Senate GOP proposes alternate solutions to state’s homelessness crisis

One suggestion would empower law enforcement and remove barriers to prosecution

OLYMPIA — Republican senators pitched their own ideas to address Washington state’s homelessness crisis following the supplemental budgets unveiled by Democratic lawmakers in Olympia this week.

On Thursday, Feb. 27, Senate Republicans gathered the media to outline their preferred policy solutions – two days after the House and Senate Democrats proposed their supplemental operating budgets, each with millions in additional funding aimed at reducing the homeless population.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who worked on the budget, which was approved in the Senate after a 33-16 vote Feb. 27, said additional funds to develop and support affordable housing would make significant changes as soon as next year.

However, Republican lawmakers have been critical of these kinds of investments, and several said they are not confident this approach would have an impact within the next year.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, said there is no end to the amount of money that can be spent on high-cost subsidized affordable housing.

“I would argue that we cannot subsidize our way out of this situation,” Zeiger said.

Zeiger said Washingtonians are expecting the Legislature to address the issue of homelessness in this session. He urged that lawmakers must prioritize solutions that address the immediate challenge, maximize public investment and move as many people as possible toward self-sufficiency.

Zeiger expressed his appreciation for allocations made toward homelessness diversion efforts in the proposed budgets. He said diversion efforts help give people the support they need the moment they enter the homeless coordinated entry system, a service that works to give shelter to families and individuals at risk of being homeless.

“Resources for diversion are scarce across our state,” Zeiger said. “Diversion is a wise investment because it literally diverts people out of homelessness, saves us money, and allows us to spend money in other parts of the homelessness response system.”

Zeiger also sponsored a bill with bipartisan support that did not make it out of committee that would have created grant funding to incentivize cities to hire homeless individuals for city projects in exchange for decent wages, housing and vocational training.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, expressed his concern for public safety during the homelessness crisis. He was frustrated with instances in which homeless individuals with more than 30 criminal offenses on their record are released back onto the streets without prosecution.

Fortunato said he supported a policy to remove prosecutor discretion, forcing them to prosecute charges on homeless individuals after the first deferral.

“You cannot have this lawlessness and they are not exempt from the criminal justice system,” Fortunato said. “They need to be removed from the streets.”

Fortunato also suggested a policy that would allow law enforcement to pick out individuals who appear to be homeless with apparent poor hygiene and evaluate them for health and wellness, then decide if they will need additional help.

Fortunato pointed to the success of a similar policy that Florida had adopted. He acknowledged the policy’s potential to allow for police to profile individuals based on their appearance but implied the potential for helping people was worth the risk.

Fortunato said the permissiveness of law enforcement to allow substance abuse and crime creates a “magnet” for homeless people to come from other regions.

“You must remove these people from the streets,” Fortunato said. “If it takes more incarceration, that’s what it takes.”

Citing time constraints, the Senate Democratic Caucus members and staff did not respond with a comment after several phone and email requests.

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