Thurston Thrives strives for public health

Editor’s note: A portion of this editorial was inadvertently omitted from Sunday’s print edition of The Olympian. It is reprinted here in full.

Thurston County is fortunate to have a dedicated group of leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sector willing to take on the daunting task of improving community and individual health in the broadest sense of the term.

A healthy community works to ensure adequate, nutritious food for its members. A healthy community protects its water and air from pollution. A healthy community provides a roof over everyone’s head, quality education, accessible health care, social connections, a fair and effective criminal justice system and much, much more.

These types of health indicators are the glue that holds Thurston Thrives together. It’s a coalition of public, private and nonprofit leaders, convened by the Thurston County Board of Health in 2013 to improve the overall health of all of Thurston County’s residents. More than 100 organizations and 300 individuals have worked in nine different action teams to pull together plans for addressing various aspects of community health.

This is the year that plans are projected to turn into action. In the month ahead, a 21-member Thurston Thrives Coordinating Council will convene, bringing together educators, members of the Asset Building Coalition, elected officials, the Thurston County Chamber Foundation, public health officials, philanthropists and others to measure, promote and sustain all the myriad initiatives that have been identified to improve the health of all Thurston County residents.

The success of the council will depend in large part on whether it can cut across public and private sector lines, get people worked together from a common vision, reduce duplication of services, and match up effectively the limited resources with the best programs to tackle chronic community problems and challenges such as housing, living-wage jobs, access to health care and educational pathways built on the knowledge that no two students learn alike.

A little closer look at one of the Thurston Thrives pillars — housing — helps show how difficult and complicated improving community health can be.

The latest Thurston County housing data indicate that 15 percent of all households in the county are severely cost-burdened, which means they spend 50 percent of more of their household income for shelter and basic utilities. Those 15,000 households represent about 38,000 residents.

Some are making ends meet, but are just a job loss, a medical emergency or even an unexpected, costly car repair away from becoming homeless, joining a smaller but highly visible subset of the home-burdened population.

Some 2,000 children in our community are living in cars, couch-surfing or living on the streets while taxpayers spend up to $10,000 per year on average to provide them an education. Have you ever tried doing a math assignment by the light of a car’s glove box? It’s not a pretty picture.

The pathway to stability often starts with a safe shelter, and a healthy community provides a continuum of housing that meets the needs of the chronically homeless, those with physical and mental disabilities, those just temporarily down on their luck, and those who need a one-time grant or longer-term public subsidy to pay their rent.

It is going to take a public-private partnership to safely house people. Government programs alone can’t do the job. Let’s see if Thurston Thrives can pull partners together to make a difference. For more information on how to get involved, visit thurstonthrives.org.