King County homeless count dips, but more families face life on the street

One legislative proposal would shore up funding by extending document fees that are set to expire.

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A place to sleep

One legislative proposal would shore up funding by extending document fees that are set to expire.

The 2011 One Night Count on Thursday (Jan. 27) indicated an 11 percent decline in the number of people in King County who are sleeping in doorways, vehicles, and other places not meant for human habitation. Last year's total of 2,759 dipped this year by 317, to 2,442. 

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), which organizes the annual One Night Count, wrote in an email, "This is the first double-digit drop we have seen in years of counting. If supported by other indicators, it could be a very encouraging sign."

Said Bill Block, project director of the Coalition to End Homelessness - King County, "The street count is down, but we'll have to wait for the full count to tell us more." Still to be tallied are people living in emergency shelters and transitional housing.

Before Thursday's numbers came in, Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney (D-Seattle) was telling legislators who are members of the Committee on Community Development & Housing, which she chairs, "What's disturbing is that 40 percent of the homeless people in the nation today are families. Of the 3 million people homeless in America today, 1 million are kids."

With budget decisions coming up, the committee was in a work session to gather more data on homelessness. Those present were told that Washington state has one of the higher rates of homelessness in the United States. Norm Suchar of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) told the legislators that 35 people out of every 10,000 are homeless in this state, compared to a national average of 22.

On the other hand, Suchar said, Washington has done better than average with particular subgroups, such as chronically homeless people, because of its cutting-edge approaches to providing permanent supportive housing: "Washington is at the forefront, and you see the result in some dramatic decreases."

Suchar stressed that homelessness is bad for communities as well as individuals. When students become homeless (at last report, over 20,000 students were homeless in Washington), test scores drop, and students are more likely to repeat grades. More absences and transfers between schools mean more demands on staff, and classes are disrupted by students entering and leaving.

Homelessness also means higher costs for society's health care and corrections systems, Suchar said, and businesses feel the impact, too.

Proven, cost-effective solutions to homelessness exist, said Alice Shobe, deputy director of Building Changes. Shobe cited prevention strategies aimed at keeping people on the edge from losing their homes; rapid rehousing; tailored services; and stronger connection to living-wage jobs. For her, as for Block, who spoke to the committee about Ten-Year Plan progress, it is vital to continue such approaches and sustain positive momentum.

Yet the $1.5 billion in federal funding for programs in Washington, which came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will lapse later this year, and many nonprofits and faith-based groups are already fully involved in delivering homeless services. In short, much is riding on the legislature's coming budget decisions.

The evening after the work session, the ranking minority member of the committee, Rep. Norma Smith (R-Clinton), said she was encouraged by the progress noted in the reports but also struck by the complex intertwining of federal, state, local, nonprofit, faith-based, and private efforts. "Where are the gaps?" she asked. "We have to make sure we're using the data and not let it get lost in the scramble for new revenue. We need to use resources effectively to handle the crisis as well as build long term."

Rep. Kenney said, "With everybody being hamstrung by the economy, maintenance is what the legislature is looking at. We need to address the revenue problem while dealing with the Eyman initiative." She is sponsoring an extension of document recording fees enacted in 2009; if they phase out as scheduled in 2013, an additional $41 million in state and local homeless funding will be lost.

"We're a crisis-oriented society," Kenney sighed. If we react only to crises and "we don't take more preventive steps, we're going to have to do three times as much."


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