In the hours before closing up shop for 2014, the Washington Legislature just might have saved the best for last. Lawmakers, after much wrangling, reached a compromise on an extension of a program that provides millions of dollars for homeless services.
Among the champions of Senate Bill 5875 was Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who effectively summarized the importance of the extension: "When I go to work at my job with Clark County, I see a lot of homeless people. They sleep in the parking lots; they hang out in the buildings during the day, because it's warm there. And a lot of those folks are really there due to no fault of their own. Yes, we all know some folks who are having problems because they refuse to shape up. Those aren't the people we're talking about. We're talking about people who have lost their jobs during the Great Recession, who can't pay rent, and have families."
Now, we can take issue with Benton’s having that job with Clark County (as director of environmental services), and we have. And we can take issue with Benton’s being paid for that job even when he’s in Olympia for his other job as a legislator, and we have. But when he’s right, he’s right. And Benton, along with most other Southwest Washington lawmakers — Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, was the only local to vote against the bill — are right on this issue.
The bill, which was authored by Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, extends a program that charges a $40 document-recording fee on real estate transactions, with the proceeds going to services for the homeless. Since being passed by the Legislature in 2005, the law has funneled $3.2 million to homeless services in Clark County, where there has been a 50 percent drop in homelessness. Across the state, $42 million has been generated, and homelessness has dropped 29 percent, according to a 2013 report from the state Department of Commerce.
The program was scheduled to sunset if it wasn't renewed, but the new bill extends it through June 30, 2019. The bill also creates a task force to convene in 2017 and seek a more permanent funding source for homeless services.
"It's a big victory for folks in Clark County," Andy Silver, executive director of the local Council for the Homeless, told Columbian reporter Scott Hewitt. "Nearly everybody, no matter which caucus they were in, agreed that homeless services are a priority. The only disagreement was how to fund them."
One of the issues is a provision that funnels more money to private landlords and away from nonprofit organizations. The need for such a provision — and the effectiveness of the move — is questionable, but the bottom line is that an expected $225 million is earmarked for homeless services over the next four years. That is money that will be well spent.
One of the most important duties of government — be it at the federal, state or county level — is to provide a safety net for citizens. The Great Recession has been difficult for everybody, but its impact ultimately will be judged by how well neighbors rallied to care for one another. After posturing had appeared to provide the death knell for the document-recording fee, lawmakers eventually placed compassion above politics.
"Two weeks ago, we thought this bill was dead and that shelters would be shutting their doors," said Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. "We're extremely relieved that the Legislature did the right thing."