Learning About the Unified Regional Approach

Learning About the Unified Regional Approach

What in the world is a URA and why does Pierce County need one?

On Friday, April 12th, I took some time to convene leaders from across the county to talk about the possibility and need for standing up a Unified Regional Approach to Homelessness (URA) for Pierce County. The path to this meeting was long, and truly over-due, but I was thrilled to see and hear from 17 of our cities and towns and will continue to reach out to those that haven’t engaged.

I am going to treat this somewhat like a FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) because I think that is the easiest way to share information, and I have a couple of links I will put in here to share some other perspectives on the way things can work. But I want to start with WHY.

Why did we start down this path?

When the county adopted the Comprehensive Plan to End Homelessness we had looked to our providers and those with lived experiences to guide our county towards getting to a “functional zero” homelessness rate in our county. This means that people will still enter homelessness, but they do not stay unhoused, and that they quickly are transferred to shelter and from shelter to something more permanent.

One of the key features in the plan was to create a Unified Regional Office of Homelessness. While there was a lot of detail as to what this office might do, what I have learned from their request and from other counties, cities and states that have done this well; you need to have coordination and a willingness to work together.

Below are 6 key questions to help you better understand, but this is absolutely a work in progress, and will become a reality once we have trust and general agreement between all our cities and towns. I also need buy-in from the providers across the region. It is a heavy lift, but critical to getting Pierce County to functionally zero homeless neighbors.

What will the URA do?

The title URA (Unified Regional Approach) states the goal, but how it does this will need to be determined by the many stakeholders. It is about having the governments, the non-profits and all that provide services for our unhoused and potentially unhoused neighbors, on the same page. It means they share data, they collaborate, and they talk to each other about problems and opportunities.

Example: Extreme heat hits our area. Without a unified approach, churches, and some governments might get water, and open shelter in some areas. With a unified approach, we would know where people are, would have a source for the water and supplies, and a distribution plan ahead of the extreme heat event.

Example: A person with two children flees a violent situation and they currently live in Frederickson. The services and temporary housing they are transported to are in Tacoma. But their schools, church, community and job are all in the Frederickson area. The system should be able to help keep them safe AND help them get back to the Frederickson area if it is safe to do so.

It is about no wrong door in Pierce County. It is about helping people where they are, and if we can’t because that area doesn’t have those services, we work together to provide services and get them back to their original community when the crisis is over. It should be able to move swiftly in a crisis like a weather event, or if a funding opportunity comes up. It should be able to tell providers exactly where we have openings for shelter anywhere in the county, in real time. It should be able to know where gaps are, where resources are and where opportunity for improvement might be.

What will the URA NOT do?

It will not be a system that pools all the funds from across the county into one pot. It will not be another level of bureaucracy or government. It will not be something that tells every city and town they must provide all kinds of services. It is about knowing what we have, what is reasonable, and what is possible.

What is the benefit to homelessness providers and those experiencing homelessness?

This is a huge one. Providing services for our unhoused, whether in a shelter of some kind or on the streets requires supplies, training and time. If we were able to coordinate efforts so that we had response teams that were sent out to various areas across the entire county, we would be able to work on trust building and supportive services by sending the same people to the same areas. Right now, many of our providers just go where their organization sends them, without coordination. So, the same street with some unhoused people living in tents might get visited by three different non-profits over a week. But on the other side of town, or in another community, no one is making efforts with another group.

This is because we don’t map services as a region. Many of our chronically homeless neighbors are moved from place to place. Imagine if the same team showed up and started to create a relationship with this person. Offered needed supports because the team knew enough about him or her to make the connection. We could share our data, our resources, our time and energy because the providers wouldn’t be duplicating services.

They also wouldn’t have to do everything. If an organization was doing really superb work with people that are living in cars, I don’t need them to also be in charge of working on connecting them with therapy, or medical care. We could have the agency that is excellent at that, know where these people are, and bring those resources to them. It allows for greater reach, a wider variety of opportunities and in the end, helps our providers do more with less because they wouldn’t do it all.

What is the benefit to Pierce County taxpayers?

Based on the data, we are not seeing improvements in the number of unhoused people across the County, especially on our streets, parks, sidewalks, and other areas. If we truly want to solve this, we need a system that can provide the right services at the right time. Right now, it is like a lottery system for many unhoused neighbors. They must find the right provider to meet their needs, and then the provider must have space.

We spend a lot of money on cleaning up public spaces used as unsanctioned encampments. We spend a lot of money holding people in jails and hospitals when really, they need housing, and most likely need permanent supportive housing. We spend a lot of money trying to move people from one place to another, just for them to set up another tent, park in another vacant lot or move their precious belongings behind a business.

It has the potential to bring in additional funding, to save money, save time, and save lives.

What are the next steps?

I have met with and heard from 17 of the 25 jurisdictions in Pierce County. I have shared this idea with the Coalition to End Homelessness. I will be sharing this with providers that do this work every day in the near future. The County Council will be putting out a Request for Proposal (RFP) that captures what all these stakeholders said they think should be part of this work. We will be hiring someone to come in and help us do the community, business, government, and agency learning and planning together.

This organization will be paid by the county to basically create the framework for what this will look like and establish the proposed budget. I truly see This is a crucial first step to addressing the many different ways homelessness is experienced in our county. But continuing to wait for it to solve itself will not work. We are investing in the housing portion, and we continue to invest in the homelessness side. But there are still huge gaps, and this is a way to find the gaps and fix them.

Has this been done before?

I didn’t jump into thinking about this process without doing some homework. I had heard about this from examples in Texas, California, and closer to us in Spokane and King Counties. Below you can read an article and there are a couple of video clips to do your own learning if you want to see what other communities are doing.

First is a quick article from Spokane discussing why a Regional Approach makes sense. The Journal’s View: Regional approach to curbing homelessness is worth pursuing | Spokane Journal of Business

There is an entire series of videos called Housing and Help: Housing & Help – YouTube but to understand what the elected officials are, and staff used to prepare for this conversation, here is the episode that was the most impactful.

I do not take this work lightly and know that every situation is different throughout our county. What works in King County might fail in Pierce County. What failed in Austin, might be perfect for Pierce. But until we do the learning and get an idea of what is possible, we cannot move forward on this together. And that is the only way we can solve this.

This is my last blog for a while, but this was too important to not spend some time sharing my thoughts and ideas with you. I appreciate you all for taking the time to read this and look forward to announcing what has happened as the steps are accomplished. Look for County Council Press Releases and if you haven’t signed up for the County Legislator, you might do that as my newsletter will also be going silent until November 30th, 2024.

Thanks for reading, and we will be back in December.