Washington Gov. Inslee’s budget prioritizes homelessness and behavioral health needs


Shane Ersland


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee prioritized initiatives to address homelessness and behavioral health needs in his proposed 2023-25 budget, which he released on Wednesday.


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Inslee’s housing proposal features a referendum that would allow legislators to front-load $4 billion of housing construction over the next six years. The underlying capital budget will fund approximately 2,200 housing units from 2023-25. The $4 billion referendum would add approximately 5,300 additional units in that timeframe, as well as 19,000 units in the following six years.

“Unfortunately, we no longer have the influx of federal funding we are using today to quickly build thousands of new supportive housing units for people experiencing homelessness,” Inslee said. “I don’t want to lose momentum, and I don’t want the problem to get worse because we aren’t moving fast enough.”

The referendum would allow the state to issue bonds outside of its debt limit. It will require the approval of legislators and voters.

Washington’s 2022 Point in Time Count indicates that nearly 13,000 people are living unsheltered throughout the state, up from 10,506 people in 2020. 

“Our traditional systems for funding housing take an incremental approach, but if there was ever a time we need to move faster, it’s now,” Inslee said. “Homelessness and housing shortages are burdening every community in Washington. We can’t wait decades to build. We need housing now or the numbers of people sliding into homelessness will grow.”

Referendum funding would address several housing gaps, including:

  • Emergency supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, similar to units being built as part of the state’s Right of Way Safety Initiative.
  • Housing for people with special needs, including developmental disabilities, and chronic mental illness.
  • Community capacity for behavioral health, including a new diversion and recovery center for people with behavioral health needs and criminal justice involvement.
  • Affordable housing units for lower- and middle-income workers making less than 80% of the average median income.
  • Down payment and closing cost assistance for low-income, first-time homebuyers.

Inslee previewed his behavioral health agenda last week during a visit to a construction site where a behavioral health teaching hospital will be built at the University of Washington. The hospital is part of multi-year plan Inslee and lawmakers launched in 2018 to transform the state’s behavioral health system and build a network of specialized care facilities across the state. 

Demand for mental health beds is outpacing the state’s progress. Inslee urged lawmakers to maintain full funding for planned facilities. He said reforms are needed to address the skyrocketing number of referrals for in-jail competency evaluations and restoration services. Court orders for competency services have increased by nearly 60% since 2018, and inpatient referrals have increased by 145% since 2013.

“The exponential growth in court orders and forensic referrals is not sustainable, even with the state’s huge new investments in facilities, staffing, and programs,” Inslee said. “I will be asking local leaders to join me in crafting a plan that better ensures more people get the care they need and preserves forensic services for people who need to remain in custody for the safety of themselves and the community.”

Inslee’s proposed budget would:

  • Continue full funding for planned facilities, including the new 350-bed forensic hospital at Western State Hospital and state-run facilities in Maple Lane, Clark County, and Stanwood. It would continue the expansion of non-state operated facilities, increase bed day rates, and establish a new acuity-based rate that addresses services for patients that are hard to place.
  • Respond to increased demand for forensic beds at Western by contracting with two behavioral health hospitals and a treatment center, and expand early treatment, diversion, and intervention services that will free up beds at forensic facilities.
  • Strengthen specialized community services and substance use treatment, including the expansion of the 988 program’s mobile crisis teams, as well as specialty care for people with specific needs such as traumatic brain injuries or dementia.
  • Build on recent investments for intensive services for youths, including the Children’s Long-Term Inpatient Program, additional navigator resources for families, and a pilot project with Seattle Children’s Hospital and Providence of Spokane that provides intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization services.
  • Support behavioral health workers with improved compensation rates, more training opportunities, additional safety measures at state hospitals, and modern technology such as electronic health records.

To learn more about Washington’s homeless problems and initiatives to help address the issue, sign up to attend our 2023 Washington State of Reform Health Policy Conference. Experts will discuss the issue during the “Solutions for individuals experiencing homelessness” panel.