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Seattle mayor suggests rental assistance, car repairs could help some homeless

The mayor of Seattle may be willing to do more than just cover homeless people's air fare. Mayor Jenny Durkan said that picking up a couple months' rent - or even paying for car repairs - could keep some people off the streets. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE – A team is prepared to come through Tuesday morning to clear out a street camp in Belltown where a homeless man attacked a tourist going to the Space Needle.

Last week, two people at the camp accepted plane tickets out of town on the taxpayer's dime. The city offered to relocate the couple to stay with friends in Kansas in more stable housing.

Now the mayor of Seattle may be willing to do more than just cover homeless people's air fare. Mayor Jenny Durkan said that picking up a couple months' rent - or even paying for car repairs - could keep some people off the streets.

Durkan calls it one-time diversion spending. The theory is that by paying a little money up-front, it might prevent some people from slipping into homelessness, and that could save tax dollars down the line.

“If we can just give them some assistance today, it will keep them out our shelter system, it will keep them out of tents and out of vehicles," said Mayor Jenny Durkan in response to a question about the extent of diversion programs the city is willing to undertake.

Experts in homeless outreach are hopeful but cautious.

“It's certainly not the silver bullet," said Terry Pallas, the chief program officer with Union Gospel Mission.

Pallas said most of the homeless people helped by his organization tend to struggle with drug or mental health issues. However, Pallas admits some could benefit from rental assistance or car repairs.

He said it hinges on how far tax payers are willing to go.

“It is a little bit of a slippery slope as to where do you draw the line? Who gets assistance, and who doesn't get assistance," said Pallas.

The city classifies homeless diversion as one-time assistance to keep people out of the shelter system. Seattle is set to spend $2 million on diversion efforts this year. The programs helped move 221 homeless people into permanent housing in the first quarter of 2018. That is a 19 percent increase compared to the same time frame in 2017, according to city officials.

The mayor's comments about rent and car repairs don't necessarily mean she is shifting more money into these types of diversion programs. Her budget proposals for 2019 are expected later this year.

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