Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared states of emergency, promising more expenditures and more services.

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Comparing the devastation of homelessness to flood and fire, local leaders Monday declared states of emergency in Seattle and King County, hoping to secure additional money and potentially loosen regulations to combat the problem.

States of emergency usually are proclaimed after natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, or during instances of civil disorder, such as rioting.

But other West Coast cities and a state preceded Seattle in declaring homelessness emergencies this year. Los Angeles and Portland took the step in September. Hawaii followed suit this past month.

“More than 45 people have died on the streets of the city of Seattle this year and nearly 3,000 children in Seattle Public Schools are homeless,” Mayor Ed Murray said.

“I’m requesting emergency assistance from the state and federal government to respond to the urgent needs of those who are victims of this crisis … and in addressing the root causes.”

Seattle has declared a state of emergency to address homelessness in the city. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien discusses the decision and the complex issues related to homelessless in Seattle. (Daniel Beekman / The Seattle Times)

The mayor called homelessness in Seattle a human tragedy “seldom seen in the history of our city,” while King County Executive Dow Constantine said the situation countywide has become “just as devastating to thousands as flood or fire.”

Constantine noted that the weather has begun to change, making life more difficult and dangerous for people living outdoors.

“The rain is here. The coldest months will soon be upon us,” Constantine said during a news conference with Murray at the downtown Seattle YWCA.

Last winter’s One Night Count found 3,772 people without shelter in King County, including more than 2,800 in Seattle — a 21 percent increase over 2014.

There were 2,993 people in transitional housing and 3,282 in homeless shelters in the county, for a total of more than 10,000 overall.

Each month in King County, about 3,000 people become newly homeless, according to state public-assistance records.

By declaring a state of emergency, Seattle “will have more administrative authority and flexibility in contracting for services and distributing resources,” Murray said.

He and Constantine said they will call on state and federal officials to react the same way as to calamities caused by Mother Nature. Murray will seek Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, he said.

As of September, 66 homeless people had died in King County, according to the county Medical Examiner’s Office including 47 on the streets of Seattle, Murray said.

That’s fewer than the number of homeless deaths in some other recent years. There were 85 in 2013 and 110 in 2006. But it’s already more than the total for 2014, which was 64.

“We are basically saying what we would say after an earthquake,” the mayor said. “More people have now died in the city than in some natural disasters.”

Drug woes

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The homeless problem is hardly new, Murray admitted when asked why he chose Monday to make the emergency proclamation.

The mayor had hoped measures taken earlier this year would have a greater impact, he said.

The city added funding for homeless services and passed legislation sanctioning three new encampments on city land. Those are slated to open soon.

“I thought we were on a path (that) would lead to better results,” Murray said. “It hasn’t.”

The average age of the homeless people who have died this year has been 48. Most have been male and white. There were 12 deaths in January, more than in any other month.

Forty-four of the deaths have been by accident or natural causes, seven by suicide and four by homicide. There were 20 deaths classified as involving drugs, alcohol or both.

Murray and Constantine attributed homelessness here to several factors, including what the mayor described as a heroin epidemic “across this nation and in this city.”

The mayor also mentioned, “jobs lost during the Great Recession that have never returned” and inadequate state funding to help people with mental illnesses.

Seattle receives much less federal funding for affordable housing now than five years ago, Murray said, noting that 19,000 households applied for the Seattle Housing Authority’s Section 8 voucher waiting list earlier this year.

Murray will meet with the mayors of other major West Coast cities in Portland next month to discuss a new push to lobby the federal government to restore funding.

He and Constantine spoke with President Obama about homelessness in West Coast cities when Obama visited Seattle last month, Constantine said.

Search for shelter

In a state of emergency, the mayor gains authority for drastic actions such as imposing curfews and prohibiting liquor sales, Murray spokesman Viet Shelton said.

Murray doesn’t plan to take any actions like that, but he may use his emergency authority to make sure homeless families with children are housed, he said.

The mayor has told his staff to search for new shelter opportunities and will bypass permitting, public process and zoning requirements, if necessary, he said.

There were 2,982 homeless students in Seattle Public Schools as of June 30. Murray pointed to Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, which reported having 71. Garfield High School had 98 and Washington Middle School had 86.

At Monday’s news conference, Bailey Gatzert principal Greg Imel said he recently walked a 7-year-old student after school to his temporary home — a broken-down car.

“I almost lost my breath at that point,” Imel said. “We need to be doing more.”

More shelter beds

Murray said Seattle’s state of emergency will come to an end only after a “significant reduction in the number of people dying on our streets … and a significant reduction in the number of school-age children who are homeless.”

He said the city will make a one-time allocation of $5 million in additional funds to combat homelessness, coming from the sale of surplus city property on Myers Way South.

The money will pay for about 100 shelter beds, plus prevention and outreach, including a van to traverse the city offering help, Murray said.

Seattle already spends more than $40 million annually on services related to homelessness, he said.

Constantine has proposed $2 million in additional funds, some now pending before the Metropolitan King County Council.

That money would pay for at least 50 shelter beds in Seattle, provide 20 housing vouchers for people exiting drug court, increase incentives for landlords to rent apartments to homeless veterans and fund other programs.

The county spends $36 million annually on homelessness.

Vacant buildings

No homeless people spoke at Monday’s news conference. But the consensus among several men huddling against the cold Monday under Interstate 5 near Cherry Street was this: Local officials should use vacant buildings to shelter the homeless.

“There’s a lot of space that isn’t being used,” remarked Fred Ledrew, 56, who said he’s been living under I-5 for most of the past 12 years. “That could help if they don’t get tied down in red tape.”

Tents have popped up around town, many of them in semi-sheltered areas such as below I-5. But many homeless people, Ledrew included, don’t even have tents. They try to stay warm in tarps, blankets and whatever else they can pull together.

Sitting alongside Ledrew was Scotty Morley, 66, who moved to Seattle four years ago from San Diego to be closer to relatives. When told the city and county had declared homelessness an emergency, he said, “It’s about time.”

Morley said he was a carpet layer for 40 years but can’t do the work now, “because my knees are shot.” He wonders how much Murray and Constantine will accomplish. “There’s a lot of money in Seattle; everybody knows that,” he said. “But we’ll see if they actually do anything.”

Another under-freeway dweller, Derrick Willis, 43, said he’s been on the street off and on for 12 years. Even if officials allocate a lot of money to combat homelessness, he expects there will be difficulties mending the problem.

“You’ve got some people out here on drugs, and a lot of them don’t really want to get off the street,” Willis said.

As if on cue, a man nearby who wouldn’t give his full name lit a small hash pipe and said he doesn’t want a shelter bed or apartment.

Asked what he’d like government to provide, he replied simply, “An ounce of weed and a dry place to smoke it.”

When a reporter wondered Monday whether more help for the homeless in Seattle might attract even more needy people to the city, Murray answered, “The last thing we want to end up doing is being a city that says, ‘No.’ ”

He concluded, “To simply say we’re not going to fund people starving on the streets … As a Roman Catholic, I just can’t go there.”