Senate Democrats announced a bill Thursday aimed at addressing what they describe as a homelessness “crisis” in Washington.
Supporters call the bill the “Bring Washington Home Act,” and it would spend nearly $300 million on services and housing for homeless people in Washington. It’s sponsored by Senate Democratic Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, along with 21 other Democratic co-sponsors.
The bill spends $281 million — of which $186 million would come from the Budget Stabilization Account, commonly referred to as the state’s “rainy day fund.” The account was created to help the state get through emergencies and recessions. It is expected to have over $700 million in it by June 2017.
“The Bring Washington Home Act is a holistic approach to homelessness. It uses existing money sitting in the rainy day fund and invests in people and families that are homeless or in danger of being homeless,” Nelson said. “This is money that’s sitting in the bank.”
It takes a three-fifths vote to use funds from the rainy day account, which would require another seven votes to get out of the Senate. Then, the House would also have to approve it by a three-fifths vote. Nelson said Senate Republican leadership has continually said they don’t want to dip into that fund.
Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville, was quoted as disagreeing with Sen. Nelson’s proposal to use the rainy day fund, calling homelessness “her emergency.”
Sen. Nelson (D) pushing to tap Rainy Day Fund to pay for homeless "crisis." Sen. Schoesler (R) disagrees: "It's her emergency." #waleg
— Drew Mikkelsen (@drewmikkelsenk5) February 3, 2016
Nelson said she was “taken aback” by the comment. “This isn’t about me.” she said.
“There’s an outcry in the state,” she added. “And if the Republicans just want to say ‘No,’ that’s shameful.”
Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia, Federal Way, said he agrees that homelessness is an emergency, citing several bills he’s involved in this session that address the issue. However, he says using the rainy day fund isn’t the way to approach it.
“We might as well just burn the $300 million on the Capitol steps,” he said.
Miloscia said that “throwing money” at the emergency or at existing programs will be a “complete failure.” He agrees they need to invest, but not until existing programs are managed more effectively. He said the state needs to start changing the way they deliver services to homeless people.
Nelson said the bill was modeled on other successful programs, such as the Utah Housing First program.
The act would pay for rapid rehousing, emergency shelters and behavioral health shelters. Funding would also go toward youth programs. Approximately $86 million would go into a new account, called the Homeless Assistance Account, and the rest would go into the existing housing trust fund for construction and maintenance of housing. The announcement with the full funding breakdown is available here.
The bill would also fund the Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act under a different bill, Senate Bill 6298, which is sponsored by Sen. David Frockt, D- Seattle. That bill would create a grant process to identify homeless students and providing housing for them.
Those speaking at Thursday’s press conference pointed to recent numbers that show a sharp increase in the homelessness across the state, including a 9 percent jump in homeless students.
“These are our sons and daughters that are out there, they’re going to school to our other sons and daughters,” said Julio Cortes with Snohomish housing non-profit Cocoon House.
“We’re not asking for handout, we’re asking for an investment. An investment in our kids, an investment in our communities, an investment in our neighbors,” Cortes said.
Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby also spoke about the impact homeless people have on public spaces in Olympia, particularly downtown.
Nelson said that regardless of the outcome this session, she would continue to pursue the issue.
“This is not a one time shot,” she said. “As a mom, I’m just not going to let this go.”