We need a better approach to end homelessness
April 6, 2023
The King County Regional Homeless Authority recently shared a five-year plan to end homelessness. Now that I’ve read the detailed 146-page report, I am more confident than ever that the KCRHA has no idea what they are doing. This report is just more of the things that got us into the mess in the first place.
A key issue is that the KCRHA is basing all of its plans on a false premise – that homelessness is a housing issue. With that premise, it’s easy to see why they believe the Housing First model will work. Since that premise is incorrect, it’s easy to see why that model has been failing and will continue to fail. I have worked in Housing First programs and have seen rampant drug use, abuse, violence, theft, and chaos. These housing programs are often very triggering to those who genuinely want to recover, so they choose to return to the streets rather than live in a counter-productive environment.
This shows KCRHA has a very narrow view of the complex homelessness issue and no faith in a homeless person’s ability to recover. The Housing First model does not prepare a person to leave the streets or be successful while in housing, largely because of the “voluntary services” component. Not one person housed in these programs is required to work on any barriers that either led them to the streets or is keeping them them on the streets. They are simply put into the shelter and left alone. The hope is that once housed, they will work on their addiction issues, seek treatment for their mental health, or overcome other barriers independently. This is quite rare. Most will simply accept the housing and continue with what they were. The only difference is that they’re doing it under a roof instead of in a tent.
The report also lacks important transparency by never mentioning the cost. In reality, KCRHA plans to ask for nearly $12 billion for this plan. Even if they successfully build the shelters and house the tens of thousands they say are currently on their streets, King County residents will be paying for this for generations. Rather than going towards real solutions, the money will continue to flow to the Homeless Industrial Complex, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
We need to get back to the cause, not the complex. Through a proactive effort, we can help the homeless population receive the support they need to break through barriers, end destructive cycles, and reach their fullest potential. Of course, that’s not what the proposed plan offers. Instead, they will apply ideological principles to their approach. Unfortunately, good intentions will not be enough to convince an addict to stop using Fentanyl or a severely mentally ill man in his sixties to accept the medication he needs for the first time in his life.
The KCRHA plan is to create a response system (outreach, case management, and retention) run by people with lived experience. I strongly support having outreach teams with lived experience staff, but that shouldn’t be the entire team. What is needed is a multidisciplinary team with people of all types of experience, education, and skillsets. Having experienced homelessness does not automatically make someone an expert in understanding how to navigate our extraordinarily complex social service system, or how to work with complex individuals.
I have done street homeless outreach for more than twenty-eight years and am also a drug and alcohol counselor. About 80% of our homeless population has an addiction history. To end this humanitarian crisis, we must first tackle the addiction issue. Andrea Suarez, the Executive Director of We Heart Seattle, aptly pointed out we need to mandate treatment for homeless people with chronic substance abuse issues. “Housing First” doesn’t get the job done.
We can end this humanitarian crisis in months rather than years, but only if we change the approach and get serious about solutions. However, KCRHA would rather continue talking about social justice, Harm Reduction, equity, and race as people languish and die every day on our streets. Our homeless are counting on us to help them in a real way. It’s time KCRHA stopped talking about the problem, throw out this ill-fated 5-year plan, roll up their sleeves, go outside, and solve it.
The solution to ending homelessness is to empower that population to reach their fullest potential and for many to become self-sufficient. Once they do that, they will not need to utilize our system and can move on with their lives to be productive members of society. That is what success looks like – and it’s missing from the current plan. Instead of Housing first, let’s put solutions first.
By Kevin Dahlgren