Morning Crank: I Don’t Want That Rumor to Be Perpetuated

1. Sitting at the year’s first meeting of the Progressive Revenue task force Thursday morning, it was hard not to flash back to a press conference the previous day, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would spend some of the $11 million it expects to receive from the sale of a city-owned property in South Lake Union (a different property than the “teardrop” site council members discussed as part of their budget deliberations last year). At that briefing, held in front of two “tiny houses” under construction at the Seattle Vocational Institute, Durkan said it would take time to build all the housing that will ultimately be funded by the $290 million 2016 housing levy, and that in the meantime, a $5.5 million investment in “bridge housing”—or, in the clunky title Durkan chose for the initiative, “building a bridge to housing for all”—would give people living on the street slightly better options. “In an ideal world, we would not need to be building tiny houses,” Durkan said. Then she acknowledged that state and federal support for affordable housing is about to fall off a cliff.

The rest of the money would pay for rental assistance for people on SHA’s Section 8 voucher waiting list—”we’re going to focus on the people who need that assistance the most,” Durkan said— design of a new fire station, and city expenses related to the land sale. The developer buying the property would also provide $2 million of a total $7.7 million payment toward affordable housing projects elsewhere, required as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, to build actual affordable housing.

The reason I was thinking about Durkan’s announcement Thursday morning is that it was basically a rounding error—what government staffers sometimes call “budget dust”— in the funding needed to actually address the city’s homelessness problem, which has been growing every year since at least 2013. According to task force co-chair Kirsten Harris-Talley, if every unit of affordable housing requires $160,000 in capital expenditures from the city (more on how advocates for a higher employee hours tax arrived at that number in a minute), and the city will need around 20,000 new units for very low-income people in the next 10 years, that means the city will need to spend around $3.2 billion over that time. As you can probably imagine, the city isn’t spending anywhere close to that right now—according to the presentation, the city spent just under $95 million from all sources on capital housing investments last year. At that rate, it would take more than 33 years to come up with $3.2 billion (and that’s assuming housing costs stayed flat).

Obviously, none of this is an exact science. The $160,000 figure is an estimate provided by council member Kshama Sawant’s office, of what the city would need to contribute if it ramped up its affordable housing production and was unable to find a significant amount of new funding from other sources to help pay for all the new units. (Currently, each new unit costs the city about $93,000 in capital costs, but the programs that pay for the difference between the city’s contribution and the total cost to build a new unit, about $311,000, are only committed to a certain number of units, requiring the city—theoretically—to pay more for each additional unit out of its own pockets.)

If Harris-Talley and Sawant’s figures are correct, that provides a ready-made argument for the employee hours tax (effectively a flat annual tax for each full-time employee on every business over a certain revenue threshold) that they’ve wanted to pass all along. Today, the task force looked at potential revenues from the so-called head tax at different levels and with different sizes of business exempt from the tax, which I’ve copied below. (Last year’s proposed head tax would have exempted businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenues, up from $5 million in the initial proposal; some businesses argued that basing the tax on gross revenues was unfair because it didn’t take into account thin profit margins in certain industries, like restaurants.)

If the city goes through a recession, of course, the amount it can expect to collect will shrink. However, recessions tend to actually lower rents; Downtown Emergency Service Center director and task force member Daniel Malone pointed out that during the last recession, the county’s annual point in time count of people living outdoors tends to stagnate or even decrease, as it did between 2010 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2012. That’s one of the paradoxes of a weakening economy: Although revenues from taxes that are less stable, like direct taxes on businesses, tend to decline, so do rents, making it possible for some people forced onto the street by an impossible housing market to actually find a place to live.

2. In a King County Board of Health discussion about the possibility of a Hepatitis A outbreak in Seattle yesterday (a nationwide outbreak, ongoing now, began in California and was widely blamed on lack of access to handwashing facilities for the state’s homeless population), King County Health Department Director Patty Hayes expressed concern about the city’s decision last year to cut funding for three downtown hygiene centers that provide restrooms, showers, and handwashing and laundry facilities for homeless people living and moving through downtown.

City council and Board of Health member Sally Bagshaw—a vocal proponent for cutting funding to the facilities as part of the city’s new “performance-based” approach to homeless service contracts—objected to Hayes’ characterization of the problem.

“I think that [problem with the closure of the hygiene centers] is more apparent than real,” Bagshaw said. “We’re putting huge investments into new 24/7 shelters …  I’m working with those 24-hours shelters to say, ‘Can you open these up for people who aren’t [staying] here tonight” to take showers, she said. “We opened up community centers [for people to shower]. There are more facilities open now than before. It’s just that the money’s being shifted. I don’t want that rumor to be perpetuated. There were some organizations that didn’t get funded” because the city went to a competitive process, Bagshaw said.

I covered the cuts to funding for hygiene centers, and the reason some advocates believe community centers and shelters are not an adequate substitute for public restrooms and dedicated hygiene facilities, here.

3. The Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank that researches and covers of housing, transportation, and environmental policy from a green, pro-transit, pro-housing perspective, just brought on a new (unpaid) fellow to cover “issues of infrastructure, technology and energy with a view towards sustainability.” His name: Daniel Malarkey.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. (If it doesn’t, you weren’t following Seattle politics in the early 2000s.) He was the finance director for the Seattle Monorail Project, the transportation agency that was going to build a monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle. That project was doomed to failure after Malarkey’s revenue projections overshot the mark by about 50 percent, and after the agency compounded the problem by trying to paper over the error. (The error Malarkey made was counting revenues from taxes on every single car in Seattle, when in reality, thanks to heavy lobbying from the auto industry, all new cars and cars brought to the city by people moving here from out of state were exempt from the monorail tax. The result was that Malarkey overestimated the monorail’s tax base by a third) When he resigned at the end of 2003, I wrote this. Interestingly, it looks like his three years consulting or working directly for the monorail agency aren’t on his official Sightline bio.

Anyway, it looks like he’ll be writing about autonomous cars.

Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Sightline and often use their research in my reporting.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Best of Crank 2017: San Francisco’s Navigation Center

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Today’s post came out of a reporting trip I made to San Francisco, which opened its first low-barrier homeless shelter, called the Navigation Center, in 2015. San Francisco’s Navigation Center was the model for Seattle’s own shelter of the same name, which opened several months later, and it was unique in several key respects: It didn’t require clients to be clean and sober, it provided storage (a major barrier for many people who accumulate lots of stuff in their effort to be secure and self-sufficient on the streets), and it allowed people to stay with their partners and pets. I’ll be doing an update on San Francisco’s Navigation Center in the next few months—highlighting some of the challenges and roadblocks they’ve faced over the past year—but this piece gives a good overview of how the Navigation Center was doing in January 2017, when this post originally ran.

The Future of Seattle’s Shelter System is in San Francisco

SF-nav-center-entrance

San Francisco’s Navigation Center for the homeless is a promising model for Seattle—if the city decides to really embrace it.

Last month, the Seattle Human Services Department dropped several pieces of bad news in the laps of the city council’s human services committee: First, the department had failed to locate sites for all four of the sanctioned encampments Mayor Ed Murray promised as part of his “Bridging the Gap” proposal to shelter some of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, now several thousand strong. Second, ongoing sweeps of unauthorized encampments will no longer be monitored by the city’s Office of Civil Rights, which was charged with overseeing encampment removals and making sure workers comply with rules about notice and disposal of people’s tents and other possessions. And third, a planned low-barrier shelter known as the Navigation Center, to be operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, won’t open on schedule due to trouble locating an acceptable site for the facility. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said at last month’s meeting.

