In Pierce County — and especially Puyallup along River Road — the homeless have become more and more visible, many of them camped out under tarps along the Puyallup River.
Across the greater Puget Sound, even, the homelessness crisis has become more and more pronounced. Point-in-time count numbers taken earlier this year reported that homelessness was up 19 percent in King County.
Pierce County Community Connections has not yet finalized the data on the number of homeless in Pierce County but plans to publish it in early April. Data in 2015 showed 1,283 homeless sheltered and not sheltered in Pierce County, which was down slightly from 2014.
“There is much more community awareness of visible homelessness,” said Tess Colby, manager of the housing, homeless and community development division at Pierce County Community Connections. “That is really creating an opportunity for folks to talk about the impact of homelessness on communities. Anytime that folks are talking, that is a good thing.”
Meanwhile, the State Legislature isn’t sitting idle on the homelessness crisis.
Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Democrat representing the 34th District in King County, championed Senate Bill 6647 in the 2016 session. Known as the Bring Washington Home Act, the bill, if passed, would have appropriated $86.8 million for the 2015-2017 biennium from the Budget Stability Account, or Rainy Day Fund, to the Homeless Assistance Count.
Appropriated funding would have supported homeless youth services, behavioral health housing services to the chronically homeless, mentally ill and chemically dependent, and emergency shelter programs.
The bill would have appropriated an additional $100 million from the Rainy Day Fund to the Housing Trust Fund, to be used for conversion, renovation, or construction of existing housing stock for permanent supportive housing to aid the homeless or those at risk of homelessness.
Unfortunately, Nelson’s bill died in the Ways and Means Committee. Senate Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, held it back, she said.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said Senate Bill 6647 was a big spending bill funded by the Rainy Day Fund — and a very ambitious program.
“There is a lot of concern about that as a source,” Dammeier said. “There are many folks who are concerned we may need that fund in the near future, so we don’t want to spend it now. The Rainy Day Fund is one-time money. You can only spend it once; once it’s gone, it’s gone. You don’t want to spend it on expenses that are year in and year out.
“While I appreciate Sen. Nelson’s intention behind it, I was concerned that she was using the Rainy Day Fund in the wrong way,” Dammeier said. “It didn’t have the long-term sustainable funding. To do a fair job, you need sustainable funding.”
The Rainy Day Fund was established in 2007 after voters ratified a constitutional amendment. Each year, the state treasurer is required to deposit 1 percent of general state revenues into the Budget Stabilization Account, or Rainy Day Fund. The state projects the fund to be more than $700 million by June 2017 and more than $1 billion in 2019.
Notwithstanding passage of Senate Bill 6647, Nelson is hopeful there will be some funding set aside in the approved 2016 supplemental budget appropriated for breaking the cycle of homelessness.
Dammeier is adamant that the Legislature is not ignoring the issue and is, in fact, providing a lot of tools to communities necessary to fight the war on homelessness.
“Homelessness is a very important issue and a very significant issue in (Puyallup) and in communities throughout Washington,” Dammeier said. “I would say the Legislature has been addressing it in a variety of ways and has been and will continue to address it.”
The Legislature addresses three categories of homelessness: homeless school-age youth, short-term homeless, and the chronically homeless.
Dammeier said some of the work being done by the Senate for communities dealing with homelessness include providing tools to local law enforcement to strengthen their ability to discourage the homeless from occupying vacant properties (which has been on the rise in Puyallup); boosting investment in this session’s 2016 supplemental budget for mental health services ($5 billion was invested in the 2015-2017 biennium capital budget for a Pierce County mental health hospital); and investing in rapid rehousing programs for the mentally ill.
Charlene Hamblen, executive director of Share & Care House in Puyallup, said an increase in funding for permanent supportive housing is badly needed.
“It’s really heartbreaking to see individuals that you wish you could help,” Hamblen said. “I had a woman with her mother that was very desperate and I was unable to help them.”
Hamblen’s organization is waiting for additional funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to add an additional 28 permanent supportive housing units in Puyallup, which would make for a total of 130 units in Pierce County. Currently, Share & Care House serves 1,000 homeless annually and is the leading housing and essential needs provider in Pierce County.
“It’s important that we recognize the value that Share & Care house is doing and the successes individuals are having in their lives,” Hamblen said. “There are a lot of really great things happening.”
For his part, Dammeier continues to have a dialogue with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office and with Puyallup Police Chief Bryan Jeter on the issue of homelessness.
The state Senator said he is confident there will be money in the supplemental budget to combat homelessness in a variety of ways.
“How much is still being determined,” he said.