Local homeless getting more help

New, more comprehensive approach links people to many resources

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter




Founded: 1989

Employees: Seven full-time, five part-time

Operating budget: $808,364

Budget sources: Private contributions, $239,255; Clark County, City of Vancouver, State of Washington, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, $569,109


What: An improved, comprehensive approach to housing assistance

Why: To help needy people connect with “the right program, right away”

Hotline: 360-695-9677

Address: 2306 N.E. Andresen Rd., Suite A

Volunteers: Call 360-699-5106, ext. 104 or 115

Calling for emergency shelter can be a revolving door. You might score a roof over your head for the night, or you might not. Even if you do, you might be back on the street bright and early the next morning, with your fingers crossed and a new round of desperate phone calls to place.

Now, Clark County's Council for the Homeless has stepped into that breach. While its housing hotline number remains the same, 360-695-9677, calling it gets you the council's new Housing Solutions Center, providing deeper, more detailed attention and help than just a quick search for a place to crash.

"We see housing needs but we also see multiple needs of many different sorts" when people call for help, said Executive Director Andy Silver. The new system will allow the council to size up those needs at the front end, and plug people into the right mix of local resources.

Call the hotline and you'll be asked to make an appointment for an intake interview and a thorough assessment of all your needs and issues. That assessment is going to reach "a level of detail that's pretty complex," said Mike Boldt, Housing Solutions Center director.

If it's difficult for you to get to the new Housing Solutions Center site — a small suite of offices tucked into Share's new administrative center at 2306 N.E. Andresen Road -- it's possible to set up an electronic interview through a sister agency that's closer to your home, Boldt said. It's even possible for a trained assessment specialist to come to you — even if you're hidden away in a tent in the woods. Face to face is always the preferred way to get the assessment done, Boldt said.

You'll emerge from the assessment with a number of short-term goals and, if needed, a staffer or volunteer assigned to help you achieve them. Those goals can be as simple as getting a bus pass or as daunting as amassing the documentation to qualify you for state disability benefits.

The overall aim, according to council officials, is to get needy people the help they really need — not just to get shelter for the night, but to climb back out of homelessness, if not avoid it altogether.

"It's the right program, right away," said Boldt. "We're going to get to know you well, and get to know all our partner agencies' programs, so we can identify your best chance of success."

Great, complex blessing

Over the last few decades, Silver said, the number of local agencies that cater to various human needs has mushroomed. That's been a great blessing — and it's also made connecting people with the wider world of service providers complex and nuanced. By virtue of its housing-focused mission, the Council's Emergency Shelter Clearinghouse did not keep up with all the resources available.

"This conversation goes back years," Silver said. "How can we go from a body coordinating emergency shelter to a body coordinating all the wraparound services people need?"

By working with as many community partners as possible to "develop the highest level of coordination that we can think of," Silver said. There's a concentration of seven main service providers the council already enjoys an "extremely close relationship" with, he said — including, for example, Share and Columbia River Mental Health, the Salvation Army and Community Services NW — plus many dozens of others that are less prominent. The Housing Solutions Center's new team of assessment specialists are up to speed on all of their services and requirements, so the best fit with incoming clients can be made.

One of the biggest benefits of all this, said Boldt, is that even if somebody is turned down for immediate shelter — as can happen, unfortunately — that person can still start working with an assigned helper toward overall personal goals. That can include plugging into job training. Or mental health counseling. Or financial education. Or pulling together documents to prove eligibility for benefits.

"We're going to be sticking with them to make sure the handoff really happens," Boldt said.

The assessment interview will review everything, he said, from housing and employment history to problems with such things as mental health, addiction and the law. The information that emerges, plus the severity of the person's predicament (a single mother with three children living in a car, for example, versus an unattached man already "couch surfing" with friends), will help the assessment staff score the person's need as high, medium or low.

Silver hopes that another benefit of better coordination proves to be more people moving through and out of emergency shelter more quickly.

Council administrative assistant Charlene Welch said the Housing Solutions Center even has a small amount of cash set aside to cover small fees or expenses that could prove a barrier to housing or other benefits for somebody who's really needy — including getting a state (non-driver) identification card or copy of a birth certificate.

Understanding people's needs and plugging them directly into various local agencies will generate a wealth of data that's more accurate than ever before, Silver said. Each month, he said, the whole linked group of service providers will get detailed numbers: How many people were new to homelessness and needed a rapid-response program? How many were at risk and needed prevention? How many needed mental health treatment, domestic violence counseling, financial training?

Volunteer involvement

Nonprofit agencies have been analyzing volunteers' experiences in search of ways to get them to stay interested and committed. Experts say volunteers are hungry for experiences that feel personally meaningful, as well as vital to their host agency's mission.

Being a volunteer "navigator" for the new Housing Solutions Center might just fit the bill, according to coordinator Ken Burris.

Burris has already trained a small handful of initial volunteer navigators who will help clients with a variety of goals and tasks. That'll mostly mean pulling together the documents and forms folks need to qualify for recommended programs; it might also mean errands as simple as accompanying them on bus trips to agency appointments or other forays into the world of securing services.

"Our volunteers are really jazzed," said Burris.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.