On Nov. 2, Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency in response to the local homelessness crisis.
The announcement came during a joint press conference. Murray’s “Proclamation of Civil Emergency” pledges to dedicate up to $5.3 million of city funding to address prevention, response, basic needs for and outreach to homeless people. A proposed additional $2 million will come from the King County Council, to be spent on immediate human services.
During the 2015 One Night Count, 10,047 people, including those in shelters and transitional housing, were considered homeless in King County. At least 2,813 people were unsheltered in Seattle, according to volunteers assisting with the annual count. For Seattle, this marks a 21 percent increase from the previous year.
“I think it’s wonderful that [Murray is] declaring a state of emergency, especially since we’ve had 45 people who have died outside [this year], and winter is coming,” said Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute.
Both Murray’s proclamation about city homelessness and Constantine’s proclamation on countywide homelessness were unexpected. They come at a time when city budget negotiations are underway. The city’s current 2016 budget proposal allocates an additional $1.5 million to homeless services, with $40 million already being invested annually. This $5.3 million ordinance is a part of the 2015 supplemental budget.
Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, John Okamoto, Jean Godden and Council President Tim Burgess were all present at the press conference. They were joined by Greg Imel, principal of Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, and YWCA CEO Sue Sherbrooke. Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen did not attend.
In October 2014, the mayor convened a 24-person Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness. The task force, whose members worked for the city, social service agencies or nonprofits that serve homeless people, was created to identify short-term action steps the city could take. Last December, the group gave Murray a list of recommendations, one of which called for the mayor to declare a state of emergency.
Declaring a state of emergency provides the city with the means to flex more authority in a variety of sectors, including addressing social service restrictions.
With the city’s share of the funding, the mayor intends to spend the funds to achieve a number of goals, including investing to specifically address the needs of homeless children in the school system. At Bailey Gatzert, for example, 71 out of 350 students are homeless.
“Most families will stay in their car, because that’s the last place they can live,” said Lee. The city’s response to vehicle residency includes funds for “operational/navigational support” and security.
The mayor’s plan also calls for adding 100 shelter beds. But Alison Eisenger, executive director of Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the size and focus of the response may not be enough.
“One hundred additional shelter spots won’t get enough people inside, and we need to be clear about what is the response to a true life threatening emergency and what are the longer term prevention and housing efforts,” said Eisenger. “And we need both.”
How do officials intend to pay for this new investment? City funding will come from the sale of vacant city-owned property at Myers Way South, a parcel in White Center that covers more than 30 acres. Meanwhile, money on the county level will be taken from increased sale tax levies in addition to reallocated funds from unsuccessful programs, according to Adrienne Quinn, director of King County Department of Community and Human Services.
“The county runs the mental health and substance [abuse programs] in the crisis systems for mental health as well. Much of the new funding we’re focusing on pertains to this network,” explained Quinn. For example, more money will be provided for detox facilities.
With the city’s declaration, Seattle joins Portland and Los Angeles in highlighting — and addressing — a trend of increasingly visible homelessness in West Coast cities. But the governmental response extends across the Pacific Ocean: The state of Hawaii has also declared a state of emergency.
Seattle’s proposed financial investment is drastically smaller than L.A. and Portland, which have committed $100 million and $30 million, respectively. Hawaii has allocated $1.3 million in funds to support of its declaration.
To combat the local crisis, support is needed from county, federal and state sources, said Murray. By increasing pressure on federal government, city officials hope to spur additional support to create effective short and long-term solutions.
The Seattle City Council approved the mayor’s proposal on Nov. 3, including an amendment brought forward by Licata that will require bi-weekly reporting to the council on how funds are being spent.