Pitching a bigger tent
Mark Putnam, incoming director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, is expected to create an organization accessible to activists and engaged with the people it serves
The King County Committee to End Homelessness, reputedly bureaucratic and dispassionate in its approach to solving homelessness, is hiring a leader known to roll up his sleeves and work closely with those who need help.
Mark Putnam, former youth and family director of Building Changes, a nonprofit that leverages and guides funding for statewide homelessness efforts, is taking over as director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (CEHKC), a government body that is coordinating regional efforts to provide housing and shelter to homeless people.
He takes on his new role just before 2015, the original deadline to meet the organization’s lofty goals of ending homelessness.
Putnam’s arrival comes as the organization is revising and reconsidering its approach to homelessness, with increased emphasis on emergency shelter and crisis response, long-needed changes to its lengthy waiting list for family housing services and the recent launch of a pilot project called rapid rehousing, which is set to help people from 350 households find and secure market-rate housing quickly and with minimal intervention or support.
Some say Putnam’s appointment signals a shift in the organization from a system of top-down governance to one that is more grassroots and collaborative. CEHKC and its former director, Bill Block, worked at a distance from direct service providers, focusing primarily on research and funding, said Kristine Cunningham, executive director of the ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District.
Putnam is able to bridge both worlds, she said, citing his experience in fundraising and policy at Building Changes and his experience with direct services as the board president of ROOTS, where he served breakfast and directly handled concerns and complaints from young adults who stayed there.
“I stopped tracking [CEHKC] years ago,” Cunningham said. “Their hiring of Mark [Putnam] has given me hope.”
Putnam’s hiring opens the door for a more harmonious CEHKC, said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, executive director of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness.
“It’s been so harsh and adversarial for years, and it no longer needs to be that way,” he said.
In his first month, Putnam has already met with big and small players among advocates for housing and homelessness services, Kirlin-Hackett said, including people CEHKC has kept at arm’s length in the past.
Putnam, in December, approached the Interfaith Taskforce, which Kirlin-Hackett said has been ignored for years.
He met in late December with Rex Holbein, who operates a Facebook page called Homeless in Seattle that connects its 7,000 followers with homeless people for support and friendship.
For his part, Putnam was circumspect about his strategy for the organization. Putnam said he’s still meeting and learning about what the job will require and what direction CEHKC should take.
“The approach is still forming,” he said, adding, “We’re not satisfied with where we are.”
CEHKC, he said, will rely on improving existing programs with limited resources, but also push of funding to expand programs. It’s the only option, following a recession that devastated human services programs with diminished funding and increased demand.
“With existing resources, what can we do better, and how can we serve more people?” Putnam said.
The time is ripe, however, to make improvements: “The topic of homelessness is on the tips of everyone’s tongues,” he said.
Putnam is the second permanent director of the group, originally headed by Bill Block, who left in October 2012. Gretchen Bruce has acted as interim director for the past year. Putnam will receive $107,598 in salary as CEHKC director.
Putnam has been working on housing issues in Seattle for 16 years, mostly at Building Changes. When Putnam started there part-time as a graduate student, it was AIDS Housing of Washington. Since then, the organization shifted focus and changed its name to Building Changes.
As a director, Putnam expanded Building Change’s focus to include homeless youth and young adults and to advocate for rapid rehousing, a method of helping people who are recently homeless or at risk of being homeless get secure stable housing with minimal intervention.
Putnam spent a lot of his time working on rapid rehousing, said Building Changes Executive Director Alice Shobe. CEHKC launched a rapid rehousing pilot program in late 2013 for 350 people.
The program will determine the minimal amount of housing support a family needs, move them into market-rate housing and take them off public assistance as quickly as possible.
Other organizations, such as the Community Psychiatric Clinic, have had success with similar programs, he said.
“They need a short amount of rental assistance; they don’t need to be brought into the system,” Putnam said. “Getting them a key and a door and a kitchen table is really the best approach.”
Putnam was also the board chair of ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District and facilitated and drafted CEHKC’s first plan, which infleunced the current strategy for serving homeless youth, a program that collects data from homeless teens and young adults and consolidates waiting lists for services.
“He pulled together the whole approach that we’re doing for youth and young adults,” said Adrienne Quinn, King County’s Human Services Director.
At CEHKC Putnam will have to consider all homeless populations, but he said the organization has already developed strong approaches to serving homeless veterans, families, and youth and young adults.
He also has a new deadline: The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is pushing cities to reduce youth and family homelessness by 50 percent by 2020. That will happen, Putnam said, through a combination of prevention, rapid rehousing, employment programs and tailoring services to meet each household’s unique needs.
Results of CEHKC’s efforts thus far have been mixed. The organization built 5,000 units of housing and rehoused 30,000 by the time Block, the former director, left.
In the past two years the committee has overseen the launch of Family Housing Connections, which gives families a single place to sign up and wait for multiple shelter and housing programs.
The number of unsheltered people, however, remains high. The Seattle/King County Coalition to End Homelessness (SKCCH) found 2,736 people sleeping outdoors in January 2013. CEHKC also revised its Family Housing Connections program because the list was 4,000 people long, and there were about 20 openings for shelter or housing each month.
While Putnam said he has a lot of faith in rapid rehousing to alleviate this demand, he added that the real key will be coordinating all levels of service, including emergency shelter and transitional housing.
“That’s the biggest challenge: getting us all moving in the same direction,” Putnam said.
CommentsBy Mark's resume we have the right person hired for this demanding job. A pridefull city like ours has no business putting up with almost 3,000 people sleeping outside! I have an Idea that can also Help get a nice place for as many Homeless as we can see.
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