Washington homeless advocates say shelters no place for police

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Homes, jobs, and sobriety are three solutions lawmakers and homeless advocates argue will help house Washington’s homeless population who both groups agree the state is failing to serve.

In past years, states around the country have begun revising laws on homeless camps in response to a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which upheld a 9th Circuit Court decision, Martin v. City of Boise, which held that the homeless cannot be punished for sleeping on public property in the absence of shelter.

The ruling has had cities and counties scrambling to expand shelter bed capacity, especially in growing states like Washington.

“I think we all agree that we need to find a better, more effective way of helping folks that are currently homeless transition into more stable and permanent housing,” Melanie Smith with the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness told lawmakers on Thursday. “I think we also agree that more capacity is needed in this system, we need more capacity. And we unfortunately need a lot more funding.”

Based on a one-night count in January 2019, Washington’s borders contained 21,621 homeless persons, or about 3.1% fewer people than in 2018, according to a state Department of Health survey.

Unsheltered persons, including people sleeping in cars or in the open air, saw a 9.6% drop of 1,022 people, the survey showed. By comparison, sheltered persons such as those living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and hotels, grew by 322 people.

Many expect those numbers to get worse if the state does not act to extend its eviction moratorium by March 31 or solve its housing deficit of some 225,000 homes.

Senate Bill 5107 would see every county with 50,000 people or more establish at least one overnight emergency shelter with a bed for every person included in the state’s most recent homeless count.

The bill, which takes effect 90 days after passage, would be paid for by the state Housing Trust Fund. It requires shelters to offer employment, mental health services, and drug counseling in addition to boasting an onsite police presence.

Its sponsor, Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said the bill was aimed at providing opportunities for homeless persons to become productive members of society.

“For somebody to get out of homelessness, they need to have an income, they need to have a job, they need to have a purpose,” Fortunato said. “Homeless people have to be able to work their way out of homelessness, by being able to perhaps get a job and leave their possessions at a place and know that those possessions are going to be secure.”

No one testifying to members of the state Senate Housing and Local Government committee on Thursday had many kind words to say about the bill. Of the 446 people who registered for Thursday’s hearing on the bill, seven were in favor and 439 were opposed.

Testifying to state lawmakers, Juliana Roe, policy director with the Washington State Association of Counties, expressed concern the bill’s mandates could cost counties if it did not increase Housing Trust Fund limits.

Dan Wise, deputy director of Catholic Community Services of King County, disagreed with Fortunato that the homeless see police as a source of security.

“I can say that has written the bill creates barriers to getting people off the streets,” Wise said. “It requires that people in poverty be monitored by police if they’re trying to access a shelter. This bill is written would likely result in the unintended consequence of leading people in poverty into jails.”

Wise noted that Washington’s homeless youth, who are predominantly people of color, may not feel safe around law enforcement which continues to see racial disparities in officer use of force.

Efforts to end homelessness have seen more extreme measures over the course of the pandemic.

On Sunday, a Red Lion Hotel in Olympia was occupied by the homeless advocacy group, Oly Housing Now, which paid for 17 rooms for 30 homeless persons, the Olympian reported. The incident saw 10 arrests and the thick SWAT presence that has come to define homeless sweeps in Seattle and around Washington.

Homeless shelters in Washington are also among the leading sites of COVID-19 outbreaks behind food service establishments with 246 cases to date, the state Department of Health reports.

Committee Chair Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, joined testifiers in challenging Fortunato over the efficacy of addicts to go “cold-turkey” in exchange for shelter.

“Anyone who is known someone who is suddenly had an addiction problem knows that that’s not a linear line out of it,” Kuderer said. “There are a lot of fallbacks, and relapses. And it’s in and out of sobriety until you finally get there.”

Fortunato, a construction contractor, acknowledged he is no medical expert, but argued his bill was about reclaiming public parks and sidewalks.

“I have a serious problem with taking taxpayer money and funding some of these drug and alcohol addictions,” Fortunato said. “However, I’m not an expert on drug and alcohol counseling, or the programs that they go through. I just want that person to be have that drug and alcohol counseling available.”

Recent studies on so-called ” Housing First” programs in Canada and New York City helped the vast majority of homeless persons observed see improved mental health outcomes far faster than those outside of the program.

David Moser, a King County behavioral health worker, shared such concerns with lawmakers on Thursday, arguing that the shelters the bill creates are unlikely to help someone beat addiction.

“For a shelter to work as an alternative to the streets, it needs to be low barrier and accessible and welcoming to everyone, not just those who are deemed worthy,” Moser said. “Treating adults in crisis like children needing schooling, never ever works to get the deep personal buy-in that you need for real steps to help stability to occur.”

SB 5107 awaits another hearing and action by the Senate Housing and Local Government committee.

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