Sounding the Alarm Gong for Homeless Services

5,043 people were counted sleeping outside across the state on a freezing night in January. Today housing advocates sounded a gong 5,043 times at the state capitol to draw attention to homelessness. The advocacy action was organized by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Written by Denise Miller, Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator

Sideways rain soaked our clothes, and wind threatened to send our unsturdy blue plastic tent smashing into the steps of the capitol building.

Despite the nasty weather, dozens of us huddled under the blue tent in an effort to draw attention to homelessness in Washington, and to a faltering bill that would help make things better. From 10 am until about 1:30 pm today, housing advocates, including legislators and people who have experienced homelessness, sounded a gong 5,043 times. One strike resounded for each unsheltered person counted in Washington state on a freezing January night.

As I rang the gong, I imagined the people whom each sound represented. I thought about how they would still be out in the cold long after I retreated to a warm, dry building and a hot lunch.

Later I heard that the event organizers from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance had considered ringing the gong more than 30,000 times to recognize homeless schoolchildren in the state who sleep in shelters, cars, or doubled-up with family and friends. The organizers calculated that it would have taken more than 16 hours. No, they decided, 5,043 was enough. Too many.

Sen. Darneille
Sen. Jeannie Darneille sounds the gong. Last week, when a bill for homeless services failed to make it to the Senate floor, she wrote, “Our state and its families are still recovering from the recession and to severely cut critical homelessness funding is unconscionable. There is no possible way for charitable organizations to find new funding to replace these funds.”

Among the people sounding the gong was Sen. Jeannie Darneille. After taking her turn, she headed indoors for a press conference about ESHB 2368, the bill that would help secure funding for services for homeless people. The senator choked up while speaking about a boy she’d met in her district in Tacoma. He told her he was afraid that the lightbulb would burn out in his family’s car. They were living in the car, he explained, and he wouldn’t be able to do his homework without the light.

Other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle voiced their support for the bill and their frustration with the way it was left to die last week — a mind-boggling incident the Seattle Times editorial board has called “legislative malpractice.

Mindy Woods, a Navy veteran and single mom, spoke last. I encourage you to watch the video below, in which she shares her story of becoming homeless with her teenage son.

The YWCA program that helped Mindy find stability is supported by a $40 fee on some real-estate-related documents. This surcharge is set to start expiring next year. This would result in a loss of more than half of total current funding for homelessness programs across the state. As Mindy says, that means a lot more than 5,000 people could be found sleeping outside if lawmakers don’t take action before next Thursday, the end of the legislative session.

Please, please encourage your legislators to extend the surcharge and save funding for vital services. Call 1.800.562.6000 and leave this message for all of your lawmakers (including the governor):

“Please make sure the homeless housing and assistance surcharge fees don’t sunset by supporting ESHB 2368. And please help ensure all Washington residents have opportunities for safe, healthy affordable homes by making a deeper investment in affordable housing. Neither the House nor the Senate Capital Budget invests enough.”

Or, if you prefer, send them an email crafted by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

I hope you’ll do your part to make sure everyone in Washington has the opportunity to get out of the rain and live in a safe, healthy, affordable home.

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