The Navigation Center delay was a blow to advocates who’ve argued that Seattle needs shelter options that serve the hardest to house among the city’s growing homeless population—those who don’t use regular shelters because they have one or more of the “three P’s”—pets, partners, and possessions, which aren’t allowed in traditional shelters—or because they’ve been scared away by bad experiences in the shelter system.  Add to those three disqualifiers a fourth “P”—problems. Shelters don’t work well for people in acute mental distress, people who happen to be drunk or high, or people whose mental or emotional troubles make it difficult for them to stay in close quarters with hundreds of other people.

It’s a fairly safe bet that the city will announce the Navigation Center site sometime in January—too late to help those stuck sleeping outside in subzero temperatures during the first half of this unusually cold winter, but in time for Murray to attend the opening before his reelection campaign begins in earnest. But what do city officials really mean when they talk about “low-barrier” shelter, anyway—and what will make the Navigation Center different from other shelters DESC operates, like the Morrison Hotel downtown, which takes people in any condition on a first-come, first-served basis?

To help answer those questions, I headed south to San Francisco, where the original Navigation Center opened in the Mission District in March 2015. (The city has since opened another Navigation Center, and is working on a third; all three are temporary facilities on public land slated for eventual redevelopment.) Located in the middle of a a dreary street of Mission Street populated largely by street kids and older people just sort of hanging around, the Navigation Center stands out for its clean sidewalk, airy entryway, and woodsy, modern exterior. It looks more like the entrance to a pricey new condo building than a shelter—if that condo building  was flanked by two portable buildings painted institutional yellow, and fronted by a short but official-looking sturdy iron fence.

“It’s hard to explain that it’s never looked so good [on the street outside], but there it is,” Sam Dodge tells me as we walk through the center. Dodge is the deputy director of San Francisco’s new Department of Homelessness, and he—along with John Ouertani, the site manager—is one of the chief evangelists for the Navigation Center model. “This property is open 24 hours and is very low-threshold,” Ouertani says. “There are a few rules, but the guests pretty much come in and out as they please.” As we’re talking, a new guest comes in—a skinny young man, probably 30, staggering under some unseen weight, his head parallel to the dusty ground. A case worker steers him toward his dorm, urging him to get some sleep.

Physically, the center consists of several low portable buildings—an admissions center, a dining hall/TV room, an ADA-accessible building with showers, restrooms, and free laundry facilities, and five dorms—clustered around a central courtyard. The layout gives clients (the Navigation Center calls them “guests”) more physical room than a traditional shelter, to walk around, play with their pets—and sleep. The dorms themselves house a maximum of 15 people each, a far cry from the hundreds of bunk beds that crowd a typical shelter, and some beds are pushed together in pairs, to accommodate couples who want to sleep together. Meals are available all day and night in the common building, and showers are open 24/7, to give people a sense of autonomy and to differentiate the center from other institutional living situations that guests may have encountered and found unwelcoming or traumatic in the past.nav-center-portables

“A lot of people [the Navigation Center serves] haven’t had contact with a shelter for a very long time, but they have past memories of shelter or they’ve heard rumors on the street, and that’s kept them out,” Dodge says. “I think it’s really important that we’re telegraphing to people that ‘You are going to make this amazing life change, and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of appointments and all this stuff, but we’re here to make it easy for you, and we want to make a tranquil environment where you can rest when you need to rest, and you can eat when you need to eat, and stay focused on the goal of ending your homelessness.” In contrast, traditional shelters typically serve meals, if they serve meals at all, at standard times, clear out sleeping areas during the day, and are anything but tranquil.

DESC director Daniel Malone says that during one of his visits to the San Francisco Navigation Center, he and his colleagues witnesses a client become “really agitated about something,” yelling and pacing around frantically. What they noticed, he says, is that the man “was basically able to blow off some steam—the physical environment there seemed to allow for him to have that moment, or that event, without really significantly affecting anybody else. And some of us from DESC observed that and immediately made the connection that if that had happened in the DESC shelter—and things like that happen in the DESC shelter all the time—he would have had a different reception, because a lot of people would have been around and wouldn’t have had the patience for that happening.

“It helped some of us feel more confident that there could be some real differences by going this route of creating a place where we weren’t just trying to squeeze in as many people as humanly possible.”

Another key difference between the Navigation Center and a traditional shelter is that the Navigation Center is truly low-barrier, welcoming people who have partners, pets, possessions—and problems. Ouertani estimates that at any given time, there are a dozen or more dogs on the property—many of them pit bulls—and says that as long as they’re vaccinated, on a leash, and don’t attack people or other dogs, they can stay. “We had about 17 pets come in within the first month and an half after we first opened up, and that’s pretty much what dictated where the guests went, because you can’t put 10 pit bulls in one dorm,” Ouertani said. People are also allowed to bring large possessions, like shopping carts, bikes, and what Dodge calls “survival stuff from the street.” (Weapons are taken at the door and stored for clients to retrieve later.) And they’re allowed to stay with partners‚ unlike typical shelters that require couples to split. (Dodge says there have been times when women, for example, or transgender people have said they felt unsafe sleeping in coed dorms, and the Navigation Center has accommodated them by making one of the five dorms single-gender). Finally, they’re allowed to stay at the center even if they’re  under the influence of drugs or alcohol—or, in most cases, even if they consume drugs or alcohol at the center. “We’re not so much focused on the drugs and alcohol,” Dodge says, “because we know those are almost a given. So if you get caught using on the property, it does not mean that you are asked to leave. That’s our time to outreach to you.”

nav-center-courtyard

Clients can’t just walk in to the Navigation Center, nor will they be able to do so in Seattle. Instead, the center seeks out new clients at encampments (often right before announced raids by San Francisco city authorities) and through groups serving homeless people from marginalized communities. “One of our [initial] ideas was that we could go and just take a whole encampment and bring them inside,” Dodge said. “And then we saw from some of our data that in taking the whole encampment, we started to preference a younger, whiter group that felt comfortable in places of conflict, so then we started to say, ‘Let’s select for some racial equity and try to balance those numbers out a little bit.’” Like the city of Seattle, San Francisco uses a race and social justice lens when designing and funding city programs. “And then we went to the Haight Ashbury [neighborhood] and worked with some of the groups up there, and said, ‘Let’s work with a younger cohort. Let’s try to preference transgender people who seem to feel unsafe in a lot of our shelter system.’” The result is a population that goes through demographic changes based on the center’s current outreach priorities. f the population looks a little too young and white, they can tweak their outreach to bring in more Latino immigrants; if it’s skewing heavily toward straight, older couples, the center can increase outreach to groups that serve LGBTQ youth.

“Part of the model is being able to experiment and try new things and collect data and analyze it and experiment again,” Dodge says.

One reason  the original Navigation Center has been so free to experiment is that it’s funded largely by private dollars, through a no-strings-attached grant from an anonymous wealthy donor; Seattle’s Navigation Center will be funded by a combination of state and local dollars.

Daniel Malone, the DESC director, says his group plans to emulate the experimental spirit of the San Francisco Navigation Center, but notes that the city will choose clients based on its own set of criteria, which will in turn be dictated, to some extent, by federal priorities. “Essentially, folks are going to [come] to us after being selected by the Human Services Department,” Malone says. Johnson, the HSD deputy director, says Navigation Center clients will be chosen by outreach workers who will “engage with an unsheltered person or couple to try to tease out what that couple might need to move from living outside to living inside”; if it seems like they’ve rejected other shelter options because of barriers like restrictions on partners and pets, “then the Navigation Center comes into play.”

nav-center-beds

Johnson says Seattle’s Navigation Center, when it opens, will still embrace “the core themes that hold true at the San Francisco Navigation Center,” but it will be uniquely Seattle.”  For example, Johnson says, people will be expected to move out of the center, and into more stable (if not permanent) housing within 30 days—an ambitious goal given that, also according to Johnson, the average shelter stay in King County is 200 days. Johnson says the San Francisco Navigation Center has “changed their model” to move people through the center in 30 days, but Dodge says that for those who are seeking stable housing (as opposed to shelter or treatment), moving through the system takes longer, about 90 days on average.

