In the gray period when Thursday night bled into Friday morning, volunteers led by people with lived experience of homelessness spanned King County to conduct the annual point-in-time count.
The results, which won’t come out for months, are used as data to mark how the county and its municipal partners are faring in their efforts to reduce homelessness.
If Washington state Senate Republicans get their way, it could be an estimate of how big to make the camp.
A group of Senate Republicans held a press conference Jan. 21 to articulate their vision of how to end homelessness in Washington, which would rely on existing funding and could strip the progressive stronghold of Seattle and King County of some authority to implement its own existing policies.
One such proposal, the SHELTER — Serious Homelessness Engagement Leads to Effective Results — Act from Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn), would require counties of a certain size to have at least one large shelter facility, guarded by police, that would also have counseling and job services at hand.
“It’s fenced, it’s secure, we’re going to give you a tent, we’re going to give you a sleeping bag, there’s a police presence,” Fortunato said, noting that the fence was to keep bad people out, not the good ones in.
The plan comes in sharp contrast to the one set forth by Gov. Jay Inslee, who proposed investing $300 million from the state’s rainy-day fund over three years in shelter and housing supports with the goal of cutting the unsheltered homeless population of the state in half.
It’s the first time, since Seattle and King County — home to roughly half of the state’s homeless population — declared states of emergency around the crisis in November 2015, that officials at the state level have proposed legislative packages to explicitly tackle homelessness.
Smaller suburban and rural communities have begun to feel the effects of homelessness in their areas. According to a recent Crosscut/Elway poll, Washington state voters rank homelessness as the No. 1 problem that lawmakers should address, far ahead of the second most popular topic, taxes.
Now that the statewide lawmakers are in Olympia for the legislative session, the focus is on populous areas like Seattle and King County.
The Republican answer to homelessness is organized around four main principles, Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) said: housing security, recovery from mental illness and substance abuse, self-sufficiency for people on the street and safety.
The proposals covered a suite of bills to reduce fees on building starter homes and affordable housing, make employment opportunities for homeless people and increase criminal penalties for unlawful production of fentanyl, a more potent opioid than heroin.
Additional bills flew in the face of the strategies that Seattle and King County have put into practice.
Fortunato’s SHELTER bill would make high-barrier shelter a requirement. Such shelter would not have to involve buildings, would have to involve police security and some kinds of counseling, and would not allow people to use drugs or alcohol on site.
Counties could also apply for money for such facilities out of the Housing Trust Fund, a state-created program that helps communities leverage state money and federal tax credits to build affordable housing. Most of that money is currently spent on affordable housing production and retention as well as affordable home ownership options.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) wouldn’t support such a use of scarce trust fund dollars, said Rachael Myers, WLIHA’s executive director. The bill wouldn’t fully fund the expansion of shelter, would divert money away from affordable housing projects and uses negative stereotypes to require the presence of police, Myers said.
Another bill, dubbed the Blue Flag Law, would put an involuntary hold on a person who “manifests self-neglect” by failing to provide for food or hygiene, resulting in an “unpleasant aroma” or other factors. The Blue Flag Law would not apply to legislators during the performance of their duties, according to the text.
That is somewhat similar to an offering from Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-Pierce County) that would allow a court-appointed resource executor (CARE) coordinator to make medical and personal decisions for a homeless person.
“It’s time to think of these individuals as if they were our own children,” O’Ban said. “If you had an adult child who was wandering the street and living exposed in an encampment, you would want someone to grab that child — who may be resisting help — to get them the treatment they need that they must have if they are going to live a healthy, long life.”
The state has struggled with involuntary detention laws in the past, said Terry Price of the University of Washington School of Law.
“In mental health there is always a tension betwen how much power the state has over the individual to deprive them of their liberty, and how much does the individual have autonomy,” Price said.
And in one bill that would impact King County, Fortunato proposed taking away prosecutorial discretion around property crimes.
“They get one time,” Fortunato said. “If a person commits what we’re calling a ‘relative homeless crime,’ the prosecutor gets one time to decide whether or not to prosecute that person. After that, we prosecute them.”
The tough-on-crime approach would hamstring the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), which brings police officers, case workers and prosecutors together to determine the best path forward for low-level criminal offenders.
That might actually frustrate police more than help them, said Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the Public Defenders Association. Daugaard recently won a MacArthur Fellowship — often called a “genius grant” — for her development of the LEAD program.
“There are many instances in which officers themselves may find it more effective to refer people arrested for property crimes in a ‘warm hand-off’ to immediate, community-based care. This is particularly true for people who are not legally competent and can’t lawfully face prosecution for misdemeanors, and for people who commit property crimes due to substance use disorder or extreme poverty,” Daugaard said.
“Taking those crimes seriously, which is totally appropriate, may mean not filing criminal charges, but rather immediately responding with appropriate community-based care,” she continued. “Officers are often in the best place to make that decision, and this bill would take away officer discretion to make the best choice.”
Criticisms of Seattle and King County’s approach abound, and certainly some will be on board with the Republicans’ views highlighted during the press conference that included phrases like “homeless industrial complex” and “broken windows theory.”
In a statement, the King County Executive’s office said it was pleased at the state-level focus on homelessness, but drew a line at the way that politicians addressed the problem.
“The people on our streets need real solutions, not to be used as rhetoric for political campaigns,” the statement read.
The Executive’s Office also pointed to a recent report by the McKinsey & Company consulting firm that pointed to critical investments to curb homelessness.
According to McKinsey, homelessness cannot be solved by maintaining current levels of investment. The millions of dollars spent to ameliorate homelessness do not always get at the root causes.
According to a new report issued in January, economic growth — not drug addiction or mental illness — is the leading cause of homelessness in this affluent area. While jobs continue to cluster here, housing has not kept pace, particularly housing affordable for low-income people.
Building affordable housing is expensive and slow — short- and medium-term steps will be necessary, including shelter and mental health investments, according to the report.
The data flies in the face of the assertion that there are enough resources to take care of the problem as is, but it also belies the idea that the one-time $300 million investment suggested by the governor will be enough, even if Democratic leadership gets on board. They are currently questioning that use of the rainy-day fund.
Furthermore, this is a short session. The part-time Legislature is only scheduled for 60 days, and they have other concerns, such as the possible gutting of transportation projects since a voter-approved law slashed car-tab fees.
While some or none of this may come to pass, the difference between the competing visions for homelessness relief and the data that points to solutions could not be starker, nor the need more dire.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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