On April 28, 50 participants from various advocacy groups in Seattle and King County joined a Zoom roundtable hosted by Resolution To End Homelessness to discuss the outcomes of the recent legislative session, which began Jan. 11 and adjourned April 25.
Three speakers — Nicole Macri representing the 43rd legislative district of Washington, Alison Eisinger with Seattle and King County Coalition on Homelessness and John Stovall with Washington Low Income Housing Alliance — reflected on the passage of recent legislation bills and what it was like to organize during a global pandemic.
Bridging the geographic gap
From the advocates’ points of view, the latest session was unique because the pandemic increased equity and access for many people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make the journey to testify on proposed bills.
Stovall saw more people than ever before participating in advocacy. He also said he felt a sense of urgency among people to support bills that would ensure hundreds of thousands of people didn’t lose their homes.
In one instance, Stovall said he saw over 138 unique voices testify virtually on renter legislation. “There were people from different parts of the state who never would have been able to make it to Olympia to testify, and so we had great geographic representation,” Stovall said. “I think it was a big reason why it was possible to get things passed at the state level this year.”
Three out of the four main bills relating to renter protection and housing passed this year, Stovall said, which wasn’t something he expected. “I think it’s kind of a miracle that all three of those bills passed.”
Stovall explained that activists and lawmakers spent years materializing the housing bills with different iterations and fine-tuning to get the full blanket of protections the now-passed bills offer. Stovall believes that the pandemic brought the reality of mass homelessness to the forefront of many people’s minds, which inspired people to get involved and be more vocal this legislative session. Despite the victories, Stovall is wary that the hard work will be undone by the expiration of the eviction moratorium on June 30.
Macri thought there was a more diverse pool of voices this session than she’d seen in previous years, too, and attributed the change to the remote environment. Macri said she saw higher participation from BIPOC community members, low-income communities and even people who are currently incarcerated.
Macri said being able to hear personal experiences helps make an impact in swaying the direction a lawmaker votes. “I think that had a huge influence on legislators.”
Macri also said that being able to read written testimonies and seeing how many people signed up to participate virtually gave lawmakers like herself a more meaningful sense as to how the public was responding to proposed bills. “In many ways, there are positives that came out of a remote session that I hope we will continue to use in the legislative process.”
Eisinger agreed there was an uptick in different voices testifying and pointed to House Bill 1078 as a major triumph, which was about Washington voting rights restoration.
Disenfrancising people with criminal records further suppresses the vote of minority groups who are more likely to experience homelessness and incarcaration.
HB 1078 will restore the voting rights of all formerly incarcerated individuals in the state, but not until 2022.
Washington is the 21st state, along with Washington, D.C., to adopt such a policy. Eisinger said about 20,000 people who previously had felony convictions will be able to vote again.
“This is as much of a game-changer for those people as same-day voter registration was when that got passed,” Eisinger said.
Still, Eisinger argued that for her coalition, it was a struggle to ensure people experiencing homelessness had the tools necessary to make their voices heard.
“If you don’t have a home, if the libraries are closed, if you don’t have a place to plug your phone in, if you don’t have internet, access is non-existent,” Eisinger said. Eisinger observed a heightened awareness among housed people to the struggles of people experiencing homelessness, but she said the gathering places her coalition would show up to do outreach with unhoused people have been nonexistent in the quarantine.
Eisinger also reminded people at the Zoom meeting that the conversation is often about advocacy and laws impacting people in Seattle, but Eisinger encouraged people to be active beyond their home city. In just the last few months, Federal Way, Renton, Auburn and Mercer Island are cities in King County that have taken significant negative action toward people experiencing homelessness. In fact, on April 19, the Auburn City Council made camping on city-owned property a civil infraction if there are open spots at local shelters. Violators could face a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.
“Some of the advocacy that we do is resisting poor policy as well as advocating for good policy, and the implementation is crucial,” Eisinger said. The pandemic has caused a growth in homelessness, and Eisinger said more than ever, community members need to be vigilant about local, state and federal legislation that impacts the lives of vulnerable populations.
Read more of the May 5-11, 2021 issue.