For the last 10 years, the Campion Foundation and the Campion Advocacy Fund have worked with partners across the state to build the will to end homelessness in our communities. When we’ve made so much progress and brought so many strong partners to the table, it is rare that I read something that stops me in my tracks. A recent column in the Puget Sound Business Journal did just that. It should no longer be acceptable for any leader in our community to consider homelessness solely the result of personal failings, and not symptomatic of broader, societal issues.

To solve the problem of homelessness in our region, we should expect leadership, collaboration and innovation all while bringing our best selves to this human crisis. This article is a reminder that all of us need push back any time we hear members of our community try to take the easy way out in their thinking on homelessness. We each need to be ambassadors and educators for the truths around homelessness—truths based on facts, not prejudices.

There are over 10,000 board members in WA State serving nonprofits that work on some aspect of homelessness, affordable housing and services for vulnerable people. I hope that my response to this column will generate candid discussions in your boardrooms about how to Stand For Your Mission (and here’s a great tool to help) to eliminate the prejudices and misinformation that form barriers to ending homelessness.

Opinion: Homelessness isn’t about ‘bad decisions’

(The following op-ed was authored by Sonya Campion and originally published in the Puget Sound Business Journal on August 5, 2016.)

I am dismayed by Bob Wallace’s July 1 column, “Bad Programs Don’t Help Homeless Issue,”and the approach it represents to responding to our Homelessness State of Emergency. He argues people are homeless because they made bad decisions. Come on Bob — most of us have made some bad decisions in our lives, but you and I have a safety net protecting us. The rise of homelessness is bigger than the choices any one person makes. The facts show us three main drivers of homelessness:

  • Affordable Housing: In the last year, Seattle saw the greatest rent increase of any big city in the country. Anyone looking for a rental home no doubt felt the impact. A prominent national study shows that every $100 increase in rents leads to a 15 percent increase in homelessness. More than 45,000 families in Seattle spend half of their income on rent, leaving little wiggle room for when something goes wrong — such as a job loss or medical emergency — that jeopardizes their housing stability. As we look at the skyline of cranes and construction in King County, we need to ensure we are building affordable housing as well. With limited housing stock and skyrocketing rents, it is not a mystery why we are seeing an increase in homelessness.
  • Mental Health: Our country began cutting mental health services during the Reagan Administration. Compounded by additional cuts during the Great Recession, Washington state now ranks 47th among states in providing adequate mental health care, according to Mental Health America. Wallace’s argument that homeless mentally ill people are choosing to squander our tax dollars and support is out of touch with reality.
  • Income Inequality: A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that a person has to make $23.56 an hour in King County to afford a one bedroom apartment. Even with the move to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour, there is still a huge disparity between what people get paid and what they can afford to pay for housing. The disparities are even wider for persons of color. In King County, the average household income for white residents is just over $74,700 per year, while the average household income for black residents is $38,700.

But there is hope. As a board member for the YWCA, I see many smart housing projects leveraging private dollars and government funding to be part of the solution. The YWCA Passage Point supportive housing campus in Maple Valley helps parents facing homelessness after incarceration reunite with their children. This program provides a stable environment for parents, decreasing the chances of recidivism. Since the facility opened in 2012, Passage Point has saved Washington state nearly $600,000 annually in avoided prison time and foster care.

This is just one example of the extraordinary and creative housing solutions emerging across our region and I encourage property developers like Mr. Wallace to bring their innovative, entrepreneurial success to expand housing to those who need it most.

Finally, we can’t just blame “bad programs.” Between 2013 and 2014 our local service providers, government partners, and philanthropic community moved more than 20,000 of our neighbors from homelessness to stable housing. However, it isn’t enough. According to All Home, shelter occupancy on any given night is 98 percent. We are at capacity in our response system and need to do more.

Rather than demonize and label vulnerable people on the street as lazy, I hope that we can bring our best selves to address this crisis with grit and grace. I’m a person who sees the tents and desperation of so many people around me and thinks, “There by the grace of God go I. That could be my son, daughter, or brother, sister. What can I do to help?” I encourage everyone in our community to look a little closer and become part of humane solutions to this human problem.