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Originally published Monday, March 15, 2010 at 5:09 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington's GAU saves people from homelessness

The Washington Legislature must not end the state's General Assistance-Unemployable program, argue guest columnists Jon Fine and Kate Joncas. The program provides stability for people with disabilities that keep them from working and saves them from homelessness.

Special to The Times

ON March 5, the Seattle Times Editorial Board presented a plan for balancing the state budget and suggested that "The General Assistance-Unemployable program has to go" ["A compromise plan for the state budget," March 7].

We disagree. GAU should be retained and strengthened because it provides the last thread of support for thousands of vulnerable citizens.

Reducing support for GAU represents a cost savings on paper, but in reality it merely transfers costs to hospitals, public safety agencies and social service organizations. It negatively impacts large urban centers, undercuts statewide and local efforts to meaningfully reduce homelessness. It also will stymie local progress in providing effective treatment, support and housing to King County residents through use of local mental health sales tax resources and the Veterans and Human Services Levy.

Underfunding GAU by limiting cash assistance or medical benefits could move people from housing to homelessness. In King County alone, some 5,000 current GAU recipients would be affected, and they could end up joining the 5,200 who are already on King County's streets or in emergency shelters on any given night.

While many of these individuals experiencing homelessness reside in downtown Seattle, there has been an upsurge in other areas of the county. Without the $339 per month help of GAU, an already severe problem has the potential to become disastrous.

United Way of King County, the City of Seattle, King County, our local housing authorities and other local municipal partners and philanthropy currently commit millions of dollars annually to ending homelessness in our community; however, we can't do it alone. Our community still needs to have state government at the table to provide strong, effective programs such as GAU to keep people out of the rain. We believe helping the most vulnerable from falling into homelessness is one of King County's most urgent issues, and we urge elected officials to ensure community safeguards such as GAU are kept in place.

Currently to qualify, a person must provide medical or psychological proof of being incapacitated and unable to work for more than 90 days. Further proof must be submitted every six months to stay on the program. The recipient must be a Washington state resident, prove financial need and undergo treatment and referral assessment. Those whose sole disability is alcoholism or drug addiction and those in the criminal justice system are ineligible.

GAU provides a ray of hope for the veteran with mental health issues, the construction worker with rheumatoid arthritis, the domestic violence survivor trying to find a new home and the person who is HIV positive. It is not meant to be a permanent support system. In fact, according to a recent Washington State Institute for Public Policy study done at the direction of the state Legislature, the average length of time a person is on GAU is about 15 months. Many recover sufficiently to go back to work while others with more permanent disabilities are transitioned to the federal disability program supported by Social Security.

A broad array of city and county agencies, nonprofits and direct service agencies all agree that protecting GAU ultimately helps protect our state's fiscal health and the vitality of our community.

Jon Fine (left) is CEO of United Way of King County. Kate Joncas is president of the Downtown Seattle Association.

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