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Pierce County's Proposed Homeless Labor Program Runs Into Opposition

Will James
A homeless encampment that existed on Tacoma's tideflats until it was cleared in 2017

Pierce County Council members have postponed a vote on a program that would connect homeless people with work as day laborers. 

A vote was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, but county officials requested it be held off so they could refine the proposal, a county spokeswoman said. 

Tuesday's scheduled vote would have been supporters' second attempt in a week to approve the program. 

County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a Republican, has championed the idea. But his proposal has been on shaky ground since last week, when County Council members declined to spend money on it in a 1-3 vote.

Jim McCune, a Republican council member from Graham, cited perceived drug use among homeless people as his reason for voting no.

"A lot of these people that I know are drug-addicted people on the streets," McCune said at a July 31 council meeting. "You’re not going to find your common person on the corner just holding a sign. Once in a while you find those, but most of them are drug-addicted. So what they need is recovery."

Pierce County's annual census of the homeless population found people cited a lack of affordable housing and jobs as the most common reasons for becoming homeless. Eighteen percent of those surveyed reported having a substance abuse problem. 

McCune also said homelessness was a result of "choices people make."

"I made a different choice," he said. 

Pam Roach, a Republican council member from Sumner, said she felt supporters of the program hadn't lobbied hard enough for it. 

"I want the executive side to come over and talk to us," she said. "...I'm not just going to be giving it away like that. You have to come and earn it." 

Derek Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor, was the sole council member who was present at the meeting to support the program. He called it an "experiment" to see if day labor could help homeless people gain an income, stability, and "the dignity of a day's work." 

In addition to providing work, the program would also connect participants with social services and housing programs.

Pierce County's initiative, called the Homeless Empowerment Labor Project, is based off a similar program in Alberquerque, New Mexico, called There's A Better Way.

It would also be similar to a Seattle program called Jobs Connect, launched two years ago by the Downtown Seattle Association, United Way of King County, the City of Seattle, and the Millionair Club Charity.

Pierce County Council members previously agreed to put $225,000 for the program in the county's 2018 budget. County officials selected a contractor to run the program, the Tacoma-based nonprofit Valeo Vocation, which incorporated in January and launched in June. 

But another vote is required to authorize the spending of that money. No vote is currently scheduled. 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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