Mark Putnam’s career at All Home King County was marked by the structural changes that he led over the last four years. As he departs, Putnam argues that the institutions coordinating the regional response to homelessness must continue to evolve in order to bring the crisis to an end.
Putnam’s tenure at All Home King County ends after Count Us In, the annual point-in-time census of homeless people.
He will take the executive director position at Accelerator YMCA, an organization that provides housing to youth and young adults and works with them to achieve stability. All Home Assistant Director Kira Zylstra will take over as acting director.
“I think the four years I’ve been here has been sort of life changing and career changing,” Putnam said. “I was doing important work before, but in obscurity. It’s proven interesting to be in the middle of the most important issue in the city.”
The switch comes as more funding to help youth and young adults through the Best Starts for Kids levy and other local initiatives come online.
“It’s a great opportunity, we’ve put a lot of pieces in place with a better preventative and responsive system,” Putnam said.
Putnam’s tenure at All Home King County, the regional coordinating body for the effort to end homelessness, spanned a time of deep change for the organization as it scrambled to address the region’s crisis around homelessness. He focused on gathering and analyzing data to better understand structural drivers of homelessness, and sought to coordinate with policymakers and funders to get players in the system to “walk on the same track.”
RELATED ARTICLE: All Home’s point-in-time count sees an increase in those who are left out in the cold
Four years later, the result of these changes — and Putnam’s legacy at All Home — is mixed. Record numbers of households moved into housing in 2016, with the numbers for 2017 looking even stronger, but the number of homeless people in King County continues to grow, and the number of people who died without shelter is the highest it’s been.
And while data show positive trends, critics believe that the devotion to data has led to policy priorities pushed by outside consultants that move vulnerable people into housing in the immediate term only to set them up for failure soon after. They blame All Home for embracing the “Pathways Home” strategy created for the city of Seattle by outside consultants, and Putnam for his part in acquiescing to it.
Putnam sees the weaknesses in All Home’s position. The organization is tasked with operating as the focal point for the homelessness response, bringing in local government, the business community, service providers, religious institutions and residents together to hash out and implement a strategy. At the same time, it has no real authority or power to achieve any of that, instead relying on its partners to carry out portions of the plan to bring homelessness in check.
It’s a “herding cats kind of thing,” Putnam said. He would like to see a centralized response with an entity that has the combined authority to strategize, implement those strategies and then report back to the federal government.
Putnam’s not advocating for a stronger, more robust All Home.
“It might be better, actually, to start fresh, to create a new thing,” he said.
The current structure may have made sense when the Committee to End Homelessness, the entity that became All Home after Putnam came onboard, formed in 2005, but he doesn’t believe it makes sense now given the scope of the crisis.
“The pervasiveness and persistence is not going away,” Putnam said, adding that it needs an institutional response.
When Putnam came onboard in 2014, All Home did not exist in its current form. Prior to Putnam, Bill Block led the Committee to End Homelessness, a venture that was unable to live up to its own name.
The transition to All Home came with structural and strategic changes. The organization tried to simplify over time, cutting down the proliferation of committees and imbue the remaining with clear responsibilities. Partners agreed to a new strategic plan, and set about creating their own plans to try to reach those goals.
All Home, for its part, shifted federal funding toward permanent housing, and sought out new sources of money.
When the federal government offered $30 million in competitive funds to help youth and young adults, All Home was one of 10 organizations that won. More than 100 applied.
“We maximized the amount and shifted, helping us drive toward more people getting housed,” Putnam said.
Putnam’s time at All Home will be marked, for good or for ill, by the rigorous collection and use of data.
During his tenure, the region rolled out Coordinated Entry for All, a system that assesses a person’s needs and vulnerability in order to direct them to a housing option that’s right for them. The All Home website is a maze of dashboards and charts indicating the success of programs, and the number of people served. The point-in-time count, an annual census of the homeless population overseen by All Home, shifted in 2017 to a census-tract-by-census-tract model run by Applied Survey Research, a social-research firm, to record more granular information about where people were sleeping rough.
“We know so much more than we did before,” Zylstra said.
The changes have caused dissension among partners, however. Assessing vulnerability means defining what it is to be vulnerable. Coordinated entry prioritizes people who have been homeless the longest, a decision with which not all providers agree. The point-in-time count used to be called the One Night Count when the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) conducted it. All Home’s decision to bring on Applied Survey Research and the changes to methodology that required alienated SKCCH, which declined to participate in 2017.
That event is now called Count Us In.
The renewed focus paralleled the arrival of two consultants, Focus Strategies and Barbara Poppe, which made recommendations on homelessness policy that involved realigning how local government spent its money on homelessness services. The plan, Pathways Home, involved shifting money away from emergency shelter and toward long-term solutions to homelessness. It also took aim at the Seattle system. The Human Services Department had 180 contracts spread among 60 service providers. That would become a “coherent, integrated and coordinated system” under the plan.
In September, Seattle launched a competitive rebidding of $34 million that the city planned to invest in homeless services. The process, in which organizations were scored based on a set of criteria aligned with the consultants’ recommendations, represented the first time that city-funded services had been bid out en masse in a decade. Longtime service providers were cut out and the new allocations resulted in the loss of 300 emergency shelter beds, restrictions on day centers and the defunding of hygiene services.
The prospect of such changes had concerned service providers in the run-up to the application process. Services for people experiencing homelessness in Seattle evolved into an organic system that was now being forced into a uniform shape. The overall impact of the changes remains to be seen, Putnam said. Rebidding the contracts led to moves that were “super aligned” with the strategic plan, such as involving Native American-led organizations to try to address the overrepresentation of indigenous people in the homeless population.
And while the city and county “definitely need more shelter,” those beds shouldn’t be fully reliant on the city for funding, he said.
Detractors believe that All Home and other government partners fundamentally pushed the response to homelessness in the wrong direction by choosing policy options that they believe don’t meet the needs of vulnerable people living outside.
“I was hoping that Mark Putnam would accomplish a lot more at All Home, and frankly, I was very disappointed in the work that he did,” said Sharon Lee, executive director at the Low Income Housing Institute. The organization lost funding for transitional housing more than a year ago when All Home pivoted away from the program, and again during the city’s most recent request for proposals.
“I felt he blindly listened to the consultants from out of town and did not look at the local housing market in terms of the high rents that we have and the need to invest in low-income housing. He thought we could just tinker with the system and miraculously we would not need more shelter beds,” Lee said.
Another source of disappointment was the lack of results for vehicle residents. People living in their cars operate in a gray space in the current system. Programs to help them closed quickly due to high costs.
Despite efforts to create policy to help vehicle residents within the organization, the All Home website doesn’t have even an entry on them, wrote Bill Kirlin-Hackett, an advocate for the population, in an email.
“A part of this failure falls at the feet of the leader, even with his position deprived of the structural authority needed to do the job,” Kirlin-Hackett wrote. “A leader in such a position truly ought to be less compliant, be more aggressive for change even against the structure, and frankly, get in trouble a lot.”
As Putnam moves on, he does have real accomplishments to which he can point. Approximately 7,500 households moved into housing in 2016. That number is on pace to hit 8,000 for 2017. And if the realignment of services improves the rate at which homeless people enter secure housing that will be a feather in his cap as well.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Wait, there's more. Check out the full January 17th issue.