Housing, Services and Partnerships: a Successful Combination to End Street Homelessness
SOS contains examples of specific strategies communities can implement to reduce street homelessness and improve outcomes for people experiencing it. Communities need housing solutions that make the right types of housing and appropriate services to be available at appropriate times. In addition to having the right interventions in place, community partners such as police, businesses, and service providers need to know that these interventions are available and how to connect people experiencing homelessness to them. When all of these components are in place, a seamless system of care arises that allows people experiencing street homelessness to get off the street and move toward stability and housing.
USICH spoke with Bill Hobson, Executive Director of DESC in Seattle about the development of a seamless system of care.
The key to ensuring that individuals experiencing street homelessness can transition from jails and prisons into stable housing is to provide them with a system of care that responds to their needs in both times of crisis and while on their path to stability. DESC in Seattle is highlighted in SOS particularly for their policy of 24-hour access to shelters around the city, and also for providing behavioral health and housing solutions targeted to individuals who are in contact with law enforcement most frequently. Providing connections to housing services using a Housing First model coupled with outreach and a variety of support services, DESC is able to connect people experiencing street homelessness with the resources they need to get off the street. Notably, DESC has also been able to serve this population more effectively by establishing a close relationship with the Seattle Police Department.
If a community wishes to reduce its rates of street homelessness, it is important to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have 24-hour access to shelters or other community spaces. It is also important for law enforcement to be aware that these facilities are available so that they can offer them as an alternative to the sometimes less effective or appropriate options of taking someone to jail or leaving him or her outdoors.
In SOS, a key element to decreasing the incidence of criminalization is working to house and stabilize individuals currently living unsheltered. This involves a comprehensive and seamless system of care that integrates housing options with behavioral and physical health supports. DESC focuses their work on individuals with the greatest barriers to housing stability and provides many of these services within their shelters and supportive housing sites across Seattle. DESC has both mental health and substance abuse clinicians on staff to provide the additional services that people experiencing street homelessness often need. DESC has street outreach teams, three different emergency shelters, and 850 units of permanent supportive housing in their system of care. DESC serves 2,000 individuals in a given day and 7,000 annually across its system. This system of care within DESC itself allows for multiple low-barrier access points for someone who is experiencing homelessness to receive assistance and move as rapidly into housing as it is available. An individual may be engaged by an outreach team while living on the street or walk into an emergency shelter for immediate stability.Upon meeting an individual, counselors and case managers immediately begin to assist with barriers to housing and other needed supports. Individuals are connected to permanent housing that fits individual needs as soon as it is available, without any pre-conditions of readiness or treatment compliance.
A comprehensive system of care, however, is not only found within one agency. Seamless systems of care require the collaborative efforts of local government, law enforcement, and service providers.
Executive Director of DESC since 1988, Bill Hobson, shared with USICH the ways DESC has been able to solidify their relationship with the Seattle Police Department over the last two decades and what other communities can do to help more individuals gain housing stability instead of putting them in jail. “Engaging law enforcement is the first step in preventing the unnecessary arrest of individuals experiencing homelessness who came into contact with police perhaps because of a psychotic episode on the street,” noted Hobson.
One of the strongest collaborations between law enforcement and service providers has been through engagement with police Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and through direct immersion trainings with homelessness service providers. Both strategies seek to limit the number of arrests of individuals experiencing mental health crises on the street by connecting these individuals to behavioral health services like those at DESC. Hobson explained:
DESCs relationship with the Seattle Police Department solidified when we provided crisis intervention training for officers on the front line. The training focused first on how to keep the officer and the individual safe during an episode and then what referrals an officer should use. We stressed that if mentally ill individuals experiencing homelessness are not engaged in violent activities, those responding to the incident should work to solve the larger problem that causes the episode rather than just send them to jail.
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has a dedicated CIT that focuses on these types of calls and training. DESC outreach teams work with SPD in the event that an officer needs advice or assistance when responding to a call. In addition, through a special pilot project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, a DESC mental health professional is sited with SPDs Crisis Intervention Team full time. DESC has set up a deliberate referral relationship which allows any SPD officer to refer and transport individuals directly to DESC at an hour, where mental health professionals can help address the immediate and long term needs of the individual.
For service providers that do not currently have a strong relationship with law enforcement, Hobson encourages taking the first step in making that connection:
Develop an explicit engagement strategy that involves your Executive Director and your board. Meet with police directly at their headquarters to find common ground and bring your resources to the table. For organizations with mental health expertise, or expertise with street outreach, you can offer to do a crisis intervention training. All jurisdictions should already be aware of their police department’s CIT, but a homelessness service organization can offer to augment the training a police department is currently doing or establish one if it does not exist already.
Hobson also suggests that providers do internal organizational training to “change the unwarranted perception of law enforcement and better understand the role of police in the community and the way that they interact with people experiencing homelessness. It isn’t just about law enforcement understanding what service providers do, it goes the other way as well.”
Most importantly, a relationship between a direct service provider and law enforcement helps to improve understanding of each agency’s mission and goals. The service provider can be seen as a first referral resource to make sure that individuals experiencing street homelessness are in a safe place rather than in jails or back on the street. Once connected to a resource like DESC, an individual can engage with all of their supportive programs and housing options. According to Hobson, “If service providers and law enforcement are not working together they are missing a golden opportunity. Because at the end of the day they both have the same goal of reducing the number of people living on the street.”
There are many resources for service providers and police departments on establishing and implementing a CIT. You can find some of these resources here.