More housing is needed to solve homelessness

To learn more, join us at our April 5 “Brunch & Learn with Community Action” about Care Coordination about transforming homeless services.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. (Mar. 10, 2023) – Too many neighbors are experiencing the trauma of homelessness and that affects our entire community’s quality of life and economic prosperity. Did you know that underhoused students are 25% less likely to graduate than their housed peers? And 300+ households in Skagit County currently have no home, with many more struggling every day to find or keep housing.

Many are working hard to make it better, including Community Action and the 16 service providers that participate in Skagit County government’s Coordinated Entry homeless response system used to direct these services.

Many of our challenges come from rules and guidelines that are set outside the agency at the federal and state government levels.

The sheer lack of apartments available in the community compound these difficulties, and have led our agency to innovate our approach to work within the system as it exists. “The biggest challenge is the lack of affordable housing in Skagit County,” says Community Action’s Executive Director Bill Henkel.

When people can’t afford their homes, they get creative, doubling up, leaning on friends and family for help. When they run out of options, they become homeless. When they’re homeless in Skagit County, too often they stay homeless because there simply is not enough affordable apartments for them to move into.

Because of this, Community Action is advocating for change within the state and federal systems. And we’re innovating by bringing new resources to Skagit County that Coordinated Entry alone cannot provide.

A Broken System: Better than Average isn’t Good Enough
According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, Skagit County’s Coordinated Entry system is better than the state average, but that’s not good enough. The average length of time a person experiences homelessness in Washington State is 190 days, while in Skagit County it’s 167 days. In Skagit County, 44% of people who enter the homeless services system exit to permanent housing, slightly higher than the state average of 40%.

From July 2021 to June 2022, Community Action referred 1,161 households to housing interventions and enrolled 1,094 households to partner housing intervention programs. During the same time period King County referred 597 households because of its more restrictive eligibility criteria, and only enrolled 285 households to a housing intervention program.

In addition to hosting Coordinated Entry, Community Action runs one of the homeless shelters in the community, the Family Development Center (FDC) located in Mount Vernon. Despite the lack of available housing in Skagit County, our amazing team is helping families set and achieve their goals for stability. Over 68% of FDC residents exit to permanent housing, while the state average is only 38%.

“But being better than average is not good enough when people are suffering,” says Henkel. “No one should have to experience the fear and trauma of living on the street.”

What is Coordinated Entry?

For communities to receive federal funding for housing and homelessness programs, counties must have Coordinated Entry, a national homeless service model mandated by HUD, the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development. Administered by the Washington State Department of Commerce, Coordinated Entry is facilitated and funded by counties.

Contracting with Skagit County government, Community Action houses Coordinated Entry as the front door for people who are experiencing homelessness or who are at-risk of homelessness. Through partnerships we’ve built over years, that front door has many points of access.

Sixteen nonprofit homeless service agencies participate in Skagit County’s Coordinated Entry Advisory Committee: Anacortes Family Center, Friendship House, Northwest Youth Services, Samish Indian Nation, Housing Authority of Skagit County, Pioneer Human Services, Compass Health, East County Resource Center, Family Promise of Skagit Valley, Skagit Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services, YMCA Oasis Teen Shelter, Skagit Legal Aid, Catholic Community Services, Helping Hands Project Organization, and Skagit County Public Health.

Unfortunately, available resources aren’t enough to help every unhoused family find a home. Because of this, Federal and state mandates require these Coordinated Entry providers to prioritize serving households based on the household’s “vulnerability score,” which includes things such as households having minor children, seniors or family members with disabilities.

Coordinated Entry providers are all actively referring clients to shelters, rapid re-housing rental subsidy programs, permanent supportive housing programs, and other housing programs and local resources. But many people stay in the Coordinated Entry system for a long time, because Coordinated Entry-specific resources are being used for those deemed “most vulnerable.”

Welcome additions to our local toolkit of solutions include of Friendship House’s First Steps low-barrier shelter in Burlington, and the soon-to-open Catholic Community Services property called Martha’s Place, a permanent supported housing facility for chronically homeless in Mount Vernon

Community Action is bringing MORE resources to the community than Coordinated Entry alone can provide.

Transforming the Broken System

Long acknowledging the system we’ve been given by the state and federal government is inadequate, Community Action and our partners are working together to improve Coordinated Entry, despite restrictive requirements from federal and state governments.

In part to increase access to Coordinated Entry, during the pandemic we extended our Street Outreach Team and launched our Recovery Navigator Program, including nine staff members, plus volunteers and interns who take services to where people are living in all corners of Skagit County: outdoors, in barns, in vehicles, and at winter and emergency shelters. The county’s Coordinated Entry contract does not provide resources for this level of access, so Community Action has sought out new sustainable ways to make the current system better.

In another effort to expanding access to Coordinated Entry, our talented team has trained many partner nonprofits and law enforcement agencies in doing Coordinated Entry intake assessments.

