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Washington officials sign pledge to shift to treatment-first homelessness approach

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(The Center Square) – Government officials across Washington state are signing a policy pledge that prioritizes a “treatment-first” approach to lowering the state’s rate of homelessness.

The policy pledge was created by the nonprofit organization Future 42 to counter the “housing-first” approach that has been utilized by jurisdictions like King County and Seattle.

The pledge provides alternative ideas to a housing-first approach including:

Requiring people who receive taxpayer-subsidized supporting housing and are addicted to drugs to participate in a drug treatment program. Defund safe consumption sites where drugs are provided with clean needles.Introduce land-use regulations to prohibit future sites of safe consumption facilities.Fund the creation of more mental health treatment beds. Require mandatory minimum sentencing for prolific offenders who have been arrested and convicted of drug-related crimes multiple times.Enact strict laws addressing unauthorized encampments once alternative shelter capacity is made more available.Discourage panhandling in public right-of-ways.Partner with nonprofits with proven success in addressing homelessness and drug use.

Future 42 Snohomish County Director Nate Nehring notes that while there are some populations that are well-served by a housing-first approach, including victims of domestic violence or families with children going through financial insecurity, the housing-first approach has not been effective amid a worsening opioid crisis.

“When we talk about those who are struggling with drug addiction, I think it’s become clear over the last few months and even years that the housing-first approach is failing this population,” Nehring said to The Center Square in a phone call. “If you take someone that has a severe drug addiction and you hand them a set of keys to go into their own unit, what we’re often seeing is contamination of those units with those drugs.”

It becomes more challenging when it comes to treatment-resistant people who are unhoused.

Nehring views involuntary commitment as an answer in cases where jail is not an option.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to leave people on the street doing drugs,” he said.

The pledge prioritizes building more capacity for resources focused on involuntary commitment under Ricky’s Law, which is also known as the involuntary treatment act. Historically, in Washington, involuntary commitment has been able to be utilized for individuals with mental illness who pose a threat to themselves and others and a judge can sentence them to involuntary commitment, according to Nehring.

Essentially, Ricky’s Law allows for somebody who is unwilling to go into treatment to be court ordered into involuntary treatment.

There have been improvements in homeless statistics in Snohomish County, as the latest Point-In-Time Count of homeless people reported a 9.7% decrease in homelessness throughout the county. However, Nehring said homelessness is still a prominent issue. He added that the drug addiction issue has continued to remain a concern in the region.

In 2023, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, or KCRHA, passed its five-year plan seeking to increase housing stock as a solution to the growing homelessness crisis the county is experiencing.

The KCRHA’s plan estimates a potential cost of $450 million to $1.1 billion per year over the next 10 years in order to increase housing as a solution to homelessness. The agency has served as the organization responsible for coordinating funding and services for unhoused people across all of King County since 2019.

The Center Square previously reported on Seattle officials publicly doubting the region’s housing-first approach. During a Seattle Housing & Human Services Committee meeting in March, Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said that the fentanyl and behavioral health crises have impacted the city’s housing-first approach. Ultimately, Washington believed the system currently is not designed to address the mass behavioral health crisis.

The Future 42 policy pledge has over 50 signatures from government officials across the state. There were no signatures from King County or Seattle government officials as of this publication.

“My hope for the next steps would be that we see folks proposing legislation to get the ball rolling in their local communities,” Nehring said.

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