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Washington's Legislature has the tools — and the mandate — to tackle homelessness

The public wants its representatives to act. These bills in Olympia could help.

Homeless man

A homeless person tents seen in Seattle's Ballard/Interbay neighborhood, April 27, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Homelessness was once an issue that mattered to many Washingtonians, but fell behind other concerns such as the economy, education and taxes. Today, the public will for action on homelessness is stronger than ever. Nearly one in three Washington residents surveyed in a recent Crosscut/Elway Poll said homelessness is the top issue facing the Legislature, ahead of the economy, education and taxes.

What is driving the public’s concern for homelessness? It turns out that different people may have different answers.

For the single mom living in King County who can no longer afford to pay her rent, this is about housing insecurity. For the parents in Moses Lake whose son became addicted to heroin three years ago and is now living in a tent in Seattle, this is about substance use disorder. For the woman who suffered health, job and family setbacks that landed her on the streets of Vancouver, this is about a need for basic shelter. And for the homeowner in Puyallup who was a repeated victim of property crimes, this is about safety.

Taken together, these realities form our complicated situation. In the face of this, we cannot settle for the status quo. And the status quo is not what it is for lack of effort. In fact, the state operating and capital budgets have us spending $625 million on programs related to homelessness during this biennium.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle during the current session can stand together to make fundamental changes to save lives. I believe there are four areas we must address to be successful in reducing homelessness: housing security, substance use disorder and mental illness, restoration and self-sufficiency, and safety.

To help people facing housing security, lawmakers should create incentives to increase the supply of affordable housing. While government can fund affordable housing directly through programs like the Housing Trust Fund, we rely mostly on the market. According to a new study by Up for Growth, Washington state fell short of meeting its housing needs by 225,000 units between 2000 and 2015. We must create incentives that encourage construction and preservation of affordable housing stock, such as extending and redesigning the Multifamily Housing Tax Exemption, providing new options for local governments to lower impact fees for construction of affordable housing and using tax incentives for building accessory dwelling units and purchasing mobile homes.

For those struggling with substance use disorder and mental illness, we need to create tools to ensure people get the help they need when they need it. To that end, I am sponsoring bills to guarantee certain resources for people suffering from substance use disorder, to improve medically assisted treatment in our local jails and to bring cohort-based recovery programming into the Department of Corrections. Additionally, we need to seriously consider Senate Bill 6109 by Sen. Steve O’Ban of University Place, which would allow family members to ask the court for guardianship of a loved one who may need intervention in the event of a behavioral health crisis. In addition to these policy solutions, we simply need more Washingtonians to work in the field of substance use treatment and mental health. The coming years will see a major expansion of high-demand jobs in community mental health centers across the state.

For people living on our streets seeking restoration and self-sufficiency, we need new opportunities for homeless adults to secure and hold jobs and reconnect with sources of social capital. Senate Bill 6564, by Sen. John Braun of Centralia, would create a tax incentive for employers to hire homeless individuals. I am sponsoring Senate Bill 6385 to help cities launch employment programs for homeless adults — including individuals who may have barriers to employment like a criminal record or the challenge of interviewing for a job while homeless. Cities like Seattle, Tacoma and Auburn already have successful employment programs for homeless adults, and Vancouver is launching a jobs program with the help of a state grant pilot. We should make that program permanent to encourage more cities to create their own programs.  

Finally, to increase safety, we need to get to the root of the illegal drug supply chain, increase penalties for drug dealers and manufacturers, and improve requirements for prosecution of property crimes. Legislation is alive on both sides of the political aisle to achieve these objectives.

Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed now. Lawmakers must work together across our communities and party lines. The people of Washington are counting on us.

About the Authors & Contributors

Senator Hans Zeiger

Hans Zeiger

Hans Zeiger is a Republican state senator from Puyallup.