October 17, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 42

Interview

Change of plan

By Rosette Royale / Interim Editor

After seven years in charge of the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, Bill Block moves on

Photo by Rex Hohlbein

Photo by Lucien Knuteson / Contributing Photographer

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Among those seeking to end homelessness in King County, there’s an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of the rapid re-housing model, which takes people living on the streets or in shelters and immediately places them in new housing.

Depending upon whom you ask among local homeless service providers, rapid re-housing is a great aid to confronting homelessness and poverty, or it’s a bad policy that leaves homeless people out in the cold while housing is built.

There is perhaps no more visible proponent of rapid re-housing than the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC), and its project director Bill Block, who announced his resignation in August, after seven years in the position.

Block, who is now in the final stages of clearing out his office, has an impressive resume.

He was board chair of aids Housing of Washington during the construction of Bailey-Boushay House, which provides housing for people living with aids and HIV; he served as board chair of the Seattle Housing Authority; he was a member of the Seattle Low-Income Housing Oversight Committee and a lawyer for King County Housing Authority. During his seven-year tenure with CEHKC, the committee devised a funding coordination program that the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School of Government named one of the top 25 innovations in government. And, he says, CEHKC has helped to fund 5,000 housing units in the county.

As the region’s most vocal supporter of rapid re-housing, Block has over the years taken heat from groups that support quickly placing people in shelters or tent cities instead of waiting years for housing. These groups include SHARE/WHEEL, a local collective of formerly homeless people, and, at times, Real Change.

Lately, Real Change has criticized Block and CEHKC for not doing enough to end local homelessness. For Block, agreeing to talk to Real Change thus meant agreeing to face those criticisms head-on. So when he spoke, Block at times expressed a sense of frustration, as could be seen by a furrowed brow or tightened jaw.

Still, Block openly answered questions about rapid re-housing versus shelter, the successes and failures of CEHKC and whether or not the controversy, which sometimes turned personal, was worth it.


According to the One Night Count, since 2006 there has been a 17 percent increase in people counted outside in Seattle and a 33 percent increase county-wide. [Pause.]  You’re about to say something, aren’t you?

It depends whether that’s the end of the question.


No, go ahead.

Well, what you don’t add is that we have increased the number of cities we count in and buses and hospitals.  So if I said I counted “x” number in Seattle, and the next year I counted in Seattle and Bellevue, I may simply be getting a better representation of the total numbers that are there, not seeing an actual increase. 

And if you look, SKCCH [Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which coordinates the count] doesn’t release maps, so you can’t do a multiple-year span. But if you look at the same area comparison, two, three years ago [the number] was down. This last year was up 1 percent.  So it’s a fairly misleading statistic to use the One Night Count as though it were comparing apples to apples.


So is there another count that does compare apples to apples or oranges to oranges?

Unfortunately, no. I would prefer if we actually could look back and say within the same areas, comparing 2006 to 2012, here is what we saw.  But SKCCH doesn’t agree that we should be able to do that, and they control the count.


So how does the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness get numbers about how many people are homeless?

Well, you get numbers from the One Night Count. We’re getting better numbers from [the Homeless Management Information System, which gathers data from people who register at most local shelters].  We look at year-to-year comparisons.  But over the long stretch, no, we don’t have great data. It’s been one of the frustrations.


Well, if you don’t have great data how can you solve the problem?

Well, you know what is needed by the people who you are actually encountering.


What’s needed?

What’s needed is a whole lot more housing subsidies. For some folks, more treatment; for some folks, more opportunities; and for a lot of folks, just the ability to access housing. 


Why can’t people access them?

Because we don’t have all the resources we need. We’ve increased the amount of resources over the last seven years, much more so than in other places in the country.  But at the same time we’ve seen a shredding of the social safety net, and the homeless system has sort of become the default catch for a lot of other reductions.  The [federal Housing and Urban Development] budget is, in constant dollars, less than half of what it was in 1978, as just one example. We’ve lost some resources like the really inexpensive housing that used to be around, the SROs [single-room occupancy rentals].  In some ways emergency shelter has become the SRO of today.  It’s where the guy who works two-and-a-half days a week goes. 


You talk about the data that’s not there or not sufficient. [When] did you realize that the data was not helping you find out what you needed to know?