San Francisco’s Navigation Center has moved nearly 300 people into more stable housing since it opened in 2015, which is quite a feat—especially when you consider that many people enter the center with few or no prior connections to the city’s homeless “system.” That’s another thing that’s different about the Navigation Center—instead of just providing phone numbers and addresses for service providers and sending clients on their way, the center provides each client with an on-site case manager who helps them make appointments and actually show up, as well as service providers who come to the center weekly.  Of all the barriers to housing, Dodge says, the sheer number of appointments can be one of the most daunting. “At one point, we were averaging 28 appointments that someone had to make coming from the street [before getting] housing, and for some of these other cases, where you’re dealing with immigration and maybe the Veterans Administration, it’s much more.”

The most ambitious versions of San Francisco’s plan max out at about six Navigation Centers, which works out to about 450 theoretical clients at a time. The unsheltered homeless population of San Francisco is nearly 6,700, according to a 2015 count; in Seattle, it’s around 3,000. (The actual numbers are likely much higher, since those figures only represent the number of people homeless count participants actually encountered sleeping on the streets.) Johnson says Seattle has no immediate plans to start siting a second Navigation Center, and indicates that the site the city will choose won’t be a temporary use of publicly owned land, like the ones in San Francisco.  Given that a single low-barrier shelter will barely make a dent in the growing demand, many advocates point out the obvious: Seattle needs more low-income housing, and not just in the form of short-term “rapid rehousing” rental vouchers.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that, when I got to Seattle 20 years ago, there were literally a third of the homeless people that we see now,” says Real Change director Tim Harris. “My issue with the [Navigation Center] approach is just simply that 75 beds doesn’t go all that far, given the depth of the need.”

Malone, whose organization will be charged with making the Seattle Navigation Center a success, says that “if the Navigation Center fails and doesn’t have a lot of throughput”—that is, people entering the center and exiting into housing—”then it’ll end up being a very expensive shelter, and that’s not what anyone’s looking to do.”

A final unknown: What will federal housing policy look like under the Trump Administration? Immediately after the election, housing and homelessness advocates were deeply concerned about who Trump would pick to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets federal housing policy. (The federal government provides about 40 percent of Seattle’s budget for homeless services). Now that Trump has chosen Ben Carson, the libertarian-leaning surgeon and failed Presidential candidate, they’re looking for funding closer to home, at the state and local levels.

Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s health and human services committee, says that “as dire as it is, what we’re facing right now, I actually don’t think that the federal government was going to help us anyway, because of the Republican Congress. I believe firmly that what we do, and every step of progress that we make is going to be done by the city and the county, with, hopefully, some help from the state.”

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Best of Crank 2017: Seattle’s Low-Barrier Shelter Has Housed Just Two People

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This post is an update on the city’s Navigation Center, which I learned had gotten just two people into housing since opening several months earlier—one in transitional housing (a model from which the city is moving away) and one with a family member.  The news was troubling, given that the Navigation Center (modeled on a similar system of low-barrier shelters in San Francisco) was supposed to be model for housing some of Seattle’s most challenging homeless residents, including those with substance use issues and mental-health challenges. Several factors account for the Seattle Navigation Center’s slow progress in moving people into housing, but none is more daunting than the fact that the Seattle-area housing market is too simply too expensive for people with little or no income.

This post ran on October 13.

Navigation Center Has Housed Just Two People Since Opening in July

 

Late last month, the city’s Human Services Department released its first annual report on Pathways Home, a new framework for serving homeless residents that emphasizes “rapid rehousing” and submits service providers to new performance standards. Among other conclusions, the report found that the Navigation Center, a 75-bed shelter that serves people who don’t do well in traditional shelters, has struggled to place people into permanent housing within the 60-day time limit set by the city.

“People coming inside from being unsheltered have a big adjustment to make and multiple issues to address and many barriers to housing stability; the Navigation Center is finding that mapping out a strategy to get them housed could take more than 60 days,” the report says.

In fact, as of October, the Navigation Center had placed just two people into housing, according to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which runs the Center. DESC’s director of administrative services, Greg Jenson, says that one of those clients is now in transitional housing and one went to live with family. According to the Pathways Home report, of the 105 clients who came through the center in its first six weeks, 32 have left, and “nearly half” of those “have refused to disclose or didn’t know where they were exiting to.”

DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go.

 

The Navigation Center is designed to serve clients who are the “hardest to house”—people experiencing chronic homelessness who often face multiple barriers to finding a place to live, such as ongoing substance abuse and mental-health issues. It “was not designed to serve the needs of the higher-functioning individuals who are more likely to thrive in traditional shelter settings which have strict rule requirements,” Jackie St. Louis, the coordinator for the Navigation Team, says.

However, DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go. “One thing that has been good is being able to identify people who have a natural priority for the limited housing that is available in the community,” by giving them an assessment that scores them on the number of barriers to housing they face, Malone says. But, he adds, “If we aren’t producing new housing, they’ll just be getting it instead of someone else.”

Seattle’s Navigation Center isn’t the first of its kind; that distinction goes to a low-barrier shelter by the same name in San Francisco, which also serves a hard-to-house clientele. In San Francisco, clients seeking permanent housing stay an average of 90 days, and that figure would likely be larger if the city didn’t set aside some low-income housing units specifically for Navigation Center clients, something Seattle does not do. Although Seattle officials were familiar with the challenges San Francisco faced in housing people through its Navigation Center, the city adopted a 60-day cap, predicting that Seattle’s Navigation Center would be able not only mimic but surpass San Francisco’s success.

The city’s Navigation Teams—groups of police and outreach workers who facilitate encampment removals—frequently refer encampment residents to the Navigation Center. According to a report issued by the Navigation Team itself earlier this month, the teams have sent about 75 people to the center this year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, says she’s confident that the city is sending people who want and will benefit from the services that the center provides. “HSD and DESC are satisfied that the right clients are being referred to the Navigation Center,” she says.

But Malone notes that DESC has “definitely heard from some people that they only came there because they were having to leave where they were staying out, and they hadn’t really decided for themselves that was something that they wanted yet.”

Malone cautions against reading too much into what happens at the Navigation Center in the first few months. “Has it changed the face of homelessness in less than three months? No,” he says. “There have definitely been some start-up issues, and we need to try different things out.”

In San Francisco, Navigation Centers have been successful at getting some homeless people off the street, but they’re hardly a panacea. The success or failure of Seattle’s Navigation Center will be measured not by how many hundreds of people it moves on to permanent housing, but by how many dozens.

 

Best of Crank 2017: Lisa Sawyer, One of Those Our Homelessness System Failed

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Today, a story about Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and homeless advocate who tried to get housing through a “rapid rehousing voucher,” then, when that failed (because Sawyer and her boyfriend couldn’t find a private landlord willing to rent to them), ended up in an apartment she couldn’t afford. Sawyer’s story illustrated the complicated hoops we force homeless people to jump through to get a roof over their heads, and the ways the system punishes them when they fail to do the impossible.

This story ran on August 9, 2017.

Rapid Rehousing Didn’t Work Out. Now Lisa Sawyer May Face Eviction

Image via Facing Homelessness.

Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.

You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.

For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before.  They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.

Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a  black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.

Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.

Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”

Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.

Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”

The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.

In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.

Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.

Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.

“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking.  We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)

“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?’”

Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”

Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.

