Op-Ed

Whatcom View: Homelessness is worsening, but we can reverse it

Phina Pipia of the “New Old Time Chautauqua” plays music for visitors at the annual Project Homeless Connect at Bellingham High School in 2013. The event provides services for the homeless and needy.
Phina Pipia of the “New Old Time Chautauqua” plays music for visitors at the annual Project Homeless Connect at Bellingham High School in 2013. The event provides services for the homeless and needy. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Washingtonians are resilient and resourceful. We’ve built thriving communities, overcome natural disasters, and steward a state whose natural environment is second to none.

We have not however, adequately addressed what has become a statewide crisis – homelessness.

In communities across our state, men, women and children are without a safe and warm place to call home. More than 35,000 Washington school children have no home; at a time when they should be concentrating on math and science problems, they wonder instead where they will spend the night and where they will find their next meal. What successful society allows its children to go homeless?

We can take an important step toward telling our 35,000 homeless school children that we care about them and care enough to do something about it.

This is a mark of shame for our society and our state. It is inexcusable and it is unacceptable.

What’s more, the problem getting worse — dramatically worse. From Bellingham to Yakima to Vancouver to Spokane, there has been a staggering rise in homelessness in communities across Washington.

Last month, the annual One Night Count in King County saw a 19 percent increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets at night because they have no permanent shelter, and in Snohomish County that number rose 54 percent. Many on the streets are women and children who, with no safe haven, face a constant threat of sexual assault and violence.

This isn’t just a homelessness crisis, it’s a humanitarian crisis. And we have the power to do something about it.

There is bipartisan support this session to invest millions of dollars in communities that faced the very real crisis of fires this past summer. There should similarly be bipartisan support to invest millions of dollars in the equally real and equally urgent crisis that is homelessness.

We don’t hesitate to help those who suffer from wildfires; our brothers and sisters on the street deserve the same sense of urgency. We must ensure each and every citizen in our state has access to a safe and warm place to call home.

Let’s not forget — for many Washingtonians living paycheck to paycheck, homelessness is only one medical emergency or unanticipated expense away.

It is time for those of us in the Legislature to significantly invest in programs that provide short-term shelter along with rental and housing assistance programs that prevent homelessness in the first place. More than anything else, communities across our state need more permanent, affordable housing. But also important is rapid rehousing, an approach that helps people who experience homelessness into housing first, and then offers support and training to get people back on their feet, or rehabilitation to help those battling substance abuse and care for those with mental health issues.

We can take an important step toward telling our 35,000 homeless school children, as well as the thousands of others we are unable to count who are without a home, that we care about them and care enough to do something about it.

It is time to face this crisis head on. It is time to extend a hand to the men and women and children on our streets. It is time to do what Washingtonians do as well as or better than any other state in the nation — care for one another.

Kevin Ranker is Washington state Senator for the 40nd District. The district includes south Bellingham, southwest Whatcom County, San Juan County and part of Skagit County. The Orcas Island Democrat took office in 2009. He is the assistant ranking member for the operating budget in the Senate.

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