‘Homelessness Is Not a Choice’: The State of the Crisis in Seattle and King County

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

Three years after the city of Seattle declared a homelessness state of emergency, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the region continues to increase.

This year’s one-night count of people experiencing homelessness in King County, conducted by the county’s homelessness response agency All Home, found 12,112 people living outdoors, in vehicles, and in shelters—a 4 percent increase over 2017.

At a press conference Thursday, All Home interim director Kira Zysltra attributed the rise in homelessness, which was slightly slower this year than in previous counts, to a growing lack of affordable housing in King County. “Homelessness is not a choice,” she said. “We are the fastest-growing big city in the country. … The economy is booming and rents are rising, [which] leads to more and more people falling into homelessness.”

The January 2018 count also showed sharp increases in the number of people living unsheltered on sidewalks, in parks, in sanctioned encampments, and in vehicles, as well as an increase in the number of single and chronically homeless individuals.

That number, according to the report, is “to be considered a minimum estimate” and undoubtedly represents an “undercount” of the true number of people experiencing homelessness at any one time.

Of those, 6,320 were living unsheltered (4,488 of them in Seattle), a 15 percent increase over 2017 in King County and a 17 percent increase in Seattle.

Mark Ellerbrook, manager of regional housing and community development with the King County Department of Community and Human Services, said around 30,000 people were homeless in King County at some point in 2018.

The one-night count also included a representative survey of people experiencing homelessness in King County, conducted after and separately from the count. According to All Home, 98 percent of the people surveyed said that they would accept safe, affordable housing (as opposed to overnight shelter) if it was offered.
According to Ellerbrook, the county faces a housing shortage of about 90,000 units affordable to people making less than half the area median income, which for a two-person household, would be $40,100. This shortage, he adds, has only grown since 2011, as the booming economy has led to rising rents across the county.

“We see the declining availability of affordable housing as a root cause of homelessness,” Ellerbrook said.

In fact, the overwhelming majority (80 percent) of survey respondents said access to affordable housing and rental assistance would help them escape homelessness, and 70 percent said that immediately prior to becoming homeless, they had owned or rented a home or lived with friends or family members.

Some other highlights from this year’s report:

• The number of people living in vehicles increased 46 percent in this year’s count, from 2,314 in 2017 to 3,372 this year. A very small portion of this increase could be attributed to a slight (7 percent, or 223-person) decrease in the number of people living on the streets, in abandoned buildings, or in tents.

People living in vehicles were less likely to have access to services, less likely to have criminal records, and more likely to report that police had asked them to move along—71 percent reported being told to leave, compared to 49 percent of people experiencing homelessness in general. They also seem far more likely to have become homeless because of job loss and evictions.

According to the report, “Compared to all other survey respondents, vehicle residents reported notably higher rates of attributing their homelessness to the loss of a job, eviction, or the dissolution of a relationship.”

• Although more people moved into permanent housing than in previous years—according to Zylstra, “we are seeing people, through our programs, housed faster and faster at higher and higher rates.” And although the number of people in families experiencing homeless and homeless veterans declined (by 7 percent and 31 percent, respectively), other types of homelessness increased, often dramatically. The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness—defined as persistent, ongoing homelessness combined with a disabling medical condition—climbed 28 percent between 2017 and 2018, for example.

Although the report offers no specific explanation for the sharp increase in chronic homelessness, the specific challenges facing people who live on the street for long periods suggest that lack of access to behavioral health care is a major issue. According to the report, 63 percent of chronically homeless people reported behavioral health and substance abuse issues, respectively, and more than half (52 percent) said they were homeless because of those issues, compared to 32 percent of those surveyed overall.

Jim Vollendroff, head of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division at King County Public Health, said that the “vast majority of those entering our mental health services system right now are entering the system at the equivalent of someone who has cancer entering the system at stage 4.” Discharging those folks from the acute mental health care system without housing in place just compounds the problem, he said, because “shelter or homelessness…is not an environment for people to maintain recovery.”

• As in every previous survey, the vast majority of people living on the streets in King County reported being from the region—a fact that has never dispelled the persistent myth that people flock to Seattle from all over the country for free services.

