The poet Robert Frost famously wrote that “‘home’ is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That place depends on who you are.
The Olympian has editorialized that rapid rehousing — where barriers such as damage deposits and first and last months’ rent are overcome with modest one-time support — is the most effective way of getting most people to a place called home. This is absolutely correct. Our SideWalk rapid rehousing program has housed almost 100 formerly homeless adults in a year.
But where barriers are different, for the abused teenager or the boy kicked out for being gay, for the addicted, the mentally ill and the ex-offender, rapid rehousing is not a solution. For those individuals, a place that will “take you in” and keep you safe, has room to sleep and sanitary facilities and mental health services, is the priority. The solution is not rapid rehousing or low-barrier shelters, or youth or family shelter provided by Community Youth Services and Family Support Center. It has to be all of these or none of them will get us to the goal. A humane community does these things.
At Interfaith Works, a community of faith and spiritual communities, we recognize the commonality of that human obligation to help find a way out of suffering for those who cannot find the road themselves. We have provided shelter in our houses of worship, using congregant volunteers for 20 years, and those of us who volunteer at churches and temples have noticed that our current guests are mostly women with obvious mental illness, which untrained volunteers are not equipped to handle. The reason is not a mystery. It is the success of other housing programs.
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These women, along with the many transients who sleep downtown, many of whom are also mentally ill or addicted, also need a way home. Establishing a professionally staffed secure adult shelter and day center is the only approach, and winter is coming again. It cannot be at the expense of rapid rehousing programs, or neither can be effective. And we can all help.
Downtown business are owners tired of graffiti, transients sleeping in alleys, and cleaning up human waste and hypodermic needles. You can work with us to establish a place of respite from the streets, with 24-hour available toilets and showers, and drug and mental health counseling. It will alleviate many of these problems and is the right thing to do.
Those who need this facility are already in neighborhoods and parks. Indeed, many had established themselves in and around a number of empty buildings we surveyed in neighborhoods where they could be hidden from view, and this trend is increasing as anti-camping ordinances are enforced downtown. We are working to channel such persons to a professionally managed and safe space rather than under awnings and picnic tables.
We can show them the way home if we all work together.
Barnett N. Kalikow is an Olympia attorney and board president of Interfaith Works.