In addition to adding more front doors to Coordinated Entry, Community Action and our partners are working to change the system itself. Six of the 16 Coordinated Entry Advisory Committee partners, including Skagit County Public Health, are working on an Assessment Subcommittee to improve the vulnerability assessment while staying within HUD and Department of Commerce guidelines.

Coordinated Entry partners have concretely improved some of the outdated-modes of communication that are mandated at the state level. For example, it took over a year, in partnership with Anacortes Family Center, to engage the Department Commerce and develop an electronic method for information sharing for just one commonly-shared piece of client information.

“Nonprofits and government are working very hard together to make the system easier for people we serve,” says Dulce Vazquez-Cruz, Community Action’s Resource Center Manager.

It’s not an easy task. For example, Community Action and Coordinated Entry committee partners have been advocating to change the vulnerability scoring system. We’ve worked with the Department of Commerce to get waivers for burdensome requirements, such as providers being mandated by the state to use faxes for client referrals, the state’s effort to protect confidentiality for domestic violence survivors.

“Everyone is committed to the safety and privacy of clients, but there has to be a better way to do things,” Vazquez-Cruz says.

Transforming Lives: Care Coordination

In 2023, our biggest project has been to introduce the Care Coordination model to our case management of clients who are on the Coordinated Entry waitlist. This new model provides wrap-around services and material support to individuals while they are waiting for housing.

The old model, necessitated by available funding, did cause us to lose contact with clients while they were waiting for housing placement. “Over the coming months, as we implement this new strategy, we are thrilled at the prospect of maintaining a close working relationship with our clients both before and after they find housing,” says Simmons.

Coordinated Entry funding is not adequate to provide the intensive case management necessary for individuals and families to achieve stability. “To get and maintain stable housing, people need to be getting ahead on other goals, such as health, paying the bills, getting a job,” Vazquez-Cruz says. “It’s incredibly difficult to do those things without a roof over your head.”

Learning from other successful programs in Washington State, in 2022 Community Action completely transformed its housing and homeless service staffing into a model called Care Coordination.

Care specialists work with the households to connect them to physical and behavioral health providers to apply for benefits such as SNAP or TANF, and connect to resources from Community Action and with dozens of other local providers. By backing up Coordinated Entry, care specialists will expand in-person Coordinated Entry hours at our Mount Vernon Resource Center.

In addition, when an individual or family starts the Coordinated Entry process, they are now being immediately connected with a care specialist to work with them to identify and break down barriers even if they do not rise to the vulnerability score to receive a referral for a Coordinated Entry housing or shelter intervention.

Over the last year, we have transformed 16 staff positions into Care Coordination positions, and in this month alone we are onboarding six new hires who will be trained in the model. Our Employment and Outreach Programs are now aligned with this model, as well.

“Our Outreach Team and partners do so much more than just help unhoused neighbors sign up for Coordinated Entry,” Henkel said. “They are literally keeping people alive.”

The Outreach Team walks alongside people who have experienced trauma, abuse, mental health challenges, and more. “By building these long-term relationships, our team is there when someone is ready to say yes to housing or recovery programs.”

“We are excited for the future with our new approach,” says Steven Simmons, Outreach Programs Manager. “Care Coordination allows us to begin working with clients on goals related to physical and mental health, substance use disorder, employment, food insecurity, and more.” Care coordinators can assist program participants in navigating the legal system, getting ID necessary for housing and jobs, and reconnecting with family and friends who help build a network of support and stability.

Community Action is able to go above and beyond the basic Coordinated Entry model thanks to the state’s new Foundational Community Supports (FCS) program, which provides supportive housing and employment services to the most vulnerable Medicaid patients.

An additional partnership with the North Sound Accountable Communities of Health (ACH) allows us to expand these same services to others who are not eligible for Medicaid. Other communities have had great success with this model of service, with families and individuals able to secure housing even without going through shelters or rental subsidy programs.

Transforming Communities: Building Housing

In addition to transforming the broken Coordinated Entry system and bringing new resources to struggling households, Community Action is working on long-term solutions: developing permanent housing.

The root of the housing problem is a lack of multi-family units that is affordable to people who live and work here, especially apartments. Cascade Landing Apartment Homes, Community Action’s first housing development, is currently leasing up 34 units, and future projects are in the works.

“Currently we see people with two jobs living in their car, because they can’t afford rent,” Henkel said. “The good news is that local governments, nonprofit agencies, private developers and others are coordinating to address the problem.”

In 2019, Community Action, EDASC, Skagit County Public Health, and many nonprofit and government agencies launched Skagit Housing Consortium as a way to better coordinate around the shared goal of increasing availability of housing people can afford. We’ve been working for over a decade to mobilize leaders and neighbors to say “Yes!” to more apartments in every Skagit community, the type of housing needed by a growing number of young families, seniors, veterans and agricultural workers.

The good news is, as a community, we are seeing progress. In 2022, more building permits for multifamily housing were issued in Skagit County than in the last two decades.

By mobilizing partners to transform systems, transform lives, and transform communities, Community Action is fulfilling our vision of a Skagit County where everyone works together to end poverty.

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