Seattle, King County declare a state of emergency over homelessness

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Following similar declarations in Los Angeles and Portland, Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine signed a Proclamation of Emergency Monday morning in response to what they called a "homelessness crisis” in Seattle and across King County.

At the same time, Murray and at least six Seattle City Councilmembers outlined a $5.3 million package – an estimate of the city's windfall in the forthcoming sale of city-owned property in White Center – to address both the immediate and long-term problems of homelessness.

States of emergency are usually reserved for civil unrest or natural disasters. Declaring one in response to a social crisis is rare. Murray and Constantine justified the decision by pointing out that more people have died as a result of being homeless than from any natural disaster in the past year. “More than 45 people have died on the streets of Seattle this year,” Murray said at a press conference held at the downtown YWCA, a provider of services for the homeless. “I’m exercising this authority to contract authorities and allocate resources as needed.”

In the event of a hurricane or mass protest, declaring a state of emergency cuts away the red tape that could impeded a quick response, while simultaneously expanding the authority of the mayor, allowing him or her to impose curfews or close certain parts of the city. Murray said this declaration would not go nearly so far, but would reduce the bureaucracy surrounding zoning and land-use laws. For example, the city could put shelters and services for children – and only children – in areas where zoning does not currently allow them.

Perhaps more significant than the declaration's specifics is the message it sends. The vast panel of supporters at Monday’s press conference – including Murray, Constantine, Seattle Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Sally Bagshaw and John Okamoto, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives Frank Chopp and a number of service providers – each emphasized the need for additional state and federal funding, which has declined significantly in recent years. The speakers’ coordinated message was clearly meant for influential audiences in Olympia and Washington D.C. Constantine said he and Murray spoke with President Obama about the issue when he came through town last month, and Murray said he would be lobbying the federal government for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.

The $5.3 million announced Monday is in addition to Murray’s proposal to increase funding for homeless services by nearly $1.5 million in the city budget. In broader King County, Constantine plans to invest $2 million for homeless services. Additionally, his Best Starts for Kids initiative is before voters Tuesday.

Despite spending more on homeless services than any city but New York and Los Angeles, Seattle and King County have struggled to attain the desired level of results. The King County Committee to End Homelessness recently changed its name to All Home, after its ten-year plan to end homelessness ended this year far short of its goal. In fact, the results from the One Night Count last January – a sort of census of the area’s homeless population – showed a 21 percent increase from the year before. Murray acknowledged that his strategies to fight homelessness to date – including more shelters and more advanced budgeting – have not worked to stem the increasing numbers of people on the streets.

King County has made progress on some fronts, most notably with reducing chronic and veteran homelessness. But its shortcomings beg the question of whether more money is going to make a positive difference. President and CEO of United Way of King County Jon Fine pledged that this investment would not be “business as usual.”

“Not doing business as usual means greater coordination and more accountability,” he said. “It means getting the right services delivered to the right people.”

The approach, according to service providers and elected officials, will involve more specific data to target the deployment of services. For example, said Constantine, "the return to society can be very difficult” for veterans. Therefore, Constantine said we needed more services for them focused on issues like PTSD. Families and children, on the other hand, are more likely to have problems with domestic violence.

The ultimate emphasis, however, will be on going “upstream,” as Councilmember John Okamoto said, understanding root causes and preventing homelessness before it can begin. About half of the city's $5.3 million investment will therefore go to prevention efforts, including funding more case management, diversion to social services instead of arrest, and support for homeless school children. Nearly $1 million will go to data collection and analysis, sanitation and public health, and outreach to people living in cars. $1.75 million will go toward proactive behavioral health services. And nearly $1 million will go to adding 100 shelter beds.

This package is a one time investment. Without additional support, it runs the risk of being a flash in the pan. The hope seems to be that if enough municipalities on the West Coast declare an emergency, the issue will take on larger urgency on the state and federal level, and money will begin flowing faster than the problem.

  

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