Morning Crank: The “Unique Problem” That Separates Us from Salt Lake City and Houston

1. A line of people and pets snaked along the eastern perimeter of CenturyLink Field yesterday morning as the United Way’s annual Community Resource Exchange, an annual event where volunteers and service providers offer resources, food, dental care, and other services to people experiencing homelessness. Upstairs, in the stadium’s event center, a decidedly more well-heeled crowd gathered for an event called the Changemakers Rally—a series of short speeches, actually, followed by a panel discussion with leaders from Amazon, Starbucks, and Zillow, along with All Home, the Chief Seattle Club, and United Way. The highlight of the odd event wasn’t the anodyne address by Mayor Jenny Durkan, who skirted substance in her speech and during the brief Q&A with remarks like, “We need to commit over time to make this change in people’s lives for every day of their lives” and “We know what works, we just need to do it and have the collective will to do it.” Nor was it an awkward onstage back-and-forth between United Way board chair Kathy Surace-Smith and Justin Butler, a formerly homeless Metropolitan Improvement District Ambassador who moved here from Phoenix and couldn’t be prodded to say much more about the Community Resource Exchange beyond, “Well, it got me a job.”

No, the highlight was when Starbucks VP John Kelly took the mic and used his time to blast the Seattle City Council for considering an employee hours tax to fund investments in homelessness at a cost of up to $75 million a year, a proposal he called an example of the way “our government keeps on targeting [businesses] as a  source of funds rather than innovators and problem solvers.” Starbucks has focused its homelessness spending on family homelessness, as has Ohio homelessness consultant Barb Poppe, whose famous/infamous “Poppe Report” is the blueprint for Seattle’s Pathways Home initiative. Kelly highlighted that report, which calls on the city to move funding away from service-rich transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers to help people rent apartments on the private market. “We know the decisions, we’ve got the Poppe Report with all the solutions, the blueprint is there—we just need to act on reform,” Kelly said. “Barbara Poppe has worked with Salt Lake City and Houston and seen demonstrable progress.”

The “unique problem” that differentiates  Seattle from those two cities, Kelly continued, is that only Seattle has a large number of families living on the streets and in cars. The other difference, of course, is that Seattle apartments cost about twice as much as apartments in either of those cities, thanks in no small part to a housing shortage that is also unlike anything Houston or Salt Lake City is experiencing.

2. A curious addendum to the saga of former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned last year amid accusations that he had sexually abused several minors in the past: Last April, as the scandal was breaking, Murray filed a financial disclosure report showing that he owned just one property—his Seattle house on Capitol Hill, valued at $876,000. (I came across Murray’s financial documents while I was looking into an item related to current Mayor Jenny Durkan’s own investments). That was odd, because a previous financial disclosure report, from 2016, showed that he owned another house—a three-bedroom, two-bath vacation home in the coastal community of Seabrook, which Murray and his husband Michael Shiosaki bought in November 2015 for $470,000.

Murray amended the report to include his second home six weeks after filing the initial report without it. However, those six weeks—from April 14, when he filed the initial report, to May 31, when he corrected it—were critical ones. During April and May, while the press was all over the story, Murray repeatedly pleaded poverty—claiming, for example, that he needed a special dispensation from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission allowing him to raise money from supporters for his own legal defense because as “a lifelong public servant, [he] does not have the personal resources needed to fund his own legal defense.” Murray also told Q13 Fox that he had “no assets.” Referring to his house in Seattle, he said,  “Michael owns the house.” In fact, both Shiosaki and Murray, who are married, are listed as the owners of both houses.

The mis-filed report could have been a simple oversight, and the addition of the house didn’t change Murray’s total assets, which he listed in 2017 as $1.8 million. Murray and Shiosaki still own the Seabrook house, which can be rented for between $148 and $335, depending on the season. One other bit of historical trivia: In 2013, when he was still a state senator, Murray earmarked $437,000 in the state budget for a new bike and pedestrian connection between Pacific Beach and Seabrook—at the time a brand-new planned community—at the request of a longtime friend who owned a house there. Not long afterward, the friend maxed out to Murray’s first campaign. And about two years after that, Murray himself bought a vacation house in the town.

