For all the Poppe report’s specificity about the need for “efficiencies,” emphasis on “performance-based strategies,” and laser focus on housing those who are “literally homeless” and have been so the longest, it (along with Mayor Ed Murray’s related Pathways Home proposal) is notably silent on what will happen to those who don’t fall into the category of “long-term homeless,” or who use transitional housing programs designed for specific vulnerable populations, such as domestic violence victims and people struggling with addiction who want to live in clean and sober housing.
Both types of programs could be cut under the Pathways Home/Poppe plan, which would move the city away from transitional housing (a category that includes sober houses and housing for domestic violence survivors) toward “rapid rehousing” on the private market.
Domestic violence victims and sober addicts and alcoholics aren’t the only people who will potentially lose services under the mayor’s plan (as the Seattle Human Services Coalition noted in an analysis they released last week, housing for veterans, refugee families, and girls under 18 could also be cut) but they are among the most vulnerable—domestic violence survivors to their abusers, and people struggling with addiction to relapse.
Transitional housing for people who want to stop drinking or using generally consists of supportive group housing in a community of people who hold each other accountable. “Sober houses,” both those that receive subsidies and those that do not, require strict abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and often require random urinalysis (UA) tests to enforce the rules. Because sobriety is strictly enforced, they’re at the opposite end of the spectrum from the “housing first” approach (which seeks to lower barriers to permanent housing), but for some who want to stop using and need structure and a support system, sober housing can be literally a lifesaver.
Flo Beaumon, associate director of the Archdiocesan Housing Authority (Catholic Community Services), says “clean and sober” housing like the CCS-run Aloha Inn on Aurora, which houses people for up to two years and provides services like counseling, recovery support, and housing search assistance, is a vital part of the housing spectrum “for people who choose it who are in recovery and personally need to be in a clean and sober environment to maintain their recovery.”
“I personally know plenty of people who need the clean and sober environment to be able to succeed,” Beaumon says. “They can’t be around people who are using.”
Beaumon worries about what will happen to those clients if abstinence-based recovery housing loses its funding under Pathways Home. “The direction that All Home [the group that manages homelessness policy in King County] is going with now is saying that they support recovery housing, but they aren’t willing [to support] programs to enforce sobriety,” Beaumon says. “Well, what do you do about relapse? Our experience is that relapse is contagious. If somebody starts using and doesn’t immediately do a u-turn and get back on the wagon, it can become a dangerous environment for other people who are in a very fragile state of recovery, because it’s new and they’ve been homeless.”
Sharon Lee, director of the Low-Income Housing Institute, says LIHI has already “phased out” some of its clean and sober housing, because “we’ve been asked by the city to reduce the barriers for people getting in.” Lee says LIHI used to run three houses for people in recovery in Seattle, and two in King County, which are no longer operated as sober housing.
Daniel Malone, director of the housing-first-focused Downtown Emergency Service Center, is skeptical that abstinence-based housing is necessary for people to stay clean and sober (and don’t get him started on the term “recovery housing,” which he thinks unjustly excludes current drug and alcohol users who consider themselves to be “in a recovery process”). And he dismisses the “strongly held contention—I might call it a myth—that someone who’s got a substance use problem, and wants to not use, must be in an environment with no one who is using and otherwise will not be able to remain abstinent.”
That said, Malone adds that he doesn’t see funding for sober housing going anywhere, because, he argues, it has powerful advocates. “I would be shocked if the system does not maintain some allowance for abstinence housing in the continuum, because there are a lot of constituencies for that kind of housing—organizations that promote it defend it and want to see it continue.” But he acknowledges that agencies that provide sober housing might have to shift from transitional to permanent housing, because “transitional is going away.” According to homeless advocates, transitional sober housing can serve three times as many people per year as a permanent housing program.
Victims of domestic violence could also be deprioritized under the mayor’s proposal, because existing transitional housing for survivors (which has a temporary waiver from the county’s coordinated-entry program, through which people experiencing homelessness are documented and assigned levels of priority) may lack the capacity to accommodate everyone who has suffered from domestic violence but isn’t currently plugged in to the DV “system.” Merril Cousin, director of the King County Coalition Ending Gender Violence, says that many homeless women who currently use shelters and transitional housing services have been victims of domestic violence, and may fall to the bottom of the triage list under the new criteria because they haven’t been homeless long enough, or aren’t “literally homeless” yet because they’re living in their cars.
Cousins worries that a system that prioritizes people who have been homeless longer could push women fleeing their abusers to the bottom of the list, making them more likely to stay in dangerous home environments or lose custody of their kids as they move down the rungs of poverty. Alternatively, she says, they might seek services in the domestic-violence system only to find long waiting lists as these programs get overburdened by an influx of women who are no longer at the top of the list for programs serving the general homeless population.
“Domestic violence assistance programs get five to 20 applicants for every one position that they have, and that’s now,” Cousin says. “What we’re concerned about is [that] if the prioritization for housing placement moves to [one that’s] totally based on the length of time someone’s homeless, as opposed to to their vulnerability, it’s going to increase the number of people they refer to domestic violence programs
For example, says says, if “somebody calls and says, ‘I slept in my car last night because my partner threatened me with a knife,’ the way it is right now, we can refer you to domestic violence programs.” Under Pathways Home, Cousin says, “it might be, ‘You just slept in your car one night and now you’re at the bottom of the list.”
The council will continue to discuss the mayor’s proposed budget, which includes just under half a million dollars in 2017 and 2018 to “staff Pathways Home Implementation,” through the middle of November.