Democrats switch course, adopt Republican-led homeless approach

Gov. Jay Inslee recently held a news conference in Spokane, touting the work of a new approach to dealing with the state’s daunting homelessness crisis. The only problem? The policies being touted as effective were originally part of a package that homeless advocates and Democratic lawmakers sought to kill.

The ranking Republican on the Senate’s housing committee is calling out the hypocrisy and urging adoption of his proposals this coming legislative session.

“We need a comprehensive homeless plan that helps our cities and counties deal with the influx of homelessness, largely caused by Democratic policies,” said Sen. Phil Fortunato. “It is estimated that the state and counties, not including cites, spend in the vicinity of $3 billion, more than 4 percent of the state’s budget. The recent report by the state auditor on how homeless dollars are being spent is a strong indictment of the status quo. The problem isn’t that we are not spending enough on homelessness, it is how we are spending it.”

Much of what the governor is touting is covered under Fortunato’s SHELTER Act, and Senate Bill 5591, which would create guidelines for prioritizing rapid rehousing for persons with disabilities, families, pregnant women and people over 60 years old.

“I hope that the governor and my Democratic colleagues working on this issue can put partisan politics aside and do what works for our communities and those experiencing homelessness. It is not compassionate to have people live on the street in cardboard boxes,” said Fortunato, R-Auburn

Opposition from the more than 400 homeless advocates to the SHELTER Act during its 2020 committee hearing focused on provisions that required secure fencing, police security, and prohibiting drugs or alcohol. They also derided enforcement measures, such as making it a misdemeanor for camping on public property.

After the Legislature failed to act on an effective homelessness strategy, local jurisdictions began implementing their own versions of Fortunato’s proposal. Shortly after the hearing, Mercer Island adopted an ordinance with even harsher penalties such as jail time and hefty fines. The City of Auburn passed an ordinance levying a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail for those convicted of criminal trespass for camping on public property. In November of this year, Tacoma approved a controversial public camping ban that is nearly identical to Fortunato’s proposal.

The 2023 legislative session begins Jan. 9 and is scheduled to last 105 days. Fortunato has introduced Senate Bill 5016, a comprehensive homeless plan incorporating many of the Republican homeless strategies into a single bill.

The proposal, called “From Homelessness to Housing,” would provide temporary shelter, transitional housing and work opportunities, with the goal of moving people through the continuum toward homeownership, generating wealth for low-income families to escape poverty, Fortunato added.

“The housing affordability problem in our state is real, people are feeling it and it goes beyond homelessness,” Fortunato said. “The state’s response should be to move people through this housing continuum with the goal of affordable home ownership. That can’t happen if we let people languish in this drug, alcohol and mental health crisis while simultaneously restricting housing options for everyone else.”