#SeaHomeless: Interview with Michele Thomas, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance

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Michele Thomas is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA).  From wliha.org:  “As the statewide champion for housing, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is a powerful coalition of diverse organizations and individuals working together to build and protect safe, healthy, affordable homes for everyone across Washington State.”

As part of our contribution to #SeaHomeless, we interviewed Michele on state policy related to housing insecurity, homelessness, and supportive housing components of the state’s 1115  Medicaid waiver application.

DJ:  Thanks for making time to talk with me, Michele.  I know your organization has been at the forefront of housing insecurity policy at the state and regional level for years.  How are we doing as a state on the question of housing insecurity in Washington State?

Michele Thomas:  I think there’s a lot of will and desire to do more, but the legislature in the last session really failed overall.  There was some progress last legislative session, and that can’t be discounted.  But overall, the legislature did not treat homelessness as the emergency that it is.

DJ:  Is this a bi-partisan failure?

MT:  Yes.  Part of that is the politics in Olympia are such that its really hard to get progressive policies passed. So, both chambers are stymied.  I think there is a bi-partisan will to do more on housing insecurity, absolutely, and we’re working with members on both sides of the aisle.

DJ:  If we set aside the policy discussions in the legislature, or locally in the City Council or County Councils, how are the administrations doing?  I am thinking specifically about Governor Inslee’s administration, Executive Constantine’s administration, and Mayor Murray.

MT:  It’s hard to say in one broad stroke because the state and local activity and work is so different.  But I appreciate the attention all three levels of government are giving.  I think all three offices – the governor’s, the executive’s, and the mayor’s – are all concerned about this topic.  So we are working with all three levels of government, but we’ll be particularly active at the state level in 2017.

DJ:  How would you characterize the ambition, the challenge and the opportunity of the supportive housing  component of the state’s 1115 waiver application?

MT:  I am incredibly impressed by the governor’s office, the Health Care Authority and DSHS with their undertaking of the 1115 waiver request.  It shows incredible leadership and incredible forward thinking in Washington State.

The permanent supportive housing component of the overall 1115 waiver has the opportunity to have a significant impact and to finally reach people who are isolated not just from housing but also from health care and from social services.

Permanent supportive housing is an opportunity to house people with extreme barriers to housing, extreme disabilities.  So getting these folks a home and paying for services with some Medicaid dollars will give Washington State the opportunity to expand permanent supportive housing. Right now one of the key barriers to expanding supportive housing services, in addition to the capital investments needs, is the significant lack of funding for services that are delivered in the housing.  And that’s what the 1115 waiver would do.  It would recognize that those services have significant health outcomes, improving the overall health care system, while saving the health care system significant dollars.

You know, it didn’t take a lot of talking with the governor’s office or the HCA to convince them that these interventions are health care interventions even though they don’t look like health care interventions from a clinical stand point.  But it has opened a critical conversation about the connections between talking with the landlord and getting their rent paid, and the ability to support the health of these individuals.  So, I think supportive housing is now recognized as a critical component in the health and safety of individuals.