When I served on Seattle City Council last decade, I grew to really dislike the word “just.” As in: “If you would just remove those tents, or if you would just lock ‘em up, the problem would be solved.” Frequently this advice would be accompanied by a single digit raised 18 inches from my face and delivered with a tone suggesting I must be an idiot not to recognize the simplicity behind the wisdom.
As everyone involved in this difficult work knows, addressing homelessness is anything but simple. In a recent Seattle Times Op-Ed, former Washington State Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge asserted that the “problem of homelessness is all too often not a housing problem, but a mental health/substance-abuse/housing problem. Homelessness will not be solved if the mental health problems of those who are homeless are not addressed.”
Talmadge is right. Coordinating mental health and substance abuse solutions with housing is our next frontier. This requires high-level investment, like the State of Washington’s new Apple Health and Home, coupled with boots-on-the-ground work, such as the services now performed by JustCare, a valued organization that rightly uses “just.”
JustCare, an alliance of several organizations including REACH, is the go-to group with case managers and social workers for homeless individuals with chemical dependency and mental health issues. Local government funds its work in Downtown, Pioneer Square, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, JustCare’s funding is uncertain after this coming June.
JustCare’s field team has been effective where law enforcement cannot be and where King County Regional Homelessness Authority said they couldn’t respond with anything helpful.
I think of “Charles” who lived in a tent on First Avenue Downtown for nearly 18 months, first in front of Lusty Lady, and then on the new waterfront overlook at the base of Seneca Street on First Avenue. He survived in part by stealing, earning him an extensive criminal record. His bleeding face betrayed an addiction to meth and other substances. Food waste, garbage, and frequently human poop surrounded his tent. Sadly, he grew up in North King County but was no longer welcome at home due to his violent behavior.
Charles struggled with addiction and more. The Metropolitan Improvement District workers cleaned up the waste when called by neighbors, but not until JustCare street outreach workers gained Charles’ trust was he willing to move inside with supportive help. After multiple contacts from gracious neighbors and outreach workers from We Heart Downtown Seattle and JustCare outreach workers, JustCare found a space for him inside a case-managed hotel, where he is beginning to stabilize and accept care.
Here’s another example. In Pioneer Square, tents popped up outside Jeff Cohen’s Jackson Street apartment building and gained a foothold along the block on Occidental. Jeff is a patient man, a lawyer, and a long-time Seattle resident. He tried to get help for the people on the street, initially with no success. More tents appeared until his block was full.
He observed that drug activity was rampant and paraphernalia was left behind daily. Some of the campers were selling stolen goods to survive — on at least one occasion, goods that had been stolen from Jeff’s neighbors were displayed for sale on the sidewalk in front of their own building.
Crimes and social problems associated with this encampment included a homicide, at least three fires, numerous assaults, and various acts of property destruction. The street smelled of urine, since there were no public bathrooms readily available. Calls to police and the City/County departments went unanswered.
Only when JustCare became involved did the lives improve for the people inside the tents and their neighbors in nearby apartments. The JustCare street outreach team worked with individual tent residents to find alternative housing and treatment options. They worked with Jeff’s homeowners’ association and Pioneer Square’s Urban Villages to reactivate the street.
JustCare’s street outreach team was likewise responsible for finding homes and needed care for the 100 people camped out around the King County Courthouse this winter. Every person was offered a safe, warm, 24/7 place to be. Coordinating with the city’s Park Department workers, City Hall Park was cleaned up but remains fenced off from public use.
Similarly, the JustCare team responded to the Downtown Seattle Association’s call for help in February when a line of tents appeared on Pike Street and Fourth Avenue. Passersby were stepping around tents and garbage, an unacceptable situation in the heart of Downtown. With surprising speed, JustCare connected with each tent-dweller, and offered secure 24/7 housing and case management. The sidewalks were cleared, people were housed, and Downtown felt cleaner within days.
This past legislative session, Seattle Rep. Frank Chopp got passed Apple Health and Home, whose objectives are five-fold: treat chronic homelessness as a medical condition; invest in preventative services, reducing costs to local emergency systems; create more supportive housing statewide; expand the capacity of supportive housing providers; and ensure oversight and accountability through the Office of Health and Homes.
Apple Health and Home is one of the most visionary programs in the country, but it won’t begin until January 2023, which means effective investment is months — maybe years — away.
As Justice Talmadge confirmed, there is a tremendous need for housing coupled with state- and federal-supported mental health and addiction care. There’s much coordination to do. An immediate concern is defunding JustCare while other programs are being activated.
JustCare workers have demonstrated street-wise success — a warm home for now, with case managers and coordinated care for each person. JustCare has been applauded heartily by the Pioneer Square and Downtown business and neighborhood associations.
Unfortunately, while the state’s Apple Health and Home and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s peer navigators are ramping up, there is no firm commitment to continue funding JustCare beyond June 30. Local government leaders have not articulated what, if anything, they will do in the short term to serve the aching need for mental health and behavioral health care and sensitive housing that JustCare serves.
In this maze of programs and funding requests, we really need to know what coordinated actions are planned and what commitments will be made. Mayor Bruce Harrell, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones, and King County Executive Dow Constantine need to keep JustCare doing what they do so well.