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Mandated homeless shelters draw criticism

Homeless shelters would be located in many cities and counties and supplied with mental health, employment and police resources if a bill under consideration in the state Legislature is adopted.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, sponsored SB 5107 to incentivize local governments to provide both emergency housing and social services for vulnerable unhoused populations.

The bill would mandate counties and cities with more than 50,000 residents to establish at least one emergency overnight shelter and ensure enough beds for the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population. The law would also force these shelters to ban possession or use of alcohol and unprescribed drugs on the premises and to have a police presence during operating hours.

At the hearing, more than 400 people signed in as opposed to the bill. Opponents told the Senate Housing & Local Government Committee Feb. 3 the law would cost too much and place unnecessary burdens on people who experience homelessness.

Fortunato said the bill would not criminalize homelessness, but provide opportunities for people to move their way out of it.

“To me it is not compassionate to have people sleeping in cardboard boxes and on sides of roads, in campgrounds and public parks, disrupting the use of that public facility for other members of the community,” Fortunato said. “So, that's the intent of the bill.”

The Washington Housing Trust Fund program would likely serve as these shelters’ main source of funding, according to the bill’s text. Tedd Kelleher, senior managing director at the Washington State Department of Commerce, said reliance on the HTF would not cover the costs of these new standards.

“When we look at local government finances, they don't have the current resources or taxing authority to fund shelter at the scale of this proposal, even if they aggressively reallocated resources,” Kelleher said.

Others testified against parts of the bill that would ban the use or possession of drugs and alcohol in the shelter. David Moser, a professor of social work at Seattle University and frontline shelter worker, said substance misuse is a complicated issue and a ban would only deter people from seeking shelter.

“For a shelter to work as an alternative to the streets, it needs to be low-barrier and accessible and welcoming to everyone, not just those who are deemed worthy,” Moser said.

The police presence at emergency shelters was also contested by many commenters, who told the committee distrust in the police would also keep people from spending the night in these shelters.

Dan Wise, director of homeless services at Catholic Community Services of King County, said police presence would put people in poverty under the direct scrutiny of law enforcement, which would further hurt communities disproportionately affected by homelessness, substance use disorders and police violence.

An uneven number of people of color are homeless, and those communities also experience systemic racism, Wise said.

“We cannot say that you can disconnect one from the other and dictate a police presence in a shelter and expect that people will access that resource,” Wise added.

Fortunato clarified that police would serve to increase security, “not to grill anybody or charge them with some criminal charge.” However, he said he would reevaluate the police presence in the bill.

Yael-Sophia Spinoza of Chop Shop Economics told the committee the bill would stigmatize poor and homeless people without helping them find permanent housing.

“All in all, this is not a solution to housing,” she said. “If you want a solution to housing, you must impose a rent moratorium, forgive rent for all renters in Washington, and have a housing-first policy.”

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