Establishing a new path for the chronically homeless | Livingston

Until we work on solving how we created a society with these citizens living precariously close to the edge, we will have a forever problem.

The majority of us never see or understand the beginning of problems — we see the results.

We see the manifestations of hunger, poverty, homelessness, broken homes, addiction, violence and more. They are here because as a society we often ignore, create, or perpetuate the conditions for these problems.

Solutions for the problems we create become political fodder, just business for some, and represent system failures, but on the local level, solutions offered are personal. When solving complex human problems, the path is never easy.

Societies are built around survival needs, developing a common culture, and a set of rules to facilitate growth, governance, prosperity, and conformity. Our policies at work are not always what we think they are. Human behavior meeting expectations designed by competing factions within multifaceted economic systems is not always a match.

For a myriad of reasons, people end up on a path that feels like a failure for those of us who choose to color inside the lines. Homelessness with all of its subset issues is a forever challenge — and our society has drawn lines of unacceptability.

More Americans are closer to the edge of homelessness than we care to admit. According to Forbes, 78 percent of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck in 2023, and based on their survey, 71 percent of people living paycheck to paycheck have $2,000 or less in savings. Living on the edge means every choice made is stressful and one or two missed payments could land you on the street.

I recently watched the presentation by representatives from King County to the Federal Way City Council. The county has taken a leadership role in trying to manage the homeless crisis through a program they created called the Health Through Housing Initiative.

The county purchased the local Extended Stay Hotel and is converting it into a county permanent supportive housing site. Their designated contractor for the facility is the Urban League. The site will house 85 of the community’s 175 identified chronic homeless who meet the criteria of being below 30 percent of the county’s average median income.

County representatives stated there are approximately 2,000 chronically homeless in South King County and around 550 are associated with Federal Way. They shared that the average age for residency at the facility is anticipated to be 50.

Establishing a new path for the chronically homeless requires a leap of faith for our skeptics, community leaders, and the homeless themselves. Coming in from the cold means the individual is willing to begin a journey to change their lifestyle and work with program managers to reconnect with desired societal norms.

While the program cannot require a person to seek treatment for addictions, the individuals know when they sign the code of conduct agreement they could lose the privilege of shelter and access to the resources they need for gaining better health.

Living on the streets is hard, and learning to manage their issues in a controlled environment will be hard as well, but they know the consequences for noncompliance means they could be asked to leave. The goal is to help the individual regain self-esteem, and self-sufficiency, and according to the county, 95 percent of client residents have found housing a year later.

We may never know the personal catalyst for every homeless person’s journey to being unhoused and in our hearts may not like the current solution, but until we work on solving how we created a society with a majority of citizens living precariously close to the edge, we will have a forever problem.

Politicians like forever problems because they are nearly unsolvable, require us to be emotionally engaged, and allow us to be angry at the cost and solution. It gets us to rally around a cause. We usually remain distracted by the rhetoric of proposed solutions — pro or con — and forget to expend any energy on trying to unwind or understand root causes.

We are a country feeling economic stress, even with impressively low levels of unemployment, and our homelessness crisis is a symptom as well as a result. Katharina Bucholtz writing in Forbes states: “Between 1970 and 2021, the share of U.S. aggregate income earned by the middle class shrunk from formerly 62% to just 42%. At the same time, aggregate earnings by those considered high income increased from 29% to 50%.”

During this same timeframe, our politics have favored making government regulations designed to support the middle class and domestic job markets secondary to fueling globalization and the economic proclivities of the private sector. Add several recessions, housing and banking bubble busts, and our constant roll-the-dice-free-market-driven society, and we leave behind individuals and families that are ill-equipped to succeed in an ever-changing society.

Reducing the number of homeless in our society requires government intervention, and that often means solutions end up in our community rather than making the problem go elsewhere. Homelessness generally represents a lack of resources, housing affordability, and commitment to building an economy capable of addressing the needs of our less fortunate and supporting them with a sense of dignity as we stabilize their journey.

Establishing a sense of fairness and equity across the board and rebuilding the middle class is essential to creating access to the American dream. In America, we like the feeling of being winners. Having to have a strong social safety network does not feel like we are building a nation of winners. But we all win if we get beyond our notion of rugged individual independence and begin to understand that we gain more when Team America demonstrates kindness, works toward equity, and collectively embraces our interdependence.

W. Edwards Deming, a management authority, stated: “Every system is perfectly designed to give you exactly what you are getting today.” Our problems will continue in the negative and generate a persistent homeless population until we design a more holistically friendly economic system. Until then, King County’s Health Through Housing Initiative is the crisis solution we have.

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at