The escalation of homelessness in Washington state due to COVID-19 has the governor calling for some late action by state legislators to fund potentially hundreds of millions of dollars more in addressing a longstanding issue in the state.
During a press conference Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee asked the Washington state Legislature to appropriate federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act toward “rapidly acquiring housing units,” funding case management and cleanup and rehabilitation of public spaces historically occupied by individuals experiencing homelessness.
Inslee’s announcement was in addition to work that the Legislature has already put forth to address the issue during their 2021 session. He said an eviction moratorium he enacted has kept some 75,000 Washington residents from losing their homes.
With homelessness on the rise in the state, Inslee said his call to action was to “focus on getting people off the street and under a roof with dignity and privacy” in facilities that have access to supportive services. He said that additional funds proposed by his office would be used for “effective program strategies” that would transition individuals “out of our public parks and right-of-ways, and into secure housing.”
“We think we need to be more ambitious, more aggressive and larger in our commitments to this effort,” Inslee said.
He said he “willfully” did not put a dollar amount on what those greater commitments would be, “but it’s closer to the hundreds of millions (than) to the tens of millions that I believe are necessary to respond to this crisis in its depth.”
“And I think the public is demanding and calling for more urgent action,” Inslee said.
Speaking at the press conference, Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet said that COVID-19’s impacts have exacerbated the state’s existing challenges of homelessness and housing affordability, something she said affected every city in Washington.
“The state and local governments must act together, now, to solve these problems,” Sweet said. Utilization of American Rescue Plan Act funds to prevent evictions and foreclosures could help meet that end, Sweet said.
Sweet said the funding could be used to purchase distressed properties that could eventually serve as “permanent supportive housing” as well as an expansion of affordable housing in municipalities.
“Due to the pandemic, housing is now much more than simply shelter,” Sweet said. “Housing is a quarantine space, an office, a school and a daycare center.”
Sweet urged the Legislature to make a “massive investment” in rental and utility assistance, foreclosure grants, funding for maintenance and operations for supportive housing and expansion of shelter capacity, among other investments. She said the pandemic was a “once in a century” event, “which needs a once in a century response.”
“We must not squander the opportunity given to us through the American Rescue Plan,” Sweet said. “We must use it as President Biden intended — to meet the most urgent needs of the nation and put us in a better position to prevail.”
Skagit County Board of Commissioners Chair Lisa Janicki asked for state legislators to trust how local governments use the funding they receive. She noted that local governments cannot just rely on state and federal funding, noting her county, along with city partners, have marked millions in resources to build a permanent supportive housing project, “because we believe a roof over one’s head is the first step in treating addiction and addressing mental health issues,”
The press conference was hosted on the 88th day of the Legislature’s 105-day session, and while a number of bills have died and some have been signed, Inslee said that greater funding to combat homelessness was a necessary fourth-quarter push.
“This is late in the season for these proposals to come to the Legislature, but given that emerging crisis (of homelessness), I am hopeful that we’ll succeed,” Inslee said.
Potential rollbacks loom for Washington counties Monday
Some counties with increased COVID-19 activity may see their Phase 3 status under the statewide Healthy Washington plan in jeopardy as the first evaluation following a weeks-long pause is set to take place Monday.
During the Thursday press conference, Inslee expressed concern over COVID-19 activity in “several counties” in the state, as Washington as a whole has seen an increase in newly-confirmed cases and hospitalizations.
Inslee said it was believed that additional variants of the virus, as well as a tendency for residents to let their guard down as spring rolls into the state, have led to increases in COVID-19 activity.
“This is a critical moment, as it has been all year, to remain committed to those non-pharmaceutical interventions,” Inslee said. “The vaccine’s great, but if these numbers skyrocket, that vaccine’s not going to bail us out.”
Regarding the variants, Inslee said that one in particular, commonly known as originating in the United Kingdom, could lead to a “vertical curve” of activity if it reaches more than half of the proportion of total COVID-19 infections.
Counties statewide moved into Phase 3 of the Healthy Washington plan on March 22, weeks after a pause of changes in a county’s phase was announced. April 12 will be the first time that metrics will be evaluated for changes in more than a month.
The evaluation will be based on two metrics — the rate of new COVID-19 cases over 14 days and the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations over seven days. For counties larger than 50,000 in population, that rate will be based per 100,000 of population, while those smaller will have total cases and hospitalizations taken into account, according to information presented at the press conference.
A rollback would result in a reduced indoor capacity for some businesses and events, among other changes. In order for counties to stay in Phase 3, they must maintain a rate of less than 200 new cases per 100,000 population in 14 days and less than five hospitalizations per 100,000 in seven days for larger ones, and below 30 new COVID-19 cases in 14 days and less than three hospitalizations in seven days for smaller ones.
“Whatever happens, this will be dictated by the numbers,” Inslee said, reiterating a number of times during the press conference that metrics would be the determining factor for any change in a county’s phase.
“This is not fun business for anybody. Business owners have been going up and down (with) these changing rules. That’s really traumatic for them. We understand that,” Inslee said. “But we cannot allow ourselves to go the route of one of these other states that have had these explosions of cases.”
Though the threat of rollbacks is a possibility, the governor reiterated that the ability to move back toward lesser disease activity was “ultimately in our control.”
“This is not like the Martians have landed and taken over our state. We control this pandemic,” Inslee said. “That dirty little virus cannot walk 2 inches without our help.”