Leaders of Seattle and King County declared a state of civil emergency this week – not due to an earthquake or a mudslide, but because of homelessness.
Doris O’Neal works for the YWCA. She runs a shelter program for victims of domestic abuse. Sometimes she has to turn people away, and it kills her a little inside, because she knows how those women feel.
O’Neal: “You’re calling shelter after shelter after shelter. And they’re all full. And you don’t know where you’re going to go that night. That alone is mind-blowing. That can be crazy making in your head, especially if you have two or three children.”
O’Neal says there aren’t enough shelter beds in the city of Seattle. Seattle gets some money for this from the federal government. But next year, it will probably get less.
So when Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness this week, it was partly political. Seattle’s federal funding is drying up, and local politicians are throwing a fit. But the move also gives Mayor Murray extraordinary powers.
Murray: “The orders that you can issue under a state of emergency – they’re extensive." For example, the mayor said that in the case of an earthquake, he could issue orders related to zoning, closing businesses or issuing curfews.
The mayor said he will do none of that. But he will use his powers to push through a bunch of stuff to help homeless people.
He has a shopping list about $5 million long. It includes social workers, medical services and shelter beds. The money comes from the sale of some surplus city property.
The state of emergency lets the mayor contract for services quickly, without going through a lengthy public process. Lately, that process has complicated the city’s efforts to open homeless encampments in places like Ballard.
The YWCA’s O’Neal applauds the city’s announcement. But she said emergency shelter is just part of the problem. She said if you want to get people into permanent housing, you need to train them so they can earn enough money to afford the rent.
O’Neal: “You’re looking at rent in Seattle: $700, $800, $900 for one bedroom. Is $15 [an hour] going to be enough for that family to sustain permanent housing once they get it? So there is a gap in there.”
O’Neal called on local tech companies to train and hire more formerly homeless people. Seattle’s declaration of emergency is part of a trend: Los Angeles, Portland, and the state of Hawaii have all declared states of emergency on homelessness.