3. After the Seattle Times reported last week that, according to King County Metro, the downtown Seattle streetcar will cost 50 percent more to operate than the Seattle Department of Transportation previously claimed, Mayor Durkan requested an independent review of the $177 million megaproject, which is already under construction. On Tuesday, city budget director Ben Noble told the council’s transportation committee that the mayor’s office is concerned about “whether we have accurate information about the operating costs and… potentially the capital costs as well.” That prompted council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime opponent of the streetcar, to suggest “pressing pause” on the project until the city could get a handle on how much it will cost to operate and build (and how the city will pay for any overruns). Goran Sparrman, SDOT’s interim director, suggested that putting the project on ice, even temporarily, could put federal funds at risk and lead to higher costs in the future, since the cost of labor and materials tends to escalate while projects are idle.

Fans of the downtown streetcar, which will link the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, will conclude from today’s discussion that it makes sense to keep plowing ahead with the project; even if the thing is over budget, the costs will only get worse if we wait. Detractors, meanwhile, will see that argument as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy—the idea that because the city has already invested so much in the project, the only option is to keep building, when in fact, there’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead.

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.

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.

Morning Crank: There Has Been One Bump in the Road

Lauren McGowan, Marty Hartman, Barb Poppe

1. The third of three panel discussions on homelessness in Seattle (sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Chamber, Visit Seattle, and the Alliance for Pioneer Square) featured an all-female panel (KIRO radio host Dave Ross, who moderated, made a cringeworthy joke about bringing “gender diversity” to the stage) that covered a lot of the same territory as the previous two. The panelists (consultant Barb Poppe, King County Human Services director Adrienne Quinn, Seattle Human Services Department director Catherine Lester, Mary’s Place director Marty Hartman, and United Way of King County financial stability director Lauren McGowan) agreed on the need for more accountability and better data; lamented the fact that homelessness is growing faster than the city or county’s ability to place people in housing; and disputed the notion, suggested by some audience members, that arresting people for sleeping in tents and panhandling was a good solution. I livetweeted the event and Storified those tweets here.

One new theme in yesterday morning’s discussion, which I hadn’t heard leaders acknowledge openly before, was the city’s inability to convince private landlords to voluntarily rent their units to formerly homeless individuals and families. The city’s Pathways Home homelessness strategy, which is based on a report Poppe produced last year, relies heavily on landlords to decide to participate voluntarily in a “housing resource center” that will, in theory, link people experiencing homelessness, including those with histories of eviction or criminal records, to landlords. The idea is to entice landlords to rent to people who might not meet their usual screening criteria by providing incentives such as on-call emergency assistance, a “mitigation fund” to pay for any damage caused by tenants, or flat financial payments to landlords who take on formerly homeless tenants. The center, Lester acknowledged, “has been an area where we have not been able to accelerate as quickly as we would like to.”

The view from Belltown: “I feel like I’m living in a war zone.”

Poppe appealed to landlords’ sense of obligation to help their communities. “There has been one bump in the road, which is the housing resource center, and they need your help on this,” Poppe told the audience of business community members. “They need those landlords to come forward. I really encourage the business community to engage and help get back on track.” Without much larger incentives, or a market crash that drastically slows or reverses population growth, that strikes me as wishful thinking—as things stands, landlords clearly see no reason to voluntarily rent to high-risk tenants in a market where they can easily find tenants with stable jobs and perfect credit.

2. The discovery of $3.4 million in “missing” money from the city’s incentive zoning program—which required developers in certain neighborhoods to build affordable housing or pay into a fund in exchange for greater density—wasn’t quite the bombshell news some media made it out to be; the error was discovered by the city auditor and corrected last year. However, the news raised obvious concerns about both accountability—are developers fulfilling their affordable-housing obligations?—and transparency—how do citizens know developers are fulfilling their obligations?— and both issues were on the table yesterday morning, when the council’s planning, land use, and zoning committee looked at the audit findings and a list of recommendations aimed at ensuring no more multi-million-dollar obligations slip through the cracks. The city is replacing the old incentive zoning program, which allowed developers to build taller as an incentive for affordable housing payment or production, with a new mandatory affordable housing program, which requires developers across the city to build affordable housing or pay into the affordable housing fund.

