The following is a Letter to the Editor, written by a Reader. It does not necessarily reflect the views of South King Media nor its staff:
On Friday (August 23rd), the Manhattan Institute’s “City Journal” ran a story by Christopher Rufo, entitled “Enforcement Works”, with the subtitle, “A compassionate policy is reducing street homelessness in Burien, Washington”. You can read the story here.
While most cities dream of such positive press, this piece does not come without a cost… but let’s break this article down.
What the article is referring to
On May 6th, City Council unanimously approved a four-month Pilot Project to address unauthorized use of our City parks and facilities. As City Manager Brian Wilson said in his letter to Council, “It is intended to assure all residents of Burien feel welcome at our public spaces”.
What the article claims
According to Mr. Rufo’s account, the pilot program drastically reduced street homelessness and increased public satisfaction, should be scaled to cover the entire city (not just the parks), and be seen as a model for other, larger, cities to follow.
The problems with the article
Where we start to run into problems, in addition to the extremely problematic roots City Journal has in the Manhattan Institute, the author’s own slant, and strange and short-lived campaign for Seattle City Council’s 6th District with some truly horrible ideas on how to address homelessness, is Mr. Rufo’s investigative methodology (he spoke to three people in a city of 52,000) and complete lack of understanding of what this Pilot Program actually accomplished.
Mr. Rufo makes a glaring contradiction that summarizes the point of this letter.
At one point, he touts how he believes we’ve reduced street homelessness, and four sentences later states “… most of Burien’s homeless simply moved on, undoubtedly to more permissive cities like Seattle”. That is not reducing homelessness. That is pushing them out of sight, to become another city’s ‘issue’ to fix. His language supports as much, with the last line of the article referring to those experiencing homelessness as “broken people languishing”.
… and this is already more time than this misleading, poorly researched piece deserves.
When I voted in favor of the Four Month Pilot Program, I did so with the knowledge that this would not “solve homelessness” in Burien, despite how much I believe in the idea of leading with services, as the City Manager, City Staff and Burien Police Department are striving to do. I voted in favor of the Pilot Program to show that, despite our best intentions and offer of services, we cannot make a humane, lasting impact unless we have housing ready for those experiencing homelessness to move into as part of the services they are being offered by our teams – such as low-barrier emergency shelters, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. Prioritizing housing as a means for addressing homelessness is known as the “Housing First” model and is something I resolutely support.
Housing types to explore
In addressing homelessness, just like addressing crime, no one solution is going to fit every single issue.
Low-barrier emergency shelters refer to those such as Burien’s Severe Weather Shelter which operated during the snowstorm in February, out of Highline United Methodist Church, where ‘low barrier’ means that people are not turned away because of an active addiction or ongoing drug/alcohol use, as it often required in most emergency shelter models.
Transitional housing is a supportive – yet temporary – type of accommodation that is meant to bridge the gap from homelessness to permanent housing by offering structure, supervision, support (for addictions and mental health, for instance), life skills, and in some cases, education and training. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research, transitional housing programs appear to help the families who use them to achieve some important goals, such as maintaining stable housing and treating substance abuse. Further, longer stays in transitional housing may give families the opportunity to develop skills that seem to pay off in a higher probability of regular employment.
Permanent supportive housing, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is an intervention that combines affordable housing assistance with voluntary support services to address the needs of chronically homeless people. The services are designed to build independent living and tenancy skills and connect people with community-based health care, treatment and employment services.
Compassion as a cost-saving measure
Permanent supportive housing has been found to be cost efficient. Providing access to housing generally results in cost savings for communities because housed people are less likely to use emergency services, including hospitals, jails, and emergency shelter, than those who are homeless. One study found an average cost savings on emergency services of $31,545 per person housed in a Housing First program over the course of two years. Another study showed that a Housing First program could cost up to $23,000 less per consumer per year than a shelter program (National Alliance to End Homelessness).
At the September 16th Council Meeting, the City Manager will provide a report on the Pilot Project. I agree with the philosophy of leading with services when addressing homelessness in our community and commend our City Staff and Police Department for engaging that method before ever considering anything else. There are, however, some activities so fundamental to human existence that it defies common sense that they might be treated as crimes. Falling asleep, standing still, and sitting down, are all necessary actions for any human being’s survival. While these activities are unquestionably legal when performed indoors, more and more communities across the country are treating these life-sustaining behaviors as criminal acts when performed in public places by people with nowhere else to go… and I don’t want Burien to be one of those places. Criminalizing homelessness violates basic human rights, no matter the intention behind it, and I believe our Pilot Program cannot do the amount of good it was intended to do until we have Burien-based housing options such as those I outlined above.
I hope to hear from you on this, and to see you on the 16th at 7PM at City Hall.
Krystal S. Marx
Burien City Councilmember, Position 7
The views I express here are mine alone and are not put forth as those held by City of Burien Staff or fellow Councilmembers.
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