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King County officials reflect on Health Through Housing criticisms and goals

Front of Silver Cloud Inn purchased in Redmond to serve as permanent supportive housing as part of the county’s Health Through Housing initiative. Photo by Cameron Sheppard/Sound Publishing

Nearly two years into the implementation of the Health Through Housing initiative, King County officials remain steadfast in their Housing First approach to the area’s homelessness crisis.

The initiative, which began in early 2021, levied a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax in King County that would raise tens of millions of dollars for the purchase of hotels in the area. region. Hotels would be converted into permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless and would have service providers on site who could provide the services needed to help people get back on their feet.

Since the start of 2021, more than 10 facilities have been purchased or funded by the county initiative, and according to county officials, 600 previously homeless people have been housed in the area. Approximately 1,600 units should soon be available depending on the number of facilities purchased.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said buying hotels to become homes is much cheaper than building homes from scratch — it costs about $270,000 per unit, compared to about $400,000 $ per unit when built from scratch.

However, county officials said acquiring hotel space is happening much faster than appointing service providers and hiring people to work on-site at those facilities. Last week, the county announced a decision regarding two service providers at facilities in South King County.

Leo Flor, director of the Department of Community and Social Services, helps oversee the program. Flor said service providers will offer comprehensive on-site services at the facility, which include behavioral health care, employment counseling and even access to transportation so tenants can have a path to the facility. self-sufficiency and eventually move onto their own.

The program’s philosophy is rooted in a University of Washington study that suggested that access to barrier-free housing was a necessary and effective first step in rehabilitating the chronically homeless. Flor said the idea is to provide basic needs and housing to individuals so they can focus on solving the most complex issues in their lives with the help of service providers.

While facilities are purchased and owned by the county, Constantine argued that municipal governments would be involved in choosing service providers in their respective homes. He said city councils have been involved in interviews with potential service providers and consultations in the process, as building county-city partnerships is an important facet of the program.

In the past, the announcement of a healthcare facility through housing has sparked political controversy in different communities. City officials had expressed concern that they could not help implement the facilities. Community members from different communities felt that the program would attract homeless people from outside the communities and that the initiative was a way to export “Seattle’s homelessness problem”. Some community members have expressed concerns about safety in the areas surrounding these facilities.

Recently, a child safety advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the county over a Kirkland Health Through Housing facility that they say is too close to adjacent schools.

Constantine said there is a process for vetting potential tenants at these facilities that is “no different” from what someone might have to go through to get an apartment. He said tenants are screened to ensure they are suitable for a multi-family environment and there are rules they must agree to.

Flor said clients eligible for the program have generally been homeless for more than a year and are people who have been connected to social services and health care services in the area. They therefore have basic documents and information with them.

Addressing community concerns, Flor said that ultimately the community, facility operator and facility tenants all want the same thing – a place that is supportive, safe and well run. for the community.

He posed a rhetorical question to those affected by the program: “What if we do nothing?

He said the homelessness crisis is not a problem that will go away on its own, but will continue to grow if no action is taken. Flor said it was a simple and relatively cost-effective solution to a problem with more complex root causes. It’s a way to alleviate the problem caused by income inequality and a “runaway housing market,” among other factors.

Flor said the Health Through Housing initiative is a cheaper, more proactive approach to more reactive and expensive ways we collectively pay when the chronically homeless aren’t helped before it’s too late. He said that the cost of three days in the emergency room, for example, is equal to the cost of three months in prison, which is equivalent to the cost of three years of supportive housing for an individual.

He said this is a regional approach to providing equitable access to resources that county communities desperately need as a whole.

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