In addition to the need for better controls and more frequent checks to make sure that developers pay what they owe the city, council members pointed to the need to make sure developers are producing the housing they say they’re producing under the new program—and to ensure that the public can easily access that information as well.

“When I’m in the community talking about the MHA program, there’s a skepticism around the payments,” District 6 council member Mike O’Brien said. “I hear from folks in the community that they just pay and who knows where that money goes? The reality is that that money is going to a bunch of cool program, but the more clarity we can provide to people so they can see that ‘that project next to me or down the street is producing this many units or they wrote this check and we can actually see that project—it’s down the street,” the better. “My goal is not to create an overwhelming burden on the process or slow it down, but just to make sure that folks who are trying to access this information can look at that,” O’Brien said.

Office of Housing director Steve Walker said his office had made progress toward creating a public system that tracks new units built under various affordable housing programs, and Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson said DCI was working on a system to track how new developments plan to meet their MHA obligations, and where those developments are in “the pipeline.”

“I know the audit turned up, certainly, a couple of high-profile things that we’re all embarrassed by, and should be,” O’Brien said. “While this isn’t a shining moment of how everything worked perfectly at the city, I think it’s an example of how checks and balances are in place, and we have people dedicated to working through the process and informing the public” in the future.

3. Tensions in council chambers were high Monday morning,  when the council met for the first time as the Select Committee on Civic Arenas, a committee that was formed after the council voting against handing control of a public right-of-way over to billionaire hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, who wants to build a new NBA arena in SoDo.

The street vacation went down by a 5-4 vote, which happened to break down along gender lines, prompting an awful lot of grown men (and a few women) to spend an awful lot of time and mental energy thinking up creative new ways to call the majority of the city council bitches and cunts. One of those women, Lorena Gonzalez, said yesterday that she’s hopeful that having a whole committee dedicated to the arena discussion will give people an opportunity to air substantive issues related to the arena debate issues “in a way that is more public and transparent” than last year’s street vacation discussion, which took place in the transportation committee, to which most council members do not belong.  “My hope is that the pro-SoDo arena crowd will, at a minimum, recognize that there is an effort by this council to air out potential issues early and to have conversations about those issues and concerns in a way that is productive,” Gonzalez said.

Fingers crossed.

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.

Morning Crank: A Political Statement That Capitalism Has Failed

poppe-semple

Homelessness consultant Barb Poppe and Mandy Chapman Semple of Houston’s Corporation for Supportive Housing

1. Homelessness experts from Los Angeles County, San Francisco, and Houston rounded out a panel that also included consultant Barb Poppe Tuesday morning, the second in a three-part series of discussions on homelessness sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, Visit Seattle and the Alliance for Pioneer Square.

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross moderated the discussion, which focused on what solutions other jurisdictions have come up with to address the homelessness emergency in their communities. Perhaps fittingly for a station that has made a hero out of a woman who built an illegal wall to keep homeless people away from her business, KIRO’s Ross asked many questions that could be charitably described as leading. For example, one of the first questions he asked Poppe was how it could be that in a recent survey, 30 percent of homeless people could afford to pay $500 or more in rent—implying, it seemed, that homeless folks really have enough money to live in housing, they just don’t want to. At another point, Ross commented that “there are some folks who want to keep those tents out there as a political statement that capitalism has failed”—implying that homeless people are living in tents not because they have no other option, but because they want to make a political statement. At still another point, Ross put words in Poppe’s mouth, which she immediately disavowed.

“So you have seen no movement towards setting a policy and politely urging the existing [housing and homeless service provider] groups who are not seeing results to adapt to that new policy,” Ross said. “No, I am not saying that,” Poppe said, looking exasperated.

