Seattle declares homelessness an emergency

Seattle became the latest city to declare homelessness an emergency this week.

Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced they were declaring the emergencies Tuesday, November 2, Murry’s office said in a press release. Seattle City Council members Mike O’Brien, Sally Bagshaw and John Okamoto also helped outline new investments aimed at helping the area’s unsheltered homeless population.

Additionally, they presented a $5.3 million package to respond to the growing demand for services for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the area.

“Seattle is facing an emergency as a result of the growing crisis in homelessness,” Mayor Murray said in a statement released by his office. “The City is prepared to do more as the number of people in crisis continues to rise, but our federal and state partners must also do more. Cities cannot do this alone. Addressing homelessness must be a national priority with a federal response.”

“Emergency declarations are associated with natural disasters, but the persistent and growing phenomenon of homelessness – here and nationwide – is a human-made crisis just as devastating to thousands as a flood or fire,” said Executive Constantine in the same release. “We call on the federal and state governments to take action, including shouldering more responsibility for affordable housing, mental health treatment, and addiction services.”

In King County, Executive Constantine announced a proposed $2 million in funding to address immediate human needs and the root causes of homelessness, Mayor Murray’s Office said. Some of the funds are already pending before the King County Council.

There were 3,772 men, women, and children without shelter in King County, including more than 2,800 in Seattle during last winter’s One Night Count. Mayor Murray’s Office said. This represented a 21 percent increase over 2014.

Sixty-six homeless people have died in King County this year, Mayor Murray’s Office said, including 47 on the streets and in unpermitted encampments in Seattle. The state now reports that 35,000 people in King County become newly homeless at some point during the year, Mayor Murray’s Office said.

The City of Seattle currently spends more than $40 million a year to help those at-risk of or experiencing homelessness, including single adults, youth, families, domestic violence survivors, older adults, and veterans, Mayor Murray’s Office said. King County invests $36 million a helping those experiencing homelessness.

The decline in federal housing support and small state budgets for mental health and substance abuse treatments have helped increase the burden on local governments, Murray’s Office added. City resources represented less than 40 percent of the total funding for homelessness services a decade ago, today the City is responsible for over 60 percent of homelessness investments.

In late September, L.A. became the first city to declare an emergency on homelessness.

“An estimated 26,000 Angelenos are homeless today, which is why Los Angeles was the first city in the country to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, a distinction that allows the city to address the crisis with urgency and demonstrating the dire nature of this issue,” Connie Llanos, spokesperson for the Los Angeles mayor’s office, told Spare Change New.

“We have already begun to implement impactful changes, including issuing a directive to free up $13 million in city funds that will pay for continuing housing subsidies and keeping winter shelters open an additional two months and we have called for the earmarking of $100 million for homeless services in the city,” Llanos said.

Portland and Hawaii soon followed, though Israel Bayer, executive director of Portland’s Street Roots, said that what’s needed is federal recognition that homelessness is a nation emergency.

“Watching mayors up and down the West Coast declare states of emergency for homelessness and housing should be seen as a rallying cry to our federal government for support,” Bayer said. “With hundreds of thousands of women, children and elders sleeping outdoors tonight in America, we should be demanding the federal government declare a state of emergency and invest back in decades of lost housing stock and investments.”

For more about the trend of cities and states declaring emergencies to tackle homelessness, read our recent cover story.