Commentary: Joint efforts building solutions to homelessness

Partnerships among agencies, government, faith groups and others are offering a range of solutions.

By the Community Services Advisory Council

For The Herald

A safe home is the foundation upon which we build our lives. In a stable home people are far more likely to succeed in school, get a job, maintain health and well-being and contribute to our community.

When we, as a community, help people resolve their homelessness, we create more vibrant downtowns, stronger businesses, safer neighborhoods, which makes Snohomish County a better place to live. It also reduces the cost of providing crisis services in emergency rooms, jails, courts, and law enforcement interactions; all of which increase whenever people don’t have a safe place to sleep.

We can thrive here between the North Cascades and Puget Sound, but part of building a healthy and vibrant Snohomish County requires sensible, cost-effective solutions to resolve homelessness.

Widespread homelessness has not always existed. But rents have skyrocketed and affordable housing is increasingly scarce, while wages have been stagnant for decades. The growing gap between rent and wages has put more low-income households at risk of homelessness with just one family crisis, job loss or medical emergency. In addition, public policy decisions since the 1980s have led to the closing of many state psychiatric institutions without adequate treatment, housing or services to replace them. The lack of affordable housing and mental health services are major causes of homelessness. As a community, we must take action to address these problems, but we need the right tools.

The Community Services Advisory Council is part of the Community Action movement created in the 1960s. Today, a network of Community Action agencies promote community-wide solutions to challenges facing communities across America. We understand that just as building a sturdy house requires the right tools, so does building a healthy community.

In Snohomish County, diverse partnerships have been transforming systems and targeting investments in proven, cost-effective tools to resolve homelessness. These partnerships have brought together non-profits, law enforcement, government agencies, communities of faith, advocacy groups and neighborhood organizations. And they are creating promising results.

Last year 1,150 people resolved their homelessness with assistance from homeless housing professionals in Snohomish County. And in the last legislative session, state legislators from both parties increased funding to build on this progress.

Here are some of the tools that are helping people out of homelessness and building a healthier community for all:

• Homeless housing providers are partnering with federal, state and local governments to expand the availability of supportive housing, which combines housing with services that assist people in maintaining housing. Supportive housing is critical to assisting people experiencing long periods of homelessness and suffering from untreated mental health and addiction challenges. Research has shown that supportive housing resolves homelessness and improves health, while reducing the cost of publicly funded crisis services.

• Service professionals are partnering with landlords and helping people out of homelessness by locating housing in the private market. They provide assistance with housing search, short-term rental assistance, employment and other services to help people be successful tenants. Service professionals call this combination of services “rapid rehousing,” and it is one of the quickest and most cost-effective tools we can use to address homelessness. Last year, 356 people in the county resolved their homelessness through rapid rehousing.

• Teams of law enforcement and social workers are in the field, under bridges and in homeless encampments connecting people to housing, mental health services and addiction treatment. Last year, teams of Snohomish County Sheriff’s deputies and social workers from Snohomish County’s Human Services Department connected 75 people to housing, 130 to detox services, and 113 to treatment. Because of these successes, Everett started a similar program; Arlington, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Marysville and Monroe have since followed suit.

• The recently opened Snohomish County Diversion Center allows the law enforcement and social worker teams to assist those who are living in homeless encampments and suffering from untreated mental health and addiction challenges. The Diversion Center has beds for short-term stays and directs people to a full suite of needed services.

• To coordinate efforts to prevent and reduce opioid abuse and misuse the Opioid Response Multi-Agency Coordination Group (MAC Group) was formed by the Snohomish County Executive’s Office, County Council, Sheriff, Health District, medical examiner, local cities, fire districts and EMS providers. A component of the work is finding shelter for people experiencing homelessness and opioid abuse so they are more successful in treatment. To facilitate the collaboration, the county executive partially activated the county’s emergency response system.

These partnerships are just some of the ways our community is taking action to address homelessness. They are creating promising results and demonstrating our ability to rally around solutions. Homelessness should not be a permanent aspect of life in Snohomish County. With the right tools, we can solve homelessness and build a healthier community.

Community Services Advisory Council includes Chairman Tony Balk with EvergreenHealth Monroe; Vice Chairwoman Julie Willie Frauenholtz, city of Everett; Ben Haslam, Snohomish County Legal Services; Deana Knutsen, Verdant Health; Sister Adelaide Mohamed, Islamic Resources By Mail; Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert; and Melinda Woods, Resident Action Project.

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