The city council started getting into the details of Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget for homelessness-related programs yesterday, and it was clear from the start of the meeting that many of them don’t plan to let the mayor ram his Pathways Home proposal, which would radically reshape the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness, through without careful scrutiny.
I’ve written before about Pathways Home and the so-called Poppe Report on which it’s based, but here’s the gist: The proposal, which hews to new federal guidelines that encourage cities to shift away from funding more expensive (and longer-term) transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers that subsidize rent on the private market, would eliminate funding for “low-performance” programs and emphasize housing for those who have been homeless the longest, as opposed to those who are most vulnerable or are merely unstably housed.
The proposal also has the potential to eliminate or ignore personal agency in choosing where to live; according to a report by the consulting firm Focus Strategies, on which the Poppe report and Pathways home are largely based, “In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments. … While this may feel unsatisfying to providers and runs contrary to community goals relating to diversity and combatting gentrification and displacement, the alternative is leaving families and individuals with long stays in shelters or living in tents or sleeping in cars.” The report also recommends a shift away from transitional housing programs that serve specific populations, such as veterans (who may benefit from living with other veterans rather than scattered in isolated apartments across the county), domestic-violence survivors, and immigrants and refugees.
This concept—that homeless people who live in high-cost housing markets like Seattle should be willing to leave behind their communities, support systems, services, and employment opportunities just to get a roof over their heads— didn’t slip past council members Friday.
Council member Kshama Sawant pointed to a footnote in the Focus Strategies report noting that “in San Francisco, where rents are extremely high, it is common practice for [rapid rehousing programs to assist families to re-locate upwards of 60 miles from the City to other counties where rents are lower.” (Side note: The report explicitly says it is not concerned with affordability, and that if people end up having to spend half their income or more on housing, at least that’s better than sleeping outside. The current federal, county, and city standard for “affordability” is that a person spend no more than 30 percent of his or her income on housing.)
“I don’t think, in any reasonable definition of housing people effectively, does this count, because where are they going to go?” Sawant said. “Sixty miles away? We know what the housing situation is in San Francisco.” Indeed, the Focus Strategies report points to Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Hennepin County, MN as examples where a shift to rapid rehousing in the private rental market has been effective at housing people who had lived in shelters for months or years—all places where median rent is a fraction of what it is in Seattle.
Lisa Herbold, another skeptic of the Pathways Home proposal, pointed to Hennepin County as an example in which government funders and service providers tried rapid rehousing on a trial basis before closing down shelters and transitional housing programs to test whether that was the right approach, and provided supportive services to assist those moving from shelter to voucher-subsidized housing in the private market.
“I’m concerned that the Pathways Home approach, as we’re looking at it right now, will mean pathways home for people who are staying outside unsheltered, but it will mean a pathway out of town for other people who are using [transitional and shelter] housing services,” Herbold said. Moreover, “I don’t feel like the Poppe Report recommendations really did a really good job of identifying solutions and strategies that match our high-cost housing.”
Murray’s proposed budget includes nearly a half-million dollars in additional spending in 2017 and 2018 to “staff Pathways Home implementation,” which implies that the city council is supposed to embrace the Poppe recommendations in next year’s city budget, which the council will adopt next month. The skepticism some council members expressed on Friday suggests that Murray may be in for another battle.
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