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Council pushes back on mayor’s budget cuts to drug arrest diversion, spending on homeless plan

Budget season is in full swing at City Hall and City Council members have begun their dive in what will likely be this year’s most contentious topic: homeless services. On Wednesday, the City Council discussed amendments to Mayor Ed Murray’s budget for the Human Services Department.

The $157 million budget represents a 10.3% increase over the department’s 2016 spending with $56 million in homelessness-related programs moved under a new Division of Homeless Strategy and Investment. Within that budget is $476,000 for four full-time employees to get the department rolling on implementing the mayor’s recently unveiled homelessness response plan Pathway’s Home.

That was the first bump in the road at City Council. District 3 representative Kshama Sawant said she opposed expenditure as the council has not fully approved Murray’s plan and said the funds should be spent on services directly. “I find this too rushed,” she said.

A proposed cutback on the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program also received backlash from council members. LEAD, which expanded to SPD’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill in 2016, is a pre-booking program that places qualifying drug use suspects into counseling instead of jail.

Under the mayor’s budget, $150,000 that had been used to fund LEAD on Capitol Hill would be used to expand homeless outreach to other neighborhoods (the same “multidisciplinary team” model that came to Capitol Hill this year). In response, Sawant has put forward an amendment that would maintain the $150,000 in spending to keep the program on Capitol Hill in 2017 and 2018 and possibly look for other funding to expand MDT.

Murray has proposed LEAD should use King County sales tax funds dedicated for mental health and drug dependency programs to support East Precinct operations.

In April, Sawant held a community forum on LEAD where praise for the program was abundant and speakers routinely stressed the importance of building on LEAD’s successes with more investment to ensure Seattle’s budding experiment in harm-reduction policing doesn’t fade away.

LEAD was launched in Seattle in 2011 and has since been replicated in cities across the country. Typically, an officer will call a LEAD outreach worker to assess a drug user they think may be a good candidate for the program (no warrants or violent criminal history). The outreach worker then schedules a crisis assessment offered through Evergreen Treatment Services.

Results from the program have been promising. LEAD participants were 87% less likely to be incarcerated after entry than those who didn’t participate, according to a 2-year study of the program completed by the University of Washington. They also had 58% lower odds of a subsequent arrest.

Sawant introduced two other amendments to Murray’s budget on Wednesday. One would add $815,000 to specifically dedicated to the three new authorized encampments that were announced by Murray last week. Sawant’s other amendment would maintain $347,000 in funding previously provided to the Lazarus Day Center (Catholic Community Services) as part of Murray’s homeless state of emergency.

Murray’s 2018 budget projection includes a decrease in spending on homelessness with the expectation of an increase in funding from regional partners. After taking on major initiatives like universal Pre-K and housing affordability,  Murray set a more restrained and “efficient” course for the City of Seattle during his 2017-2018 budget presentation last month.

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