Open Letter to Pierce County Councilmember Jim McCune, District 3
By Wayne Cooke
I have spent many hours researching our “homeless problem,” sparked by my friendship with a young homeless couple from Graham. As our representative, you must be concerned about those street corner beggars and parking lot loafers, just as I am. To be clear, we are not talking about the 85% of total homeless who lost their housing, but take full advantage of the social services to get rehoused within weeks. It is the 15% that resist or avoid real help – the alcoholics, druggies, and mentally ill; those incapable; or the public leeches that I have in mind. My guess is that you wish, as I do, that there was some way to make that problem “disappear.”
Now there is. You have probably heard of it, a program called: “Housing First.” It is just getting off the ground in Everett and Seattle with the kind help of Utah, which has embraced it state-wide. I hope to explain it clearly enough that you will become an advocate here in Pierce County, where a solution is sorely needed but hard to visualize.
Go back 20+ years. Dr. Sam Tsemberis was a psychiatrist at New York University. He saw that the efforts in New York to help street people overcome their obstacles, such as addictions, with the goal of moving them into subsidized housing wasn’t working. His research and training convinced him that a home, without preconditions, is therapeutic by itself. A home comes first before other problems. He named it “Permanent Supportive Housing.”
“What! Give those bums a home?,” people will say. “Isn’t that an expensive giveaway?”
Not at all. Cost analysis research sparked by President George W. Bush’s Ten-Year Initiative discovered that most cities have been paying triple the cost of Permanent Supportive Housing, with all the cost of police time, E.R. room, social services, etc., which does nothing to get them off the streets. Paying triple the cost to enable homeless people to stay homeless doesn’t make sense. As a result, not building small homes sounds like a huge waste of tax monies.
“But Permanent Supportive Housing isn’t a dream home, either,” some might say. Yes, it’s small – just big enough to for a bed, desk, small cook stove, and a tiny bathroom. Yet, its cramped space is an incentive for those capable of overcoming whatever kept them homeless to use the “Supportive” services on-site, (perhaps down the hall from the central community/utility room), to eventually get a job and a real, rented apartment.
Nevertheless, yes, some will remain there the rest of their lives, because it is “Permanent.” No one can just evict you without strong cause. You lock the door at night. What you do is your business. It’s your private room.
Permanent Supportive Housing, then, requires a design of buildings that can safely accommodate hundreds of small soundproofed units connected to office and supportive services with an in-house communication system. But those buildings have already been designed and built – in New York, Colorado, Florida, Utah, etc. Other places, such as Everett, are just beginning with smaller projects to start with and learn from.
Housing Ends Homelessness. It’s that simple. But it’s not so simple to carry out. Property locations/purchase, architect’s blueprints, and other elements of the needed infrastructure are pricey, although I’m sure there are prints available from completed buildings. Pathways to Housing, www.pathwaystohousing.org, is the umbrella organization started by Dr. Tsemberis, and it should have plenty of detailed information. Find the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim, I have two worries about this. While this solution is what the National Alliance to End Homelessness calls, “…not only the right thing to do, but the financially responsible thing to do,” it is a different kind of housing. These structures wouldn’t be the usual building design, and I fear that those who see only dollar signs will ransom any such project with demands for special requirements to drive the cost up. The State Legislature or the County Council may have to provide exemptions and changes in the regulations designed for normal building.
The second worry is the public perception. The media, hopefully would cooperate in showing people that, while it is a “free home” of sorts, it is very minimal and that the savings in county spending far outweighs the “gift” to each homeless person. Even at that, some homeless people will feel they are “losing their freedom” and balk. Incentives may have to be provided, and also the education of the general public to not help the homeless, except to help them get to the new living quarters. The purpose of Housing First is to provide private space so that public space no longer need be used for private purposes.
And it is a compassionate, fiscally responsible way to do it. I hope you will see it that way, too. I hope you will share this information and seek to cooperate with others who are interested in seeing formerly homeless people starting a new life…without that wet sleeping bag.
Editor’s Note: The graphic below is an idealized drawing depicting the planned homeless community in Olympia, WA, called Quixote Village. It incorporates many of the features that author Wayne Cooke is advocating in his essay on Permanent Supportive Housing. Picture courtesy of Yes Magazine and Panza.