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Should Pierce County Offer Homeless People Work As Day Laborers?

Will James
A homeless camp in Tacoma, which city officials cleared in June 2017

Pierce County's proposed 2018 budget includes a number of programs aimed at combating the interconnected crises of homelessness, addiction and mental illness. 

Among them: A plan to offer homeless people jobs as day laborers. 

County Executive Bruce Dammeier is asking the County Council for $250,000 for a program dubbed the Homeless Empowerment Labor Program, or HELP. 

Dammeier, a Republican, said the idea is to connect people experiencing homelessness with work cleaning up litter, performing basic maintenance and other tasks. 

"It's all about giving them the dignity of working, the ability to get some control over their life, and then ideally, get them into services," he said. 

The HELP program would be overseen by a nonprofit. The ultimate goal would be for managers to build up trust with their clients and ultimately connect them with social services, Dammeier said. 

The idea is based off a two-year-old program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called There's A Better Way

One of Dammeier's aides volunteered with that program this summer, and praised it afterward.

"The barrier to the program is low and the process is simple: if you are physically able, willing to pull your weight on the crew, are sober and not hung over, you are eligible," Don Anderson, Pierce County's senior counsel in charge of military and veterans services, wrote in a blog post

In Albuquerque's program, a van operated by a nonprofit picks people up and takes them to jobs working on city beautification projects. Anderson wrote that participants are limited to two days of work per week. 

Albuquerque's approach inspired a similar strategy in Seattle, launched last year by United Way, the Millionair Club, and the Downtown Seattle Association.

The Republican-controlled Pierce County Council will decide whether to replicate the program in their area. Their deadline for passing a budget is Dec. 1. 

The HELP program is one of several proposals aimed at reforming the way Pierce County grapples with homelessness and other marquee issues in 2018. 

Dammeier is also seeking $2.9 million in federal grants for a program to divert people with mental health diagnoses out of the legal system and into treatment. 

The program would consist of four new employees working in the county prosecutor’s office, the public defender’s office, and the court system. 

Dammeier said dealing with the region's mental health issues falls too much on law enforcement, and jail isn't the right place for someone struggling with mental illness. 

"We want to not get them involved with law enforcement, or get them detached with law enforcement as soon as possible, so those deputies can be out dealing with real crime," he said. 

Clients with mental illness make up an estimated 15  to 20 percent of the cases handled by the county public defender's office, according to Pierce County's grant application. 

Also included in the budget proposal is $25,000 for a regional study and plan for addressing opioid addiction in Pierce County. 

Overall, Dammeier's proposed budget would increase spending by about 8 percent, to $327 million. 

Questions of how to address rising rates of opioid addiction and a problematic mental health system have occupied Pierce County officials for the past year. 

County Council members voted down a 0.1 percent sales tax last year that would have raised an estimated $10 million per year for mental health programs.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is similar to the one proposed in Pierce County. The Albuquerque program is called There's A Better Way.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.