You don’t have to walk far in Seattle to pass a person suffering on the street. These members of the community are forced by poverty, lack of affordable housing, domestic abuse, addiction, mental illness, discrimination and host of other challenges to go without basic human necessities. Their plight has not gone entirely unnoticed. On Monday morning, Seattle Mayor Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine signed a Proclamation of Civil Emergency in response to the growing homelessness crisis in King County.
Sixty-six homeless people have died in King County in 2015 alone, including forty-seven on the streets and in Seattle encampments. Last winter’s One Night Count found 3,772 men, women, and children without shelter in King County, including more than 2,800 in Seattle — a 21 percent increase since 2014. Executive Constantine reported that thirty-five thousand people in King County become newly homeless at some point during the year – roughly the population of Issaquah.
It’s not just adults. The number of children in Washington State experiencing homelessness is now estimated to be around 32,000. The Mayor cites rising rents as one of the key contributors to homelessness with 221,800 residents paying more than half their monthly income in rent this year – up 20 percent since 2007.
Growing drug addiction and insufficient resources for treatment is also a major contributing factor to homelessness in the region. Deaths related to heroin and meth in Washington have increased 60 percent since 2013, reports the City of Seattle.
Murray says local governments have taken on too much of the financial burden, as federal housing support has declined along with small state budgets for mental health and substance abuse treatments. A decade ago, Seattle investments represented less than 40 percent of the total funding for homelessness services, says Murray. Seattle is now responsible for over 60 percent of homelessness resources.
Seattle city council members and the mayor outlined a $5.3 million dollar package to address immediate human needs and the root causes of homelessness. The money will come from the sale of excess city-owned property on Myers Way South. Executive Constantine also pledged $2 million total toward services like law enforcement, housing vouchers and shelter beds.
The city council will have to approve the legislation authorizing how the money will be spent. As it stands, the emergency funds will go toward a number of services mostly focused on case management, outreach to people living on the street or in encampments (including illegal makeshift encampments) and 100 new shelter beds with limited hours for one year. The money will also fund some sanitation needs like portable restrooms and trash removal.
As Seattle receives increasing attention for its booming economy, income inequality has been somewhat overlooked. Council Member Mike O’Brien called homelessness a “tragedy in a city that can create so much wealth.” Seattle is the third city on the West Coast to declare a homelessness state of emergency following Los Angeles and Portland.