I don’t think I said the data wasn’t letting me find out what I needed to know. You don’t need to know the total number of people to know the types of interventions that you need to create. I mean, that’s nice to report to the public, but in terms of the guy on the street or what the family in their car in Auburn needs, you don’t need to necessarily know the total number of people in need. We’ve got a lot of data on what disabled, single adults need to help stabilize their lives, on families in comparison of rapid re-housing to transitional housing to emergency shelter. We don’t have great data on youth and young adults. And as a representative of Real Change, which has opposed most of the data-gathering efforts, it’s an interesting question.


[Laughs.] All right. So what data gathering process do you think works well?

I think there are lots of different levels of data. There’s data in terms of looking at what programs really work.  There is data about the relative types of needs in populations among single adults, of what proportion is likely to need what kind of intervention: That’s a little harder to do, but you can do it to some extent through sampling. And then there’s the overall need question, and that’s been the one that’s been hardest to pin down. We know the general magnitude, but you started with “Homelessness is increased by 17 percent,” and that’s what everybody focuses on, that global number. But there’s a lot of information you need to know, and what you should be investing in isn’t that global number.


You’re talking about meeting people’s needs. So is the answer housing or immediate shelter? Or is it a combination of the two, or something totally different?

Well it depends on whose needs you’re meeting. There is no one size fits all. Different people need different things. So that’s the first answer. The implicit question I get, which a lot of people ask, is: Why are you building housing instead of shelter? Is that the sub-question?


Well, that’s not the sub-question: That was the next question.

The answer is you have to look at cost and outcome. The inexpensive shelter, the church-run shelter, which we’ve been trying to promote and support churches doing, is actually pretty inexpensive. Government-run shelter starts at $5,000 to $7,000 per bed per year. If you invest that in [emergency] shelter and not in housing, you end up with two in shelter and none in housing.  You invest [that money] in housing and get that person out of shelter and off the street into that new empty bed, you end up with one in housing and one in shelter. I think that’s better than two in shelter. 

It’s a debate that we need to continue to have. It’s a debate that is going to go on right now. The governing board is looking again at the question of: Is housing the right strategy?  Should we be changing our investment policies?  It’s not carved absolutely in stone, but that’s what has been behind the emphasis, really across the nation, in putting government money into housing.


When people are pushing for immediate shelter in places like a tent city, where do they go to express their opinion?

We’ve had several dialogues. There’s been a shelter task force that’s been working, I think, since last March, and actually, folks like SHARE/WHEEL were invited, participated briefly — and decided they didn’t want to participate anymore.

But I think there’s going to be an elevation of the question: Which is the best investment for the people on the street? Is it housing, is it shelter? And that’s with thousands of people on the street; that’s a question that we’ve addressed several times in the past, we’re partially in the process of addressing [now] and about to much more directly.


We’re going to change the subject for a moment. Can you talk a little about your childhood and your experiences with poverty or people who were homeless?

I grew up on the south side of Chicago in a fairly middle-class neighborhood that was on one side bordered by Lake Michigan and the other three sides bordered by the worst ghettos the inner cities had. So I saw landlords burning apartment buildings for the insurance. I saw people — well, I don’t know if you’re old enough. You remember the Blackstone Rangers? 


I don’t.

They were a street gang that was about [40,000] strong. I grew up on Blackstone Avenue. 

Our neighborhood was 13 blocks long, really severe poverty all around. I was constantly reminded I was where I was because I was born three blocks north and white. And if I’d been born three blocks south and African American, I’d be working really hard to be the best gang leader I could, because that would be the option open to me. Just the intrinsic unfairness of that was what you lived with every day.


Was that something you became aware of? Something your family informed you of?

It was probably a combination. My mother had been a Trotskyite way back when; my dad defended the Chicago Seven against their contempt citations. [They were seven defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, who were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.] That sort of stuff. It was mostly just living it. It was knowing people who had nowhere near the options.

The level of poverty in Seattle is nowhere what the inner cities in the 50s and 60s were, but the level of inequality, the disparity, is in some ways greater.  What we’re seeing in the country is more and more income disparity. I mean, there is no place in Seattle [where] it’s the same as the inner city.


And yet there are still people living in cars. There’s family homelessness as well. So, do you have a belief that homelessness is something that can be addressed in this county?

I think it can. It needs to be addressed by more than just the homelessness system, if it’s really going to be addressed. It has to do with job opportunities, with income disparity, with housing costs. We’re one piece of the puzzle.

