I was surprised with others when, on Nov. 2, 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency on homelessness, following in the footsteps of Los Angeles, Portland and the state of Hawaii. The initial declaration called the state and federal government to replenish money lost to enormous cuts over the last few decades. The declaration did create $7.2 million and up to 200 shelter beds between the two jurisdictions. The county is seeking to fund shelters and day centers outside Seattle to the tune of $325,000. What more is planned remains unknown.
My surprise came in part because in September I had begun advocating on Facebook for Murray to declare such an emergency. I did so daily for 12 days; not because I had the bright idea: The mayor’s own Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness recommended the emergency in a report in December of 2014.
That same report included other unrealized proposals. Many of us outside government believe a state of emergency should have generated more action than we’ve seen: more local funding and leaders who will make immediate policy changes.
A general definition of a state of emergency I gleaned from the web indicates “the government can suspend and/or change some functions of the executive, the legislative and/or the judiciary during this period of time. It alerts citizens to change their normal behavior and orders government agencies to implement emergency plans.” To date, when the city and county are asked exactly what is changing due to the declaration, the answers are few and include “we are still working on it.”
Clearly, I was not the only one surprised and caught off-guard.
Many citizens see homelessness only when it affects them. Recently, neighbors in Magnolia, Ballard and North Seattle raised their voices seeking policy change to ban all lived-in vehicles from occupying any space on Seattle streets. Given that our annual One Night Count in January 2015 found one third of the 3,772 persons unsheltered countywide living in vehicles, such a policy change aims us in the wrong direction.
But time is our friend, not enemy, and I say that because power exists to make change immediately. The California State Legislature is already considering a multiyear investment of $2 billion for affordable housing. Mayors in King County are coming together to introduce a bill in the Washington State Legislature granting property tax exemptions up to 15 years for landlords who use up to 25 percent of their rental units for low-income tenants.
Policy action must dig deeper for those who are homeless. Seattle cleared more than 500 unauthorized encampments during 2015, a policy with no remedy attached save moving at-risk homeless people from one place to another. In place is the 2008 Unauthorized Encampment Protocol that could be an asset if the full number of shelter beds required actually existed. When advocates chant, “without shelter, people die,” they are sadly correct since we have suffered 66 homelessness-related deaths in 2015. Added beds through two Seattle authorized tent cities help, but it is considerably inadequate.
Policy changes are critical. For example, look again at lived-in vehicles. People in cars need safe places off the street. Perhaps mirror the tent city model with a code of conduct, trash bins and enrollment in systems that lead to stable housing. Place a moratorium on RVs and lived-in cars from parking in retail and residential neighborhoods, but end the 72-hour parking limit in other neighborhoods. Provide more outreach engagement on the streets. Use more trained volunteers.
My point is that standing still or moving too slowly contradicts the emergency. Right now, when asked if the emergency response is enough, too many say, “What response?” It is time to respond according to the power that now exists. No more excuses or delays or confusion. We all know what is needed. Safety for all tonight.
The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett is the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness.