Homelessness: Saddened by the Stark Reality
Jon Fine is President and CEO of United Way of King County, working hard to build a strong community where people have homes, students graduate and families are financially stable. Even his time outside of the office is spent building community – pickup basketball, cycling, climbing the nearest mountain and spending time with family.
Friday morning I participated in the annual One Night Count of people who are homeless in our community. I was one of the hundreds of volunteers helping with the count. Collectively we found people sleeping in doorways, beneath overpasses, in their vehicles, in alleys, or walking around, in King County communities from Auburn to Shoreline and Bellevue to Vashon Island. The reasons people are without shelter vary. Lack of affordable housing, poverty, unemployment, untreated mental illness or addiction, and domestic violence all contribute to homelessness and we know that the unsheltered population is often the hardest to reach. Last night, volunteers estimate that 4,505 of our neighbors in King County were without shelter, a 19% increase over 2015. This is very bad news for our community and it was hard for me to hear that number.
This increase dramatically underscores the state of emergency around homelessness that has been declared by the City of Seattle and King County. In the coming months, building on what was learned about the number of individuals living unsheltered, the community will combine the sheltered count and information pertaining to individuals experiencing homelessness to form a more complete picture of the problem in King County.
As I reflect on my experience taking part in the count, I am saddened by the stark reality of homelessness in our community. The three hours spent walking South Lake Union neighborhood streets overnight made visceral the cold, isolating experience of having nowhere to call home. And yet, the fact that I was joining 1,100 other volunteers reminds me that we all have a role to play in building a community where people have homes. I was bolstered by the knowledge I have of all the generous people who have given time and money to end homelessness for thousands of individuals.
Together, we have made measurable progress, particularly with targeted efforts in housing veterans and the chronically homeless. Thanks to donor support we have invested in 2,241 units of supportive housing in King County. We invest in shelter, employment services for homeless veterans, services for homeless youth and help maintain housing for thousands of families each year. And we are not stopping there, we are committed to holding ourselves and our partners accountable to create a better system that responds more efficiently and effectively. We know that a disciplined, focused approach can move people swiftly through shelter and back to self-sufficiency. Sometimes the best response is to help people avoid entering the homeless system in the first place. That is a key approach of our new Navigators program which is showing promising results since launching in November. We also have a short-term employment program about to launch — connecting people to jobs so that they can begin to transform their lives and then move off the streets.
We will continue to address the issue with resolve and innovative programs and hope you’ll join us.