Liz Skinner (right) and Emma Titterness, both from Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, speak with a man near the Silver Lake Safeway while conducting a point-in-time count of those experiencing homelessness, Jan. 23, in Everett. Results of this year’s count are expected later in May. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Liz Skinner (right) and Emma Titterness, both from Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, speak with a man near the Silver Lake Safeway while conducting a point-in-time count of those experiencing homelessness, Jan. 23, in Everett. Results of this year’s count are expected later in May. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Among obstacles, hope to curb homelessness

Panelists from service providers and local officials discussed homelessness’ interwoven challenges.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The reason that homelessness has proved so intractable — beyond the investments and policies to improve the availability of housing — are the issues that surround it, including poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, unmet behavioral health needs, public safety and the social stigma placed upon those struggling with that complex jumble.

Even among successes — individual and shared — the problem in sheer numbers does not appear to be improving.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2023 homelessness assessment report shows a 12 percent national increase in homelessness over the previous year, with more than 650,000 people experiencing homelessness, the highest numbers recorded since the national Point-in-Time Count began in 2007.

Washington state in that same year counted 28,000 as experiencing homelessness, an 11 percent yearly increase. Snohomish County’s point-in-time count for 2023 found 1,285 unhoused, increasing by 101 from the year before. The count of people living in shelters decreased by 1 percent to a total of 594 people, while the unsheltered population increased by 18.3 percent to 691 people. More recent figures from January’s count are expected next month.

To better understand the challenges and the responses being undertaken by government, service providers and community groups, The Herald called together a panel that met Thursday night at the Sno-Isle Library in Mukilteo.

Participating were: Mary Jane Brell-Vujovic, director of the Snohomish County Human Services; Donna Moulton, chief executive of Housing Hope, a housing provider; Dan Templeman, senior executive director for city of Everett and formerly the city’s police chief; and Shannon Goforth, executive director of Sound Pathways, which provides addiction treatment and other services.

Trouble upon trouble: There was agreement that no one chooses homelessness.

“A lot of people wind up on the street for economic reasons,” Brell-Vujovic said. “And for some people trouble can pile up upon trouble and quickly take over many aspects of your life.”

Complicating the issue, she said, the point-in-time counts are finding more dealing with chronic homelessness, cycling in and out of housing, causing a lack of stability with health, relationships, addiction and jobs.

“Once your there, there are a lot of challenges to get out of it,” she said.

As a housing provider, Moulton said, Housing Hope offers a range of housing from short-term 90-day shelter programs and affordable rentals with supportive programs, senior housing and “sweat-equity” home-ownership programs.

“A lot of folks who come to us, especially if they’ve been living on the streets have experienced extensive trauma, so there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen to move people into more permanent and stable housing,” she said.

Helping to provide that healing falls to organizations like Sound Pathways. Even beyond counseling and case management for addiction treatment, Goforth said her agency works with families to get them in housing and keep them in housing by providing counseling, training and more.

Some of the need is training in basic life-skills, Goforth said.

“We’ll sit down and say, ‘Let’s look at what it looks like to pay your bills. Let’s look at what it takes to manage your finances,’” she said.

Among his responsibilities Templeman is now overseeing the city’s community development department, which is working with the city’s unsheltered population and those suffering substance use disorder. The city itself, Templeman noted, isn’t providing housing or treatment services, but is partnering with those providers and serving as a conduit for state and federal funding and as a coordinator with those programs.

One way the city is connecting those in need with available programs is its embedded social worker program, which started out by pairing social workers with police patrols as they went to encampments or encountered folks on the street.

Seeing success with that program, Templeman said, the city has expanded that service to provide social workers at fire stations and at the city’s two libraries, which allows contact with people who might be wary of approaching social workers when they are accompanied by officers.

The city also is looking to start a new program that will send out a street medicine program to encourage medication-assisted treatment for opioid addictions. The city also is expecting a report soon from a task force that Mayor Cassie Franklin assembled of community members, agencies, churches, businesses and those with lived experience in homeless and addiction.

Housing first: The panel also discussed the effectiveness and complications now being seen with the housing-first model, used by many housing providers that gets people, regardless of current addiction issues, into housing where those services can be offered, rather than making sobriety a condition of housing.

Brell-Vujovic noted that research has shown housing-first remains the most effective model for assuring that people don’t become homeless again and in terms of recovery than people trying to recover from addiction while on the street.

But providing housing before treatment has gotten more complicated, specifically for providers of housing who have had to close down some units and even entire complexes because of contamination from fentanyl and methamphetamine from those still using.

The problem, Moulton said, is widespread, affecting more than just supportive housing programs; it’s not just happening in affordable housing units or for those in low-income housing. But it is increasing costs for providers because units have to undergo remediation.

“The substances that are in those units are very difficult to remediate,” she said. “The cost of that is upward of $60,000 for each unit. For us that’s the real struggle and we’re still trying to figure it out. … It’s heartbreaking when some of our units have to go offline.”

For the county, which has purchased two hotels in Everett and Edmonds, it has had to preform that clean-up work even before opening those facilities to those needing housing, Brell-Vujovic said. Work is ongoing with architects and contractors, with opening of those facilities planned in 2025.

Moulton and others still hold that housing-first remains the best option to assuring both stable housing and access to treatment for the majority of clients.

“What M.J. (Brell-Vujovic) was saying is certainly true; in order to be able to make any changes in your life, one of the things that is most impactful is having a safe place to live,” Moulton said.

Hope among challenges: There also remain challenges in seeing that adequate resources and efforts are provided, Templeman said, and that includes a greater commitment from the community at large, in particular when it comes to locating housing and supportive programs. Those efforts require a willingness to try new ideas, think creatively and have courage, he said.

Even faced with those challenges, Moulton said, she has hope.

“There’s nothing better than seeing somebody when they move into a new home. There’s nothing better than seeing how a child thrives when they have some stability,” Moulton said. “That helps me get through the days that are really, really tough.”

Goforth, who has marked 10 years of sobriety herself, agreed, seeing hope among her co-workers. She said 90 percent of her staff of counselors and others have lived experience, meaning they themselves are in recovery from substance abuse, mental health challenges or homelessness. That helps them connect with the agency’s clients, but it also shows what’s possible.

“Several of my employees were clients, and I trust them to run my agency,” she said. “This is a place of hope.”

And pushing forward, Templeman said, beats the alternative.

“If we give up on what we’re doing because we’re not experiencing the success that we think we should be experiencing and not seeing the results we want to see on the streets, and we lose that hope, then I really fear for what the future holds for us,” he said.

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