Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee put out an ambitious plan to cut the state’s unsheltered homeless numbers in half.

Buried in his plan was a nearly $4 million proposal to eliminate something that advocates and lawmakers often refer to as a “shelter penalty.”

If you qualify for cash assistance benefits in Washington, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) can reduce your stipend if you’re staying somewhere at no cost to yourself: for example, crashing on a friend or relative’s couch because you have no permanent home.

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The shelter penalty is an old rule designed to stretch cash assistance dollars in Washington state further, but advocates argue it hurts disabled or vulnerable people on the edge of being unsheltered.

Inslee and advocates want to do away with this longtime practice in order to help people on the edge of homelessness.

Despite the name, the penalty isn’t supposed to be applied to homeless people staying in emergency shelters, but rather those in other kinds of temporary situations. So, for thousands of people receiving the state’s Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance, one of the programs affected, that means their already-small monthly allotment of $197 drops even lower to $120 if they’re staying with a family member and not helping with the rent, or, if they’re homeless and living in transitional housing.


Gov. Inslee’s proposal would affect almost 4,000 households in Washington who receive state cash assistance — pregnant women, refugees, and families in financial trouble, for example.

The plan also represents some amount of reinvestment in programs that saw massive cuts after the Great Recession, which advocates have been wanting.

“The cash assistance levels are so low, cutting them down like that makes it harder to get someone to a stable place,” said David Hlebain, campaign manager for the Basic Needs Campaign at the Statewide Poverty Action Network. “It can really be the difference between having to go without really essential things for yourself or your kids.”

DSHS was given permission to institute the penalty in 1981 to stretch limited state dollars. After the Great Recession, the state legislature cut cash assistance programs even further, so the penalty had an even greater effect on people, said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who works at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC).

“It was with good intent, but in a time now of such economic prosperity and high cost of living, it just makes sense to say, ‘Let’s eliminate that penalty,’” Macri said.

It’s unclear whether Inslee’s proposal will become a reality in Olympia, but there are already plans from at least one other lawmaker to push for at least part of the measure: Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, who represents part of Pierce County southwest of Tacoma, is working on a $2.5 million budget proposal which would eliminate the penalty only for ABD and pregnant recipients.

“Trying to chew off what makes sense in a short session was the focus,” Leavitt said. “We just don’t know what the budget is going to look like.”