About 83 percent of survey respondents said they lived in King County immediately prior to losing their housing, and another 11 percent lived in another county in Washington State. That leaves just 6 percent who lived in another state when they became homeless; the primary states from which people reported moving are California, Oregon, and Texas.

• Several reporters asked whether it wasn’t true that most unsheltered people remain homeless simply because they “refuse services” and don’t want to come inside. The survey found that, in fact, people listed lack of access to services as one of the primary barriers to finding permanent housing.

This year, the number of people who reported that they were receiving any services at all tripled over last year, to 18 percent, and 69 percent of respondents said they had experienced problems when trying to access services. These problems included not qualifying for the services they wanted (23 percent), lack of transportation (23 percent), not knowing where to go (23 percent), and never hearing back after applying for services (18 percent). These numbers, combined with the finding that virtually every person surveyed said they would accept safe, affordable housing, suggests that the problem of persistent homelessness is far more complicated than people refusing to accept the shelter and services they’re offered.

 

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.

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The New Homelessness Count Numbers Are Bad. But What Do They Tell Us?

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, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support!

The latest homelessness count is out, the numbers are (as expected) bad—although the methodology this year is different, making direct comparisons somewhat dicey, the total number of homeless King County residents is up, and more people are living on Seattle and King County streets unsheltered than in any previous count.

But what does the King County Point-In-Time Count (formerly known as the One Night Count) reveal about our county’s population? What does it say about how well our efforts to address the homelessness crisis are working? And what conclusions can we draw from its findings, which show progress on some fronts but stagnation on others? And finally, how much do the numbers give a true picture of the crisis—and what do they obscure?

First, the numbers. The PIT count, which was conducted for King County’s coordinating agency for homeless services, All Home, by the California Company Applied Survey Research at a cost of $120,000, found 11,643 people living in shelters, on the streets, or in transitional housing across King County; of those, 5,845 were living unsheltered—on the streets, in vehicles, in tents, or in abandoned buildings. In Seattle, those numbers were 3,857 and 4,665, respectively. Last year’s count found 4,505 people living unsheltered in King County, and 2,942 in Seattle, although All Home director Mark Putnam pointed out yesterday that the different methodology the two counts used make  a side-by-side comparison difficult.

“We think we did a better job this year of counting,” Putnam said. “We saw more people counted in some of the encampments, because last year we did not count in the Duwamish Greenbelt, or ‘the Jungle,’ and we were out in Covington and all over the county counting.” Previous counts, which were done by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, zeroed in on areas where people were known to be living unsheltered, rather than surveying every single one of the county’s 398 Census districts (Putnam said this year’s count got to 396 of them). Surveying Southeast King County—a vast geographic areas that includes Covington, Black Diamond, and Enumclaw—added 70 people to the unsheltered count, and including Northeast King County, an even larger area encompassing towns like North Bend, Issaquah, and Sammamish, added 119 people. All told, counting the largely unincorporated far eastern portion of the county contributed about 2 percent to the total unsheltered homeless population count.

This year’s count also used paid “guides”—people who were previously homeless and were familiar with the areas they were surveying—to assist volunteers in getting an accurate count. (Skeptics of the new methodology noted that parts of Seattle had fewer people counting this year, and pointed out that some areas were counted by car, rather than on foot, which could have skewed the count. The previous methodology also included survey data, although it was compiled by shelter and transitional housing staff, not a survey company. Critics—like Real Change vendor and board member Shelly Cohen, who testified yesterday at a joint city-county briefing on the numbers—have also argued that All Home should have released the raw count data as soon as they knew the numbers back in January, instead of waiting four months to analyze the data; “you don’t need all the fancy details” to release the preliminary numbers, Cohen said. Putnam responded to such criticism yesterday by noting that other communities that have used similar methodology have yet to release their own detailed homeless data from counts that were also performed in January).

