The Washington Legislature is using one of the largest infusions of federal money in state history to invest in a wide spectrum of attempts to reduce homelessness.
Supported largely by surplus revenue, fewer debts and leftover federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, the extra money meant Democrats could be ambitious in their spending to address some of the state’s hot-button issues around homelessness.
Lawmakers passed $300 million to rapidly acquire properties to use for housing and shelters. They also reacted to growing concerns about people living outdoors near highways by allocating $45 million to clearing those areas. Rental and utility assistance, raising wages for homeless services workers, and behavioral health were some of the other big-ticket items that received additional funding this cycle.
Many housing advocates are applauding the “historic” investments in combating homelessness while others believe not all spending on homelessness issues is good.
“These were historic investments in affordable housing that will pay dividends for years and years to come,” said Erik Houser, a spokesperson for We Are In, a coalition of housing advocates. “The only way we are going to end homelessness in King County is by building more affordable homes. People in positions of power are starting to see that connection and they’re making investments to reflect that.”
The Regional Homelessness Authority, which creates policy and allocates money for King County and Seattle, expressed gratitude for the “significant investments” in a statement.
Historically, state lawmakers address homelessness through the Housing Trust Fund, a competitive pot of money that supports different projects throughout Washington. The problem with the Housing Trust Fund is that it can take years before the money materializes into actual housing or shelter for folks who need it now.
“This homeless crisis is before us,” said Seattle Democratic Sen. David Frockt, the lead capital budget writer. “We can’t wait around for three to five years to get people shelter.”
According to Frockt, lawmakers funneled money toward efforts that allow communities to address housing needs in real time — efforts like the $145 million for utility and rental assistance, the $55 million to increase salaries for homeless service workers, and the $300 million for a new program called “Rapid Capital Housing Acquisition program.” This program provides funding for public agencies to purchase properties and turn them into housing or shelter.
“(Rapid acquisition) Allows for housing for homeless people to be opened almost immediately,” said Sharon Lee, the founder of the Low-Income Housing Institute, a local housing nonprofit. “Instead of a nonprofit buying land, taking another year and a half to assemble financing, another year to get a permit, another year to build it … you can quickly convert a hotel or motel.”
In November, the Low-Income Housing Institute purchased a hotel in Tacoma using money set aside for rapid acquisition in last year’s budget. The hotel was up and running as an enhanced shelter with 100 residents by December, according to Lee.
“It’s a terrific program,” she said. “It’s going to have a big impact.”
Another piece of funding that has housing advocates excited is the $55 million to help increase pay for homelessness service workers.
King County has suffered from a worker shortage that has delayed the opening of announced shelters and housing that requires social services. There are vacancies — in some cases, more than 100 — at nearly every local publicly funded homeless services organization.
Social and human service assistants in Washington earn an average of $41,560 annually, or $19.98 an hour, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2020.
“Funding for construction and renovation of affordable housing is important,” said Paul Lambros, the CEO of Plymouth Housing, a low-income housing provider. “But it must be combined with long-term, robust funding for housing workers and supportive services to reduce homelessness in our region.”
More contentious is $45 million dedicated to helping homeless people transition out of encampments in public rights of way, specifically alongside highways. This effort was originally introduced as a bill at Gov. Jay Inslee’s request but died in the House. Advocates criticized the bill, believing it would encourage more enforcement of anti-camping laws.
Local and state lawmakers, in response to business groups and community members who have seen tents proliferate in public spaces during the pandemic, have called for increased action on clearing large encampments.
This money would be specifically geared toward people who live alongside highways, a place where they felt they could be out of the public eye. Proponents say it is not designed to simply move people around.
“I wanted to focus on how we can transition people more rapidly from dangerous living conditions and into permanent supportive housing,’ said Democratic Sen. Patty Kuderer of Bellevue, who introduced the original bill. “It’s not just along the rights of way of roads. We have encampments off of railroad tracks and that is exceedingly dangerous as well.”
Portland recently banned camping near highways and major car-transit arteries after a city report that said that 70% of pedestrians killed in car crashes were homeless. Washington’s version does not go that far, opting for increased outreach before enforcement, but some homeless advocates worry it sets the stage for more draconian measures.
“We were very opposed to that bill and aren’t surprised that the money is still there,” said Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director for Real Change. “Sweeps don’t work. People want action on homelessness and they’re happy with quick-fixes as opposed to long-term strategies that decrease homelessness at scale.”
McCoy said the money used for encampment removals would be better spent on things like behavioral health. State lawmakers said that they did both.
The supplemental budget dedicates $90 million to providing more children with access to behavioral health care by increasing the number of nurses and counselors in schools throughout the state. Lawmakers also allocated $72 million to enhancing treatment for people, particularly youth, experiencing a behavioral health crisis; $15 million to expanding the number of facilities for homeless youth; and $4 million for adolescent emergency supportive housing. They also created a statewide rapid response team that will help youth successfully transition out of public care systems and avoid homelessness.
Casey Trupin is the director of youth homelessness at the Seattle-based Raikes Foundation, a grantmaking organization. Trupin was excited to see the influx of funding geared toward reducing the pipeline of young people who exit public care systems like foster care or hospitals and wind up homeless.
“The unprecedented focus on this intersection is really exciting,” Trupin said. “I can confidently say there’s nothing this targeted happening anywhere else in the country.”