Our state is at a crossroad: A global pandemic has taken thousands of lives, an economic recession has left thousands more without work and vibrant city centers are now waiting for recovery. As a state, we cannot accept going “back to normal” but must actively work toward creating a better future. A linchpin of our recovery will be addressing chronic homelessness.
The chronic homelessness crisis is a health care, economic and equity crisis that impacts us all. Our region’s future depends on our ability to confront it now. Other West Coast cities have proven success is possible. We must learn from them, taking a more centralized, data-driven and individualized approach, providing both emergency and long-term housing, as well as on-demand services.
To address this crisis, Challenge Seattle released a report titled, “Chronic Homelessness: A Crossroad,” which focuses on the chronic homeless population because they are among our state’s most vulnerable, facing continuing, long-term homelessness. They are often the hardest to reach, stabilize and house. The vast majority suffer from a serious psychiatric illness, emotional condition and/or substance use disorder. They are disproportionately impacted by racial inequities. Although chronic homelessness is not new, the pandemic has exacerbated this crisis.
It will be no surprise to learn that chronic homelessness is surging, growing 27% statewide each year. King County has experienced an astonishing 42% increase, the second-fastest growth in the nation, despite a 21% annual increase in funding dedicated to homelessness. Clearly, we have not seen the outcomes we need. While progress has been made toward combating youth and family homelessness, existing policies and initiatives have failed to successfully address chronic homelessness. As a result, thousands of Washingtonians remain trapped in a cycle without access to key services and housing.
Meanwhile, other cities and counties have succeeded. By implementing data-backed solutions, Bakersfield, California, has achieved its functional zero goal for chronic homelessness. San Diego, a county of 1.1 million more people than King County, successfully brought its growth down to only 2%. These examples show that stopping the growth of chronic homelessness is possible through a coordinated, focused, accountable structure. Thus, we offer the following six recommendations:
- Create emergency housing while we wait for permanent supportive housing, like King County’s Health Through Housing program.
- Provide individualized, on-demand services.
- Establish a command center to focus on individuals experiencing chronic homelessness with an emphasis on equity.
- Utilize real-time data.
- Employ qualified, experienced case workers and those with lived experience.
- Focus on transparency, accountability and evaluation with regular reporting to the public.
Some will worry about cost, but the cost of inaction far exceeds the cost of solutions. In addition to the incalculable impacts on individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, the annual costs to emergency and legal systems, the community and economy are nearly double the cost of these proposed solutions.
The federal $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides an immediate opportunity to make significant investments particularly in emergency housing for the chronically homeless. Seattle and King County have pledged to invest ARPA funds into homelessness. A proven effort in California to create emergency housing for 6,000 through an $850 million investment provides a blueprint to begin our road to success. Using state ARPA funds to address chronic homelessness is our single biggest opportunity to make progress.
This is the crossroad where we find ourselves: A turning point with far-reaching consequences for the health, safety and economic security of the region. Individuals and families need to be safe in neighborhoods and parks. Businesses need to open, and employees need to feel safe returning downtown. We need to literally save the lives of our neighbors experiencing chronic homelessness. To do this, we all need to work together with the newly-created King County Regional Homelessness Authority, commit to proven solutions, and execute with urgency. We at Challenge Seattle are ready for change. It’s time for action.