“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

 

Best of Crank 2017: My Interview with Barb Poppe

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news, starting with today’s post, an interview I did with Ohio-based homelessness consultant Barb Poppe.

Poppe’s 2016 report on Seattle’s homelessness crisis formed the template for a citywide strategy known as Pathways Home, which emphasizes so-called “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers for formerly homeless people to use on the private market. Critics, including this blog, have argued that rapid rehousing is risky in a housing market as expensive as Seattle’s, that it will exacerbate racial and economic segregation by pushing low-income people of color outside the city, where rent is lower, and that chronically homeless people are unlikely to get a job that pays enough to afford Seattle-area rents in a matter of  months.

This post originally ran on March 16, 2017.

Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced a $275 million levy to address the city’s homelessness crisis that emphasizes temporary housing vouchers on the private market, rather than more-intensive strategies like service-rich transitional housing, to get people off the streets and on their feet. The levy also funds some mental-health and drug treatment services, which Murray noted are “new lines of business” for the city.

The proposal is based largely on recommendations from a Columbus, Ohio-based consultant named Barb Poppe, whose  2016 report on Seattle’s homelessness crisis became the basis for the set of recommendations known as Pathways Home. Poppe’s report and Pathways Home are based on a larger federal shift toward the concept of “housing first”—the idea that housing homeless people should be cities’ top priority, above sobriety, employment, and other metrics that have historically served as barriers to housing—and away from the concept of “housing readiness,” which assumed, paternalistically, that homeless people need to jump through multiple hoops before being “ready” to move indoors.

Rapid rehousing has been somewhat controversial because it assumes that most homeless people will be able to afford market rents within months of moving indoors, which, in Seattle, works out to just under $2,000 a month for the average one-bedroom. Rapid rehousing also represents a shift away from transitional housing, programs that are more expensive and come with more services than a housing voucher, but are less service-intense than permanent supportive housing programs.

Poppe has also been a harsh critic of the city’s policy of creating sanctioned encampments and allowing children to live unsheltered, whether in vans, or encampments, or “tiny houses,” and has spoken out against allowing any additional encampments in city limits—statements that have put her in conflict with the city, in particular homelessness director George Scarola, who has said he has a “professional disagreement” with Poppe about the need for encampments as an interim solution.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Have you had a chance to look at the homelessness levy the mayor proposed this week? Any initial thoughts on the mix of projects the levy would and wouldn’t fund?

Barb Poppe [BP]: I did. I know the mental health and behavioral health stuff is a really Washington-specific issue, because I think you have one of the worst mental health systems in the nation. If  you were another community, I’d say that doesn’t seem like it really fits with addressing homelessness, but I know that’s a current issue [for Seattle]. It looked like the all the other things they were going to invest in were similar to the recommendations that Focus Strategies and I made. It didn’t seem like it was going to be putting up more encampments or RV parks and other things like that. It looked very much like housing plus services.

In my recommendations, I recommended conversion of all the existing shelters to 24/7, low-barrier, housing-focused programs. When I visited Seattle and understood the number of places that you had that were just nighttime-only shelters, what that does is, one, it’s very difficult for people who are staying in them to get back on their feet, because they’re always in transit. And it increases the number of folks who are visibly homeless on your streets because they have nowhere to go. They have all the same problems of someone who has no shelter at all, whether it’s access to phones or meals or sanitation. They have to navigate those all in the course of the day.

ECB: Is it realistic for all the shelters in Seattle to convert to low-barrier, 24-hour shelters?

BP: In a lot of places in the country, that is the model. In Columbus, when I first came here in 1990, we had some nighttime-only shelters, but we moved to all of them being 24/7. I had mistakenly assumed that most places in the country had also done that, but in fact as I traveled the country as head of [the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness] I found that it was a fairly common model that was used with single adults. Families were mostly in 24/7 shelters, but there were places that required families to leave during the day, which I found even more distressing. A lot of the big mass shelters that are run by mission-based groups are going to be nighttime-only, and it’s just not good. What I understood as I talked to the city and All Home [the agency that administers homeless programs in the county] is that there were some unique challenges in that some of the 12-hour shelters were in buildings that were not available during the day, so they expected that in order to do some of those programs, they would have to move locations.

“I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it.”

ECB: The city seems on board with moving in that direction, but they’ve also said that in the meantime, it’s better to have people sleeping in staffed, sanctioned encampments rather than in ad hoc illegal camps throughout the city. You’ve been opposed to that policy. Why?

BP:  I don’t find that an acceptable response to homelessness and would not encourage that, because you don’t get folks in out of the weather. Sanctioned encampments don’t solve anything. They’re not solution-focused. They’re often not good places to be. And they’re a burden on the neighborhoods as well.

Your public dollars should not be used to provide places where people live that don’t even meet the basic UN convention on human rights standards. The fact is that these are places that don’t have sanitation, that don’t have water, that don’t have electricity, that don’t have heat, and that don’t meet basic building codes. And in particular, I was alarmed by the number of children I saw in those places, including quite a few newborn babies. It’s a policy choice. All of those families could be brought inside if that was the choice that was made to do that. The data was showing that you weren’t fully utilizing the family shelters and that you weren’t exiting people to stable housing. It’s just a really ineffective approach.

Family homelessness is a problem in many states and many communities. The concern I had in Seattle was it was the only place where I saw so many children and felt that there wasn’t a lot of community alarm about the notion that infants were in encampments or that children were in tents. It was abnormal compared to other cities I had worked in, like Los Angeles, which has lots and lots of struggles and large numbers of people, but they are very focused on offering and making sure there is same-day shelter for families. What I believe is that the more acceptable this is to your community, the more that your community believes that these sanctioned encampments are a solution to homelessness, and the more you’re going to have to build them. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces. 

In other communities I’ve gone to,  if you have a room that would accommodate two moms and two kids, they would take two moms and two kids, rather than say we’re going to turn that other mom away. Their priority is that no child be outside, whereas in your community, it just seems like you make the choice that families will be on the street. The flow out of the shelters to housing is not good. It’s really, really low results, which indicates that they aren’t housing-focused shelters. It’s not just that the shelters aren’t accommodating families, it’s that they aren’t working to get people into housing. I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it. 

ECB: Another one of the recommendations that came out of your report was that we may have to accept the fact that some people will have to spend more than a third of their income on rent. But that flies in the face of how HUD and every city and state agency in the country sets affordability rates. What’s the reasoning behind saying we may have to stretch our concept of affordability in that manner?

“In designing the city’s rapid rehousing program, I think they have to allow that families have choices about where they want to live, and families will have to weigh the pluses and minuses. It’s not our job to be paternalistic.”

 

BP: The definition of affordability isn’t that they have a voucher and they get it for life and they only pay 30 percent of income. [Formerly homeless people served by rapid rehousing] are still going to have a housing cost burden. All poor people in your community live with a housing burden unless they have a voucher. You have lots of low-income workers who have a housing cost burden. They make it, and they don’t fall into homelessness. Rapid rehousing gets them back on their feet, and in an ideal world, their income goes up and their housing is affordable at 30 percent, but the reality that we’re living in right now is that low-income workers are cost-burdened, but they’re housed. They’re not on the streets. They’re not in shelters. Their kids can go to the same schools. All of those things are much more possible if you’re not homeless. In Seattle, the goal of the homeless programs was to get people to the point that they aren’t cost-burdened, which is an unrealistic expectation in your market. It’s really hard to live [cost-burdened], and I’m not saying that it’s not, but because we don’t have a national policy that says everyone who has a housing need gets a housing voucher and never has to pay more than 30 percent, our goal in the homelessness system has to be to get everyone housed, and hopefully they’re going to be on an income path that provides them some stability.

