Issues surrounding homelessness both in Mountlake Terrace and Snohomish County — and ideas for city officials to address them — were the focus of a discussion at the May 16 Mountlake Terrace City Council work/study session.
The meeting featured a presentation by Mary Jane Brell Vujovic, director of Snohomish County Human Services, and remarks from officials at the Verdant Health Commission. But perhaps the most eye-opening part of the evening came when Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Pete Caw discussed two recent legal decisions that impact how police can approach homeless individuals camping on public property.
Caw said the most common subject he’s asked about is homelessness, including how to address those who are sleeping in city parks, along trails and in parking lots. He told the council that two recent court rulings impact what police can do.
The 2018 Ninth Circuit Court ruling — Martin vs. the City of Boise — says that police can’t take law enforcement action against people sitting, sleeping or lying outside unless there are shelter alternatives available to them.
“That does complicate matters a bit for us,” Caw said. “We’re fairly successful in getting folks to move on but one thing we cannot do and should not do, according to the court ruling, is threaten them with arrest or arrest them for sleeping in an open area. Homelessness isn’t a crime and it shouldn’t be treated as such.”
Another court ruling — City of Seattle vs Roan — involved the case of a man’s truck impounded after it was parked in the same location over 72 hours. The man was assessed towing charges and fees to get it back. When in court, the man indicated he lived in his truck, and the judge ruled that the city’s action wasn’t lawful because the vehicle was actually the man’s home.
Caw’s remarks set the stage for the introduction of Mary Jane Vujovic, Snohomish County Human Services Director, who provided information about the extent of homelessness both locally and nationally, what causes people to be homeless, and local efforts to provide a coordinated response.
Washington state, Vujovic noted, has the fifth largest number of homeless people in the nation after California, New York, Florida and Texas. In Snohomish County during 2018, a total of 4,500 households with 7,200 people were identified as homeless “at one point in time or another,” she said. And of those, 1.2 percent — or 26 households– lived in Mountlake Terrace.
For the majority of people, a single incident — such as a job loss or a medical bill — leaves them homeless for a short period of time. “But there’s a smaller number of people for which homelessness is chronic and persistent,” she added. Homelessness has a disparate impact on people in racial minority groups, “and does so at a degree that is not explained by difference in poverty rate alone,” Vujovic said.
She then talked about the causes of homelessness. While some point to poverty, mental illness and drug use as common factors of those who are homeless, the issue is more complex. For example, 12 percent of the U.S. population lives in poverty and nearly 19 percent have some form of mental illness, with 4 percent of that defined as severe. And 25 percent of U.S. population is “cost-burdened,” meaning they are “paying more than 50 percent of their income to keep a roof over their head.” Finally, 38 percent of the those in the U.S. are engaged in illicit drug use.
Yet only 0.17 percent of the U.S. population experiences homelessness. “So while these are factors they are not the only driving factor,” Vujovic said. “There is no predictive metric you can develop… that will say this person in front of me, are they going to become homeless or are they not?”
Vujovic said homelessness is impacted by three elements: experience, economy and environment. Personal experiences impact personal outcomes, she said, and those include physical and behavioral health and personal safety and security. “None of us makes it in this world all alone. The stronger your personal relations, the more connectedness you have, the more personal safety you have, the less likely you are to become homeless,” she said.
There are also economic factors “way beyond the control of any of us,” she said. Of particular note is the growing gap between what people earn and what it costs to live. “That is going to continue to drive things,” she said.
The third element that relates to homeless, she said, is the environment: “What are we doing to create a vibrant, resilient and healthy community?” That means ensuring that everyone has access to services such as quality education, health care and social services — plus what she believes are two more essential factors. “In nearly 50 years of working with low-income families where they are trying to get out of poverty, transportation and high quality child care are key,” she said.
Housing costs are a big part of the problem, too, particularly in Mountlake Terrace, she said. Since 2011, rents have increased 30 percent in Snohomish County and a whopping 43.1 percent in Mountlake Terrace — yet the area median income has only risen 15 percent during this time.
Snohomish County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., with the population increasing by 76,000 since 2011. That growth is straining the rental market, resulting in low vacancy rates and housing development that is targeted at the highest income levels.
