Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday proposed spending more than $300 million over three years to build emergency shelters and expand housing programs, with the goal of cutting unsheltered homelessness in half statewide.
The request to the Legislature comes more than four years after King County and Seattle announced a state of emergency on homelessness, hoping for state and federal help. After dropping out of the presidential race, Inslee is seeking a third term as Washington’s governor and some Republicans appear poised to push homelessness as a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign.
Inslee framed the state’s homelessness crisis as an unfortunate byproduct of Washington’s economic boom.
“It’s a frustration as a governor to be governor of a state with the most successful economy in the United States, and have a homelessness problem,” Inslee said at a news conference announcing his proposed 2020 supplemental budget. “It’s just a terrible irony.”
Washington has the fifth-highest per-capita rate of unsheltered homelessness, according to the state Department of Commerce. Inslee said Wednesday he hopes to achieve the 50 percent reduction over the next two years.
Inslee’s homelessness spending plan includes $66 million in grants to local jurisdictions for building shelters.
The governor also is proposing $30 million for construction of new “enhanced” shelters or conversion of basic mats-on-the-ground shelters into enhanced shelters (which often operate 24/7 and tend to offer residents more services and flexibility, like the option to stay with their romantic partners), and $26 million to expand the Housing and Essential Needs voucher program for people with incapacitating illnesses, potentially serving an additional 2,300 people.
Another $15.4 million would go toward permanent supportive housing assistance for nearly 1,100 people. Another $4 million would go to local communities to fund removal of “waste and contaminated materials associated with vacated homeless encampments.”
The proposal slates $146 million in the current operating budget, spread over the next two years, with a plan to spend a total of $318 million over three years.
The proposal leans heavily on emergency shelter, which came out of conversations Inslee had this summer with mayors of Spokane, Bellingham, Bremerton and Seattle, among others, according to Jim Baumgart, Inslee’s senior policy adviser for human services.
“All of them had the same thing of — that long-term investment is great, but we have a sheltering problem,” Baumgart said.
Inslee’s plan would tap the state’s emergency reserve, or “rainy day” fund, instead of raising taxes or cutting other state services. That’s a contrast with some past Inslee budget proposals which have included calls for new capital gains or carbon taxes.
State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, credited Inslee for not proposing new taxes “for a change.” But Braun said Inslee’s homelessness plan is lacking.
“His emphasis on housing seems to ignore government’s track record on addressing homelessness, and he missed opportunities to address issues that matter to all Washingtonians, like car tabs and repeat DUI offenders and property-tax relief for all low-income seniors. There’s a real contrast between what the governor views as important and what Senate Republicans have been hearing from the public,” Braun said in a statement.
The Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, a housing and shelter advocacy organization, has advocated in the past for Seattle government to take money out of its rainy day funds, according to Alison Eisinger, the executive director.
“People are literally out in the cold and the rain right now,” Eisinger said. “Good shelter is not cheap, and it is worth it to invest in good shelter that meets people’s needs.”
Inslee’s budget will be considered during the state Legislature’s 60-day session, convening in January. Democrats hold solid majorities in both the state House and Senate.
The announcement comes on the heels of an uncertain future for the West Coast’s homeless population. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it wouldn’t review a landmark decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said law enforcement can’t cite homeless people for sleeping outside if they have nowhere else to go, frustrating some Washington cities with few shelter options.
The money for shelters is designed to be flexible for those cities, according to Baumgart: It could go toward anything from a large tent shelter like in Tacoma to containerized housing units or tiny house villages. Eisinger and advocates would likely be more cautious on proposals like that for King County, she said.
“Everything depends on the details, the conditions and the circumstances,” Eisinger said. “We refer to getting people inside as actually providing people with an indoor safe place to be, and lots of times people and jurisdictions that mean well are trying to do something on the cheap.”
While Inslee made homelessness response the focus of his budget, he also is proposing new money for other priorities.
That includes $9.4 million to fix problems with inmate release-date calculations at the Department of Corrections. The money would pay for DOC to set up a new centralized unit to prevent repeats of past problems, which have led to some offenders being released early or held behind bars too long.
The budget plan also includes $35.9 million to implement the state’s family and medical leave law, which takes effect in 2020. The law guarantees paid leave for 12 weeks for new parents, plus an additional two for complicated pregnancies.
Inslee’s proposal also includes funding to try to save imperiled orca populations in Puget Sound, including more than $29 million in capital budget projects for toxics cleanup, habitat protection and fish hatchery improvements.
And Inslee is proposing $1 million to create a new state Equity Office, which would help agencies reach diversity goals for hiring and contracting.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the nature of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness’ advocacy. The coalition has advocated in the past for Seattle government to take money out of its rainy day funds, according to Alison Eisinger, the executive director.