By Owen Sexton / email@example.com
The homelessness crisis, public school system funding and Washington state Legislature’s recent special session to remedy the Blake decision were among the topics state Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, talked about during the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce’s July forum on Thursday at O’Blarney’s Irish Pub in downtown Centralia.
As for the Blake decision fix — which was finalized after the state Supreme Court struck down drug possession laws — Abbarno said he is hopeful but that the legislation was not perfect. While he wants those in the grips of addiction to be able to find and access help, he also wants to ensure repeat offenders are stopped.
“Even though some have argued (taking) hard drugs is a victimless crime, it really is not. A lot of times, the folks that are causing a lot of these issues, the folks who are struggling with addiction, they don’t get picked up for the drugs … They’re picked up committing a crime and then caught with the drugs,” Abbarno said.
He acknowledged the massive scope of the opioid epidemic, along with other illicit drugs, is a result of the problem being neglected for decades. Abbarno added the current state of mental health care is in dire straits due to neglect, further fueling the addiction crisis.
“It’s difficult to develop a drug policy when you don’t have the actual infrastructure yet for that policy. We don’t have enough mental health providers or addiction recovery providers,” Abbarno said.
While speaking about education, Abbarno noted his children go to school in Centralia and his wife teaches in the Centralia School District, making the issue one close to his heart.
Earlier this year, Centralia voters twice rejected a school district levy.
Abbarno told attendees a quality education system is vital for a number of reasons, from being able to attract and retain good teachers and school staff to parents getting to see their kids remain in the community to start their own families so their kids can go to the same schools.
He said there is a direct link between lower income areas and lower quality school systems, an issue prevalent in Lewis County where the median income is $60,581, much lower than the statewide median income of $82,400.
“We will have teachers jumping ship to other districts. We’ll have students jumping ship, and all we do is perpetuate intergenerational poverty and perpetuate a bad education system,” Abbarno said.
He is also advocating for more state funding to be put into education, not just in Centralia, but statewide. Abbarno said he feels the Legislature is neglecting the issue and should be doing more to support struggling school districts.
“In reality, they’re keeping poor districts poor,” he added.
When it comes to the homelessness issue, he said he feels a number of things need to be done to address it, including providing more addiction treatment services.
It is not an issue that has one simple solution, though, as Abbarno told attendees there are multitudes of causes.
“We can talk about addiction. We can talk about mental health. We can talk about traumatic experiences. We can talk about loss of job. There are so many reasons,” Abbarno said.
He stressed the need for more mental health and addiction resources to help people transition out of homelessness and talked of his time working at the old overnight shelter at the Southwest Lewis County Fairgrounds.
His experience taught him those experiencing homelessness all need different types of help first in order to transition out of homelessness. Some need addiction treatment services first, some need housing first, some just need a job, but according to Abbarno, there is no single simple solution.
“Flexibility is key,” Abbarno said.
The lack of affordable housing was another issue that needs to be tackled in dealing with the rise in people experiencing homelessness, though Abbarno said for any changes to actually take effect, both housing and addiction treatment services would be required.
“Even though this is my third year, I still feel like an outsider to the government process,” Abbarno said of his time in the Legislature. “I think it’s a good thing to look at yourself as an outsider, because I would love for our government to start measuring success based on how many people they house or how many people you get off the streets, how many success stories, not how much money you spend.”
To find out when the August Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce forum will be and who will be speaking, follow the Chamber on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChamberWay.