Legislature moves to reduce homeless numbers

By Daisy Zavala

The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers want to reduce the number of homeless people in Washington by spending some $160 million over a wide range of programs to expand shelters, support for homeless youth and boost affordable housing programs.

“A lot of us are concerned about the folks that are sleeping under bridges and sleeping on our sidewalks and are literally homeless in our communities,” said Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend.

The money, which was approved in the state’s supplemental operating budget, has about $40 million for capital costs for housing and shelter projects. Other programs will address youth homelessness, including $500,000 to help homeless, at-risk youth in schools or leaving inpatient programs. Another $1 million will go to pilot programs providing transitional housing beds for 16- and 17-year-olds.

About $2 million from the budget will go to increasing subsidized child care for families experiencing homelessness. Homelessness diversion services will receive $1 million through the Department of Commerce.

Lawmakers worked together to develop a budget that provides money for small community housing projects, shelters and permanent supportive housing, Tharinger said.

About $14 million from the supplemental capital budget will be directed at housing security and homelessness. Almost $8 million will expand shelter capacity in cities across the state, including Spokane and Yakima.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, criticized the use of much of the money for homelessness on existing programs rather than new approaches.

“These are programs that haven’t shown the results we’d like to see,” Braun said before the Senate passed the operating budget on a party-line vote.

Money in the budget will help many people who might be in danger of losing their homes or who are struggling, Tharinger said in urging the House to pass the bill. The budget also will provide a new grant program with $5 million to support the development of community housing and cottage communities to house people and families experiencing homelessness.

“We spoke a lot about the need to address the housing and homelessness issues in this state and this budget does that,” he said.

A bill separate from the budget would limit the restrictions cities or counties can place on religious organizations hosting overnight shelters, encampments or temporary small houses. The bill passed both houses with little opposition and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Jay Inslee.

The housing and homelessness problem affects every corner of the state and all willing hands should be a part of the solution, said bill sponsor Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, during public testimony.

Cities can use property tax levies of as much as 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to enhance affordable homeownership, home repair and foreclosure prevention programs for low-income households, under a bill sponsored by Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent. It expands who can take advantage of those programs, to those at or below 80% of the median family income level, up from 50% of that level. The bill passed both houses easily and is awaiting Inslee’s signature. Those opposed including Spokane Valley Republican Rep. Matt Shea and Rep. Bob McCaslin.

“The opportunity to own a home is life-changing for many and often the pathway out of poverty,” Das said.

Mobile home owners and low-income families can apply for tax lien foreclosure allowances, under a bill sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Seattle. The capital budget gives $1 million to a pilot program that will preserve the manufacturing of affordable mobile home communities. The bill passed unanimously in both houses and is awaiting Inslee’s signature.