Each one of the cities outside Seattle faces the same problems Seattle has faced when it comes to homelessness because homelessness does not recognize city boundaries.
Each mayor and city council is responsible for determining the best manner to take care of their residents. Some jurisdictions are less tolerant of the homeless crisis that many of their residents face, and that notion has affected local politics. But other cities have shown creativity and have implemented ideas to help those in need.
King County continues to be a leader as Executive Dow Constantine is using $100 million of the $437 million the county received as part of the American Rescue Act to transition 500 homeless people off the streets by year’s end. Recognizing that the challenge has many pieces, the county will put additional money into jobs and housing.
In a June 25 opinion column in The Seattle Times, Nigel Herbig, Deputy Mayor of Kenmore, and Renton City councilmember Ed Prince “called upon cities in King County to help our homeless neighbors” and support the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) by pooling resources. Prince is co-chair of KCRHA, and the column notes the new CEO of KCRHA, Marc Dones, has committed to looking at subregional plans as a way to coordinate local knowledge and account for the urban, suburban and rural differences within King County. They acknowledged housing options are influenced by the county’s geography, and communities of color face different obstacles. They vowed to work together.
King County has already started the process by setting aside a significant amount of money to buy hotels because the old model of sheltering the homeless in churches or community centers wasn’t workable with COVID-19. The county has also sought to repair some intergovernmental concerns that occurred from moving too quickly in Renton and Kent to make an impact when COVID first arrived. Some cities have already implemented ideas that could work in other areas. Here are a few.
Because many of the homeless come into contact with police and social services agencies, Kent has teamed Human Services Manager Merina Hanson with Police Commander Mike O’Reilly to work with the homeless and local nonprofits on ideas and shelters. Homeless encampments in Kent have a 48-hour guideline to clean up and move. But there is significant leeway depending on the circumstances because their policy goal is to connect the homeless with the services they need and break the cycle of re-entering the criminal justice system. That may mean taking staff from one of the nonprofits along to a homeless encampment, helping the homeless move their belongings, or transporting them to the services they need.
Kent was unable to find a partner to safely offer their normal severe weather shelter during the pandemic. Other cities may face the same problem this winter. Kent’s human services staff stocked up on items needed to shelter in place and distributed the items to the homeless camps. Like other cities, Kent also provided motel vouchers. Parks and recreation staff also delivered portable toilets along with sanitation stations to the homeless. Providing portable toilets rather than just complaining about the mess is a logical answer to the challenge, and more cities should follow that idea.
Kent also provided financial support to the Community Engagement Center (Day Center), which allowed the city to hire additional staff. Several communities provided additional assistance to their local day center. Kent also has a safe parking program that could be replicated by other cities.
About a year ago, Auburn hired Kent Hay to work with the homeless. Hay now knows many of the homeless and their background. He has seen his job grow, and he is now responsible for the new community resource center.
Auburn got some press about adding criminal penalties to camping in Auburn Environmental Park. But the key change was to add a community court through the new resource center. City staff say the change is meant to link the homeless person to a service such as shelter, food, or drug or alcohol counseling rather than repeat the cycle through the criminal justice system.
The new system will serve as a “diversion” court rather than a “homeless” court. Auburn provides its own shelter of approximately 60 beds and pays to support other shelters. Based on the requirements of the Martin v. Boise Supreme Court case, shelter would have to be available someplace before anyone could be charged with trespassing and ordered to vacate the property. Other cities should watch the new Auburn Resource Center and may want to copy the model in their own communities.
The new regional housing authority could make a big difference in services to help the homeless, but it does not prevent cities from working together to solve some of their local concerns.
Some cities, in an attempt to restore lost revenue, have made economic development the most important initiative. But without the support of your business sector through your local chamber of commerce, that could be a wasted effort. Hiring a city staff person to be accountable for and coordinate homeless efforts is the city’s job and allows your business community and chamber to work on programs that fit what they are good at — such as “buy local” programs or more outdoor eating options during the good weather months. One city took on the “buy local” program themselves rather let businesses handle it. Federal Way is cooperating with King County in the purchase of two hotels that will be used as shelters.
In addition to designating a city staff person toward homelessness issues, cities should establish a service link between that person and police. Police shouldn’t be spending their time closing encampments. Follow that with a link to service professionals at the nonprofits and have them engage when police are visiting the encampments. Eventually the role can be contracted to the professionals in the nonprofits. If started now, every city could have a good program set up by next winter. However, given the hot weather we are facing, putting portable toilets and sanitation stations in homeless encampments now will save time later.
These are some ways to help each community have a positive impact on the homelessness challenge. But there may be more out there. Ask the homeless what they need. Get creative.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.