Gov. Jay Inslee’s increased emphasis on homelessness in his 2020 budget proposal is welcome but overdue.
Homelessness demands a bigger state response because it’s a statewide challenge, not the problem of particular locales.
Homeless populations were found in 35 of 39 counties during last year’s point-in-time count. While the crisis is most evident in Seattle, more than half of its homeless population actually lost their homes somewhere else — outside the city, most from other places in the region and state — before ending up in Seattle.
Even so, the state should not dip into emergency reserves for new homeless spending as Inslee proposed. The mix of shelters and services would cost $146 million over the next two years and a total of $318 million over three years. If reducing homelessness is a high priority, the governor and Legislature should demonstrate that by securing regular funding in the $53 billion budget.
Homelessness is not a one-time, unanticipated expense, justifying a drawdown of the rainy-day fund. It’s an ongoing social-services obligation. This is also a bad time to tap reserves, with state forecasters expecting the rate of economic growth to slow.
There are parallels with education. For decades, the state shirked its responsibility to amply fund public schools, relying on local taxpayers to cover gaps. As the state’s homeless crisis grew, especially in Seattle, city taxpayers shouldered much of the cost. They’ll spend more than $100 million on homelessness this year, as Inslee proposes an additional $73 million per year for two years.
When releasing his budget in December, Inslee said his proposal could reduce unsheltered homelessness by 50% over two years. That would be great, but it’s optimistic. A state strategic plan for homelessness, released by Inslee’s Commerce Department in November, aimed to reduce unsheltered homelessness by 12% over four years. That plan didn’t factor in Inslee’s funding request, which emphasizes shelters to quickly get people indoors.
Yes, some segments of the homeless population were economically displaced, and it’s harder for everyone to find low-cost housing. There are also substantial segments suffering from addiction and mental illness, a situation worsened by the state’s failure to provide adequate treatment capacity. Blaming job creators and neighborhoods is counterproductive.
Legislators also should support Inslee’s request to improve data collection and reporting on homeless program performance. At $884,000, that’s a small but important part of his proposal.
Performance standards and transparency are required by laws and policies created in recent years. A May legislative audit said Commerce, which leads the state homeless response, needs to “clearly demonstrate how its actions measurably contribute to the state’s goal of ending homelessness.”
Standards are needed not to be miserly, but to maximize support for homeless Washingtonians. That’s accomplished by ensuring that limited funds are put to the best possible use.
Homelessness decreased an estimated 3% in Washington last year, but some programs are still falling short of performance goals Commerce created in 2017. For example, goals call for emergency shelters to have at least 50% of clients exit to permanent housing and see fewer than 10% return to homelessness within two years. A November Commerce report said just 37% exited to housing and 20% returned to homelessness in fiscal 2018.
Reducing homelessness is not easy. It’s complicated by the varied challenges each homeless individual faces and by the limited supply of shelters and low-cost housing. Inslee’s proposals will help, belatedly, but the state can do more to improve and accelerate the statewide response.
Legislators must also resist calls to use the rainy-day fund for the perpetual, high cost of reducing homelessness.