An Everett police officer and a social worker (foreground) chat with Chris Portner (right) and his dog Gizzy at a homeless encampment near I-5 and Marine View Drive during the annual Point in Time count Jan. 23, 2019, in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

An Everett police officer and a social worker (foreground) chat with Chris Portner (right) and his dog Gizzy at a homeless encampment near I-5 and Marine View Drive during the annual Point in Time count Jan. 23, 2019, in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Editorial: Friction provides no warmth to homeless in county

A public dispute among state agencies and local governments can only delay solutions for homelessness.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Friction can generate heat, but there’s no useful warmth in hot words between three state agencies and the City of Everett and Snohomish County regarding a state grant program meant to relocate and find shelter for those in encampments under highway overpasses, at rest stops and in other rights of way.

And it’s doing little to resolve the larger issues of homelessness that all are working to address.

Earlier this year, three state agencies — the departments of Transportation and Commerce and the Washington State Patrol — under the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee, launched a grant program that was meant to provide housing to homeless individuals that would allow the clearing of encampments on the rights of way for which the state is responsible. The intent of the program, beyond housing people and storing belongings, was to provide better safety and security for state highway work crews and allow cleanup of the rights of way.

Four counties applied for and received funding for the state program: King, Pierce, Thurston and Spokane, but Snohomish County declined, noting that it lacked hotel and other capacity for the grant program.

As Herald Reporter Jake Goldstein-Street laid out last week, there are a total of 683 shelter beds available year-round in the county, with about a quarter available through a hotel voucher program. During cold weather months — as we’re seeing now — another 157 beds can be added for a total of 840. The county’s recent purchase of two hotels — one in Everett and one in Edmonds — will eventually add another 130 rooms.

That total of up to 970 beds, however, falls short of the nearly 1,200 individuals counted in February during the countywide point-in-time census of the homeless population.

Noting the grant program’s short time frame, county and city officials this summer declined the offer and did not apply for the grants and instead moved ahead with their own programs, such as the county’s purchase of the hotels and Everett’s work to expand its pallet shelter locations.

Rather than continue discussions with the county, the state opened the grant application to two Snohomish County nonprofit social service agencies who accepted grant money to find housing for those removed from encampments and provide supportive services.

But there was little notification in advance regarding those plans made to officials in Everett or the county, resulting in a surprise for Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin when the Everett Police Department was notified of homeless individuals from the state program being placed in city motels. Shortly after the city learned of the placements, Franklin, in a tweet, called the motel placements an “unacceptable burden for our city to bear.”

Initially, three people were placed in Everett motels, but Franklin recently told the editorial board that as many as 10 from right-of-way encampments are now being housed.

Coverage in The Herald and elsewhere led to further exchanges through news outlets and social media, including a letter from the heads of the three state agencies to Franklin and County Executive Dave Somers, criticizing the pair for taking their complaints public rather than directly reaching out to the state agencies.

“You attempted to shame our agencies and accused us of transporting people experiencing homelessness across county lines, an accusation that is patently false and offensive,” the agencies’ letter stated, followed by a request for a retraction and an apology.

Franklin declined the letter’s request for a retraction and repeated hers for a suspension of the placement program until there was further discussion.

The contention that individuals had been moved into Everett from outside the county was apparently not correct; the agencies’ letter states the intention to find housing only for those from encampments within the county. But the misunderstanding appears to be the result of a lack of communication between the state agencies and county and city officials.

It’s one thing for the state to offer compensation for a program, but another when its agencies ignore the first-hand guidance from local governments that they don’t have the capacity — in the time frame stipulated by the state — to qualify and meet the requirement for appropriate shelter.

And filling motel beds, while it solves the state’s need to clear its rights of way, doesn’t address the issue at the local level regarding the short supply of adequate shelter and housing.

Franklin also points out that the city wasn’t provided information in advance about where homeless individuals were being relocated from and was allowed no say in where they would be placed. As it was, at least some individuals were placed in motels in north Everett that have struggled with drug activity and prostitution, not an ideal location for those with their own challenges with addiction and behavioral health.

Typically, those living in the right-of-way encampments have been on the streets for longer periods and are more likely to have issues with substance abuse or behavioral health. Even under supervision of the nonprofit agencies, Franklin said, “it’s not a safe location for them and leaves them open to being further victimized or victimizing others.”

Franklin defends the “Housing First” principle, which advocates for securing housing for homeless individuals without requiring treatment for addiction, but says that such housing has to be accompanied by supervision, supportive services and easy availability of treatment programs and even persuasion to get treatment.

County and city officials emphasize that their criticism doesn’t extend to the two nonprofits involved, both of which perform important work in communities across the county. Rather, local officials said, the problem was a lack of transparency, notification and coordination with local governments necessary to assure safe and effective allocation of available rooms and services.

The state agencies have disputed the contention that the county and city were unaware of its plans to work with nonprofit agencies, pointing to a letter of support written by the county’s director of human services, MJ Brell Vujovic, regarding the grant application by Volunteers of America.

But awareness of the grant doesn’t rise to the necessary level of communication with local government about the details of how that program was to be run and in which motels. Brell Vujovic’s letter speaks to specific programs VOA had successfully administered, but there’s no endorsement — specific or implied — for placing individuals in motels anywhere in the county when the county and Everett had previously indicated such space was inadequate to meet the needs of the state’s intentions.

The three state agencies — as well as the city and county — can share responsibility for the vitriol in the back-and-forth that resulted. But had discussions continued after the county declined to apply for the grant — rather than the state seeking a way around the county’s “No Vacancy” sign — a lot of useless friction could have been avoided.

It’s not too late for those discussions — and some actual warmth — to resume discussions to find solutions that increase a supply of shelter that can meet the needs of those now waiting in the cold.

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