Before a backdrop of tents in City Hall Park Monday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant threatened to cut off all state homelessness funding to cities that allow camping within their limits.
The call, which echoed recent comments by Rep. Mark Miloscia (R-Federal Way), was the most public glimpse yet into how Bryant, a former Port of Seattle commissioner, sees the state's role in local homelessness policy.
Days earlier, in a bar in Lower Queen Anne, Bryant hinted he was moving in that direction. “For some reason, enabling people to live in these tent encampments has become a progressive idea,” he said. “Our solution to homelessness and these encampments should not be about what makes the bourgeois feel better about themselves. It should be about what helps those [homeless] people.”
With the announcement Monday, and in the one-on-one interview with Crosscut last week, Bryant has inserted himself into one of the region’s most heated conversations — and he’s done so in a way that may put him at odds both with members of his own party and with Seattle elected officials who are trying desperately to reform a system that is clearly not working.
Bill Bryant, as has been well established, is no Donald Trump. In fact, he’s likely not even a Mitt Romney. Even when it comes to his would-be colleagues in Olympia, he is more moderate.
When asked about comments made earlier this year by Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) that homelessness is Seattle’s emergency, not the state’s, Bryant said he disagreed. “This is not just a Seattle issue,” he said. “If you don’t have a statewide approach and some coordination between cities on how we’re going to deal with it, and we don’t identify … best management practices, you’re just moving the problem around.”
To address this, Bryant proposed allowing the state legislature to evaluate how effectively cities are using state homeless funding.
“By December 2017, [legislators] will evaluate how this money will be spent, and based on the evaluation decide whether to move forward," Bryant said at the bar last week. "You might find out that you’re spending money in a way that’s not really helping people and you don’t want to keep doing it. You also might find out you’ve got these other programs that work really well.”
Part of that evaluation, it seems, will be whether the city follows the rules on camping as Bryant reads them. "I would have a zero tolerance for encampments statewide," he said.
Washington collects $40 fees from recorder’s offices that are then reinvested into homeless services. In 2014, state Democrats wanted to make it permanent, while some Republicans wanted to let it expire.
Gov. Jay Inslee hit Bryant pretty hard on this issue in a recent gubernatorial debate, and clearly hit a soft spot for Bryant, who reached out to Crosscut to talk about the issue. “It’s entirely possible that the evaluation will come back and say $40 is not enough,” Bryant said at the bar, “but we don’t know that.”
Some observers thought Bryant’s proposal ironic. “It’s kind of a contradiction because most times Republicans talk about giving local jurisdiction,” says Mark Putnam, director of All Home, King County’s coordinated effort to combat homelessness.
On the other hand, Bryant is banking on Washington voters seeing Gov. Inslee as weak on leadership, and can at once use the issue to paint himself as strong-of-compass and steely in the face of ineffective services. “Let’s identify what the appropriate role of the state is and what we believe the metric of success is for our homeless programs and let’s identify those programs that are funded … and what’s working,” he told Crosscut.
It’s no secret that cities want state money; when Mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness state of emergency almost exactly a year ago, it was above all else a call for more state and federal funding.
What’s less clear is what they’re willing to put up with to get it.
It’s a conversation Putnam has heard before. The argument, he says, has been that “if communities weren’t making progress on reducing homeless, the state could do an audit of that community and tell that community how to spend their funds.”
Putnam doesn’t necessarily take issue with an audited approach. “In some ways, we don’t disagree with that,” he says. What he worries more about are Bryant’s colleagues that “have an anti-King County feeling.”
On several issues, Putnam and Bryant agree. Most notable are calls to reform the foster care and mental health systems in order to cut off some of the flow into homelessness. Additionally, both favor a single department focused on homeless issues, rather than splitting it between the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and the Department of Commerce, as teh state does now.
“There are states across the county that have interdepartmental leadership around homelessness,” says Putnam. “We’ve been asking for that for a while.”
And calling for more and better services while spending less is, not surprisingly, a shared goal, even across Republican and Democratic lines. That has been the goal of several recent private audits of Seattle that have called for taking money away from “transitional housing” — temporary places for homeless people to live before theoretically moving to permanent housing — and investing it in “rapid re-housing,” which skips that middle step.
But even as he calls for a fine-tooth comb, Bryant is hesitant to divest from any one type of service. “The one fear I have about some of the new attention on what to do about the homeless is that we will lunge from one fad to another, whether it’s rapid re-housing or housing first,” he said. “To solve this, you’ve got to have all that.”
As the challenger, Bryant can comfortably give an “all-of-the-above” answer. But Mayor Murray and several councilmembers have built their agenda around the notion that, in fact, we can’t “have all that” — resources are tight and homelessness is still rising, so the city should go all in on the approach they believe works best at the lowest cost.
The question that has most plagued Seattle and others is what to do in the interim as these moves toward more effective services are implemented.
A proposal in City Hall right now, originally drafted by the ACLU, Columbia Legal Services and others, is an effort to address that question. It takes the position that people sleep on the streets no matter what so it’s better to create incentives to camp in more “suitable” places. The hope is that by distinguishing between “suitable” and “unsuitable” locations to camp, the city will spend less time moving people from place to place while also keeping people safe.
Opponents, Bryant included, see the measure as a legalization of camping and fear it will flood the city with tents.
Bryant does not have any clear alternatives to this interim question, however. When asked what should happen until those fixes are made, Bryant says, that “presumes that all of them are homeless in the traditional sense.” Some people, he says, actually have places to go. Others need pressure. He also argues that Seattle could open more shelter beds if it wanted to.
If the reaction to Miloscia’s statements were any sign, Bryant is in for some pushback to his “zero tolerance” proposal.
Miloscia told the Seattle Times that “Seattle, frankly, needs adult supervision.” Not long thereafter, Murray skewered Miloscia in a speech about his proposed budget. “I do not remember ever seeing a state senator go into another jurisdiction and tell them what to do, much less say they need adult supervision,” Murray said.
Putnam, too, rolled his eyes at the idea of state mandates to forbid camping. “It’s not even possible, really,” he says. “If they don’t go to treatment, do they go to jail? I don’t think anyone agrees with that.”
And in a statement sent to Crosscut, spokesperson for the State Democratic Party Jamal Raad said, "Bill Bryant is offering fake solutions to a real problem in order to get press coverage for his failing campaign.”
But the Seattle Council is reportedly receiving thousands of emails a day related to encampments, many of them not happy ones. In Washington State, where even a Republican candidate must curry favor from liberal King County in order to stand a chance at winning, Bryant just may benefit from stepping in.
This series made possible with support from Northwest Harvest. The views and opinions expressed in the media, articles, or comments on this article are those of the authors and do not reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Northwest Harvest.