King County should follow Haven for Hope’s lead on tackling homelessness | Guest Columnist

The “housing first” approach has failed; we need a more comprehensive strategy.

Before moving to Enumclaw eight years ago, I was serving in the military in San Antonio. While there, I volunteered many weekends preparing and serving breakfast at Haven for Hope – an ambitious program to help the homeless that opened in 2010. After seeing Haven for Hope’s success first-hand, I was dismayed by how disjointed the response to homelessness was in Washington by comparison. While the creation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) is a much-needed step in the right direction, it is failing to live up to its potential to provide the effective response found in other areas of the country.

Haven for Hope is focused on working with people to address the underlying issues that keep them homeless. The program is centered on a large secure campus similar to a college dormitory. To be admitted, a person must have been a resident of the county for at least nine months, be drug and alcohol free (there is an anonymous drug rehabilitation center immediately outside the gate), have proof they meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of homeless, and “be willing and commit to working with a Haven to Home Team, with a goal of housing and sustainability.”

Once inside, Haven for Hope coordinates several resources. The program serves as a portal to connect people with appropriate internal programs and on-site nonprofit organizations. Case managers work with both the Income and Skills Development Team and the Housing Team to establish individuals on a path to independence, and the residents receive three meals a day from the San Antonio Food Bank. While I was there, the Food Bank employed people recently released from prison to prepare the meals; in this way the program also gave those who were not homeless a path to get back on their feet. Currently, the permanent housing retention rate out of Haven for Hope stands at 91%.

Now, I don’t know if placing a Haven for Hope campus in King County is the right answer or not; but I am confident the principles they use provide a successful model to affect positive change. Our goal should be to give people freedom over their lives by helping them overcome dependency and find productive work. The “housing first” approach pushed by the KCRHA fails as an effective means to address the regional homeless crisis. It is prohibitively expensive to subsidize that much housing, leaving most homeless people to remain without shelter. For reference, King County bought a 289-unit hotel in 2021 at a cost of $17.5 million; the KCRHA estimates that there are currently 13,368 homeless people in King County. “Housing first” also fails to address the issues that trap many people in homelessness. A volunteer from the Union Gospel Mission once put it to me succinctly: people usually run out of relationships before they run out of resources. In other words, drug and alcohol addiction often leads to broken trust among the friends and family who would like to offer meaningful help.

To be sure, effective coordination and application of resources to help the homeless is only one element required to move our region out of this crisis; it will require broader policy changes and effective leadership. There are many indications that the Puget Sound region is finally starting to take the homelessness crisis seriously. Several cities have passed ordinances that restrict camping on city property, King County voters approved a much-needed Crisis Care Centers levy, and there is a growing awareness that drug addiction traps many people in homelessness. We can regain a path toward compassion and community provided we empower people and stop enabling drug use. The KCRHA should put “compassion first” by refocusing on a plan that prioritizes congregate shelter and treatment, with an earned path toward transitory and permanent housing.

Chris Gruner is an Enumclaw City Councilmember.