Mayor Ed Murray is clashing with some advocates and city council members about where to find money to fight homelessness.
Mayor Ed Murray is clashing with some advocates and city council members about where to find money to fight homelessness. City of Seattle

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Yesterday was not a good day for Mayor Ed Murray.

After winning tons of press with his announcement last week that he was declaring a civil state of emergency on homelessness, the mayor found himself getting slammed by advocates and city council members for not doing enough. (To recap: The mayor is proposing to spend $5.3 million in emergency funding on homelessness, but Council Member Nick Licata wants the city to commit another $2 million from the city's rainy-day fund for homeless shelters.)

Yesterday, the mayor sent a letter to council members "to express strong concerns" about that idea, which he also expressed to me in a phone conversation last night. Some of his thoughts are more cogent than others. We'll start with the one that makes the most sense.

The city council could find new money for homelessness somewhere other than the rainy day fund. Murray says he left $3 million unspent in the budget he sent to the city council in late September. On top of that, he says new revenue forecasts show the city will have an extra $9 million in surplus funds next year.

"If they believe we should go beyond $5 million... [They should] use the $12 million they have to spend versus going into the fund that will protect those very services when we go into the next recession."

I haven't yet gotten a response from Licata, who's also the council's budget chair, but he told the Seattle Times he wasn't aware of that $9 million in new money and will now consider alternative sources instead of the rainy day fund. (He has until Monday morning, when the council will vote on changes to the mayor's budget.)

So, okay, point for the mayor. If those numbers are accurate, the council could put more money toward homelessness without affecting the rainy day fund.

Murray also argues there are other programs that need city money, which is always true in government.

"There are neighborhoods in this city that are poor and struggling, that need better community center facilities, drainage where flooding is going on—l could go through a list of things we as a city need to help," he says. "We have other issues we aren’t addressing."

But the mayor got a little harder to follow as he questioned whether more city funding is even the right approach.

Murray says more city money could make the feds less likely to help address homelessness in Seattle.

"I thought we had come together to make a huge push [with other West Coast cities] to get the federal government to reverse the policies going on since 1980 that resulted in this crisis," Murray says about the decision to declare a state of emergency. "Instead, the message advocates are saying is, ‘No, Seattle, you have the money.’ If we have the money, we don’t need a declaration of a state of emergency."

But can't both be true? We need more city money and more help from the feds. Even with the declaration of the state of emergency, it seems unlikely that the feds will come through for Seattle—especially in any immediate way to address people sleeping outside right now. Doesn't spending more and more demonstrate the very severity of our emergency? And what about Portland and Los Angeles, which plan to spend $30 million and $100 million in new money, respectively?

"If we continue to add money, it’s easy for people in the Congressional delegation and legislature to feel like Seattle can solve it," Murray says.

Alison Eisinger, an advocate who's supporting Licata's plan, wrote in an e-mail that she doesn't "grasp the mayor's logic," and advocates are "not saying that the city can solve big issues alone."

During his time in the legislature, Murray fought for social services, Eisinger says, "but his emergency response is not proportionate to the plain facts in front of all our eyes."

Even with the city's current 1,600-bed shelter system, about 3,000 people are sleeping on the streets right now.

Murray says the city is already spending a lot on homelessness—about $40 million a year plus $1.5 million in new money next year and $5 million in one-time emergency funding—including on some programs that an analysis by his administration found don't work. He says pressing needs like mental health care and drug treatment just can't be met without more state and federal help.

In his letter to council members, he writes, "the answer is not simply to build more shelter beds... Far too many adults and children are being served by a mat on the floor without connection to these needed services."

"I feel like I’ve been more aggressive on homelessness than any mayor," Murray told me yesterday. "My predecessor couldn’t get encampment legislation through. I got it passed. We've had a terrible time with every neighborhood [that's getting an encampment], but we're proceeding. I've increased funding and shelter beds. I don't think anyone can say this administration hasn’t stepped up."