Another difference this year is that ASR interviewed a sample of the county’s homeless population to get a sense of their demographics, including race, sexual orientation, and the reasons they became homeless. The survey also asked people who said they slept in vehicles or tents how many people they lived with, producing a set of multipliers (for example, 1.3 people per tent, or 1.4 per car) that replaced the old multiplier of 2; a lower multiplier, obviously, yields a lower estimate for people living in cars, tents, RVs, vans, and abandoned buildings than a higher one does, which could indicate that the actual number of people living unsheltered has gone up even more precipitously than this year’s numbers indicate.

ASR’s survey for King County largely mirrors the findings of a similar, but separate, survey the company performed for the city of Seattle earlier this year. The new survey, which duplicates the company’s previous efforts and expands them to include the rest of the county, once again punctures several myths about King County’s homeless population. The vast majority (77 percent) were living in permanent housing in King County when they became homeless, and just 9 percent became homeless out of state before moving to King County. Fifty-seven percent have lived in King County for five years or more. People of color are overrepresented in the homeless population, with 55 percent identifying as people of color, and a large number of homeless youth (28 percent) identified as LGBTQ, compared to 14 percent in the rest of the homeless population.

Forty percent of the respondents to ASR’s survey reported a history of domestic violence, including 7 percent who said they were currently in an abusive relationship. Nineteen percent reported a history of foster care. Half said they had at least one physical disability or disabling behavioral health condition, such as psychiatric or emotional conditions (45 percent), drug or alcohol abuse (36 percent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (34 percent).

Forty percent of the respondents to ASR’s survey reported a history of domestic violence, including 7 percent who said they were currently in an abusive relationship. Nineteen percent reported a history of foster care. Half said they had at least one physical disability or disabling behavioral health condition, such as psychiatric or emotional conditions (45 percent), drug or alcohol abuse (36 percent) and post-traumatic stress disorder (34 percent). About 29 percent were employed full-time, part-time, or seasonally, and about 37 percent of those who were unemployed said they had had a job within the last six months.

At a briefing yesterday on the numbers, Putnam, Seattle Human Services Department Director Catherine Lester, and King County Community and Human Services Adrienne Quinn touted the sharp reduction in family homelessness—according to the count, just 3 percent of the county’s unsheltered homeless population consisted of families with children, the result, Quinn said, of “a significant community-wide effort to make sure that no family in this community is unsheltered.” Amazon, for example, recently announced plans to provide Mary’s Place Family Shelter a permanent shelter for 200 homeless women, children, and families on its campus. Similarly, Putnam said yesterday, “All the increase in permanent housing … was on the family side.”

HSD Director Catherine Lester, All Home director Mark Putnam, King County department of Community and Human Services director Adrienne Quinn

But siting shelters for homeless men, who make up almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the county’s homeless population and 71 percent of the chronically homeless population, defined as those who have been homeless for a year or longer, who have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years, and who have a condition that prevents them from maintaining work or housing. These men, Quinn noted, are the hardest and most controversial group to house. Housed people are generally fine living next to women with babies, but when the county wants to site a shelter for single men, “we get pushback [and] it becomes a highly controversial issue.”

“We have tried to site those facilities, and we do have a number of them, but this is where a broader community effort could really facilitate getting people indoors and stabilizing people and helping them to connect with the services that they need,” Quinn said. “We’ve put an ask out to the business community to say, are there spaces we could convert to single adult shelters, particularly in non-residential areas?” So far, the business community has not responded.

“Permanent,” Putnam told me, means that you’ve signed a lease in your own name—not that you’re able to maintain it. In other words, people who are cut off from rapid rehousing vouchers—which happens, Putnam said, after an average of five months—could be almost anywhere.

Another qualified success has been in the area of rapid rehousing—the strategy of giving homeless people short-term vouchers for privately owned apartments with the expectation that they will make enough money to pay full market rent within a few months. Yesterday, Putnam touted the success of the county’s current rapid rehousing programs—of those who sign up for the program, he said, 61 percent are able to find housing within four months, and 95 percent “are in permanent housing” after their subsidy ends—but those numbers require some parsing.

First, 61 percent after four months means that people are remaining homeless for four months before signing up for a housing voucher—and that one in four aren’t getting housing through the program at all.

