Some balk as Seattle seeks to spend more money on homeless

Tuesday, March 28, 2017
A man wearing plastic bags in the rain carries belongings as he walks during a sweep March 7 to clear out people living at a homeless encampment known as "The Field" in Seattle's Stadium district south of downtown. Sixteen months after he declared a state of emergency on homelessness, Seattle's mayor is asking voters in this liberal, affluent city for $55 million a year in new taxes to fight the problem.
Ted S. Warren ~ Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Sixteen months after he declared a state of emergency on homelessness, Seattle's mayor is asking voters in this liberal, affluent city for $55 million a year in new taxes to fight the problem.

Some are pushing back, saying the city already spends millions to combat homelessness, and things appear to have gotten worse, not better.

In making his case, Mayor Ed Murray said the problem has grown exponentially, and federal and state help are unlikely. He wants voters to support a proposed ballot initiative that would increase property taxes to raise $275 million over five years for homeless services -- almost doubling what Seattle spends each year.

Supporters say current resources haven't been enough to stem the rising tide of people on the streets, and the proposed levy will provide more housing for those who need it most.

"This is a city that's not going to wait for a dysfunctional federal government to show up and do something -- because lives are being lost," Murray said at a recent news conference.

The mayor, who is up for re-election, would be on the same ballot as the tax initiative if backers gather enough signatures to qualify it for the August election.

City voters have approved three property-tax increases in as many years to pay for affordable housing, preschools and buses, on top of other taxes, and some say the higher bills are pricing out working- and middle-class families. Others are demanding accountability.

The mayor "needs to make these reforms first and then come to the taxpayers," said Harley Lever, founder of a group called Safe Seattle, which helped form one of two campaigns opposing Initiative 126.

The city should spend money more efficiently and adopt the data-driven, performance-based approach that places such as Houston and Boston have used successfully to reduce homelessness, Lever said.

"Seattle citizens are very generous. They've done their part," he added.

While homelessness has decreased nationwide and in many cities, the problem has grown in others, such as Seattle. In 2016, a one-night homeless count found nearly 3,000 people living outside in this city of about 650,000, marking the fourth straight year of increases.

Daniel Malone, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Emergency Services, blames rising rents and low vacancy rates for the spike.

"As rents have skyrocketed, more and more people have fallen into homelessness, and it's harder for people to scratch their way out," he said.

Since declaring a civil emergency on homelessness in November 2015, Murray expanded shelter beds, authorized new homeless encampments and hired a homeless czar, a $135,000 cabinet-level position.

Last fall, following two consultant reports that said the city needed to revamp its approach, the mayor announced a shift to focusing on moving people into long-term housing, among other changes.

Communities such as Houston, Las Vegas and New Orleans have made the greatest reductions in homelessness by acting urgently, focusing relentlessly on housing placement, using data to drive funding and creating a person-centered response, one report noted.

City officials said they're making improvements in line with recommendations in those reports.

Under the new strategy called Pathways Home, Seattle is focusing on getting people into long-term housing. This summer, for the first time in a decade, city homeless contracts will be up for competitive rebidding, and programs that get money will have to show they move people into housing.

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