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Friday, July 2, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Providing an island of calm amid desperation and chaos

Innovation in social programs is a scarce commodity. Change requires hard work, a willingness to take risks, a bold spirit, the honesty to reverse course and the independence of lots of cash.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation possesses all of the above.

The foundation has flourished on a philosophy of early intervention and prevention in global health problems, and confronting inequities in American schools and access to technology and the Internet.

Four years ago, another challenge was added to the list: the persistent and pernicious problem of homelessness. The foundation's approach was characteristically in a new direction.

The Sound Families Initiative was created to help homeless families in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties get back to stable, productive lives.

The initiative is midway through a $40 million plan to generate 1,500 units of transitional housing, about double what exists. Forty-two public housing and private-sector projects have been helped to provide 741 units totaling $20 million.

About $12 million went into grants that pay 20 percent of the capital costs of new construction or acquisition of existing units. Another $7.8 million went toward services that help move families toward self-sufficiency.

For the most part, these homeless families are not strangers. They are our neighbors who've been smacked with a job loss, ended up on the streets through the ravages of domestic violence or substance abuse, or maybe pushed over the financial edge by an extended illness.

Being destitute in an expensive housing market can mean living in the car or sleeping on a cot in an emergency shelter. Mom, two kids and everything is a hopeless blur.

Building on research by the University of Washington School of Social Work, Sound Families saw a need for transitional housing, an intermediate place between desperation and stability.

Transitional housing represents an island of calm in the midst of emotional and financial chaos — a place to live for six to 18 months while the problems that resulted in homelessness are addressed.

Three things stand out about this approach. The primary value is a decent place to live while kids settle down in school, job skills are sharpened and employment is stabilized.

Second, the Sound Families approach leverages public and private money. Foundation grants attract more cash. As a result, all sectors talk more, and they share resources and expertise.

Third, and most important, is the use of on-site case managers to directly assist the homeless in getting their lives back on track. That includes everything from a nudge about counseling appointments to assistance navigating the social-service bureaucracy, a near impossibility without a phone, car or knowledge of how the system works.

The social-service component combined with case management is key, so Sound Families helps pay for the first five years of services per transitional housing unit. The goal and the challenge is to extend that coverage in projects that will operate for decades.

An example of how all this comes together is a leafy and tidy green-and-white apartment complex in Edmonds owned by the Snohomish County Housing Authority. A dozen transitional apartments are floated in among 120 units of suburban living. No one can tell or needs to know which neighbors were formerly homeless.

Weekly visits by a field case manager from a program through the YWCA of Seattle-King County-Snohomish County help weave lives back together.

It's a mix of hand-holding and intensive care. Help is found for mental-health and substance-abuse issues, budgeting, even cooking skills. Stranded without a car? There is a contract with a day-care agency that picks the kids up.

Here is the punch line: The program sends families back into employment and housing markets.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, has been impressed enough with the case-manager success, she got $2.5 million in the past legislative session to promote its use, find long-term financing for the service and seek reforms in state operations.

This is the kind of smart public investment that saves tax dollars over time.

Instead of multiple case managers spread across multiple agencies, why not link clients and case managers for a more personal and efficient journey through the bureaucracy?

Sound Families through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is nurturing twin triumphs: a homeless plan with measurable success, and a model for innovation and change. Impressive.

The Bible says the poor will always be with us. Lots of folks read that to mean winners and losers are part of the human condition, and, well, tough luck if God doesn't like you.

Others see a scriptural imperative: The obligation to help will always exist — but not necessarily in the same old ways.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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