Second, about that 95 percent success rate: It took some prodding, but eventually, both Putnam and Quinn acknowledged that when they say people in the program were able to stay in “permanent” housing, they don’t actually know how long any of the people in the county’s rapid rehousing programs were able to maintain housing, because no one tracks that data. “Permanent,” Putnam told me, means that you’ve signed a lease in your own name—not that you’re able to maintain it. In other words, people who are cut off from rapid rehousing vouchers—which happens, Putnam said, after an average of five months—could be almost anywhere.

“We track returns to homelessness,” Quinn said, but that only counts people who reenter the county’s formal homelessness system—which means it may not account for most who have been evicted, broken their lease, or ended up couch-surfing, living with family,  or homeless in a different jurisdiction. Sleeping on a friend’s couch is undoubtedly better than sleeping in a doorway, but it isn’t “permanent housing” by any stretch. Quinn said the county simply doesn’t “have the evaluation dollars to track them long-term. We do have some studies that we’re doing with the Gates Foundation” that will provide more clarity on where voucher recipients end up, “but those studies are very expensive,” she says.

Ultimately, the agencies acknowledged, the problem comes down to the lack of affordable housing in King County; indeed, 92 percent of survey respondents said they would move into housing immediately if it was affordable and available, and 23 percent said they became homeless because of issues related to housing affordability. And even as the county continues to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on homelessness, the problem keeps getting worse—Quinn said yesterday that about 40 percent of the people counted in this year’s number were newly homeless. “We saw many people really needing rental assistance rents [as] rose in King County,” Quinn said. “We need more housing that people can afford. That’s the crux of the issue.”

Morning Crank: “Not Gonna Happen”

1024x10241. Update on an item earlier this week about the Washington State Democrats’ Executive Committee had about possibly reducing the salary of the party chair now that Tina Podlodowski has been elected to that position. According to several Democrats who were present at the meeting (including members of the executive board itself), the person who raised the possibility of reducing Podlodowski’s salary was executive board member Ed Cote, who suggested reexamining the salaries for both the chair of the party and its executive director. After some discussion, another male board member, Don Schwerin, reportedly asked Podlodowski point-blank if she was willing to take a pay cut; she said no. Folks I talked to who were in the room said they were “horrified,” “appalled,” and “shocked” at both Cote’s line of questioning and Schwerin’s request.

The former party chair, Jaxon Ravens, was paid about $120,000, according to board members, plus a car allowance.

Cote says he raised the question of Podlodowski’s salary as part of a broader conversation about whether both the party chair and executive director should be paid, and how much. But it wasn’t lost on many in the room that Podlodowski is only the second woman to ever serve as state Democratic Party chair—and that the board discussing the possibility that she didn’t deserve the same salary as her male predecessors, Jaxon Ravens and Dwight Pelz, was two-thirds men.

“I just brought up that when [Podlodowski] presents a [Party] budget, I thought it would be good that we have a conversation around the right administrative structure going forward,” Cote says. “We have a paid chair and a paid executive director, and many states have one or the other. … I wasn’t suggesting that the chair was paid too much. … I wasn’t trying to suggest that she was overpaid or anything of that nature.”

Podlodowski says she thinks it’s possible that Cote didn’t think about how his question would come across (and indeed, those who questioned Cote’s suggestion reportedly did so by discussing what similar positions paid at other large nonprofits, rather than observing that the whole conversation was sexist). But, she adds, “when someone did ask me if I would take a pay cut, I was like, ‘Not gonna happen,’ and I’m certainly not going to cut pay of anybody who’s female. But I am going to look at the budget, because it’s always important to make sure that we’re paying people appropriately.”

Podlodowski says that when she signed up for her new insurance plan, she learned that it didn’t cover children, only spouses. (Podlodowski and her wife have three children.) That’s another example, she says, of “why women should rule.”

