managers to think like social workers and social workers to think like property managers."
Making it work for landlords means getting services that clients need to address their problems, whether that is treatment for addiction or mental health services.
Young people about to leave foster care are another vulnerable population. After 18, they are completely on their own, receiving no support for the transition to independence. Calling these young people "the chronically homeless in training," Carlson says supportive housing for them is the first point of prevention for homelessness, preferably near community colleges to take advantage of good, affordable job training.
A city that doesn't provide for the homeless still pays -- and dearly -- Carlson says. Research by Dennis Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania found that it costs local governments about the same to manage the homeless with the triage approach of emergency room, jails and courts as it does to provide them with permanent housing and treatment programs.
But where does the money come from when the city budget is in tatters? Carlson points to a new Washington state law, which provides money to establish a coordinated homeless housing program statewide.
In Spokane, the mayor's Task Force on Homelessness is focusing on downtown street homeless and the chronically homeless population. Triggered by last summer's campout in downtown Spokane by homeless activists, discussions began last December on Spokane's 10-year plan to end homelessness, which is to be modeled on plans drafted by other cities.
Helen Jones, external consultant to the task force, says a final planning document should be out in the fall. At the moment, no forum for public comment is planned.
Rising Times, the bi-monthly newspaper of Spokane's homeless community, is looking for a new editor. Tyler Martin, who has held the paid job for the last two years, is leaving in the fall.
Rising Times was founded in 2001 by The Inlander's Leah Sottile while she was an undergraduate journalism major at Gonzaga with an interest in homeless issues. The paper is now an AmeriCorps project and is sponsored by the Center for Community Action and Service Learning (CCASL) on the Gonzaga campus.
Martin was a recent Gonzaga graduate when he took the job. A double major in biology and political science, Martin says he didn't have any real knowledge of homeless issues at the time. He also struggled to learn newspaper layout "on the fly," which, he admits, "tested my anger-management skills." Journalistic writing also took some practice, because of the need to write simply and present both sides, rather than arguing his own opinion.
Martin says the press run for Rising Times is 1,200 copies, which are distributed on the street by anywhere from five to 15 homeless people; articles are written both by homeless people and by Gonzaga students involved in the project.
At a minimum, candidates must have a desire to work with the homeless community of Spokane. In addition, basic writing skills, knowledge of newspaper layout and familiarity with Microsoft Windows and Mac OSX are important.
Applicants must meet AmeriCorps requirements to join the organization. To apply, go to the home page at the AmeriCorps Web site, www.americorps.gov, and click on "Joining Us."
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