I wanted to learn about the issues related to homelessness and did so the only way I know how, by jumping into the issue with both feet. So on September 21st, I decided to be homeless for a day in order to experience it first hand.
Here is the raw footage from that night that I captured:
Though it was just for a day, I learned a lot. I heard some comments afterwards that if someone wanted to experience true homelessness, that they would need to give up everything and live that life with no safety net for weeks or months, and I completely agree. If someone was to do that, they would connect with the emotional and mental nuances of the issue in an extremely powerful way! But I can honestly say, spending “a day in the life” was a moving experience and one that helped me understand the issue in a new way. My goal was to learn through first hand experience,by meeting those impacted to ask questions about their experiences, and I accomplished those things.
I will never forget the he people I met. People like Seth, 31 yrs old, clean-cut and wearing a backwards Seahawks cap, suffering from PTSD and trying to find a job that pays cash under the table because he has a felony conviction on his record. Or Bo, a lifelong concrete mason who had a pallet of bricks dropped on his foot, who cannot do that work anymore and still walks with limp and the help of a cane. Or Winston, who drove trucks for 20 years until his body broke down, doesn’t think he could learn another skill and doesn’t see a future outside of his current situation. Or Modina, who is turning 60 years old next year, who lost custody of her three children in the 1980's, and whose struggle with alcohol dependency has kept her on the streets ever since. I was thankful that they shared their stories with me and continue to be moved deeply by each of them.
The experience reinforced to me that homelessness is a nuanced issue, with many causes leading people into that situation, and that there is no single way to address it. An injury leading to loss of a job, a women leaving abusive relationships with nowhere to go, as well as substance abuse and mental health issues were just a few of the situations that I heard about the lead people into homelessness. The part of the issue that you see (the approximately 300 persons chronically homeless in Spokane) is really the tip of the iceberg, the part you always see, but there is way more to the issue.
I want to go on the record saying that The City of Spokane does do a lot of really good work, and much of it goes unseen. In the last 18 months, they have helped 4,170 people find permanent housing, and an additional 1,717 have received diversion or prevention services. This help that kept these people from entering into homelessness. The city also works in a consortium type of arrangement with two great local nonprofits, SNAP and Catholic Charities, who partner together to offer services within the city. We are one of the first cities to have 24/7 shelter services, and we do a great job using a “housing first” mindset. There is a “Rides to Care” program between SNAP and the City, where those who call 911 for non-emergency services can get transportation to and connected with more appropriate levels of service, a wonderful and creative solution that keeps emergency services open to those who need them as well as to keeps healthcare costs down for patients and providers. There are just a few examples of the good work being done.
Though there is much good work being done, there is more work to do. A few facts from the Spokane region Point-in-Time annual snapshot taken January 26, 2017 illustrate the challenge before us:
- 1,090 people were identified as being homeless, an 11% increase over the 981 in 2016
- 138 individuals, or 13%, of all persons counted were unsheltered
- 952 individuals, or 87%, of all persons counted were sheltered
- 118 were veterans, an 15% increase over 103 in 2016
- 325 were chronically homeless persons, a 73% increase over 188 in 2016
- 71 were unaccompanied youth, a 20% increase from 59 in 2016
3 Areas I will support in Congress:
Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment - there is often a 7 week lead time at treatment facilities, we need more capacity to be able to serve those that need it, when then need it. This is especially important because it most commonly takes a few times through treatment before it “sticks.” Though substance abuse and mental health issues often go hand-in-hand, the two are unique and need to be given proper unique attention. I will
Job Placement - there were many people who want to work, but have trouble finding a traditional job due to their circumstances (no stable housing, having a felony record, or because they can’t yet pass a drug screen, etc). The City of Albuquerque, NM has a wonderful program called “There’s a Better Way,” which gives panhandlers a way to earn a days wage through the dignity of work. Imagine how much beautification could be done in our city (trash removal, painting over graffiti, etc) by helping this population get back on their feet and into the workforce!
Affordable Housing - there is less than 1% availability on rentals in many areas around Spokane. This means that 1) there is very few affordable options available for those who need it, and 2) landlords can keep rates artificially high. The Ridpath redevelopment project in Spokane will offer many micro-apartments, which are cost subsidized to be affordable and available to working class individuals making between $20,000 to $29,000 per year. This will be a interesting project to monitor and model after if it is successful.
In reflection on my experience, first and foremost it reinforced just how incredibly blessed I am to have a good job, a safe home for my family, and food to eat everyday. My resolve to make sure the resources are available to ensure this is true for all is now stronger than ever as well.