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2. If you think you’re confused about what to do with the four “democracy vouchers,” worth a total of $100, that appeared in your mailbox earlier this year, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Seattle City Council members and staffed grilled Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett on some basic details of the program yesterday—details that were all laid out in the language of Initiative 122, which voters passed last year, but which, in fairness, you might have missed in the 15 pages of fine print. Some of the council members’ questions, answered:

  • Why is the city mailing vouchers to 508,000 people—are there even that many voters in Seattle? Under the initiative, vouchers must be mailed to every registered voter in the city, which includes “inactive” voters who have long since moved away.
  • Could the city cover the cost if all 508,000 voters tried to “spend” their vouchers at once? The cost of the program, which will cost the city $3 million a year, is limited by campaign spending limits, not the number of vouchers; I-122 specifically says that there must be enough in the budget to pay for three council races in which a total of 18 candidates run using voucher money exclusively. That works out to around $3 million.
  • Can organizations or employers bundle contributions from their members or employees and make a big contribution to a single candidate that way? Not that way—bundling, where a person collects many individual donations and then writes a big check for the entire amount—is illegal, but a campaign is free to ask the members or employees of a large group or company to spend their vouchers on a particular candidate.
  • Since the requirement to qualify for voucher funding is a minimum of 400 contributions of $10 each, couldn’t a candidate just get someone to write them a check for $4,000? No, because viability is determined by how many contributions (100 or more), not the total (a minimum of $4,000, but in all likelihood more).

3. All Home, the coalition that coordinates efforts to reduce homelessness in King County, used a different approach and a different vendor to conduct its point-in-time count of people living unsheltered this year, and homeless advocates like Tim Harris at Real Change have questioned one major change this year: Unlike in every previous year, All Home won’t announce the number of people it counted right away. Previously, All Home and its former partner, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, released the number the day after the count; this year, the number won’t be released until June. All Home says it needs the extra time to survey people experiencing homelessness to get a better count of people living in vehicles and tents.

The delay also isn’t sitting easy with Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s human services committee. She said yesterday that she wrote a email to Putnam asking him for the raw count number now, figuring that even if a more accurate number is issued later, at least the city would have a baseline for comparison when discussing its strategy for addressing homelessness. “Mark, I’d love an informal update on how the count went and how you’re doing with data when you get a chance,” Bagshaw wrote. “It’s important that we have a baseline and provide my committee with some trend information.”

With Transitional Housing Under Fire, Rapid Rehousing Remains Unproven

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Graphic from Seattle Human Services Coalition letter responding to Murray’s Pathways Home proposal.

As the city council indicates it will delay any decision about how to address the issue of homeless encampments until December (a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to officially bar camping in parks appears to be the template on which the council will work once they adopt a budget), another, more sweeping homelessness proposal moves to the front burner.

Pathways Home, Murray’s response to two consultants’ reports suggesting a move away from transitional housing (a fairly structured, and costly, form of housing that includes supportive services) to “rapid rehousing,” would mandate a major shift in the way the city funds housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition to shifting funds away from transitional housing, the proposal would change the city’s funding model from a provider-centered framework (in which housing providers create programs to serve the specific groups that are their clients, such as veterans) to a funder-centered model (in which funders, including the city and United Way, determine the best way to allocate funds and providers must adapt.)

On the ground, it means that less-“efficient” programs, like the Low-Income Housing Institute’s transitional apartments for veterans and Muslims, will be cut and replaced with “rapid rehousing” funds to provide homeless people from all backgrounds with temporary (three-to-nine-month) vouchers for housing in the private market. After the vouchers run out, most recipients will be on their own.

There’s a lot to unpack in this radical shift from the current model to the new voucher-based system, but let’s start at the top: With HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD determines federal housing policy, which filters down to states and municipalities, and right now, they’re all about rapid rehousing. That’s understandable: According to the Focus Strategies report on which (along with a set of recommendations known as the Poppe Report) Pathways Home is partly based, transitional housing “is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city, respectively, is $924, $967, and $949. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.)

So what does this purported cost savings mean for homeless people? That’s unclear, in part because rapid rehousing is such a new strategy—just five or six years old. According to Rachel Fyall, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who is studying rapid rehousing, the best study on rapid rehousing, called Family Options, only includes 18 months of data and only evaluated families with children; in Seattle, rapid rehousing is being touted as the best option specifically for single men, who tend to be the hardest to house. In other words, the study most commonly cited as evidence that rapid rehousing works to get people out of homelessness is short-term and didn’t study the very population for whom it’s supposed to work in Seattle.

