Murray Declares Civil Emergency on Homelessness

This morning, Mayor Ed Murray declared a civil emergency in response to Seattle's homelessness epidemic. The city will invest an additional $5.3 million into homeless prevention and crisis services, funded by the sale of an underused city property. County executive Dow Constantine also proclaimed a local emergency at the county level, and promised $2 million in funding for homeless services.

More than 45 homeless people have died in Seattle this year, according to the mayor's declaration. That number is likely to grow over the next two months as the weather turns wet and cold. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of homeless people on Seattle's streets grew by 21 percent. According to the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness' One Night Count, there are about 10,000 homeless people in King County (although some consider this to be a lowball number, since many homeless people are not readily visible for counting).

"The civil emergency is a rarely used, and in this case somewhat risky, strategy," Murray said. The "risky" part of that is a reference to the broad police powers the declaration affords the Mayor, who now has the authority to enforce curfews, close bars and gun shops, evacuate part or all of the city, and any "other orders as are imminently necessary for the protection of life and property," per the city's charter.

The last time a Seattle mayor declared a civil emergency was in 2012, when Mike McGinn did so in response to property destruction at a May Day protest. This may be the first time in city history that a civil emergency has been used for homelessness. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, executive director of Seattle's Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, recently "exhorted" Murray to declare an emergency on homelessness.

Murray said he will only use those emergency powers to ensure shelter for schoolchildren. A two-thirds vote by the council can end the civil emergency.

Alongside Murray were city councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Mike O'Brien, John Okamoto, Jean Godden, and Tim Burgess, as well as representatives of partner organizations such as the YWCA (where the press conference was held).

Murray and Constantine said that they're declaring an emergency in part to pressure the state and especially federal government to fund basic human services such as housing and drug and mental illness treatment. The state supreme court ruled last year that Washington's mental health services are criminally awful. Murray said he'll try to get FEMA money from the federal government.

Homelessness as we know it today began in the 1980s, when cuts to federal welfare programs began to mount. Both leaders said that local jurisdictions cannot deal with the homelessness crisis in the long run without more federal or state support.

Murray said that the $5.3 million the city is providing will got to 100 new shelter beds, as well as a variety of outreach and prevention services.

During the conference, Murray specifically called out the heroin epidemic as a cause of homelessness; we covered that a few months ago here, and you can read our story from earlier this year on laws that criminalize homelessness here.

Professor Sara Rankin of Seattle University's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP) released this statement in response to Murray's declaration:

The status of homelessness in King County is, indeed, a state of emergency. This formal declaration not only recognizes the critical plight of many men, women, and children in King County who suffer on our streets, but it also positions King County to take bold and necessary steps to address this crisis. In particular, the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project urges King County to resist investments in punitive responses to visible poverty that engage the criminal justice system; instead, King County should seize this opportunity to make a real difference by pursuing compassionate interventions that empower our neighbors struggling with housing instability.

We previously covered HRAP's research into the human and fiscal costs of anti-homeless laws here and here.

Note: since this is breaking news, this post is being repeatedly updated.

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