Governor’s new stand against homeless camps leaves senators wondering: What took so long?

Governor’s new stand against homeless camps leaves senators wondering: What took so long?


Unless drug enforcement is restored, Senate Freedom Caucus says governor’s $4 billion proposal doubles down on failure

OLYMPIA – Members of the Senate Freedom Caucus say the governor is finally telling Washington what it wants to hear about homelessness, but unless hard-drug penalties are restored, the governor’s $4 billion proposal is more of the same.

Gov. Jay Inslee took an unaccustomed tack last week as he declared homeless camps to be a blight on Washington communities, telling reporters at a legislative preview forum that Washingtonians are demanding “an end to the squalor in their neighborhoods.” His proposal for a $4 billion bond issue to build public housing for the homeless, special-needs populations and the poor is one of the top issues for the 2023 legislative session, which opens Monday at noon and runs 105 days.

“At last, the governor’s rhetoric seems to have caught up with the vast majority of Washington residents,” said Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview. “People are troubled by the explosion in homelessness, and are demanding action about the homeless camps in their communities – the petty thievery, rampant drug abuse, trash and litter, human waste in the streets, and the climate of fear that has made people reluctant to work and shop in our downtown districts. But the governor made no mention of restoring tough penalties for possession of hard drugs, and until that happens, we will never effectively address this problem.”

The Senate Freedom Caucus, a group of four Republican senators outspoken on issues of personal freedom and responsibility, notes that state and county governments in Washington already spend $3 billion annually on homelessness, not counting spending by city governments. Yet the more money that taxpayers provide, the bigger the problem gets. They say drug penalties are an essential tool for law enforcement to get drug-addicted homeless the treatment they need.

Felony penalties for possession of hard drugs were eliminated by the Legislature in 2020.

“The problem isn’t that we’re not spending enough on homelessness, it is how we are spending it,” said Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn.

The senators say the governor’s declaration that homeless camps should not be tolerated is long overdue, but a fundamental disconnect remains. The governor and other Democratic leaders maintain homelessness is largely an economic problem created by high rents and unaffordable homes, but the Republican senators note that growth in the state’s urban campground population is fueled by drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. A Fortunato proposal, Senate Bill 5016, dubbed “From Homelessness to Housing,” ties together Republican strategies for combatting homelessness and promoting housing – many of which have been adopted by the governor in his own proposal.

“I’m glad the governor is finally realizing that we have a serious homeless housing problem,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “The state has needed to address this problem for quite some time. Hopefully, Democrats in the Legislature will join with us in taking effective action on it this session.”