Nothing creates more heartache for me than to witness the exploding homeless population in our region. We have failed an ever-increasing number of homeless men and women by ineffectively addressing the high cost of housing, mental health disorders and drug and alcohol addiction. Our region’s elected leaders — myself included — deserve a failing grade in allowing the Seattle region to host what is arguably one of the highest homeless populations per capita in the United States.
This political failure is why I am alarmed that Seattle and King County are designing a new layer of government that would oversee homelessness policy for the entire county. In a desperate grasp for solutions, it might feel good to propose a regional authority to focus on our homelessness problem. But this approach won’t make for better outcomes. What we really need is for our elected officials to do their jobs and make the difficult choices that they were elected to make.
Though this plan’s stated intention is to be a regional response to homelessness, its proposed steering committee is disproportionately representative of Seattle, with just one or two seats out of seven delegated as a voice for the 38 suburban cities. Furthermore, this steering committee only has the authority to confirm or reject the governance plan, not to weigh in on its policies.
The actual policymaking authority would fall to a governing board made up of “experts” who are appointed rather than elected — leaving them unaccountable to taxpayers. What’s more, suburban cities have no appointment power to the governing board, leaving them again underrepresented.
We’ve seen these unelected boards fail before. A recent example is when the unelected King County Board of Health voted unanimously to create government-funded heroin injection sites across King County. Countless cities scrambled to ban the sites and the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to shut the sites down for violating federal drug house statutes. The state Supreme Court then held that a public vote to overturn this policy was not legal, cementing that board’s lack of accountability to the public.
The new government carries a cost to county taxpayers. Together, Seattle and King County are already spending over $195 million a year of taxpayer dollars on homelessness. Even in the unlikely case that more taxpayer money is not pursued, this plan would draw heavily from county funds that are fed by taxpayers from those very cities and unincorporated areas that are given a negligible say in the policy formation process.
So, if a new regional homelessness government isn’t the answer, then what is? Voters must demand that their elected officials assume the political risk and face the homelessness problem head on. Next, we must realize that the best solution requires both compassion and some “tough love.” There is meaningful policy reform that elected officials can pursue right now, if they have the will.
Seattle has become a dead end for homelessness in our country. According to King County data, 45% of our homeless have lived in the county for just four years or less. That same data tells us that 9% of homeless persons reported that being reunited with their family would allow them to have permanent housing. Despite the fact that family reunification efforts have worked well in other parts of the country, this service isn’t offered in King County. Let’s follow the example of many cities, including New York, Portland, San Francisco and even Berkeley, and offer homeless persons who desire it, the option of free, one-way transportation back to the family and friends who can care for them in their time of crisis.
Another policy, which has been celebrated in Los Angeles, is a targeted outreach to homeless persons using transit, at bus and train stops, in order to bring resources directly to them. We could follow L.A.’s example and create specially trained outreach teams — made up of nurses, substance abuse counselors, mental health professionals and the formerly homeless — to connect people in need with the many social services that are offered.
Finally, local leaders cannot effectively tackle homelessness without also tackling mental health and substance abuse. Drug and alcohol addiction has become a painfully visible epidemic in our region. Approximately one-third of deaths in our homeless population in 2018 were caused by drug or alcohol overdose. Yet we have recently seen key treatment centers close their doors, including downtown Seattle’s sole sobering center and the Salvation Army’s Sodo rehab center. We must provide ample substance-abuse treatment and addiction recovery resources to those who need them.
We can do better than our current failed policies — and it doesn’t require more government, or even more taxes. What it does require are elected leaders who are bold enough to make tough choices regardless of the political consequences.