Exit133 is about Tacoma
County Council Member Derek Young’s statement on homelessness in Pierce County
Like many others, I was saddened, but not shocked to see the sharp spike in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness in Pierce County. Our citizens have been sounding the alarm for some time now, but it hasn’t resulted in action by the County Council.
This is not, and never has been, an acceptable response.
While the survey shows many causes for people to experience homelessness, like communities all across the country, the opioid epidemic and mental illness seem to be a core component of the problem. It’s also something we have the power to affect right now.
In the wake of the recession and a decade of tax cuts, the State Legislature balanced their budget by enacting savage cuts to our mental health and human service systems. To partially make up for the loss in funding, they also granted county councils in Washington the power to adopt a 1/10th of 1% mental health sales tax.
Pierce County is the only urban county that has failed to adopt this funding mechanism. Some of my colleagues on the Council have said this is entirely a State responsibility. Even if they are right, I cannot allow people to continue suffering because of a fight over jurisdiction. Especially on an issue where we are completely alone.
When I ran for the County Council I made a commitment to work towards a solution. Last year Councilmember Ladenburg and I pushed for a study to identify the gaps in our system and what solutions could be adopted locally. That analysis is now underway and due back by September. While we don’t yet know what investments would be prioritized, we do know that it will take more resources. That’s why I will sponsor adoption of the mental health tax.
Unlike some on the Council, I don’t believe we can solve this problem by criminalizing homelessness, mental illness, or addiction. Filling up our jail with people who need our help only exacerbates the problem and contributes to the out of control jail budget deficit.
Utah dramatically reduced the number of people experiencing homelessness with an unconventional, but simple solution. They provided housing and treatment. In the process, they also reduced costs to the system. We should follow their example.