During the upcoming 2020 legislative session, legislators must address the challenge of adult homelessness with solutions that work. We need to reprioritize how public money is used and how government responds to those struggling with substance abuse or mental illness — because much of what’s being done now isn’t working.
Last year, more than $1 billion was spent to tackle homelessness in our region. Meanwhile, heroin, fentanyl and other opioids continue destroying lives, and more and more people are living and dying on our streets.
In the face of this crisis, what can state lawmakers do when our session begins Jan. 13? Here are three things:
• The first is to prioritize the use of the state’s share of revenue from document-recording fees on real estate transactions: Aim it toward diverting people out of homelessness. Diversion is a common-sense way to help people with life challenges: paying a month’s rent, assisting with car repairs, or providing transportation to reconnect with a friend or family member. These cost-effective interventions can make a world of difference for those facing homelessness, and in the long run, diversion programs can save taxpayers money by allowing people to get the help they need when they need it, before they end up on the street.
Pierce County is already doing innovative and effective diversion work. With support from Associated Ministries, Catholic Community Services and United Way’s 2-1-1 helpline, Pierce County considers diversion funding for people who enter its homelessness coordinated entry system. But diversion resources are scarce, and the state should reprioritize existing resources to maximize impact.
• Second, let’s create a guardianship (or conservatorship) program to improve care for people struggling with drug addiction and mental illness, and increase the likelihood that they will get help. Through such a program, a family member could petition the court for temporary guardianship of a loved one to establish a treatment plan — which could require an assessment or placement in a treatment facility. That’s a resource the Legislature could approve quickly.
• Finally, government should create job opportunities for homeless adults who want to work. Some may have a criminal record that prevents them from other employment, while others have found difficulty applying for or holding a job while they are homeless. Supportive employment programs are rising in cities and towns across the county with great success, including here in Washington. Job tasks range from short-term litter cleanup and beautification work to longer-term work in janitorial services. Programs can include skills training with the hope of eventually placing individuals in permanent jobs.
Existing jobs programs include Seattle Jobs Connect, a program that supports homeless adults in gaining employment along with housing and other services. Tacoma is partnering with an employment organization called Valeo Vocation to develop a model that helps people progress toward self-sufficiency. Auburn has a remarkable employment partnership with the Auburn Food Bank to assist those in need. And Vancouver is working with a nonprofit organization called Share on a jobs program made possible through a small state grant pilot. We should make this grant program permanent to encourage other cities to move forward with innovative employment programs.
Our state’s lawmakers have a real opportunity to decrease homelessness this year. As long as we are willing to work together across party lines and across the state, we can make a difference.