At 7 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, I logged onto Facebook to find personal messages from five frantic teenagers all pleading for help.
“I have nowhere to go, have you heard back from Sacramento Steps Forward about housing?” one asked.
“Grace I’m desperate, please help me find somewhere to go TONIGHT!” wrote another.
As a direct service provider and advocate for homeless youth, I know these anxious requests are not atypical. What is uncommon is not having the answers to respond to these questions.
I still haven’t found the right way to tell a young person sleeping outside in the rain that I have no idea whether or when housing will come through. I still don’t know how to tell them that the people whom they are supposed to trust the most—case managers, advocates, program directors, executive directors, even myself—are just as lost as they are in this process.
Not too long ago, our city had a vision of streamlining people experiencing homelessness into one coordinated system. Instead of calling every program in town separately, a person could walk into one center, complete one intake evaluation and be immediately placed on every housing list for which they were eligible. This was and still is an indefectible dream, but our reality today looks nothing like this picture.
Today, Sacramento attempts to manage a centralized intake system through a process called “coordinated entry,” recommended for use by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s a widely used method across America, though HUD gives each community quite a bit of autonomy in deciding how it runs this system.
As a front-line observer, I can attest to the fact that Sacramento’s implementation, well-intentioned as it may be, is flat-out not working. Here are six reasons why:
1. Sacramento lacks the necessary resources.
Through the coordinated entry process, an individual experiencing homelessness must meet with a navigator from Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s lead agency combating homelessness, to be assessed and entered onto a massive waitlist for housing called the “community queue.”
Almost every local housing program mandates that a person be referred through the community queue. But, as of now, there is no way to get onto it. There’s no hotline to call or office to walk into.
Even if a homeless person stumbles into a navigator by luck, the navigators are so strapped for resources that most have stopped adding any more persons to the list.
2. The wait is interminible.
For those lucky enough to get on the list, the result is often a one-way ticket to purgatory where they never seem to progress.
One of the most disturbing things about Sacramento’s coordinated entry system is its lack of transparency. Nobody outside of Steps Forward has access to the queue. This means that, as a provider, when someone asks me what their wait for housing looks like, I have no idea whether they are number 5 on the list or number 205.
Furthermore, your position isn’t based on how long you’ve been homeless, but the date of your most recent incident of homelessness.
This means that, if one has been homeless for three years, then crashes on a friend’s couch for a week, the clock starts all over again.
3. The system is too complicated.
As a result, local affordable housing slots are being given away to Bay Area residents.
Most affordable housing programs that use coordinated entry apply what’s called a “scattered site” housing model, meaning that assistance agencies will partner with local apartment complexes to reserve units for individuals in their programs.
Due to the slow-moving nature of our coordinated entry process, some local property managers report that they have begun accepting persons from San Francisco’s community queue because it’s faster and more efficient than Sacramento’s process.
4. The coordinated entry program is strangled by red tape.
Even agencies willing and able to accommodate a homeless person can be stymied in their efforts.
Let me give an example: For six weeks, I have been working with a young couple sleeping on the streets. The day we met, I had an open unit for them in our program. I requested a referral from the coordinated entry specialist and was told that the couple would be referred immediately. After three follow-up emails and a month of waiting, I was informed that they were not, in fact, going to be referred after all.
Now it is my job to tell them that the city moved the goal posts and, as a result, they will remain homeless for an indefinite period of time.
5. People are slipping through the cracks.
Unlike agencies that independently manage their own waitlists—that have relationships with people on the list and continue to stay in close contact—Steps Forward’s navigator position is not designed to be a case manager role.
Navigators and their contacts often do not see each other between the initial meeting and the time their names come up, which can be well over a year. We’re talking about people who are forced to live a transient lifestyle outdoors, with no permanent address and limited access to cellphones and email. This means that if your name does come up on the queue, navigators are left looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm.
6. Nobody will talk about it.
All of the above shortfalls could be mitigated if coordinated entry leads acknowledged the current system’s shortcomings and were actively engaged in working to create a better system.
Maybe somewhere, someone is sitting in a cubicle working on this system, but homeless advocates, providers and the homeless themselves are left out of the conversation.
One of my colleagues recently issued a “call to arms” with an email to providers and Steps Forward staff exclaiming, “Let’s harness our collective strength and tackle this list. … I am happy to coordinate a fierce and impactful effort.”
Providers and advocates responded with an enthusiastic willingness to do this, but Steps Forward never acknowledged this email in any way.
But there are some early signs that Steps Forward might be hearing this feedback. And that’s way better than the potential alternative of turning this process over to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency—starting yet another disorienting attempt to house exclusively chronically homeless individuals—which experts fear could result from the mayor’s plan to reprioritize housing vouchers.
Despite its shortfalls, coordinated entry is only a year old and can be fixed. If not, or if we start from scratch with SHRA, this game of pingpong that we call “coordinated entry” will continue to corrode our homeless population’s faith in the system and in those working with it.
As a service provider, it’s hard enough to gain trust from individuals with a lifetime of experience being let down. I grimace to think of how many more days are to come where I am tasked with admitting this uncertainty to an 18-year-old still desperately clinging to the hope that Sacramento has a safety net ready to catch her.