Taking a smarter approach

Just as human suffering is rising in our communities, so is the effort to reduce it. Even better, those behind the effort are getting smarter abo ut it.

Millions of public and private dollars, and a bottomless well of good intentions, have been spent in recent years to fight homelessness here. Yet the problem is growing — not a big surprise, given that Snohomish County’s unemployment rate is at a 25-year high.

Roughly half of the estimated 22,000 homeless people in the state are families with children — kids whose suffering threatens to play out over a lifetime. Their odds of missing out on a good education, and winding up in incarceration, go up the longer they’re without a home. Finding stable housing for such families is not only the humane thing to do, it’s in society’s long-term interest.

Recognizing that, a broad coalition of government, business, nonprofits and private philanthropy embarked on a bold initiative Thursday, seeking to cut the state’s number of homeless families with children in half over the next decade. Snohomish County and the city of Everett are part of the Washington Families Fund effort, which is backed by the considerable brain power and money (up to $60 million) of the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation. The state, King and Pierce counties and the cities of Seattle and Tacoma are also on board.

The goal is to take strategies that are working to reduce homelessness in other communities — based on research done by the Gates Foundation — and apply them here. Five principles will guide that work: early intervention and prevention; coordinated access to support services; getting homeless families back into permanent housing quickly; tailoring programs to meet specific needs; and increasing economic opportunity by connecting homeless parents to training and job opportunities.

The Workforce Development Council will lead Snohomish County’s effort, emphasizing the critical connection between stable employment and stable housing.

Money will be used to track families who receive help, to learn how to better target and coordinate services, and to keep them from falling through the cracks when they cross county lines. Ideas for improvement can be put into action quickly with grants from the Gates Foundation and corporate partners, and those that work can be spread across the state.

Family homelessness is a societal ill that should weigh heavily on each of us. Our institutions, public and private, should reflect that concern. In this case, they’re doing so by pooling resources and joining in a common strategy, one that holds real promise for success.

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