Homelessness conversation resumes with good news and bad

EVERETT — A year and a half ago, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson convened the city’s Streets Initiative Task Force to tackle homelessness and the associated problems of substance abuse, mental illness and street crime.

The city has since taken up a variety of issues. The most significant is a commitment to provide low-income housing to chronically homeless people.

Stephanson took to the stage at the Historic Everett Theatre on Monday to make a few announcements about the city’s progress on plans to find housing for 20 people in the first half of the year, and five of them in the first 60 days.

“With the help of YWCA, by Wednesday we’re going to have housing provided for those first five individuals,” Stephanson told the crowd, which included Snohomish County leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee.

He also said the city hopes by the end of February to sign a sale agreement on property for future housing for 60 chronically homeless people.

Monday’s event at the theater was the city’s second Housing Forum, this time featuring a panel of experts.

The first forum in November featured Lloyd Pendleton, the architect of Utah’s successful Housing First program. Pendleton used Utah’s experience to provide guidance and inspiration to the public and to show that homelessness could, in fact, be solved.

The second forum, on Monday, came on the heels of the county’s annual Point In Time count of homeless people.

The count last week identified 481 people essentially living on the street, compared with 312 people last year, an increase of 54 percent. The number of families with children has more than doubled, rising to 35 this year from 16 in 2015.

Monday’s forum brought together a panel of people who have been working in providing housing and social services for years.

All their agencies are moving toward a Housing First model, which emphasizes stable housing without most restrictions while making necessary social services available on site.

It’s a change of thinking that is rapidly being embraced.

Rob McCann, the executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane, said that years ago the nonprofit had to fight local government to build housing for homeless people in that city’s downtown. Everyone told him not to do it, warning that the housing would become a magnet for crime, prostitution, drug dealing and the like.

A couple of years later, the feared outcome had not materialized. Catholic Charities now owns and manages more than 1,000 units of supportive housing across Eastern Washington.

“Now the same people who said, ‘Rob don’t you dare,’ are saying, ‘Rob how many more can you build and how fast?’” McCann said.

Panel members answered questions from the audience on everything from how tenants were screened (by need, usually), whether families with children could live in new Housing First developments (generally no), whether tenants could keep pets (often yes) and how neighbors were convinced to to allow such facilities in their communities.

Kelli Larsen, director of strategic initiatives for Seattle-based Plymouth Housing Group, said the degree of support from neighbors, businesses and local government often goes up and down but that the key is keeping channels of communication open.

“We do believe the community is better overall for people to be in housing rather than on the streets,” Larsen said.

Leaders from government, nonprofits and churches joined panelists in talking about projects and looking for ways to work together.

Inslee said that during the recession, social services were cut to save money for education. That can’t happen any more, the governor said.

“We can’t solve our schools problem by taking funding from housing and mental health. We cannot sacrifice one for the other,” Inslee said.

Christopher Boyer, a Lynnwood City councilman, said his city was spending just $75,000 on a contract with the YWCA to start its own housing project.

Preston Simmons, the chief executive of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, suggested that the county and cities work together on a new federal grant that offers support for housing projects for Medicaid patients — 130,000 of whom live in Snohomish County.

Mark Smith, the executive director of the Housing Consortium of Snohomish County, warned that local governments will have to provide much of the funding to get started.

“If we want to replicate this countywide, there has to be a countywide source of funds. The private market cannot serve this population,” Smith said.

Ed Petersen, the chief strategic officer for Housing Hope, said that in the past communities had come together and found the political will to support housing initiatives for homeless youth and veterans. Focusing on other people who are chronically homeless is a new challenge.

“Chronic homelessness has never had the public will to bring the community together around this issue until, hopefully, now,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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