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Sen. Hans Zeiger proposes beautification jobs for homeless people

Seattle's Navigation Teams cleans up a homeless encampment in Northgate in January 2019. (Carolyn Ossorio, KIRO Radio)

People sleeping in tents, under tarps, or on benches are unfortunately a common sight throughout the Puget Sound, but 25th Legislative District Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) believes he may have part of the solution in a new bill he introduced in the Legislature.

Senate Bill 5261 would, if passed, create a pilot program for the state to partner with three cities — two on the west side of the Cascades and one in Eastern Washington — to give employment to homeless people. Jobs would be centered around city beautification, such as picking up trash in public places.

“We’re talking about a population of folks who may want to get work, but have had barriers to doing so,” Zeiger said. “They may have a criminal record, there may just be some difficulties in getting a job interview and things like that. So this is a foot in the door, really a starting point, to getting on with their lives.”

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In Zeiger’s viewpoint, finding honest work is as important of a step on the journey toward stability as mental health treatment, drug rehab, and getting into housing.

“They’re making a commitment to improve their lives — I think it’s a significant thing, that we would want to create opportunities for people to get reconnected to their communities and do meaningful work,” he said. “There is something that is fundamentally dignifying about work.”

He wrote the bill partly in the spirit of the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s federal program to provide environmental and infrastructure jobs to people without work during the Great Depression.

Zeiger also admires Jobs Connect, the effort by United Way of King County, the Millionaire Club, the City of Seattle, and the Downtown Seattle Association to create jobs for those living on the streets.

“It may make the difference between them getting on to the next level,” he said. “That’s really what we need to strive for.”

The participants in Zeiger’s proposed program would make the minimum wage of wherever they live. This would at least amount to the state minimum wage of $12 per hour.

There are currently no sobriety requirements for participants written into the bill. Zeiger said that while local jurisdictions could set up these kinds of regulations, at the state level, they could be an impediment to the bill passing.

“The program will be set up at the local level, so I’m not sure that we want to get into that level of detail within the legislation,” he said. “But I would certainly hope that they’d be doing things in the way that people would be observing good behavior when they’re out on the job.”

The initial fiscal report for the program estimates the cost at $168,000, but considering the potential lasting benefits, Zeiger sees this as a more worthy investment.

“Compared to the millions and millions and millions we are spending on a variety of programs, where basically middle-class jobs … are what is supporting our homeless population,” he said. “I’d like to actually get our homeless population working.”

The Washington state Labor Council opposes the bill, though Zeiger believes that there may be a misunderstanding about how permanent the jobs are. The jobs in the pilot program are meant to be a temporary bridge for people getting back on their feet, he said, and should not be a threat to existing beautification jobs.

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