ECB: The city has said it wants to make it possible for people who are homeless to find housing here, rather than having to move to far-flung suburban parts of the county or nearby counties. But your report and the Focus Strategies report say explicitly that for rapid rehousing to work, a lot of people may have to leave Seattle. How do you respond to the charge that this is furthering the suburbanization of poverty? Don’t people do better when they’re able to stay in their communities, where they’re near job centers, family, and frequent, reliable transit?

BP: The core of the rapid rehousing model is family choice, and that you should never say to a family, ‘You have to move here.’ In the same way that you wouldn’t say, ‘You have to stay in Seattle,’  the city shouldn’t say, ‘We’re not going to move you to Tacoma,’ or wherever. In these other high-cost cities, they do have families who say, ‘I don’t see that our family is going to do well in San Francisco; we’ll be better if we move to an East Bay community where the housing is more affordable.’ So in designing the city’s rapid rehousing program, I think they have to allow that families have choices about where they want to live, and families will have to weigh the pluses and minuses. It’s not our job to be paternalistic. Old-school transitional housing programs are very paternalistic. They say, ‘You will live in this neighborhood, you will go to this program for three days a week, your kids will be in this preschool program.’ Rapid rehousing lets families determine the choices they want to make. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces. 

ECB: Right now, HUD is largely dictating the current move toward rapid rehousing. Do you anticipate that federal guidelines for homeless investments will remain the same with Ben Carson at HUD?

BP: I have no crystal ball on what Carson’s going to do. It’s not even clear to what extent Secretary Carson gets to call the shots. We have made significant progress across the country. We have almost reduced veterans’ homelessness by half, chronic homelessness by large percentage, and family homelessness by 10 percent. My hope is because the homeless assistance programs have been well-managed and produced good results, that they won’t tinker and roll back to the old housing-readiness model, which largely excluded folks who had had any barriers or challenges in their life before they experienced homelessness. And the larger budget issues are really alarming to think about. If we preserve all the homeless programs but lose all the other [housing] programs, that’s terrible as well, because if the Carson-Trump administration cuts the [Section 8 housing] voucher program and the families who are stably housed with housing choice vouchers lose their housing, that’s devastating.

Morning Crank: The Dizzying Array of Potential Pedestrian Treatments

1. I’ll be on KUOW today at noon talking about sexual harassment, tolling I-405, and more with Civic Cocktail host (and ex-Seattle Times editorial board member) Joni Balter and former state attorney general Rob McKenna. Who won’t be on KUOW tomorrow? Tavis Smiley, who was suspended by PBS this week after an investigation found “multiple, credible allegations” of sexual misconduct by the host. The allegations include having multiple sexual relationships with subordinates, some of whom believed their “employment status was linked to the status of a sexual relationship with Smiley,” and creating a “verbally abusive and threatening environment.” Smiley has responded by denying that he “groped, coerced, or exposed myself inappropriately” to any of his coworkers, which, it should be noted, are not the acts he is accused of committing.

KUOW pulled Smiley’s radio show (which is separate from his public TV show) voluntarily, and will run the second hour of “Here and Now” in its place.

2. George Scarola, former mayor Ed Murray’s director of homelessness, made an odd comment the other day about his current status at the city. “Up until the new mayor took office—Mayor Durkan—I was the director of homelessness. I promptly submitted my resignation,” Scarola said, adding that he did so “just to give her a clean shot at exactly what she wants to do, and that hasn’t had any effect yet.” Scarola is still at the city—in fact, he attended a Ballard District Council meeting where neighbors complained about the ongoing presence of homeless people at the Ballard Commons park just last night—but his position is now at the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, not the mayor’s office.

3. Jessyn Farrell, the state-legislator-turned-mayoral candidate who came in fourth in the August primary election, is going to work for Civic Ventures, the progressive think tank founded by Seattle venture capitalist and billionaire do-gooder Nick Hanauer. Earlier this year, Hanauer said he would bankroll the campaign for a homelessness levy proposed by then-mayor Ed Murray; although the city later abandoned that proposal in favor of a joint city-county proposal that kicked the conversation about a homelessness tax into 2018, Hanauer will likely be involved in that campaign as well. Farrell, who also headed up the Transportation Choices Coalition before she was elected to represent the 46th legislative district in the state house, did not say what her title will be, but did say that she’ll be working on “rebuilding the middle class” and “making cities work for people.”

4. If you want to get an idea of of how complicated traffic planners’ jobs are, and how hard it can be to balance road users’ needs and rights without creating ridiculously out-of-whack hierarchies (where drivers can move freely and pedestrians are constantly at risk) or unintended consequences (long periods where pedestrians are just stuck waiting at corners, unable to move in any direction), check out this presentation that Seattle Department of Transportation transportation operations manager Ahmed Darrat presented to the Pedestrian Advisory Board on walk signal timing last night.  Twenty minutes went by as Darrat explained eleven ways SDOT can shift the balance of mobility between cars and pedestrians—assuming slower walking speeds near hospitals and retirement homes, giving pedestrians the option of pushing a button for several seconds to extend the walk time, “passive detection” of pedestrians using thermal sensors—and then Darrat switched to the next slide, which listed another dozen options. (More details on the dizzying array of potential pedestrian treatments here).

The biggest point of contention right now in conversations about how quickly pedestrians should be able to cross the street is the existence of so-called “beg buttons”—buttons a pedestrian (or, in many cases, cyclist) must push to alert the traffic system that cars need to stop to allow people to cross the road. The problem with beg buttons isn’t just that they feel insulting—cars don’t have to ask permission to drive, because we’ve built a system that either assumes they will be there or that senses them when they roll up to an intersection—but that they contribute to a culture in which people walking and cycling are an anomaly on the road. Beg buttons give drivers who hit pedestrians a built-in excuse—he didn’t have the walk sign, officer!—empower cities to crack down on “jaywalking,” and contribute to the overall sense that cars rule the road. And if a pedestrian isn’t aware that they won’t get permission to cross the street unless they push the button, they may get stuck waiting through several light cycles while cars move through unimpeded. Blind people, people with limited English reading skills, people who can’t read, and other people with sensory impairments are particularly impacted by beg button requirements.

Darrat said federal standards require accessible pedestrian signals at every intersection; push buttons just happen to be the only option currently available to SDOT; however, he said, “we’re committed to looking at how we treat pedestrian signals from a more global perspective and coming up with some ideas as to how we’re going to take steps toward standardizing it” so pedestrians don’t have to figure out dozens of potential signal situations—different walk cycles by time of day; half cycles for cars; “pedestrian recall”; leading pedestrian intervals”—to cross the street. Imagine if instead of figuring out whether to push the button and if it’s safe to run and whether the signal will change when you push it if the light’s already green and how long you’ll have to wait if you don’t make this cycle, you could just go out into the street at regular intervals. You know, like cars do.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

City’s Homeless Spending Plan Cuts Downtown Restrooms, Laundry Facilities

This story originally appeared at Seattle Magazine

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, the city’s Human Services Department released a list of programs, operated by 30 local organizations and agencies, that will receive $34 million in restructured homeless service contracts. The announcement was the culmination of a years-long process to move the city toward performance-based human service contracting and to reward service providers that emphasize moving homeless Seattle residents into permanent housing quickly. Those that provide longer-term housing assistance or other services that aren’t strictly housing-related, like hygiene centers and overnight shelters, were deprioritized.

“I recognize this is a huge change, but it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need that we face on the streets of Seattle,” interim mayor Tim Burgess said Monday. (On Tuesday, Burgess was replaced by new Mayor Jenny Durkan.) “Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.”

