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Inslee pitches $300 million plan to cut the state's unsheltered population by half

Gov. Jay Inslee proposes $300 million in new funding for homeless services.
Will James
Gov. Jay Inslee proposes $300 million in new funding for homeless services.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says he has a plan to cut the number of unsheltered homeless people in the state by half in two years.

The $300 million proposal would take money out of the state's "rainy day" fund. It would require approval from state lawmakers, whose session begins next month. 

"We've done a lot, but the fact is we are not keeping pace with the tide of people who need housing services in the state of Washington," Inslee said at a news conference Wednesday. 

Inslee's plan would have the state invest heavily in shelters and other emergency responses. That's new territory for the state, which has traditionally focused on longer-term solutions, such as funding the construction of housing, leaving cities and counties to deal with short-term responses, including funding shelters and creating sanctioned encampments. 

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby, who attended the governor's news conference, said she welcomed the help.

"We need something immediately to address this crisis, and that is shelter dollars," Selby said. "And I know we’ve been trying to move away from building more shelter beds and trying to put that money in housing, because that’s the long-range goal. But we’re in an emergency right now, a public health crisis."

Inslee said his plan would create 2,100 new shelter beds, and also provide money to convert existing shelters into "enhanced shelters" with more services. Much of the funding will go to cities and counties in the form of grants. 

The governor's plan also would allocate $15 million toward permanent supportive housing, which accommodates people with complex health needs who might otherwise struggle to stay in a home. 

Washington has about 10,000 people living outdoors, giving the state the fifth-highest per-capita rate of unsheltered homelessness in the country. Experts blame a failure to build enough housing to accommodate the state's growing population, but say other factors, such as mental illness and substance use, often play a role in individual cases. 

"I think Washingtonians just feel that our state is better than driving down, on the (way to) work everyday and seeing dozens of people living in squalor," Inslee said, adding that it's an especially frustrating problem to have in a state that boasts a high-performing economy.

"It's just a terrible irony."  

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.