What can be done to alleviate homelessness? Vujovic said partnerships are key, noting that it’s hard for any one jurisdiction to attempt to address homelessness on its own. “The kinds of resources that have to come together to get even a unit of housing built are incredibly complex,” she said. “It means there has to be a certain volume of infrastructure that has to take place just to help developers manage all the money. That becomes a real significant challenge if the city is trying to do it all by itself.”
“The more that we can all work together to make a developer have to fill out only one application in one place to help get access to resources, the easier it’s going to be,” she continued, noting that “building affordable housing is not the highest thing on many developers’ lists.”
The county’s Partnership to End Homeless initiative, started in 2013, includes representatives from a wide range of constituent groups — including business, health care, faith-based organizations, social service providers, education and law enforcement — “to look at exactly those questions of what can we do collectively,” she said.
As an example of its success, she said that the initiative has “been able to increase the federal dollars we have brought into this county from $5.6 million to $9.9 million over the course of four years.”
Other cooperative efforts include a homeless prevention and response system that focuses on not only crisis services for people who are homeless but prevention — such as short-term rental assistance — to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. The more quickly people who are homeless can move into housing, she said, the less likely they are to become chronically homeless.
The county has worked to increase not only its shelter and transitional housing capacity, but also the amount of permanent housing available, she added.
Vujovic then turned the microphone over the Verdant Health Commission Superintendent Robin Fenn and Verdant Board President Deanna Knutsen, who explained Verdant’s work in South Snohomish County.
The Verdant service area is about the same footprint as the Edmonds School District, serving about 180,000 people in Edmonds, Esperance, Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, Brier, Lynnwood, plus small pieces of Bothell and unincorporated Snohomish County. (Learn more specifics about Verdant and what it does in our earlier story.)
Due to its statutory limitations, Verdant can’t build housing for those who are homeless. But it can — and does — provide programs aimed at addressing the “root causes” of homelessness, Fenn said.
This includes a focus on helping people who are “one brake job, one medical bill, one flat tire, one engine repair away from becoming homeless,” she said.
As an example, she pointed to Verdant-funded student support advocates in Edmonds School District schools aimed at helping students who are experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues.
Verdant also provides a 211 community resource advocate – operated through the Volunteers of America – who helps people throughout South Snohomish County access resources for social services by dialing 211.
After realizing that some people need to speak with someone face-to-face, Verdant hired its own social worker who does more intensive case management Monday-Friday.
In addition, Verdant works with veterans who may be experiencing homelessness and funds a Community Resource Paramedic program through South County Fire, which provides in-home services for people who have repeated falls, rather than transporting them to the hospital. Since many of those patients also have chronic mental health issues, a licensed mental health professional accompanies paramedics.
And Verdant has established CHART (Chronic Utilizer Alternative Response Team), which involves command-level staff from local police departments and South County Fire & Rescue, along with officials from Verdant and Swedish Edmonds. The goal is to determine who the heavy users are and come up with solutions – with the help of social service providers – to address their needs, Fenn said.
Verant Health Commission Board President Deanna Knutsen said that providing mental health services is an important factor in addressing homelessness, and it’s something that Verdant is focused on. “Mental health is why a lot of people are homeless, and quite frankly it is something that we need to collaboratively work on,” she said. Knutsen noted that Mountlake Terrace doesn’t currently have many social services and it’s something that Verdant would like to address. “But we need to know what it is that would be best to put here,” she said.
She then invited the councilmembers to meet with Verdant commissioners. “Having opportunities to talk with you would be very helpful,” Knutsen said.
“We need to think of an alternative for the homeless and I don’t think Mountlake Terrace has enough resources to do that,” agreed Councilmember Rick Ryan. “We need partnerships.”
Councilmember Bryan Wahl said coordinating services is key and there’s a need to work together to help people get back on their feet. “It’s encouraging that we are finally taking those steps,” he said.
“Right now, we are housing people in the most expensive hotels in the world — jails and emergency departments,” Knutsen added. “Folks need to understand that.” The trend for the past several decades has been to close mental health institutions and instead focus on community mental health treatment, but people still need a place to live, she said.
“People understand when roads are crumbling if you don’t invest,” Knutsen said. “The same disinvestment has been happening in all of our social services systems. We’re 39 years in, and we’re all paying the price. We’re actually getting less for more, because we are having to fall back on systems that were designed to do something else entirely to try to solve these issues.”
— By Teresa Wippel