The funding changes announced on Monday could have a major, and highly visible, impact on downtown, because they eliminate or reduce funding for three downtown hubs where homeless people can use the restroom and shower: The Women’s Wellness Center in Belltown, run by Catholic Community Services, the Urban Rest Stop, run by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), and the Compass Housing Alliance’s Hygiene Center in Pioneer Square.

Without access to these restrooms during the day and (in Urban Rest Stop’s case) for part of the night, homeless advocates say unsheltered people will have no choice but to relieve themselves wherever they can—including alleys, parks and business doorways. “It’s going to be another sanitation nightmare,” LIHI director Sharon Lee predicts.

City Council Human Services and Public Health Committee chair Sally Bagshaw says she thinks that once new 24-hour shelters the city plans to fund get up and running, they’ll be able to fill the gaps left by the loss of the hygiene centers. “There are 22 enhanced shelters” in the funding plan, Bagshaw says, referring to shelters that offer case management and help getting into housing, “and of those, 21 have showers.”

Additionally, Bagshaw says, people who need to take a shower during the day already have access to showers at six of the city’s community centers (none of them downtown). “Is it perfect? No. But part of the goal here is to use our money in a way that’s going to move people through shelter and into permanent housing.”

According to the brief explanations the human services department provided for why it did not renew some grants, the hygiene centers’ missions were not directly focused on “moving people from homelessness to permanent housing” because they only provided basic hygiene services.

Lee says that LIHI’s Urban Rest Stop, whose funding will be cut by nearly 50 percent, will have to reduce its hours, which are currently 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. “If you go in there at 5:30 in the morning, it’s packed full of people” showering, washing their clothes and getting ready for work, Lee says. “If you take that away from people, it’s going to lead to more problems and more misery.”

Lee points to a recent Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego that resulted from a lack of access to showers, restrooms and handwashing facilities for homeless people in that city. The outbreak spread throughout the unsheltered population and is now being called an epidemic. According to a memo the King County public health department sent to service providers in September, “the disease is closely associated with unsafe water or food, inadequate sanitation and lack of access to hygiene services.” In another memo, the department noted, “Good hand-washing is essential.”

The lack of 24-hour public restrooms downtown is a longstanding issue: People have to relieve themselves somewhere and in the absence of public restrooms, they tend to do so wherever they can. The downtown business community, Lee predicts, “is going to be really affected, because no longer can a merchant say [to a homeless person], ‘Go down the street to the Urban Rest Stop.’”

The Downtown Seattle Association, which runs an outreach team of 10-plus people, also lost about half a million dollars a year, initially declined to comment. But after this story published, its senior media relations manager James Sido reached out with a statement.

“Given the concentration of homeless individuals living downtown, and our long-standing relationships with this population and other downtown stakeholders, we were understandably disappointed to learn that we will not be among those organizations receiving city funds as of Jan. 1,” he wrote. “We are currently considering an appeal, and also discussing the program’s future with staff and leadership. Without city funding, the size and scope of our outreach program must shift.”

City Bets Big on Enhanced Shelter, Rapid Rehousing in New Homeless Spending Plan

Mayor Tim Burgess: “Business as usual is not really an option.”

Homeless service providers and the city of Seattle say they’re confident that they can double the number of people moved from homelessness to permanent housing in the next year through a combination of traditional tools like permanent supportive housing and private market-based solutions like rapid rehousing with short-term rent assistance vouchers. Yesterday, the city’s Human Services Department released a list of programs, operated by 30 local organizations and agencies, that will receive $34 million in new homeless service contracts. By this time next year, Mayor Tim Burgess predicted yesterday, the city will have moved “more than twice as many people from homelessness to permanent homes compared to this year.” Burgess added that he has “confidence … that the new approach will be effective. …I recognize this is a huge change, but it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need that we face on the streets of Seattle. Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.” See below for sassy footnote.*

The city also released a list of the dozens of projects that did not receive city dollars because they failed to meet HSD’s new funding standards, which prioritizes low-barrier shelters and programs that promise to get people into housing quickly over longer-term transitional housing and “mats-on-the-floor” shelters that have high barriers to entry and don’t emphasize permanent housing. This year, according to HSD, 56 percent of the city’s shelter funding goes to bare-bones night shelters; as of next year, “mats-on-the-floor” shelters will make up just 15 percent of HSD’s shelter budget, with the remainder going to enhanced shelters. Overall, there will be 300 fewer HSD-funded shelter beds in the city.

Several longstanding programs will be defunded partially or completely, including the SHARE/WHEEL nightly shelter program, which provides high-barrier nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people per night. (SHARE’s shelters are high-barrier because they require adherence to a long list of rules that varies from shelter to shelter, require prospective shelter residents to pass a “screen” by a current member, and restrict residents’ comings and goings—for example, by requiring them to stay at a shelter consistently for a certain number of nights.) HSD deputy director Jason Johnson confirmed yesterday that SHARE’s application for $694,153 to run its shelters ranked dead last among all applications for emergency shelter service funding; its sister organization for women, WHEEL, also ranked poorly, according to HSD.

HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said that in deciding which providers received funding, the agency prioritized “quality” over “quantity,” noting that having to line up every night for a shelter bed is stressful and makes it harder for homeless people to improve their lives.

 

“Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” HSD director Catherine Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

 

In response to yesterday’s announcement, SHARE released a portion of the application it submitted to HSD (the full applications will be unavailable, HSD officials said, until after an appeal period concludes on December 12), which asserted that the city’s goal of drastically increasing the rate at which people move from homelessness to permanent housing “is a painful impossibility considering the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.  Demanding it forces competition, false promises, and a practice commonly called ‘creaming’—programs rejecting hard-to-serve folks to gain better housing outcomes.” SHARE has been vocal during the city council’s budget deliberations, and will almost certainly show up at city hall to protest the cuts; they will still receive funding to operate the city’s six sanctioned tent encampments.

Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

HSD’s prediction about how successful its new approach will be does appear optimistic in light of the high, and growing, cost of living in Seattle, where a one-bedroom market-rate apartment might cost $1,800 to $2,000. As Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization lost funding for two transitional housing projects in the Central District and Georgetown, noted pointedly, permanent housing is always the ultimate goal—but vouchers for formerly homeless people to rent on the private market will only work if people can go from minimal or no income to a relatively high income extremely quickly. If, as seems more likely, they can’t, they may end up worse off than when they accepted the voucher—homeless again, but now with a broken lease or eviction on their record.

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold,” Lee said. “I think there is a way to lie with statistics. I think they say, ‘We put someone into market-rate housing, and if they don’t show up in the [Homeless Management Information System] later, then it is successful,’ but they haven’t checked” to see if that person is still living in the “permanent housing” after their rent subsidy runs out. Lee said that about 80 percent of the people who live in LIHI-owned and -operated transitional housing would not be good candidates for rapid rehousing, because they are living with physical and developmental disabilities, PTSD, or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing would be the solution, but we don’t have enough permanent supportive housing”—long-term housing with wraparound services. (Interestingly, as SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield points out, HSD appears to estimate the cost of each “exit” to permanent supportive housing as just $1,778 per household, which is far less than any other program, including diversion, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing.).

Enhanced shelters, like the 24-hour, low-barrier Navigation Center that opened earlier this year, are also key to HSD’s plan to permanently house 7,400 people by the end of 2018. The goal is to move most clients through enhanced shelter and into permanent housing within 60 days—but that goal, as I’ve reported, has been harder to achieve in practice than the city predicted. (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it should be noted, has issued a mandate saying people should move through enhanced shelters and into permanent housing in no more than 30 days.) As of October, the Navigation Center, which is run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center had housed just one person—in transitional housing, not the permanent housing the city hopes will be the key to solving the homelessness crisis. (Another person left town, saying they planned to move in with family.)

