Deaths at Seattle homeless camp highlight need for housing, critics say

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By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Jan. 29, 2016

After two people were fatally shot at an unsanctioned homeless camp in Seattle this week — amid a citywide state of emergency over the rising number of people living on the street — advocates for the homeless said more state and federal funding is needed to create affordable housing.

“We do believe homelessness is solvable, and the public will demands the investment of resources needed to ensure everyone can live in a safe, healthy, and affordable home,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA).

“While the reasons for homelessness are complex, and sometimes personal, on a broader scale its very simple,” she said. “We don’t have enough access to affordable housing.”

An estimated 23,000 people are homeless in Washington state, according to Helping Hands House, a shelter and advocacy group in Tacoma, Wash. The number of homeless people nationwide is estimated at more than 500,000.

Homelessness in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1980s, when federal funding for affordable housing was cut significantly, and again after the 2008 recession, according to homeless advocates.

Rather than focus on creating more affordable housing options, most federal and state policies have focused on criminalizing homeless people, advocates say.

Affordable housing remains out of reach for many Washingtonians, especially those who earn the lowest incomes. Nearly 300,000 households in Washington who earn less than half the median income spend more than half of that income on housing, WLIHA said. For every 100 households earning less than 30 percent of median income, there are only 28 rental homes that are affordable and available to them.

This puts many residents on the verge of homelessness, advocates said, because any unexpected large expenses mean they can no longer afford rent.

The Washington state legislature is working on its 2016 supplementary budget, and Thomas is pushing for lawmakers to include more funding for affordable housing and homeless services.

In 2015, the state allocated over $71 million for affordable housing, and WLIHA is pushing for an additional $10 million this year to build at least 280 new affordable homes.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has invested nearly $250 million in housing and homelessness and has created an additional 40,000 affordable housing units statewide since taking office in 2013, according to Jaime Smith, the governor’s spokesman.

In the 2016 supplementary budget proposal, Inslee has asked lawmakers to continue full funding for current housing and homelessness programs and to further invest in expanding the availability of affordable housing.

Low-income residents also face discrimination by landlords, Thomas says. Landlords can deny a tenant’s application for housing simply because they would be using a federal Section 8 housing voucher to help pay their rent.

That’s why WLIHA is trying to pass two companion bills in the state legislature that would outlaw discrimination in the private rental and housing market.

“We want to outlaw this practice because its unfair, based on stereotypes and negative perceptions about what it means to be poor,” Thomas said. “Landlords think that just because a person is poor they will be a bad tenant, but there are no studies to show that they have worse outcomes as tenants.”

State Senate Bill SB 5378, sponsored by Mark Miloscia, and State House Bill HB 1565, sponsored by Timm Ormsby would ban discrimination against potential tenants based on their income.

Thomas said there is wide, bipartisan support for the bills. But the potential new law outlawing discrimination won’t help if there isn’t affordable housing available in the first place, she added.

“Investment in affordable housing are desperately needed in our state and across the country,” Thomas said.

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