By Peter Orser, board member of United Way King County, for the Auburn Reporter
Our region is known for its incredible economic growth over the last decade. That success has come with the twin issues of those who have been left behind, and a corresponding surge in homelessness.
This is not just a Seattle challenge. Throughout King County, cities and towns of all sizes are working to respond to a record level of people experiencing homelessness. Solving this travesty demands swift, common-sense action – action that gives regional voices and those experiencing homelessness a seat at the table, and action that combines direct service with new housing.
I was a housing developer with Quadrant Homes. I’ve been the chair of the King County Housing Authority. I served as a Mercer Island City Council member and now have the honor of being on the board of United Way of King County, one of the largest nonprofits in our region focused on ending homelessness. And after years of experience, I can tell you that the scale and complexity of the problem we see today merits a solution of equal size and magnitude.
It’s an odd dichotomy. The Pacific Northwest is home to talented, brilliant people on the cutting edge of their respective fields, from tech and business to art and philanthropy. Yet, despite the wealth of knowledge and resources available to us, there are more than 11,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County right now – and when I say “people,” that includes children.
Yes, our region has grown rapidly, and our county and cities have struggled to keep up with the infrastructure needed to make up for the lack of federal investment in affordable housing and services. With or without federal support, we cannot turn the other way and ignore what so many in our region face. It’s on us – all of us – to step up and do the right thing for our community.
Right now, doing the right thing means coming together to support a comprehensive, common-sense and regional approach to ending homelessness. This approach champions solutions informed by a diverse set of voices – from service providers, businesses and philanthropists to those who have firsthand experience with homelessness – and supports the kinds of programs doing the hard work on the ground to tackle the root causes of homelessness.
Seattle, King County, and many of the other 38 “Sound Cities” that make up King County recently proposed a new regional government homelessness agency, and I’m optimistic it will make real strides towards addressing the issue. It is a solution developed after seriously analyzing what worked and didn’t work in other regions facing homelessness across the country. This analysis, plus input from voices in our region and thought leaders across the country, informed the proposal with the intention of ensuring that every community in King County has access to funding, services and policies that can work.
Most importantly, it will bring together expertise across the public, private and nonprofit sectors and prioritize the voices of those with firsthand experience in informing policy decision-making and implementation. For the first time ever on this issue, the other cities in King County will get a seat at the table with Seattle to ensure our efforts are designed in response to the individual needs of each community and are spread equitably throughout the region.
A regional approach is a breath of fresh air after decades of patchwork solutions and one-off initiatives. Most importantly, it is the common-sense solution we need now. We know that ending homelessness isn’t just about tackling addiction, mental health or affordable housing alone. And we’ve learned from other regions that the best approach coordinates systems, pools resources, and empowers cities and neighborhoods to solve this problem more efficiently – and together.
We know this alone won’t be what “ends homelessness” in King County – but it at least gives us a fighting chance to act systemically and equitably. A regional approach is the first, necessary step, with many more steps to come. Because this is not a Seattle issue, or a Bellevue issue. It’s not a Mercer Island or Kent or Shoreline issue. This is something we all have a collective responsibility to engage on.
I’m in. Are you?
Peter Orser is a board member for United Way King County, Chair of the Runstad Real Estate Department Advisory Board at the University of Washington and a member of the Governor’s State Affordable Housing Advisory Board. He is the former president of Quadrant Homes, a former Mercer Island City Council member and former chairman of the King County Housing Authority.