Take Five! Q & A with Mayor Greg Nickels

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Expert Q & A | March 26, 2008

Mayor Greg Nickels
Seattle, Washington

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
Seeking long-term, sustainable solutions to homelessness is key to our region’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. We’ve been encouraged by the success of the Housing First model in Seattle—combining housing and services such as medical and mental health care and other services for chronically homeless people. Our first two Housing First projects, Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake and Plymouth Housing Group’s Plymouth on Stewart have improved the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens while at the same time avoiding nearly $4 million in costs to our emergency response, medical systems and sobering center.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
That solving homelessness requires both affordable housing and innovative solutions to help people make the transition from homelessness to living in their own homes. Housing First is a key strategy, but also providing a communitywide network of support through housing, employment programs, mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, eviction prevention, meals programs, health care, and foster care. Again, the ultimate solution is not managing the problem but ending it.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
In the early 1980s, I worked for former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice who was then a Seattle City Councilmember. It was a time of severe cuts in federal funding and Councilmember Rice supported new city programs to fill the gaps in services such as shelters, community health clinics and food banks.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I’m overwhelmingly inspired when I meet men, women and children who overcome homelessness and poverty, and in doing so, regain their independence and dignity. I often share my experiences visiting with residents of our Housing First programs. Judith and Sunshine, two residents at Plymouth on Stewart in downtown Seattle, have had their lives reconnected to their family and community. They have each recently celebrated their first full year in a real home, and with that comes the optimism for a better future. You can see it in the sparkle in their eyes.

I can say that I’m fulfilling my obligations as the City’s leader when we show that our programs reduce a costly burden on our community. But more importantly, I believe we all have an obligation as human beings to help those who need it most and to give them something that doesn’t come with a price tag – hope.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Homelessness is a fairly recent phenomenon. We need to rebuild and rethink our community support systems to prevent homelessness, rapidly re-house those who do lose their homes, and provide the supportive services necessary for those who need additional help to become stabilized in housing. The research shows that services combined with housing works, and we’ve made significant progress in helping people exit chronic homelessness.

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