Morning Fizz

Murray Says Using Rainy Day Fund for "Short-Term Budget Pressures" Would "Set a Poor Precedent"

Homeless services taking center stage in city budget talks.

By Josh Kelety November 13, 2015

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1. Earlier this week, the mayor’s office held a meeting with local homeless advocates to discuss the city plans to implement the mayor’s homeless “state of emergency.” The advocates—including executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness Alison Eisinger, founding executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, Sharon Lee, and Real Change founder, Timothy Harris, as well as representatives from the Reach Program of Evergreen Treatment Services and Columbia Legal Services—were called in to discuss the Mayor's state of emergency response to homelessness. For example, the mayor's staff wanted to see if the providers could work with  city departments to conduct sweeps or “cleanups” (the latter is the city’s term) of unsanctioned homeless encampments across Seattle (such as those along I-5) to gauge the needs of people living in encampments and assess their options for local shelters and services.

However, Real Change's Harris left the meeting concerned that the city would be enacting a new wave of homeless encampment sweeps without having adequate resources to house homeless individuals they displace.

“They’re talking about starting the sweeps [Thursday],” Harris said. “They called in a handful of advocates and let us know.” Harris adds that while he appreciates the city’s willingness to pair cleanups with outreach by human service providers, he worries that the city doesn’t have the resources or infrastructure in place to accommodate homeless individuals displaced from unsanctioned camps (Mayor Murray has called for $5 million in extra funding to address homelessness, including $900,000 for 100 new shelter beds).

“The bottom line is with sweeping these encampments, you’re trying to shoehorn a couple of thousand people into about 100 new shelter spots. And I don’t understand how that’s going to work.”

The mayor’s office and the Department of Human Services told me that no new wave of sweeps is coming as part of the mayor’s state of emergency, saying that the city’s cleanup strategy is independent of the Murray’s initiative, meaning that sweeps are initiated on a case-by-case basis by various city departments when a camp is within their purview, such as parks and recreation, the Seattle Police Department, and the Seattle Department of Transportation. “We’re not doing any special sweep. Our practice around cleanup in the city hasn’t changed,” said Catherine Lester, director of the Department of Human Services. Lester did say that Human Services had conducted some outreach to various encampments yesterday but that it wasn’t tied to any specific department sweep. She added that Tuesday’s meeting strictly highlighted the possibility of future collaboration between human service providers and departments conducting sweeps. “There is an opportunity for better coordination.”

Lester said the way to prevent displacement of homeless people already queued up for spots at shelters or city tent encampments by those evicted during sweeps is to focus on transitioning people to permanent housing.

Harris allowed: “It’s actually good news that they’re being thoughtful about it.”

2.  Speaking of resources for the homeless, here's a followup to yesterday's Fizz report on the budget battle between the mayor and homeless advocates such as Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness's Eisinger on whether to forgo a payment to the city's rainy day fund and spend it instead, as Eisinger (and council member Nick Licata want), on immediate shelter.

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We checked in with the mayor's office and the latest news is this: the mayor has doubled down on his opposition to Licata’s proposal. Specifically Licata wants to put an extra $2.3 million (in addition to Murray’s proposed $1.4 million budget line item in general for homelessness) toward building immediate shelter.

Yesterday, Mayor Murray sent a letter to council members arguing that the city’s homelessness response “should not come at the expense of the rainy day fund” (formally known as the Reserve Stabilization Account, RSA).

Murray's three points boil down to this: one, that the RSA should be reserved for times of economic downturn (such as another recession), and that city should be growing its financial reserves during Seattle’s current growth (given the increase in tax revenue). Two, Murray’s proposed 2016 budget allocates $3 million in reserve in addition to another $9 million in projected tax revenue, both of which could be put toward addressing homelessness. “Council can fund its priorities and still make the required contribution to the rainy day fund—this is not an either/or proposition.”

Lastly, Murray doubled down on his belief that strictly providing shelter is not the best approach to addressing homelessness. “The answer is not to simply build more shelter beds—we must increase the capacity of our existing system by connecting people to the services they need to be moved out of emergency shelter and into permanent housing.”

[Update] Alison Eisinger, Executive Director for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, had this to say to PubliCola in response to the Mayor's criticism of the housing first strategy: "As homeless service and housing providers, we get the distinctions between prevention, long-term policy solutions (increased affordable housing, living wages, and access to  health, mental health, and treatment on demand), and an emergency response. We are clear that all three are needed.  We also wholeheartedly agree with the mayor that shelter alone is not going to end homelessness. However, there is clear evidence that shelter is an important piece of our community's homelessness response, and a great way to connect people to services. Nearly an inch of rain fell in Seattle [last night]. Let's work together to bring people inside."

Murray's letter, addressed to council president Burgess, concluded:

Far too many adults and children are being served by a mat on the floor without connection to these needed services. To be clear, my commitment to addressing homelessness in our city is unwavering. In addition to increasing the city's investments in homelessness by 7percent in my last two budgets, I have directed the human services department to implement a number of new efforts that will support and improve our existing service system. We need to ensure that our providers have the support and capacity they need to connect people with a range of services that will create a more sustainable path to permanent housing.

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