By Linnea Uyeno
“The answer to homelessness isn’t rocket science—it’s a home,” executive director of Downtown Emergency Services, Bill Hobson, said during an #INSP2015 session which explored innovative solutions to addressing homelessness in Seattle.
“We don’t have nearly enough homes in Seattle. For every one hundred households that live at or below 30 percent of the area median income in King County in Seattle there are only 15 apartments that are available for them. We have a really severe crisis.”
In the past decade Seattle has pioneered several ground-breaking programs to benefit substance addicted homeless individuals. Before programs such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and REACH were implemented, the city simply ignored these individuals.
The outcome was that they were dying on the streets at incident rates much greater than any other subset of homeless people,” said Hobson. “But before they died they were consuming extraordinary amounts of taxpayer funded crisis services, and hospital emergency departments, and jails.”
“The data speaks on behalf of our clients,” Ron Jackson, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, added.
“You are able to make a fact-based rather than emotional-based argument to funders and community politicians about the value of the service to the clients and the community.”
Hobson and his team reached out to local businesses and the Chief of Police with these statistics, and they agreed to join in pitching the concept of the 1811 Eastlake Housing First project to local elected officials.
“When you have business leadership and law enforcement leadership on your side it gives electives a hell of a lot of political coverage, and they can take risks,” Hobson explained.
The LEAD program attempts to interrupt the cycle of arrests, prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders by offering treatment and support. It focuses on providing long term solutions for individuals to bring about recovery and harm reduction. Taking an unorthodox approach to homelessness, LEAD does not force the individual to “sober up” to receive housing benefits.
“Why continue to torture individuals who are typically the most vulnerable individuals in a community?”
“We emphasize one aspect— reducing the harmful effects of addiction that is affecting an individual,” Hobson added. “It is entering into a partnership with a person living with an addiction to discover ways to minimize the harmful effects of it. Harm reduction also reduces the effects of the harmful person’s addiction on the broader community.”
In the case of 1811 Eastlake Housing First project, which houses 95 formerly homeless tenants, the community immediately saw an astounding impact.
“We had a dramatic decline in arrests, days incarcerated, and presentations to the emergency department . . . [saving taxpayers] 4 million dollars a year,” Hobson explained.
The way LEAD works is that it connects homeless individuals with help services rather than slapping them on the wrists. When a policeman encounters a non-violent homeless person on the street, rather than arresting them, they connect them with the LEAD project.
“We are going to stick with them. We haven’t created a back door, and that’s kind of vexing to some local officials. They would like to see an end after the beginning. We don’t think that there is one. The reason we don’t think that there is one is because these folks have chronic disorders,” Jackson explained.
“Most of them have concurrent mental illness along with addiction. So, rather than setting some arbitrary time when they graduate and leave the program, stub their toe, and start back at ground zero again, we stick with them.
“It needs to be conveyed to everybody that it’s a public safety program, and it intervenes with people to help break this cycle of arrests. The harmful effects of the criminal justice approach is more harmful to drug addicts than the chronic use of drugs. ”
Jackson stated that the war on drugs has been a failure because “it has never been a war on drugs, but rather has been a war on drug users.”
“Why continue to torture individuals who are typically the most vulnerable individuals in a community? There is a huge chasm in many communities between the police and the community. Getting case managers, homeless advocates, police, and prosecutors sitting around the table talking about potential solutions on a case by case basis is a way to heal some of those deep wounds,” he added.
For Hobson, what is required is a system where homeless people living with mental health disorders or addiction problems who have violated very minor laws, such as urinating in public or sleeping on sidewalks, never end up in the criminal justice system but are instead diverted to appropriate support services.
“Homelessness is a public social problem. It needs to get fixed with taxpayer dollars. Charity and volunteerism are the way we dealt with the marginalized in society since [our country’s] beginnings in the early 17th century. Look where it got us,” Hobson concluded.