End It Like Gresham

Applying proven strategies and promising prototypes are a sure bet for solving complex problems like homelessness in Seattle, while doubling down on failed policies and programs that are mostly riding the wake of failed theories is not.

The City of Gresham, Oregon, population 110,000, had homeless encampment statistics with higher per capita numbers than Portland until they rolled out a tight Homeless Services Department supported by a sea of volunteers and mostly philanthropic funding and brought the city to function zero homelessness in about 14 months with no sweeps. They did it by getting to know each and every person in the tents and serving the folks willing to accept help first while the others were given more time.

The brilliant director hired to lead Gresham Homeless Services, Kevin Dahlgren, has an educational background in social work and substance use disorder counseling and has 25 years of experience in the field. He has gone about fixing what he knew was wrong with the existing theory-based strategies to ending homelessness. He calls it “A Bridge to Something Better” and it is.

He figures out who everyone is and what they need and then helps them to connects the dots. The triage starts with finding out who people are, getting them identification and lending each person a phone who didn’t have one. While some people just spit on him or yell at him or worse – he was even been stabbed along the way – each person eventually trusts Kevin and accepts the help he offers.

It’s such a pragmatic and compassionate approach: Establish identity and include each person in a shared data management system, lend a phone, enroll in Medicaid, connect with healthcare, housing, and job training for those who can work and helping those who can’t get on disability.

This is what solving homelessness looks like. It’s not sweeping people off to hotel rooms. It’s not waiting around to build $500k housing units. It’s not proposing that $10Billion be spent to “finally solve” this once and for all. It’s not leaving vulnerable people in filthy rat-infested encampments. It’s helping people to take a series of practical steps to escape their misery followed by gently enforcing the laws against public camping and quickly helping any new arrivals.

Right now, Seattle has hundreds of contracts associated with a nearly $200 Million budget for homelessness related services. King County also spends an enormous amount, but both of their efforts have failed while the number of homeless has grown. The very awarding of the contracts through grants is dysfunctional in itself.

Dahlgren’s innovative, humane, and practical approach is replicable. Each of our 7 Council Districts in Seattle are the size of Gresham, OR. Scaling up his approach is exactly what we ought to do.

It’s time for Seattle to “end it like Gresham”.