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Shawn Vestal: Rep. Kevin Parker puts concerns of homeless into action

House Bill 2415 reflects the way that politics is supposed to work: Citizens talk to their representative about a problem; their representative researches possible solutions to that problem; their representative then writes a proposed law, gathers support from other representatives and tries to get most of the other representatives to vote for it.

Normal stuff, right? Schoolhouse Rock.

Except that House Bill 2415, and the circumstances surrounding it, are anything but normal. In this case, the citizens are people who have nowhere to live, which is also their problem. The bill, proposed by GOP Rep. Kevin Parker and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Timm Ormsby, Leonard Christian, Jeff Holy and Marcus Riccelli, would create a program that allows homeless people to obtain a state-issued certificate that uses a temporary shelter as an address for employment and identification purposes.

Parker first heard about these concerns at a “town hall meeting” he held with homeless men at the House of Charity shelter last September.

“The homeless guys are the ones who started this whole thing,” Parker said. “It’s not like this is major, landmark legislation. It’s something they have asked for that we can put a fix to.”

At the September meeting in the shelter cafeteria, residents had plenty to say to Parker about the problems they face. Many said they wanted work but couldn’t get it for a variety of reasons. Their uncertain circumstances, a chaotic lack of coordination among a wide range of services and employer attitudes toward them combined to make it hard to land a job, they said. A few of them mentioned problems arising from having no permanent address or form of identification like a driver’s license – issues that make it hard to fill out applications and get responses.

“Most of us would work if we could,” one man told Parker. “We’re not asking for a free ride.”

The obstacles are many. The U.S. Department of Labor has undertaken a seven-year pilot program and study of job training for the homeless. Researchers encountered a number of hurdles to employment for the homeless; among the most significant were stereotypical attitudes and concerns about that population – among both employers and among the homeless themselves.

The conclusion of the Department of Labor survey was both hopeful and cautious – it “found that with the appropriate blend of assessment, case management, employment, training, housing and support services, a substantial proportion of homeless individuals can secure and retain jobs and that this contributes to housing stability,” according to a summary of the work by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Having an ID and a permanent address to put on an application are doubtless a small part of the problem. But they are issues that several of the men speaking to Parker last fall brought up. That experience was transformative for Parker, he says; already familiar with many of the homeless in downtown Spokane, since they come by his Dutch Bros. coffee shop, he has gone undercover among homeless populations to try to share their experience, and he has made an effort to get to know them as people.

He expresses a more consistently humane, and less judgmental and mean-spirited, attitude about the homeless, in both word and deed, than most of his political peers on the right. Some safety-net supporters critique him on this count, saying he simply puts a nicer face on budgetary policies that undercut programs that help the poor.

But Parker is more than merely nice, even if his policies don’t align with those of us who favor more robust netting. His ID bill is a practical, potentially useful bit of legislation, and it’s not the only one. He’s also the House sponsor of a proposal to improve the identification of homeless students in schools and direct resources toward keeping them in class and helping them succeed.

That proposal comes from the Children and Youth Legislative Advocacy Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law. The clinic started its efforts on the heels of the news that the number of children identified as homeless in the state’s public schools has nearly doubled in the last six years, to more than 27,000 in 2011-12.

HB 2415 had a committee hearing last Thursday, and lawmakers raised some technical questions surrounding the bill that remain to be answered. As proposed, it would allow the state Department of Licensing to issue a one-year certificate of homelessness, tied to the address of a temporary shelter. There is no formal prohibition on a homeless person using a shelter address, but depending on the application and the way the question is asked, they cannot honestly claim it as a permanent address. Some of them may live there on and off as needed, or hope to move out soon, or simply come by for meals or services.

The fiscal analysis of the bill guesstimates that 10 percent of the population of homeless people using state shelters would apply for such a certificate, which amounts to 8,500 individuals. Cost projections estimate about $77,000 a year to pay someone to process the certificates and cover other expenses. It’s not much, but any spending is a tough sell these days in Olympia. Still, Parker is hopeful about his proposal.

“When we were there (at the town hall meeting), I thought the most interesting thing was how little they asked for in terms of dollars,” he said. “I thought that was compelling.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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