Homelessness emergency: A chance to make a difference

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A Seattle-area homeless encampment .

On Monday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine took a dramatic but absolutely necessary step forward in addressing the homelessness crisis in King County. They officially declared homelessness an emergency in Seattle and King County, akin to emergencies caused by natural disasters.

They also identified an initial infusion of more than $7 million in new resources that they will put toward addressing the problem.

Make no mistake, homelessness in King County really is a crisis. On any given day, more than 10,000 people in King County experience homelessness, about 2,000 more than were on the streets 10 years ago. In 2015 so far, 66 homeless people have died in King County, including 47 on the streets of Seattle. In Seattle’s public schools, 3,000 of the children are homeless. The state now reports that 3,000 people a month in King County become newly homeless.

Why has homelessness increased? Regional and nationals issues of housing affordability, growing economic inequality, a diminishing state and federal safety net, and even population growth have vastly expanded the problem. A recent national study showed that, in urban areas like Seattle, every $100 a month increase in average rents raises the homeless population by 15 percent. With rents skyrocketing locally in recent years, despite our best efforts so far, the ranks of the homeless have continued to swell.

We have made some progress. Between 2006 and 2015, under the local Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness nearly 40,000 people exited homelessness in King County and moved into stable housing, with 85 percent of those remaining housed for at least two years. The Committee to End Homelessness (CEH) – now known as All Home – helped to create 6,300 homes for the homeless. Seattle/King County now ranks as one of the best in the country in the country for amount of housing units dedicated for the homeless.

That is why All Home has redoubled our commitment to forging a community-wide partnership that brings together Seattle and King County governments, religious institutions, non-profits, philanthropic organizations, shelter and housing providers, the private sector and engaged citizens in a coordinated effort – one that both responds to the immediate crisis of homeless individuals and addresses the root causes of the problem in our region.

We’ve taken stock of the lessons learned over the last decade to develop a new, four-year strategic plan dedicated to an ambitious but attainable goal: making the experience of homelessness in King County rare, brief and one-time. We continue to believe strongly that homelessness is solvable, and that acting together as a community, we can make a difference.

And with the leadership being demonstrated by Mayor Murray and Executive Constantine to not only make homelessness a top local priority, but also to aggressively press the federal and state governments to restore mental health, substance abuse and housing funding that has been slashed in recent years, our prospect for progress on this difficult issue is very real.

The good news is that our region’s homelessness crisis is solvable. After years of effort, we know the solutions, and we know we can make a real difference if we adopt the proven strategies outlined in our plan.

Through a focus on prevention to keep people in housing, a commitment to creating more permanent supportive housing for the disabled, and other data-driven strategies, we can make homelessness rare. We’ve also learned that the quicker we can get homeless people into housing, the better, for them and the taxpayer.

The experience of homelessness is traumatic and makes a person’s other problems – like mental illness or substance abuse – worse. That’s why adopting strategies like rapid rehousing that shorten each individual’s experience of homelessness and reduce the chance that they will fall back into homelessness later, are so important. Housing is also a better investment than the alternatives – emergency room visits, jail stays, emergency shelter. We know how to do it: a focus on individualized approaches and housing first can make homelessness a brief and one-time experience.

Aside from the ongoing funding challenges, the key is that homelessness is not somebody else’s problem. It’s your, and my problem. One of the key lessons we’ve learned over the last decade is that tackling the problem of homelessness must be a community-wide effort. The more people who believe that all people should have a home, the more likely it is to become a reality.

We all have a role to play in addressing homelessness. There are many things you can do as an individual to tackle the problem. Whether it is volunteering at your local shelter or homeless service organization, using your web development skills to support a nonprofit raise funding, or Just Saying Hello to those living outside, All Home can help you connect, in a way that is both meaningful and right for you.

Homelessness is solvable, and by acting together as a community, all people can have a home. To learn more about the strategies included in All Home’s new plan and what we all can do in the face of this crisis, please visit our web site here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Mark Putnam, Paul Lambros and Lainey Sickinger

Mark Putnam is the Executive Director of All Home. Paul Lambros is the Executive Director of Plymouth Housing Group. Lainey Sickinger is board president of REACH, an association of Renton churches and community organizations. Both are co-chairs of All Home’s Coordinating Board.