The cost of homelessness in Pierce County

Dear friends and neighbors, 

Homelessness. It’s a word that’s filled with despair, for a variety of reasons. Most of us have seen firsthand the filthy living conditions in the makeshift homeless encampments around Pierce County — conditions unfit for animals, much less human beings. I took this photo during a recent tour of an abandoned encampment. 

In fact, there are 27 such encampments in unincorporated Pierce County alone. Factor in the ones in Tacoma, Olympia, Seattle, Spokane and other communities around Washington, and we have a crisis that is growing rapidly. 

Many homeless have ended up living in their cars, or in encampments because they fell on hard times and want to get out of their situation as quickly as possible. Perhaps they became homeless because they lost their jobs or unexpected medical bills had to be paid instead of rent. Or, perhaps they became homeless because they struggle with a debilitating mental illness and need intensive care. 

But many, if not most, homeless are under the power of a drug habit that can lead to crime and environmental hazards like the abandoned encampment shown above. The drug addiction robs them of hope and the ability to choose sobriety, a stable living environment and employment. Their addiction may worsen the lawless and dangerous environment of encampments. Some even prey on others — homeless and the public — to feed their drug habit and other vices. 

All of this contributes to higher crime. Shoplifting, vehicle prowls, home invasion. Sometimes these crimes are referred to as “survival crimes” or “life crimes.” I oppose such terms that seek to normalize criminal conduct. We need to offer help and hope to those enslaved by addictions and severe mental illness, while making sure there are consequences for behavior which hurts others and erodes a sense of safety in our homes and community. 

Washingtonians are becoming more aware of the problems surrounding homelessness. We see it along the road, near our homes, outside our businesses. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored. The question becomes, “What do we do now?”  

Next Steps 
Perhaps you’ve seen the KOMO TV special “Seattle is Dying” or similar stories about Spokane, Olympia and Aberdeen. While criticized as being too harsh about the plight of the homeless, these stories all have a common interest in reclaiming their communities by getting people the help they really need to address the issues that are really at the heart of the issue. 

This problem is a critical issue for me, particularly because it is tied closely to my work on behalf of those suffering from mental illness. I am also heading up a group in Pierce County to clean up the encampments in unincorporated areas of the county. 

There are 27 camps in unincorporated Pierce County, and it will take tens of thousands of dollars to clean them up. We need clear-eyed solutions that take a compassionate approach, but also impose consequences for breaking the law or endangering others. I call this strategy the “three Cs.” We need to get people off the street quickly. But, what do we do with the ones who refuse help? And, what do we do with those who have warrants or who belong in jail or in-patient treatment for substance abuse or mental illness? 

One solution involves long-term treatment for substance abuse. Thirty days is simply not enough to get a handle on an addiction to drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, Oxycontin, fentanyl and benzodiazepines like Xanax. The “Seattle is Dying” video highlights a program in Rhode Island that is having some success because participants (current inmates) are immersed in a culture of sobriety 24 hours a day, seven days a week that actively addresses their addiction. 

We need something like that here in Washington, even if it begins with setting aside a wing in jail or prison where those with serious addiction issues can receive medically-assisted treatment, as well as group therapy and individual counseling in a focused, immersive environment. The revolving door of short-term treatment is not working.  

What do you think? 
I would like to hear your experiences and ideas. Please take my survey by clicking on the link below. I encourage you to be candid, honest and constructive. I will be focusing a lot on this problem in the 2020 legislative session and your input can make a real difference. Homelessness is a community-wide problem that needs a community-based solution. Thank you for sharing your feedback.  

Sen. Steve O’Ban