It’s been four years, eleven weeks and three days since officials in the state’s urban center declared a state of civil emergency — begging the state and others to take “extraordinary measures” in a crisis that was already, they said, “just as devastating to thousands as flood or fire.”
Homelessness and what to do about it is suddenly, bewilderingly, the talk of the state Capitol in Olympia – more than four, frustrating years after Seattle and King County officials pleaded for any attention as people died under bridges and on the streets.
“I believe we have an obligation to help solve the problem,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in his State of the State address last week. “Our compassion will not allow us to look the other way.”
OK, but …. isn’t looking the other way pretty much what we’ve been doing since 2015, when the emergency was first declared, and steadily through 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019? There certainly hasn’t been any big political effort focused on the issue, at least outside of Seattle.
Anyway the talk of the state Capitol now is that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, is on board to do something
“This is one of the very few times you will see everyone in Olympia agree this is a problem,” one lawmaker told the Seattle Times.
No time like the present I guess. But on Tuesday, state lawmakers seemed to agree on only one thing: That Inslee’s aggressive new idea to help — tapping millions from the state’s emergency rainy day fund for immediate shelter and rental assistance — is already dead.
“I don’t think there are probably the votes” for Inslee’s plan, Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said Tuesday. It sounded like the “probably” was put in there mostly to be nice.
Republicans unveiled a slew of ideas of their own – some of them serious, but some of them meaningless symbolic posturing. Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, who is running for governor, touted as an aid to the homelessness crisis what he calls his “graffiti bill.”
“If you’re in Seattle and you decide to commit graffiti, we’re not going to fine you, we’re not going to put you in jail, we’re going to hand you a scrub brush for thirty days, to scrub that stuff off,” he vowed at a press conference.
Another Republican senator, John Braun of Centralia, derided the groups who have tried to help with the crisis to date as an “amorphous homeless industrial complex.” He later said this was “probably more pejorative than I intended,” and that his point was that funneling more money in is the last thing that’s needed.
I don’t know, whatever strategy is chosen – more drug and mental health treatment, emergency shelter or permanent housing – it’s all going to cost money. It’s frustrating that all these years into a full-on civil emergency we still have a) no plan and b) no basic shared understanding of even what the scope of the problem is (graffiti? Really?).
For that reason, it’s refreshing that one Republican — Rep. Drew Stokesbary of Auburn — acknowledged reality when he said the problem is too big to solve without more money. That approach isn’t popular in his anti-tax party. But it’s at least a sign, a dandelion poking up through cracked concrete, that there’s a glimmer of bipartisan realization creeping in. That the crisis is real. And that get-tough sloganeering alone won’t ease it.
Still lawmakers don’t seem in any particular hurry.
“I’m interested in taking a comprehensive look at the issue,” Jinkins, the new House speaker, said Tuesday (again, more than four years after an emergency was declared). “We won’t be able to do it all in a year, that’s for sure.”
Seattle’s 2015 declaration of emergency now reads like it was written a hundred years ago.
“This proclamation shall be terminated,” it said, when the Seattle mayor can “determine that extraordinary measures are no longer required for the protection of the public peace, safety and welfare.”
No longer required? As this year’s legislative debate makes plain, they never started.