State leaders talk issues with BI residents

“Affordable housing is a driver of homelessness.”

Before a standing-room-only audience, state Sen. Christine Rolfes and Rep. Tarra Simmons answered questions on issues ranging from homelessness and affordable housing to climate change and sex offenders.

“We’re about 250,000 homes behind where we need to be in the state for the number of people we have. We predict that over the next 20 years, we’ll be a million homes short,” Simmons said when District 23 lawmakers met with constituents at Bainbridge Island City Hall at a Town Hall meeting March 11.

They had a similar meeting in Bremerton earlier in the day.

Lawmakers are addressing the housing crisis through a three-pronged approach: increasing ADUs and multi-family housing zoning in cities of 25,000 or more; supporting tenant protections; and increasing subsidized housing for low-income people.

Rolfes said BI and Poulsbo are exempt from recent modifications to the Growth Management Act, but “once we hit 25,000, we’re not exempt. So, that’s the detail that we still need to work through.”

People living in homeless encampments near highways are getting help from the Department of Social and Human Services, which can relocate them in an organized, compassionate way to shelters and social services.

“It’s really been successful,” said Rolfes, who hopes the system will receive funding to ensure people have safe places to live.”

Gun safety

In response to a rise in crime, Simmons said: “We’re looking at it globally, as probably most likely a response to COVID, mental health issues and economic issues related to COVID. We’re working on law enforcement workforce development, gun safety and responsible gun legislation.”

Simmons acknowledged Trudi Inslee’s advocacy for responsible gun legislation with the Grandmothers Against Gun Violence. “Thursday night, we passed the assault rifle ban (Senate House Bill 1240) on the House floor, and Trudi and husband (Gov.) Jay were there.”

The House also passed a bill (HB 1143) that mandates a 10-day waiting period after purchasing a firearm, “We’ve been making a lot of progress on responsible gun legislation in Washington state,” Simmons said.

Rolfes clarified that the assault weapons ban “is a ban on selling them into the state. We’re joining other states by stopping sales in America. It doesn’t mean the government is coming to take away someone’s guns. But, we are hoping to curb the market.”

The Senate also passed SB 5078 designed to hold manufacturers and retailers accountable for the damage caused by weapons they sell and if they are negligent or aren’t following state or federal laws.

Mental health

Simmons said the state implemented the 988 crisis line to have mental health professionals respond to such crises instead of law enforcement. “This will allow law enforcement to focus on crime and allow behavioral health workers to respond to a behavioral health emergency. We are building the infrastructure, but the biggest challenge is the workforce,” she said.

The Health Care Committee is looking at the mental health license complex to help people come from other states be licensed here. Currently, the state requires therapists to undergo 3,000 hours of training with a clinical supervisor and pay expenses out of pocket. “That’s a huge barrier for people, so we’re trying to reduce that to 2,000 hours, which is standard in other states,” Simmons said.

Lawmakers are also looking at creating new professions, such as Behavioral Health support specialists, who work with a mental health team of professionals to provide support. Also peers, who are in recovery for substance abuse, can help others through their recovery.

Simmons said that people in early recovery need a support system and peers to show them how to walk through life because a lot of that stress can cause relapse. “We need to be creative and think outside the box because we are facing a huge behavioral health crisis, and we can’t just throw money at it.”

Sex offenders

There have been many challenges over the years regarding what to do with sex offenders when they finish their prison terms and are deemed unsafe for release into the community.

They used to go to McNeil Island, but a judge rules the state can’t do that without their consent once they’ve served their prison sentence. Poulsbo was one of the first places where sexually violent predators were housed in an adult family home. When the neighbors became aware, “It blew up,” Rolfes said. Now offenders may petition to live in less-restrictive alternatives than McNeil Island if they’ve gone through behavioral treatment and psychiatric evaluations.

Rolfes worked on a bill that laid out a process to clarify everyone’s responsibility when placing offenders in the community. “The state’s response has been to locate housing for them in mostly group homes because that’s just more economical and easier to regulate,” Rolfes said.

Offenders are under 24-hour surveillance, are not allowed in the community without a chaperone, and must wear GPS anklets in a highly contained environment. “Some of the folks (offenders) in Poulsbo petitioned to go back to McNeil Island after trying it because it was a very restrictive lifestyle.”

Climate change

The state Department of Ecology hosted the first auction of emissions allowances Feb. 28 under the cap-and-invest program established by the CAA.

“The first auction was successful,” Rolfes said. The state collected almost $1 billion in pollution fees that will benefit the state economy and be invested in programs to reduce pollution and “help overburdened communities, like SeaTac, identify solutions for their air pollution, and then the state will come forward and help address those needs.”