“Rapid rehousing is very new,” Fyall says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this, and I’m sometimes frustrated by claims that this is evidence based and proven.”

Fyall (who stipulates bluntly that “transitional housing is not a good idea” for getting people into permanent housing either) is currently finishing up work on a study of a new rapid rehousing program run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle. Looking at the data so far, she says “the jury is out” on whether rapid rehousing actually gets people into “permanent housing” long-term, or whether people are forced back into homelessness once their subsidies run out. “We don’t know what happens to them, and that is the big unknown of rapid rehousing generally,” Fyall says.

Another big unknown is whether rapid rehousing actually houses people who wouldn’t have been able to exit homelessness on their own, or whether most of those who are quickly able to get by in the private rental market would have done so anyway.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like Fyall a skeptic of both approaches, says that DESC’s rapid rehousing program “by and large ends up being used for the higher-functioning folks who will move into an apartment, get an agreement with a landlord, and make it work for a few months.” What the studies haven’t done, he says, is compare people who receive temporary subsidies to those “who have not gotten rapid rehousing assistance and got out out of homelessness anyway. That’s the crux of the matter: Is rapid rehousing doing anything that wasn’t going to happen naturally?”

Malone also notes that the small amount of data that exists on rapid rehousing programs indicates that while people on vouchers don’t immediately fall back into homelessness once their rent subsidies run out, they also don’t tend to stay in their original, subsidized apartments. Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI and someone whose programs stand to lose a lot of funding under Pathways Home, says, “If they would just say rapid rehousing is a shelter—’rapid rehousing means we’ll get you off the street, and you can have three months of being off the street in market-rate housing’—that would be more honest.”

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that manages homelessness policy across King County, says he understands Lee’s frustration but adds that right now, the county and city are under a HUD mandate to shift away from longer-term transitional housing and “just house people any way we can, wherever we can while we are fighting the advocacy battle to get our [housing] trust fund funded” by the state and federal governments. “It’s the reality of where we are right now. … We need more resources, but these are also reality-based recommendations. Can we house more people with [our current] resources? The answer is yes.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city is $924, $967, and $949, respectively. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.) What that means in practice is that formerly homeless people will be cast out after a few months of subsidy into a private market that is unaffordable even for many middle-class people.

Pathways Home brushes aside concerns about the relative unaffordability of Seattle by suggesting that people may just have to make some tough choices—like paying much larger proportions of their income in rent (current HUD standards for “affordability” say you should spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and utilities), or by moving out of town. From the Focus Strategies report:

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County. RRH is not an anti-poverty program, so households may pay a significant portion of their income for rent if it makes the difference between being unsheltered and being housed. Households should have the option of sharing units if that makes their rental budget stretch further. Clients should also have the option to move to areas where housing is cheaper. In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments.”

That may sound fine when you’re moving widgets around a map. But when you’re moving people around a region—particularly a region in which poor people, people of color, immigrant communities, and many other marginalized populations are being pushed out of an ever-wealthier Seattle—such a strategy raises huge questions about equity and economic inequality. Is it fair to say that poor people just have to live where we tell them to, even if that means they’re torn away from their jobs, friends, family, social structures, and community supports? Should immigrants who want to live among people who speak their language, or single moms who rely on family members for child care, or low-income workers who rely on public transit, be required to move to isolated areas away from those supports? And at a time when Seattle is setting up programs to help low-income residents, such as the pilot “universal preschool” initiative, does it make sense to tell many of those same residents that their only option may be moving to another county?

“[Rapid rehousing] programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” — Focus Strategies

Merril Cousin, director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, says while the city tries to save money and move people indoors, they should consider those people’s individual circumstances, rather than treating them as problems to be solved through increased efficiencies. For the domestic violence victims she works with, for example, “being able to maintain social support is really important to a survivor’s ability to get safe and heal from the the abuse,” and Cousin says that need for social support extends to lots of other communities.

“If we want to have a diverse and vibrant community, we can’t just say to people, ‘Just go somewhere else.’ Families are already fleeing Seattle because it’s not affordable here, and now we’re saying, ‘Veterans, you can’t afford to live here, go somewhere else. Poor people, go somewhere else,'” Cousin says. “To say, ‘Your only option is to move away from a community where you may have social support and services’—that doesn’t lead to self-sufficiency and wholeness. Social support is an incredibly important part of that.”