One of the things that the committee has been criticized for is not being a total social justice entity.  Everybody on it is involved in social justice in other ways. It is really focused on programs focused specifically on addressing homelessness.


Do you feel you’ve gotten a fair shake for the work you’ve done?

From whom? 


Let’s say organizations like SHARE/WHEEL. We could even say Real Change.

Both SHARE/WHEEL and Real Change have an important voice in saying what we’re doing is still not enough. That’s a valid statement. So in that sense, they’re part of what the conversation has to be.

I don’t expect them to leap up and down and say, “Fantastic for passing the mental illness and drug dependency sales tax [enacted in 2005, it adds one penny in tax to every $10 purchase, resulting in roughly $45 million annually for substance abuse and mental health programs], and the vets and human services levy [which raised almost $80 million between 2005 and 2011], and the Seattle low-income housing levy. In adding all these resources I expect them to say, “You’re not doing enough.” And at least in recent years the personal attacks, which were somewhat frustrating, have dropped off, and they’ve been instead the important social voice. So, yes, I think it’s a fair shake.


You still say that after you talk about personal attacks?

Well, the personal attacks, as I’ve said, have dropped off. I mean when some of the voices were doing it as a tactic of personal mockery, yeah, that’s troublesome. But that hasn’t been for a while.


It’s called the Plan to End Homelessness. That’s sort of a lofty title. Is there anything wrong with having a lofty title?

The only thing wrong is if you run up against a huge recession and increasing income disparity. Do people lose momentum when they realize it’s going to be harder than people thought? One of the things that I am pleased with is that people still really care and are really working harder. And they recognize that we are still going to have homelessness in 2015. 


How much power do you think CEHKC has?

It has power insofar as CEHKC has the ability to take something that one member is inspired with and get everybody behind it and get it moving. But it can’t order anybody over their will to do anything.


There’s this perception that it does have an immense amount of power. Is that misguided, or is that seeing something you may not realize?

I think because we’ve come together, we’ve been able to do a lot of things that other communities have not been able to. So in an inspirational sense, I think it’s been very powerful.

In terms of a “speaking truth to power” sense of power: No. That is a misperception. The idea that you would get a vote of the governing board, and it would direct the city of Seattle to do x, y and z, and the city would be compelled to do it, that’s not the sort of institution it is.


Then why do you exist?

Because [otherwise] we wouldn’t have done all the things we’ve done. That’s the difference between saying the only way to effect change is to have a revolution and take over governance. The way to effect change is actually to inspire people to make that change. So, yes, we’ve inspired a lot of people, we’ve done a lot of things. We’ve coordinated a lot of funding, a lot of housing, we’ve done a lot of prevention. An awful lot of that wouldn’t have happened if not for the existence of CEHKC.


Sometimes, when people leave relationships, organizations, they think about regrets they have. Do you have any?

It sort of depends on how you define regrets. The thing that haunted me in other situations is where I felt I hadn’t given the full amount I had to give. I feel I’ve given a full, good-faith effort to the CEHKC. There are all kinds of individual decisions that I can go through: I wish I really would have pushed on family coordinated-entry [a program that institutes a clearly identified, single-point-of-entry process for homeless families looking to access services] when we had an opportunity five years ago, and it would have happened a lot sooner. And some dialogues that needed to happen didn’t. And you lie awake at night because we haven’t accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish. So there are all those elements. But in terms that I somehow let the job down, I actually don’t, arrogant as that may be.


Is there anything you think is important to [let people] know about the work you’ve done that people may not see or comprehend?

There are a lot of things we’ve done that aren’t highly visible. The dilemma of trying to portray CEHKC is that we still have a terrible problem of homelessness. What people may not understand is how much we’ve done and how much worse it would be if we hadn’t done that. The good work gets hidden by the calamity society is inflicting on everyone.


Do you imagine that homelessness will be eradicated in King County?

I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be. Go back 30 years, and it was a very small subset of society. One of the things that is most troublesome is we’ve got a generation growing up for whom mass homelessness is normal. And there’s no reason it should be. Now, talk to me after this next election, and we’ll see.

I grew up in an era where, even though there was a lot of poverty and a lot of hardship, homelessness was a very small issue. And part of what we need to work toward is a societal expectation that that’s the norm, not the other way around.

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