Mayor Ed Murray announced during the State of the City speech on Feb. 20 that he would open the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to coordinate a response to the homelessness crisis, prompting some in the community to ask: Why now?
Members of the advocacy community have pushed the mayor to treat the homelessness crisis as an an actual crisis since he first declared the state of emergency in November 2015. In a press release coordinated with the State of the City address, the mayor said that the emergency declaration was meant to “invoke greater help from our state and federal partners,” help which ultimately did not come.
That kind of rhetoric makes people think that the mayor didn’t really mean it when he declared the state of emergency, said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a member of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness.
“That was evident from the fact that zero to no policies changed, and most of what they put in was interim, not long term,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “It kind of looks like a lot of moving things around without doing much to solve the problem.”
Declaring a state of emergency is meant to signal to other levels of government that assistance is needed, said Benton Strong, communications director for the mayor’s office.
“When you declare a state of emergency, the underlying idea is that the federal government will come in with assistance and funding,” Strong said. “Support didn’t come from the federal government, and some has come from the state.”
"We’re going to have to do this one on our own,” Strong said.
Dealing with long-term, intractable problems such as homelessness is different from most uses of the EOC, which was opened eight times in 2016. It’s generally used for temporary crises, such as destructive weather events, floods or, most recently, a tanker truck loaded with propane that overturned on Interstate 5.
City officials across several departments will meet each morning for a few hours to coordinate, and then get out into the field and do the work, Strong said.
“The idea is that we basically utilize what is a proven infrastructure around emergency situations and intensify the work that’s being done,” he said.
The EOC takes up a floor of a building at Yesler Way and Fifth Avenue. It has multiple pod areas assigned to different departments, including police, fire, operations and technical teams, as well as a press area.
Although some take umbrage at the fact that the EOC was not activated sooner, others are just happy that it happened and focus more on the other highlights of the State of the City speech, such as an effort to raise property taxes to fund the response to homelessness and a tax on sugary beverages to pay for education measures.
“Residents of Seattle are frustrated that we have such a wealthy, rich community and so much homelessness,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. “It’s really hurting not just downtown but also neighborhoods and businesses. I applaud the mayor for being bold and proposing a levy.”