As chairs of the three Senate committees designated to address these challenges, we stand committed.
Washington is in crises.
It’s difficult choosing where to begin when describing the myriad interconnected challenges our communities from Puget Sound to the Palouse face as they try to serve our neighbors who are most in need.
The homelessness crisis is impossible to ignore. Whether commuting through the Interstate-5/I-90 interchange or opening shop for the day in Aberdeen, visible reminders of our brothers and sisters without shelter are impossible to ignore.
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The statewide homeless crisis response system housed 99,729 people experiencing homelessness or housing instability in 2016, but only 26 percent of people who exited a homeless program went into permanent housing, the Washington State Department of Commerce revealed in a December 2017 report to the Legislature.
Those numbers are staggering and alarming. Paired with the increasing number of evictions as the cost of rent continues to rise, our system has become overburdened and ill-equipped to solve homelessness in a meaningful way, and many well-intentioned remedies have become mere Band-Aids.
The report goes on to cite the shortage of affordable housing and a lack of living-wage jobs as significant causes, but also flags one of Washington’s less visible crises: youth incarceration. Currently, the volume of juveniles exiting detention is outpacing the resources available to ensure that minors in state custody have their very basic needs met, let alone realistic prospects for re-entering our communities.
This is due, in part, to Washington’s lamentable reputation for incarcerating more youth for noncriminal offenses, such as skipping school, than any other state in the country. This is largely thanks to mid-’90s era legislation that increased the number of incarcerated juveniles nearly tenfold from 1994 to 1997.
This system exposes youths to the trauma of incarceration early, leading nearly one-third of detained juveniles to reoffend and end up back in that very same system, a system that has all too often become the front line for another of our crises: behavioral health.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 3 million adolescents, ages 12 to 17, have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. In fact, according to a recent study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “the odds of adolescents suffering from clinical depression grew by 37 percent between 2005-2014.”
Clinical depression, along with access to firearms, contributes directly to suicide being the eighth leading cause of death overall in Washington and the second leading cause of death among young people.
We have all been touched in some way by these crises. Many of us have struggled to operate within our broken system to find loved ones the help they need and faced the unforgiving reality that our system is not prepared to effectively assist those who need its services most.
The nature of these challenges and the systems we aim to reform demand we take a multifaceted and compassionate approach to solving each of these crises together. No one state legislative bill or policy will solve these issues in full. It will take good-faith, bipartisan collaboration with local governments, service organizations, the faith community and private enterprise.
Already in the first week of the 2019 session, we have listened to testimony from each of these groups and from individuals about their experiences and about how we cannot wait any longer to move forward. Hearing from you and from your community is the critical first step.
As chairs of the three Senate committees designated to address these challenges, we stand committed. These crises cannot be solved in one 105-day legislative session, but we are determined to take decisive action this year to lay a foundation for progress in the years and decades to come.