Lewis County Public Health & Social Services (LCPHSS) is currently in “contract season” according to Meja Handlen, interim director.
But before the county moves to amend contracts and add funding for services for people experiencing homelessness, Commissioner Sean Swope wants to meet with contracted service providers with the goal of adding more “accountability” for recipients, he said.
Based on anecdotal evidence from constituents and conversations with law enforcement, Swope said, there are more people in Lewis County who are homeless than ever before, especially in his district, Commissioner District 1, which encompasses Centralia.
“I just feel the government system is failing its people right now by not having accountability built into these grants,” Swope said during a county meeting on Wednesday.
In this case, his definition of accountability included creating benchmarks that people receiving housing services have to meet in order to continue doing so. In Lewis County Drug Court, he said, participants facing 24 hours in jail for failing a urine analysis is one example of such accountability. Another example Swope used were welfare reforms passed during former President Bill Clinton’s administration, which created more limits on benefits offered by the government.
“We need to work with our legislators, our representatives, to have drastic change, especially when it comes to these grants and the way that we're approaching homelessness. Because it's not working. It's broken. When you see people walking through our cities and they look like zombies because they're drugged out, we're failing our people,” Swope said. “The government system is failing and we should take it personal because this is your money.”
Commissioner Lee Grose said he completely agreed with Swope, saying the City of Seattle spent $100 million in the last two years on housing services, yet the problem “continues to grow.”
Commissioner Lindsey Pollock chimed in to say that when dealing with homelessness, “oftentimes you’re dealing with drug addiction situations.” Part of the solution to that, she said, was making sure law enforcement could get “those dealers into jail. JNET (Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team) is able to get them off the street.”
Among its many initiatives, LCPHSS contracts with various housing providers and agencies to assist people experiencing homelessness. The goals of the department’s five-year strategic plan tackling homelessness and housing issues are to engage with folks experiencing homelessness, prioritize housing needs and operate effective resources with the ultimate goal of getting people into stable permanent housing.
Those partners include the Mossyrock School District, Pacific County, the City of Chehalis and nonprofits such as the Equity Institute, Hope Alliance, the Housing Resource Center and Reliable Enterprises. Public Health also works with Christian organizations including Salvation Army, Lewis County Gospel Mission and Gather Church in Centralia. In the last few years, Swope said the county has used about $4 million of Department of Commerce funding in those contracts. Certain amendments currently being discussed — including one on a contract with Gather Church — would add another $1.6 million in grant funds.
Gather runs Lewis County’s coordinated entry program, a housing response program that includes data collection and evaluation on homelessness and common measures of performance, according to its website.
In response to questions about the concept of “accountability” in services as the word was defined by Swope, Patty Howard, co-pastor at Gather, said it’s worth noting that success looks different for each person coming in for services.
“It’s so easy for people to make judgments about people just by looking at them,” Howard said. “It’s so unfortunate that we do that. Most of the time in my experience, we are absolutely wrong.”
She said the church’s approach was to consider what they would offer to each recipient of services if they were a family member.
“We have to meet people where we are, we have to. To do any less is to take away some of their humanity, and I refuse to do that,” Howard said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Handlen suggested waiting on those amendments while she set up talks between providers and the Board of County Commissioners in an upcoming workshop.
“I am requesting that we take those items off in order to provide you more information, because this is a really important thing for our community, how we provide homeless services in Lewis County,” Handlen said. “I want to make sure we're giving you the most accurate information and you're able to ask questions directly to some of the providers.”
Swope later told The Chronicle there was “no question” the county needed a night-by-night shelter, among other services. Increasing the amount of affordable housing locally was also important for the issue, he said.
But as far as funding providers, he said he thinks programs should be more “bare bones” and add stipulations that encourage recipients to seek employment.
“We want to make sure that they are a success and that they're moving forward and that they're living out their dreams,” Swope said.
He also used the parable of teaching a man to fish, rather than giving him a fish, to punctuate his point. He said Port of Centralia Commissioner Julie Shaffley reported there being close to 36,000 jobs currently available in the five county area — including Lewis, Pacific, Thurston, Grays Harbor and Mason counties. However, he said, there is a population of people in the area who “choose not to engage.”