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A bold new initiative for homeless families

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 29, 2009 at 5:53 pm with No Comments »
March 29, 2009 5:53 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Parents and children need homes. The goal is to reduce the rate of family homelessness in Washington by 50 percent.

Family homelessness is a big problem. It needs a big solution.

A broad public-private partnership – including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Pierce County – is out to come up with that solution. Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire, the executives of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, plus the Gates foundation and Building Changes (a homeless advocacy group), jointly launched an ambitious new initiative against homelessness.

The initiative will expand an existing program called the Washington Families Fund. It is aiming high: the goal is to reduce the rate of family homelessness by 50 percent over the next 10 years. That would put roofs over the heads of a lot of children and parents. Right now, roughly half of the state’s homeless population consists of families. Washington’s public education system estimates that as many as 13,000 schoolchildren don’t have houses of their own.

Homelessness hurts children in many ways. Children without an address suffer much higher rates of depression than their peers. They have twice the rate of learning disabilities, three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems. Sometimes families must separate to survive.

Many agencies already labor to get uprooted families into housing they can afford. The new partnership is about coordinating those efforts, researching what will work locally and identifying ways to help families connect more easily with the mix of services they need.

The most cost-effective and humane way to deal with homelessness is preventing it in the first place. One study found that the combined annual budgets of all of New York City’s family shelters could have provided 50,000 families enough help to keep them in their houses all year. The same money was providing temporary shelter to only 10,000 families a year.

Prevention can take many forms, including mediation with landlords, help with overdue rents or utilities, eviction prevention, help with transportation. If families do lose their homes, getting them back into new ones becomes an urgent priority.

The trick is making this work on a large scale, especially in the middle of a severe recession. The partnership will create pilot projects in King, Pierce and Snohomish, and whatever strategies emerge would be expanded to the rest of the entire state.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged up to $60 million for the effort over 10 years; help is also coming from Boeing, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, the Ben B. Cheney Foundation and many others.

It’s hard to imagine a better cause. And that 50 percent goal is extraordinary. If the effort falls short and reduces the rate by only, say, 45 percent, no one’s going to be calling this a failure.

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