Quit stalling, Pierce County, and put panhandlers to work

A panhandler waits for handouts at the South 72nd Street freeway exit in Tacoma.
A panhandler waits for handouts at the South 72nd Street freeway exit in Tacoma. News Tribune file photo, 2005

A fair wage for an honest day’s labor sure beats the uncertainty and indignity of standing on a street corner, begging for a handout from strangers.

From the public’s perspective, it sure beats perpetuating the cycle of panhandling along with the litter, occasional trespassing and traffic problems that come with it.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier likes the idea of providing a fair wage for an honest day’s labor. He believes it could be part of a larger government strategy to address homelessness — a way to clean up local streets while offering work, purpose, employment skills and counseling, a bed and a paycheck to some of the area’s down and out.

In his 2018 State of the County speech five months ago, Dammeier outlined in broad strokes what he called the Homeless Empowerment Labor Program, aka HELP. “It’s all about helping people help themselves,” he said.

He intended for it to be up and running this summer. Sadly, HELP is not on the way.

Politics on the Pierce County Council derailed a good idea, as it often does when this group flounders through the intersecting issues of homelessness, mental health and substance abuse.

HELP is now on hold indefinitely, hijacked by Dammeier’s fellow Republicans.

What’s most frustrating is that the money was already budgeted; last year, the council approved Dammeier’s request for $225,000 to fund the program in 2018.

But it had a proviso requiring one more sign-off before the money is released to a private contractor. A committee chose Valeo Vocation, a Tacoma nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness find stable employment and permanent housing, as the most qualified applicant.

On July 31, HELP came back to the council for final authorization — and Republicans swatted it down.

It’s hard to think of a missed opportunity more absurd than this, especially because HELP follows a proven formula based on compassionate conservative values.

In 2015, Richard Berry, the Republican mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, spotted a man on a street corner holding a sign: “Want a job. Anything helps.” It was hardly an unusual sight, but it got Berry thinking, and soon the city partnered with a nonprofit to launch a program called “There’s a Better Way.”

Now in its third year, the program sends a van around Albuquerque to pick up panhandlers who want to work. They’re paid above minimum wage for tasks such as landscaping and trash removal. They’re also offered overnight shelter after their shifts.

Dammeier’s team heard about Berry’s brainchild. One staff member went south to check it out and found that while it’s not a panacea for homelessness, it reaches hundreds of people a year who are willing and able to work. In its first year alone, the program helped more than 100 clients move into permanent employment.

But HELP hasn’t been cleared for liftoff in Pierce County, mostly due to the obstructionism of council members Pam Roach, R-Sumner, and Jim McCune, R-Graham.

At the July 31 council meeting, McCune couched his opposition under a scrim of stereotypes. “A lot of these people are drug-addicted,” he said. “They need recovery, not a job.”

And Roach, in her typical imperious manner, said she couldn’t support it because nobody from the executive’s office had personally lobbied her.

Dammeier hasn’t given up, but he’s also less wedded to a timeline than when he gave his speech in March. Asked about Republican resistance at a meeting with our Editorial Board Monday, he was diplomatic. “It’s going to take more engagement with the council.”

We’ll be more blunt: Stop dragging this out.

Pierce County is building a reputation for effective homeless-assistance efforts, such as a diversion program that offers one-time financial aid. Think of HELP as a promising experiment — another opportunity to “try something, measure it and see if it works,” as council member Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, said.

Providing a fair wage for an honest day’s labor is a principle that should have broad bipartisan appeal. And in a county where at least 9,616 people coped with homelessness last year, more than half belonging to families with children, there ought to be a sense of urgency.

Legendary rock band The Doors had it right 50 years ago. Bob Dylan sang it again two years later.

Summer’s almost gone. Winter’s comin’ on.