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Washington Legislative Preview 2020: Legislators, Inslee look to reduce homeless numbers

From left, Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, chairwoman of the Senate Housing Stability and Affordability Committee, Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, ranking Republican on the Senate Housing Stability and Affordability Committee, and Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, ranking Republican on the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, take part in a panel on homelessness, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, during the AP Legislative Preview at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Daisy Zavala

OLYMPIA – As the homeless population grows around the state, legislative leaders hope to reduce those numbers but don’t agree on the best approach.

During the session that starts Monday, lawmakers will consider ways to finance a two-year plan suggested by Gov. Jay Inslee, but haven’t agreed to use reserves, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for it. Sen. Patty Kuderer, chairwoman of the Senate Housing Stability and Affordability Committee, told a group of reporters last week she’s willing to consider it.

“We’re in an emergency situation, and this is what the emergency Rainy Day Fund was designed to do,” Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said at The Associated Press legislative preview last week.

Lawmakers also will try to make it easier for people with felony convictions to apply for housing by removing a question about convictions from initial applications, she said.

“We’re creating an underclass of people who have served time in jail, and we need to rethink our approach to that,” she said.

House Democrats will try to address the problem with more money for diversion programs and low-income housing, Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, said.

Just building affordable housing is not an immediate solution to homelessness because some people with addiction or mental illness problems don’t have the ability to purchase housing, Macri said. Housing must meet different community needs, she added.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, ranking Republican on the Senate Housing Committee, said the Legislature should address three main concerns regarding homelessness this year. It should prioritze funds in diversion programs and use them to help people pay rent or other bills before they lose a home, he said.

“These cost-effective interventions can make a world of difference for somebody who faces life challenges,” said Zeiger, of Puyallup.

Zeiger supports the passage of a bill to create a special guardianship program for people struggling with addiction or mental illness. The Legislature also should improve grant opportunities for cities to provide more employment opportunities, he said.

Kuderer said legislation should address the different demographics of homeless individuals and find ways to rapidly find housing for them.

The Legislature has provided construction and start-up money for programs and resources but has not been great at providing money for staff as the need increases, she said. Senate Democrats will focus on strengthening support for existing programs.

During a separate session with reporters last week, Inslee repeated his goal of reducing homelessness by 50% over the next two years. His plan includes providing grant money for 2,100 more local shelter beds and access to rental and housing assistance for people facing homelessness.