There is continuing concern about homelessness in Federal Way. Much of the questioning at a town hall meeting with the mayor at Green Gables school, addressed homelessness. Despite best efforts from, among others, the faith community, nonprofits and participants in the homelessness commission, we still do not appear to have a robust strategy and plan to minimize homelessness.
Many cities and communities around the world have similar issues. Some, through committed and persistent leadership from the public sector with strong community support, have demonstrated approaches that can be successful. Can we be humble enough to consider these approaches and smart enough to fine-tune them for our circumstances?
For me there are two starting points:
1. Resources spent on the homeless/rough sleepers should be used efficiently
2. In a rich civilized country, nobody should sleep rough unless they wish to.
Resources: Whether we like it or not, society ultimately bears the cost of homelessness. Some of these costs are fairly directly seen, like the cost of clearing up homeless camps on public property. This could be costing this city $500,000 a year or more. Private property owners bear similar costs. Federal Way Public Schools bears the costs of coping with the more difficult circumstances of homeless kids. If these kids attend school, they are likely to underachieve due to lack of sleep, poor nourishment etc. Later in life, there is a higher risk that they too struggle to be gainfully employed. Our ER facilities bear costs from the poorer health that is induced by homelessness.
If we could minimize homelessness, we could considerably reduce these costs and derive community benefits through enhancing the quality of life in the city and its economic attractiveness.
Nobody sleeping rough: Success in other communities has come from a policy of housing first. Indeed the mayor of Manchester, England has demonstrated his commitment to this approach by donating 15% of his annual salary of $140,000 to helping fund interim housing. He has worked with mayors of surrounding communities so that shelters are available across the region year-round, not just on the coldest nights. After years of increasing homelessness in the city, last year (the first year of the program), it dropped by 10%. Finland has worked longer with a similar program and brought homelessness down drastically.
Consider what this means at the two ends of the homelessness spectrum. For those who have lost their home through a sudden rent hike or an unexpected job loss, it means they are supported from falling into a bigger trap. Their chances of finding a new home or new job are enhanced if they have a stable base. For the long-term, chronically homeless, it means that resources to support them can be close at hand and used to greatest impact.
Can this approach work here? Already we have some of the elements in place with great work from, for example, Reach Out and FUSION. But, however hard it tries, the nonprofit community is likely to be underfunded and under-resourced to provide sufficient transitional housing.
A community that has found the funding for a Performing Arts and Event Center, building a grand staircase and developing a downtown park, should be able to find ways of raising funding for sufficient transitional housing for our homeless. Further, we should have the collaborative skills to work with other local cities to assure that we share the burdens and the benefits.
What we lack, I suspect, is the sustained voicing of the need to our elected officials. If you agree that more can and should be done, please write to the mayor and City Council members.