 

Putnam, with All Home, says he doesn’t disagree, but argues that without additional funding from the state and the feds, the city and county have to do whatever houses the most people, even if that means dislocating them from their communities.

“Moving them away—that’s a tough thing for the city to feel okay about,” Putnam says. “If everybody needs to leave Seattle or leave King County, that’s not the ideal, but my job is to get people into housing. To me, equity is about getting people housed.”

“One of the calls for us at the systems level is that we’re trying to house as many people as we can with the resources that we have,” Putnam adds, and “It seems like the choice right now between people living in tents in Seattle versus apartments somewhere else.”

Lee, whose organization runs transitional housing for teenagers, vets, immigrants, and other groups, says All Home assumes, unfairly, that the system for housing homeless people can be “fixed” simply by reshuffling money and people around, rather than by adding funds for all sorts of housing, including transitional programs. “I think the problem with Mark Putnam is that he thinks it’s a zero- sum game: We should ‘right-size’ [a term that appears several times in the Focus Strategies report] and therefore if we want to do more rapid rehousing, we have to take away from someplace else. He’s constructed his own problem. [He’s saying], ‘We shouldn’t be spending more; let’s just find creative ways of doing more with less,’ which can only take you so far.”

Lee notes that one of the longstanding criticisms of groups like hers is that they historically engaged in “creaming”—taking in the easiest-to-serve clients in order to demonstrate high success rates to funders like HUD. She predicts rapid rehousing will have the same effect: Providing apartments for those who were almost able to make it in the private market already, while leaving the most vulnerable, including those who are currently served by “inefficient” transitional housing, behind.

Funders, Lee says, “used to say, ‘You’re only taking people who are going to be successful.’ Well, we know that recent immigrants and refugees are not going to be able to exit transitional housing in three to six months and be successful so you’re setting them up to fail. If Mark Putnam overlays the same requirements [on rapid rehousing], then he’s incentivizing going back to the old way, which is, you’re only going to want to work with people who are going to be successful.

“That’s the problem of feeling like you have to cut services to fund rapid rehousing. If you’ve got 3,000 people on the street, and some of them are homeless young adults and homeless families with multiple [Child Protective Services] involvements around the care of their children, and people with issues around not just income but mental health, you’re going to need more services tied to the housing, and sticking them in market rate housing with just short term rent subsidy isn’t the answer.”

 

Putnam and Lee differ on the issue of whether HUD’s shift away from transitional housing is a mandate on Seattle or an unproven idea from which Seattle can deviate. Lee points to the Seattle Housing Authority’s Stepping Forward program—a Pathways Home-style initiative that would have increased some public housing residents’ rent up to 400 percent—as a time when Seattle decided to go its own way and abandon a market-based strategy that was pushed by the feds. Putnam says funding from HUD is contingent on adopting “performance-based contracting” and moving away from transitional housing, so Lee’s strategy is unrealistic.

Fyall, the UW researcher, suggest that the real solution may be long-term housing subsidies—especially in a market, like Seattle’s, where people who work multiple jobs find it hard to stay afloat.

“A key component of homelessness is the inability to afford housing, and for many people, affordability”—not mental health or addiction or any other personal issue—”is really the number one difference between people who are homeless and pole who are housed: They can’t afford a place to live,” Fyall says. She says some groups cite the 18-month Family Options study (which will be updated with 37 months of data in December) as “the success of rapid rehousing, which I find bogus, because my read on the study is that the only thing that works permanently is a permanent subsidy, and the rest of it is just spitting people back into homelessness.”

“When I think about the homelessness problem in our region, everything that’s happening at a intervention level is really just bailing out buckets of water from the ocean of rising rents,” Fyall says. “When you have people at all income levels struggling to find housing that is affordable to them, that is what I would consider the root cause of homelessness.”

And here’s what Focus Strategies has to say about affordability. “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in Seattle/King County is critical to the community making progress towards ending homelessness.”

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