LYNNWOOD — The backpacks Robert Smiley carries into homeless camps are full of food, toothpaste, flashlights and cards with his personal number.
Smiley himself was homeless for 22 years, in detox and treatment for substance use seven times.
Today, Smiley’s nonprofit, The Hand Up Project, focuses on people who are living outside and using drugs; when they want to quit, they call him and get set up to go to withdrawal management, also known as detox.
His organization runs on a very tight budget.
Medicaid will often pay for treatment — but it won’t pay for the things, like transportation, it sometimes takes to get people into treatment. There are a few locally funded programs around the state, like King County’s street medicine team, but nothing on a major scale.
A few proposals in Washington’s state House could change that. One is House Bill 2734, which would eliminate a long-standing tax preference for companies that warehouse and resell prescription drugs in the state. The tax preference has primarily benefited three large companies — Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., and McKesson Corp. — that have been sued by the state attorney general for allegedly shipping suspicious orders of drugs.
However, the bills’ chances of passing shrank Monday, after the House released its proposed budget, indicating the House would not be creating new revenue this legislative cycle.
The bill would use money from ending the tax preference to fund outreach and engagement like what the Hand Up Project does.
“It’s written for us, for what we do,” said Bob Kopp, volunteer president for the Hand Up Project. “It’s working, and all we need is the funding.”
“If you actually believe in people and give them the resources they need to be successful, they can be very successful,” said Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who runs the Washington Recovery Alliance. She’s behind this push: She’s a sponsor on this and another bill and also has proposed putting money for outreach into the state budget.
“Our system is not structured that way, and we don’t fund the heroes that actually make people believe in themselves,” Davis said. “People like Robert [Smiley].”
This is all voluntary, but there is data that indicates many drug users want to use less: A survey at King County syringe-exchange sites from 2017 found 78% of users had an interest in stopping or reducing their opioid use.
It’s unclear if the new bills will pass. With a good revenue forecast for next year, Davis says state lawmakers won’t be eager to justify creating new revenue.
Without some other source of funding, the future for The Hand Up Project doesn’t look good: They’re already struggling to pay the bills each month, Kopp said. Smiley is a full-time volunteer; he and his wife draw disability (Smiley also has heart problems), but they live in his in-laws’ basement. They don’t have enough money to move out. His criminal record, including a second-degree assault charge for attacking a police officer in 1986 at an Edmonds towing company (owned by Kopp), also makes life harder.
Smiley doesn’t even have the money to get new teeth, which he lost from years of smoking crack cocaine — although even if he did have the money, he says he’d probably spend it on outreach or rent for people coming out of treatment.
Staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report from Olympia.