 

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold.”—Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

 

Asked why they have confidence that other low-barrier, high-service shelters will be able to rapidly move people from homelessness to permanent housing when the Navigation Centers has struggled, HSD staffers said only that they have faith in the organizations that were chosen for funding and that the 7,400 number is actually a lowball, based on the assumption that most enhanced shelters will need some amount of “ramp-up time.” Johnson also alluded to the need for the Navigation Center to show “fidelity to the San Francisco model,” a reference to the original Navigation Center in that city, on which Seattle’s Navigation Center is modeled. But San Francisco’s Navigation Center benefited early on from the fact that San Francisco was able to steer clients into units the city owned, which meant that people exiting the center didn’t have to find units in the private market; now those units are full, and recent reports suggest that three-quarters of that Navigation Center’s clients have failed to find permanent housing and that most have returned to homelessness.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like LIHI’s Lee, points to high rents in the Seattle area as a key barrier to moving people from shelter to housing in the private market. “While some of the resources in this plan will help pay for people to get into housing, I do believe we still have a major problem in this community with the accessibility and availability of housing that’s affordable to low-income people, so I think we’ve got to address both the navigation”—steering people toward the services that can help them—”and the availability of housing in order to achieve the goals that we all share, and I worry that we haven’t paid enough attention to that second part.”

The city’s grants for rapid rehousing providers did not say that the vouchers needed to pay for housing in Seattle, making it a near-certainty that many voucher recipients who would prefer to live close to their current homes, jobs, and communities may be forced to move to suburbs where rent is cheaper. Given that one of the key criteria HSD considered in the grant process was racial equity—the groups that will receive funding include several organizations that serve Native Americans, African Americans, and African immigrants—I was surprised that HSD was so blithe about pushing more low-income people, especially people of color, out of the city. Lester, the HSD director, said it was a question of priorities: Is it more important to make sure people can find housing in Seattle, or to get them off of the streets or out of their cars? “Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

As readers of this blog may recall, the city council is still discussing ways to put more funding into homeless services, after rejecting a $125-per-employee tax on the city’s largest 1,100 or so employers. If that funding comes through, HSD staffers said yesterday, the agency already has a list of “tier two” projects that didn’t quite make the cut for this round of funding.

A full list of the projects that received funding is available here.

* Permanent housing, by the way, doesn’t always mean a room or an apartment; it also includes things like crashing on a couch with friends or moving out of the state to live with family; the thing that makes it “permanent” is that it isn’t time-limited, and the thing that makes it “successful” in the city’s eyes is that a person doesn’t re-register as officially homeless with the county, so people who pack up to be homeless elsewhere are out of sight, out of mind.

2018 City Budget Passes Without Head Tax. Now What?

Seattle may be rolling in tax revenues thanks to an economic boom that just won’t quit, but this year’s budget process played out like a recession-year knock-down-drag-out battle. It started when the council’s new budget chair, Lisa Herbold, proposed a budget that presumed the council would agree to a head tax on large employers (and made their top-priority projects dependent on the tax). When the tax failed on a (somewhat predictable) 5-4 vote, council members were left scrambling to come up with a new “Plan B” that would preserve their top priorities. This plan—call it Plan C—included deep cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, without commensurate cuts to the legislative branch, whose budget included some literal padding in the form of $250,000 for new carpet in council members’ offices.

Over the weekend, though, council members decided to have mercy on the mayor, reducing the proposed cuts to her office by half (and sacrificing their top-dollar carpet in the process). That change would have meant less new funding for the Human Services Department, but a last-minute amendment by council member Kirsten Harris-Talley increased HSD’s funding by dipping into the budget for the Department of Construction and Inspections, which administers permits and inspects buildings (including rental housing) for code compliance. That change, along with numerous other last-minute amendments, happened almost in the moment, and council members who hadn’t seen the proposed changes before today appeared to be reading them on the fly in the moments before voting them up or down. The public, meanwhile, had no way to read or absorb many of the proposed amendments unless they were physically in council chambers, where staffers made hard copies of (some of) the amendments available as the council discussed and voted on them.

Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley

The debate over how much additional funding the council should allocate for HSD—which administers all the city’s grants for homeless services, a job that has grown in scope as the city’s budget for those services has increased—broke down along somewhat surprising lines. On the center left-to-socialist spectrum of Seattle politics, HSD’s mission is strictly centrist, and its director, Catherine Lester—appointed by former mayor Ed Murray in 2015—is a staunch defender of that mission. This year, HSD rebid all its homeless service provider contracts under a new system known as “performance-based contracting”—a process critics say favors large, established service providers that prioritize people who are easier to house at the expense of smaller, scrappier groups that focus on more challenging clients. The agency’s job next year will be to administer those projects and implement Pathways Home, a controversial plan developed in collaboration with Ohio-based consultant Barb Poppe. In 2016, Poppe did a report that concluded that Seattle already has plenty of resources to house every person living outdoors, a conclusion many (including this blog) have contested.  Pathways Home, which is based on that report, directs HSD to shift spending away from transitional housing programs that provide long-term assistance and toward more “cost-effective” solutions like  “rapid rehousing”—short-term rent subsidies to move people directly from homelessness into market-rate apartments. Critics of this approach have argued that expecting people to move from homelessness to full self-sufficiency in a matter of months is unrealistic in a city  where the average one-bedroom apartment now rents for around $1,800.

Murray and Lester butted heads with the left wing of the council (as well as many homeless advocates) over rapid rehousing, performance-based contracting, and Pathways Home, but you wouldn’t know that from this month’s budget debate, in which HSD was often portrayed as a direct social service provider rather than a contract administrator. (This happened a lot earlier in the process, too, when hundreds of thousands of dollars were shifted from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services to HSD). On Monday, Harris-Talley described Lester as “a jewel of the community” and said she had “deep concerns about what has happened in regards to HSD, how that department has been treated.” It was disappointing. she added, “to see a department with a black woman at the helm” taking on significant additional responsibility without a commensurate amount of additional funding. It’s unclear whether Durkan—who supports Pathways Home—will appoint her own HSD director or keep Lester on board.

Comic Sans and public opinion in the ladies’ room.

The employee hours tax tax isn’t dead. In fact, several council members attempted to forcibly resurrect it yesterday, by proposing a budget amendment that would have required the council to pass the head tax after going through the motions of a four-month process to come up with a sustainable revenue source for homelessness. The five council members who voted against the head tax, unsurprisingly, weren’t interested in committing in advance to the same tax they just rejected, and they (also unsurprisingly) prevailed, inserting language into the amendment that commits the council instead to coming up with “progressive taxes” of some sort that will yield at least $25 million for homeless services. Any proposal they come up with will likely include a head tax, because the council’s taxing authority is quite limited, and council members made that clear. That didn’t stop the crowd from screaming “Bad!” and “Shame!” and booing council members so loudly they had to repeatedly stop the proceedings. (A couple of people were kicked out). Sawant, too, repeatedly denounced her council colleagues, as she has throughout the budget process, as “corporate politicians” kowtowing to their masters at the Chamber of Commerce. This kind of rhetoric definitely riles up the base, but it doesn’t win any currency with people like Rob Johnson, an earnest liberal who fought (against Herbold!) to ensure that supervised consumption sites were fully funded in this year’s budget, a position that I’m betting scored him zero points in his Northeast Seattle council district.

