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Originally published November 8, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Page modified November 9, 2012 at 10:27 AM

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Election-weary politicians can work together to combat homelessness

Lawmakers can rebuild credibility with election-weary voters by taking care of the basics, such as investments of state money to end homelessness.

Times editorial columnist

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Lawmakers in both parties licking their wounds after Tuesday’s election ought to consider reviving a quaint, old political strategy.

Instead of alienating voters with negative ads, robocalls and a blizzard of mailers, how about nurturing loyalty with constructive legislative work?

Democrats and Republicans working together to solve economic and social problems with smart use of taxpayer money would have a powerful story to tell voters during the election season.

Call it enlightened self-interest, but it will make a real difference in people’s lives.

In a time of squeaky-tight budgets, legislators have every right to expect added value from the money they will expend in the 2013 legislative session.

One of the best investments lawmakers can make is money to help homeless families get quickly resettled into permanent housing. The money is spent throughout the state, and it makes other tax dollars work more efficiently and effectively.

Housing advocates will be back in Olympia asking for a $6 million investment in the Washington Families Fund. The money is managed by Building Changes, a Seattle nonprofit that guides the funds to service providers and leverages other contributions.

Since 2004 the state has put $15 million into the housing programs of the Washington Families Fund. Alice Shobe, executive director of Building Changes, reports that private funding partners have invested another $26.4 million.

Looking ahead to the next legislative session, a daylong strategy meeting at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week attracted lawmakers, public officials, philanthropists and service providers from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Jeff Raikes, foundation chief executive officer, made the point that everything he learned about helping end homelessness he learned at Microsoft. The former corporate executive emphasized the need to know the customer, appreciate the value of data and vision to solve problems, and have the courage to learn from mistakes.

The fight to end homelessness is undergoing that kind of continuous review. Access to services has been simplified to one phone call. The pursuit of rapid re-entry to housing or keeping families in place has been emphasized, and there is recognition each family is unique and services must be tailored to those who need help.

The payoffs are savings in child-welfare programs, legal services and improvements in school attendance and performance.

Principal Scott Rich of McCarver Elementary School in the Tacoma school district described dramatic reductions in student turnover and envious gains in student achievement.

Connecting schools and efforts to coordinate entry in housing stops the cycling of kids in and out of classrooms. Stability works its own kind of magic from school to access to benefits that struggling families are eligible for but not receiving. Extra effort to match families to particular resources does them more good and saves money.

Established pathways from emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing are being re-examined. Some efforts have been judged to be too intense. Sometimes help in place — rental assistance to keep an apartment or cover the extra food bill at grandma’s — can make all the difference with keeping kids in school and re-entry into the job market.

Homeless families are a nonpartisan issue. As Shobe points out, there is a universal understanding that kids living on the street is not acceptable.

Helping end homelessness, and expecting service providers to be continuously improving their stewardship of state funds, cut across party lines.

Democrats and Republicans have a shared mission to work on and brag about later to voters.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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