In his ongoing mission to slow down the process of implementing the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, errr...to propose short-sighted and potentially harmful legislation that only addresses the fringe concerns of monied homeowners, errr...to "address core needs of homeless populations," Tuesday morning King County Council Member Reagan Dunn proposed three pieces of legislation.
The first two prioritize getting rid of the appearance of homelessness over actually addressing the issue, and the third seeks to shame doctors into prescribing fewer opioids. Let's take a quick look:
Dunn's first proposal is called "Homeward Bound." The bill would spend $1 million on a program to buy bus tickets for homeless people who want to leave, but would "prohibit the purchase of bus tickets for any destination in King County and in any county adjacent to King County."
In a press release, he argues there is "a substantial demand" for the program considering the fact that 9% of respondents to All Home's point-in-time count said "family reunification services" would help get them into housing. Right now, he argues, the county "only spends $37,000 across five programs on family reunification," so he wants to beef up spending significantly.
However, it's unclear why Dunn thinks a bus ticket out of town will solve that problem in this county. The same point-in-time survey says that 7% of respondents were undocumented people, and that
10% 1% were unaccompanied minors, with 10% of the population being youth and young adults. Putting them on a bus back "home" might give them a roof over their heads, but it also might send them back to a home they were running away from for good reason.
While it's true that busing homeless people out of the county will reduce the appearance of homelessness in the county, a very good report from the Guardian shows that busing programs just turn people into a problem that can be moved around. Their analysis shows that busing "[moves] homeless people from rich places to poorer places," where they end up having an even harder time finding housing.
If Dunn really wanted to "address core needs of homeless populations," he'd scroll up to the part of the one-night count that shows 75% of respondents citing “rental assistance/affordable housing” as the thing they need to obtain housing. Why not expand the county's Housing Stability Project by $1 million, or use funds to speed up the construction of affordable homes across the county?
Dunn's response: “There’s no silver bullet to solve homelessness, in all of its complexity. We need to adopt a silver buckshot strategy. More housing is absolutely an answer, but so are other measures. We can’t pit solutions against each other," he said in an email. So much for working on our core.
In an interview with The Stranger on Tuesday, King County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles did not seem bullish on this proposal. Though she was still awaiting a briefing in committee, she said the county already has funds to help homeless people with transportation issues, and added that Dunn's general busing strategy "is not solving anything."
Abigail Doerr, who's challenging Kohl-Welles for her seat, espoused a similar view. "This is fueling the narrative that people who are experiencing homelessness in this region are not from here. That's not true. These are our brothers and our sisters and we're not taking care of them. Sending people away is offensive and not going to solve the problem," she said.
Dunn's second proposal creates one outreach team composed of “as many medical professionals as possible,” formerly homeless people, and outreach workers to travel around to bus stops and transit hubs and offer services to people.
Outreach is good, but this is more cart-before-the-horse thinking. The shelters are full, as are the mental-health treatment beds. Dunn appears to be aware of this last point, as he wrote a letter to Harborview/UW Medicine requesting more beds for recovery services in the upcoming Harborview bond.
Right now it's unclear whether Seattle's Navigation Team, which more or less already does what Dunn is calling for, is mostly just moving the homeless population off of the sidewalk or actually connecting them to services. At a recent council meeting, Seattle's acting Human Services director Jason Johnson said people are mostly just "complying" with a request to move, "meaning they are moving themselves and belongings out of the right of way, and are not necessarily engaging in a services conversation with the system navigators."
Dunn says his proposal is “an efficient means of directing individuals to the mental health and substance abuse services they need while at the same time keeping our buses as safe as possible," though he didn't provide any evidence suggesting that our buses are particularly unsafe.
Dunn's third proposal creates "a pilot notification system that informs prescribing doctors when the death of one of their patients is found to be related to an opioid overdose." Similar programs have led to a modest reduction in opioid prescriptions, which seems fine.
Still, this solution doesn't address the "core needs of homeless populations." Homeless people need homes. Finding ways to build homes and enhanced shelters should be priority #1—not three quick ideas that might hurt some at the margins.