Social service and safe consumption site advocates line up hours early for yesterday’s 2pm council meeting—as they do whenever they know council member Kshama Sawant has invited her supporters to “pack city hall”

A cynical observer might point out that by keeping the discussion over the head tax alive, council members who did not prevail last week got another opportunity to make rousing speeches and rally the base on Monday. The council’s resident (official) socialist, Kshama Sawant, has encouraged her supporters (on social media and through her official city council email list) to “pack city hall” for every budget discussion and vote, and they have done exactly that, showing up at every budget meeting to wave red “stop the sweeps” signs, applaud Sawant’s lengthy speeches (one of many she made yesterday stretched nearly 15 minutes) and shout down council members who voted against her proposals.

A word about the screaming. It may be directed at the three women and two men who vote the “wrong” way, but it has the effect, in the moment, of shutting down all discussion. When you use brute verbal force against political opponents (both those on the dais and those who are scared to speak because, well, they’re worried about screamed at) it goes beyond merely “disrupting business as usual.” It’s disrespectful, counterproductive, and, most importantly, intimidating—social service advocates whose programs are in the budget still show up (hours early, to get ahead of Sawant’s supporters) to speak at council meetings, but otherwise, public comment is overwhelmingly dominated by a single set of voices. People who used to show up don’t show up. Dissent—the normal give and take of democracy playing out in public—is almost literally drowned out when one side asserts their right to own a public space by shouting everyone else out of the room. This year, I was disturbed to hear council members explicitly equate “the people here in the room today” with “the community” at large. Most of the 700,000 people in Seattle, and indeed most of the much smaller group of people who have an opinion about the 2018 city budget, weren’t represented in council chambers, and rarely are. This, even under ordinary circumstances, is perfectly understandable—most people have to work during the day, for one thing—but council members should take that into account, and not conflate “people with time to sit in council chambers day after day” with “a representative sample of the community at large.”

It will be interesting to see what happens to the council’s left wing—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien—once council member-elect Teresa Mosqueda takes office, replacing Harris-Talley, next week. Mosqueda defeated the far left’s preferred candidate, Jon Grant, and will not be a reliable vote for the Sawant wing of the council, who couldn’t muster a majority for the head-tax-based budget even with Harris-Talley on the council.

Sawant, who represents council District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District), was the only council member to vote against the budget—as she has since her election in 2013.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

After Defeat of Head Tax, Council Scrambles for Plan B

City council budget committee chair Lisa Herbold made a risky gamble this week, and she lost. As a result, the council will pass a budget this coming Monday whose details were thrown together largely at the last minute, after a budget proposal that hinged on the passage of the controversial employee hours tax failed to secure a majority.

The gamble Herbold took was fairly straightforward, First, she proposed a version of the budget that incorporated revenues from the head tax—a $125-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $10 million in gross receipts, known as the HOMES tax. Second, she made sure that city council members’ top-priority projects would be on the chopping block without the tax, so that any council member who voted against the tax would risk losing funding for her favorite projects. Third, instead of coming up with a backup plan in collaboration with head tax opponents, she crafted a “Plan B” that included draconian cuts to council members’ priorities (including the criminal justice diversion program LEAD, housing for homeless Native Americans, and trash removal at homeless encampments), giving them an additional incentive to vote “yes” on the tax.

The problem was with step 4—the one where a majority of council members were supposed to fall in line and support the tax. That didn’t happen, for a number of reasons. First, some council members were simply dead set against passing the tax, or—to hear council members like Lorena Gonzalez tell it—opposed to passing it on a rushed timeline without an opportunity to do deeper analysis and look at other alternative revenue sources. (Council members have had less than three weeks to consider the proposal.) Second, several council members bristled at the way Herbold’s initial balancing package, in council member Debora Juarez’s words, “held hostage” so many important projects by putting them “in the head tax parking lot.” Juarez, in particular, was indignant about this forced tradeoff. And third, potentially persuadable council members may have been put off by the behavior of the head-tax supporters who showed up, many at Sawant’s behest, day after day, screaming invectives (“Shame!” “Their deaths are on your hands!” “Republican!”) at council members who didn’t fall in lockstep behind the proposal.

After the tax failed, it became clear that Herbold didn’t have a backup, and the council ended up canceling a scheduled budget meeting to hammer one out. The result was that the process that led to a final budget package was disorganized and chaotic, with some council members reportedly in the dark about budget amendments until less than an hour before they had to vote them up or down. (Many amendments weren’t available in hard-copy form until minutes before they were voted on.)

A few things stand out about the substance of the budget package that will go before the council on Monday. First, it includes aggressive cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget. If the budget passes unchanged on Monday, the city’s first female mayor in nearly a century will have to reduce her budget 17 percent, the equivalent of five mayoral staffers. (This was one of the budget amendments that reportedly came through at the last minute). Much of the money that would have gone to the mayor’s office will now fund new contract management positions in the Human Services Department.

Council members who supported cutting the mayor’s budget, including Mike O’Brien, said they were merely bringing it down to the “baseline” level established under former mayor Mike McGinn. However, that characterization is misleading: McGinn had a skeleton staff because he became mayor during the worst economic recession in recent memory, and made the cut at a time when the city faced ongoing annual revenue shortfalls in the tens of millions. As the economy recovered and all city departments expanded back to pre-recession levels, McGinn’s successor, Ed Murray, staffed up too. While budget cuts during recessions are standard, I can recall no recent precedent for slashing the mayor’s budget so dramatically in the middle of an economic boom. Notably, the council did not propose any cuts to its own staff budget, which council members increased by 33 percent just last year.

Outgoing mayor Tim Burgess fired off a sassy response to the council’s cuts, saying that if the council, “in their wisdom[,] believes these funds are needed for other purposes, and remembering that the Legislative Department’s budget is twice the size of the Mayor’s budget, then the funds should come proportionately from the Mayor’s Office and the Legislative Department.” Should Durkan want to respond to the cuts more directly than Burgess did, she could take a hard look at the dozens of statements of legislative intent the council also adopted today, each of which constitutes a request for the mayor’s office to craft legislation or produce reports and analysis. Or the council could decide to dial back the cuts on its own; they still have until Monday to find cuts elsewhere if they don’t want to pick this fight with the new administration. Durkan, it’s worth noting, did quite well in several council members’ districts, including O’Brien’s (Northwest Seattle) and Herbold’s (West Seattle). Both council members are up for reelection in two years.

The cuts to Durkan’s office highlight another unusual aspect of today’s budget proposal: It shifts a significant amount of money into the city’s Human Services Department from other departments, primarily the Department of Finance and Administrative Services. Although intuitively, it makes sense to move funding for things like homeless encampment removals to the department that hands out contracts for homeless services, HSD was not necessarily clamoring for the change, and will need time to hire seven new employees and train them to do the work FAS has been doing. Durkan, meanwhile, presumably has her own ideas about how the department should be run, and who should run it (the current director is Catherine Lester).

Today’s budget debate also solidified the ideological fault lines on the council—and highlighted the need for someone to serve as de facto council leader. As budget chair and a council veteran (before her election in 2015, Herbold was a staffer for former council member Nick Licata for 17 years), Herbold had a chance to be that leader, by counting votes and dealing with both sides to come up with a best-case scenario for the council’s left wing as well as a viable Plan B that could win the support of a council majority. Instead, Herbold went for broke—proposing a budget that was, in essence, an ultimatum, and declining to work with council moderates like Rob Johnson on a backup plan. That gamble didn’t pay off, even with a reliable ally like Kirsten Harris-Talley temporarily on the council. Once the council equation shifts in November (when Teresa Mosqueda, who handily defeated Herbold-endorsed socialist Jon Grant, replaces Harris-Talley), she could find herself increasingly isolated—insufficiently socialist for Sawant (whose supporters yelled “Shame!” and “Republican!” as fervently at Herbold as they did at Johnson), insufficiently “moderate,” (which is to say, conventionally liberal) for the council’s new majority.

I’ll have more to say about the final budget package on Monday.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.