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Originally published Friday, January 23, 2009 at 2:57 PM

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Preventing homelessness with economic stimulus

Congress should make investments in helping keep Americans in their homes in its economic-stimulus package, argue Washington housing advocates Mia Navarro Wells and Rachael Myers. The state's agencies and communities are well positioned to make the most of some extra help, keeping people in their homes and helping the homeless find homes.

Special to The Times

LATER this month, our community — along with cities and towns throughout the nation — will conduct a one-night count of the number of people who are homeless. This count allows us to estimate how many people are in need of emergency housing, temporary housing or just safe, affordable housing, plain and simple.

What we'll find, we expect, is a rise in homelessness due to the economic downturn; this is what homeless advocates are discovering throughout the nation. The housing crash, the lending constriction and its resulting job losses are threatening many families' ability to keep the housing they have or to find housing they can afford.

By then it may be too late. As President Obama takes office, Congress is busily putting the final touches on the multibillion-dollar recovery package that is meant to jump-start our economic recovery. Congressional leaders such as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray have an incredible opportunity to make choices that can make a real difference in the lives of Washington's struggling families.

Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, decent, affordable home. We hope Congress will act on three specific measures that target low-income families' housing struggle. They are:

• To deal with the short-term needs of families at risk of homelessness, $2 billion should be allocated to the Emergency Shelter Grant program to support local efforts to keep families in their homes, or to help families get into safe, affordable housing;

• To deal with the longer-term needs of families at risk of homeless, $2.1 billion should be allocated for the creation of 200,000 one-time, nonrenewable housing vouchers; and

• To begin to address the chronic lack of affordable housing units, $10 billion should be allocated to the National Housing Trust Fund.

Taken together, these three supports can provide families the housing assistance they need to stay afloat in these trying economic waters.

As the stimulus bill is meant to rev up local economies as quickly as possible, it is important to understand just how effective these measures can be. Studies consistently show that when low-income people have extra cash, they spend it in the local economy for goods (such as food) and services (such as health care or heating their home). With both the Emergency Shelter Grant funds and the housing voucher funds, families will be given much-needed breathing room in their wallets — these extra dollars will be spent in the local economy. With the housing trust fund, we find that for every dollar spent, an additional $8 is generated by the construction and services created by the fund.

Supports of this kind can't come soon enough. From 2007-2008, Washington state's homelessness plan estimated that 87,000 people faced homelessness over the course of the year. To get a sense of just how many people that is, remember that Qwest Field seats 67,000 during a sold-out Seahawks game. That many — and more — went without safe and affordable housing. And policy experts anticipate an additional 13,500 will experience homelessness in 2009.

Here in Washington, we are fortunate to have a spirit of can-do and collaboration when it comes to addressing our housing needs. With meaningful investment from the state and several counties, between nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and local government, we have been able to develop and implement effective plans to minimize homelessness in almost every county of the state.

That should come as good news to Sen. Murray and Congress: It is an assurance we will continue to work together to strengthen our state's families. With significant additional assistance from Congress through its recovery package, we're ready to roll up our sleeves and get the job done.

Mia Navarro Wells is the executive director of the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless, and Rachael Myers is executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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