Councilmember Bagshaw left office on December 31, 2019. This website is for archival purposes only and is no longer updated.

Opening Doors: Thoughts on homelessness

There are few people who didn’t hear last week’s tale of Ted Williams, the golden-voiced homeless man in Columbus, Ohio, who begged for change at a freeway off-ramp. Thanks to a viral video shared by a Columbus reporter, Williams went from making his home in the bushes to fielding multiple  job offers from organizations including the Cleveland Cavaliers and NFL Films.

The same week that gave us the redemptive tale of Ted Williams gave us another powerful name from Columbus, Ohio:  Barbara Poppe.   Barbara Poppe has spent more than twenty-five years working to prevent and reduce homelessness with many housing-related non-profit organizations.  During the last fourteen years she worked with the Columbus-based Community Shelter Board; Poppe is now the Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and she coordinates the federal government’s response to the issue.  Wednesday morning last week, she delivered an address to the assembled crowd of legislators, regional elected officials, and committed advocates at the Fifth Annual Legislative Breakfast for the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, coordinated by Bill Block. 

Poppe talked about what works and tied into the development and implementation of the first ever comprehensive Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. The plan is centered on the belief that “no one should experience homelessness – no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.”  The short report called Opening Doors is good reading. 

The plan comes with the backing of the Interagency Council’s membership (which includes the heads of sixteen federal agencies) and has provided direction to align federal resources effectively and appropriately toward four key goals: 

  • Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness; 
  • Prevent and end homelessness among Veterans; 
  • Prevent and end homelessness among families, youth, and children; 
  • Set a path to ending all types of homelessness


Poppe recognizes the good work already undertaken by Seattle and King County, and endorses a smart way to respond to homelessness, much of which Seattle is already doing.  The concept of “rapid re-housing,” the idea that the best possible way to assist  homeless people is to get them into independent, permanent housing as soon as possible, is the direction which has been proven to work nationwide.   We know that emergency shelter is necessary for many, but it is not a permanent solution. If we approach the issue of homelessness at its root and help people into permanent housing, other needed services became so much more effective and efficient to provide, whether it’s addiction counseling, childcare help so a parent can find work, or mental health services for those who need compassionate help.   Before we can measure success, we need to know where people are and whether they have moved into and stayed in housing.

Barbara Poppe said that Seattle is noted among major cities for not collecting data to determine whether people who are homeless are getting services they need.  New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles are recognized by the federal government as cities whose programs are deemed effective,  accountable and improving.    Data collection in those cities is not imposed to invade a person’s privacy; rather, collection of information about the people served helps those service providers provide the needed services.   We really need to establish expected outcomes and measure them to know what works.  

I truly want to increase permanent housing placement rates, and to provide those who are homeless with the services they need to become healthy, safe, and self sufficient.  To make a dent in reducing the number of people on the street and the length of time people are in emergency or temporary shelters, we need to combine permanent housing with appropriate support services to keep people housed.   To better understand who we’re serving, how we’re serving them, and what factors need mitigating, we need to hear from those who have been homeless, those who are currently homeless, and the businesses, non-profits, and faith-based organizations that can help us provide housing.  We must also develop and use appropriate systems to collect data on programs targeted at homelessness, and know which ones work and which ones do not.

The bottom line, to paraphrase Barbara Poppe, is that we’ll never solve homelessness if the necessary services only become available once someone has actually become homeless.  I invite you to tell me what is working here and elsewhere to prevent and reduce homelessness, and how you know.  Ending homelessness  is my goal.

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