If you’d like to read my live-tweets of yesterday morning’s meeting, you’re in luck—I’ve Storified them here.

2. Yesterday, I reported that the proposed homelessness levy would increase wages for case managers, social service workers, and mental and public health-care providers substantially, by funding higher minimum wages for several positions that will be;  funded by the levy. The city says they don’t have a specific breakdown of how much the levy-funded raises will cost or precisely how many contractor positions will be affected, though it may be in the hundreds; however, a look at the wages currently offered by one of the city’s main homelessness service contractors, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, shows that the new minimums will represent a significant upgrade. For example, the annual salary for a behavioral health case manager at DESC’s Crisis Solutions Center starts at $30,128 a year, or about $14.48 an hour; a chemical dependency specialist starts slightly higher, at $33,033, or about $15.88 an hour; and a registered nurse starts at $52,884, or about $25 an hour. If the levy passes, pay for those positions will go up, to $22, $25, and $45 an hour, respectively.

3. Learn to trust the Crank: As I reported last month, after meeting with about 100 employers of all sizes from across the city, city council member Lorena Gonzalez has rolled out a proposal to require employers in the city to provide paid family leave. The proposal would require all employers in the city to provide up to 26 weeks of leave for new parents or employees taking care of a sick family member, and up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave for employees with a serious illness. The benefits would only kick in after an employee has worked 340 hours (about two and a half months for full-time employees and longer for part-time) for a business, and would be capped at $1,000 a week.

“I heard a strong desire from my conversations with business owners [for] a pathway to provide this benefit to their employees that is fair and equitable,” Gonzalez said Wednesday. “While I sincerely hope that the state legislature passes a law that is available for all Washington workers, Seattle, as always, is ready to stand on our own two feet to come up with a solution, which is a universal paid family and medical leave program.”

Currently, the state legislature is working on a compromise between two very different paid family leave laws. One, by Republican Sen. Joe Fain, would start out providing just eight weeks of leave paid at just half an employee’s original salary, eventually rising to twelve weeks at two-thirds pay, and would require employees to pay the full cost of the program. That bill would also preempt Seattle from adopting a more generous paid leave law of its own. The other, by Democratic Rep. June Robinson, would provide much more generous benefits and supported by the progressive Economic Opportunity Institute, provides far more generous benefits and would not prevent Seattle from adopting its own policies.

Given that the Trump administration has “very little respect for boundaries between the federal government and state government and local government,” Gonzalez said, “I think it’s important to continue to protect and to empower local government to have all the tools we need at our disposal to be able to protect and serve our residents in a way that is tailored to our specific community needs. That is why I believe a local preemption in this ordinance, or in any other ordinance is a very dangerous step to take.” Other Republican preemption bills that were floated this year would have prohibited Seattle from allowing encampments or opening supervised drug-consumption sites.

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 C Is for Crank Interviews: Homelessness Consultant Barb Poppe

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.

I talked with Poppe by phone on Friday.

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?

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: Based on Unrealistic Expectations

georCity homelessness director George Scarola—who does not like being called a homelessness czar—showed up early for a forum at the Greenwood Senior Center Wednesday night and ended up chatting with me, a few folks who identified themselves as neighborhood residents, and Harley Lever, founder of the group Safe Seattle.

While we waited for folks from the Greenwood Community Council to set up the room, I asked Scarola about a protest that temporarily stymied city workers trying to clear out an encampment under the south end of the Ballard Bridge on Tuesday. Scarola said the incident taught the city that they may need to do things differently next time, possibly by bringing in more police. I asked whether the city had a contingency plan if protests like the one Tuesday became common. Scarola said the city hasn’t gotten to the point—they’re still rolling out new rules for clearing encampments—and asked me, rhetorically, what the demonstrators were protesting. “Are they protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions?” he asked, referring to the “Triangle” encampment the city plans to sweep next week. “Because no one should be allowed to live like that.”

During the forum, which I livetweeted and Storified for those who want the blow-by-blow, Scarola got a bit defensive when audience members suggested the city doesn’t have good data on who is homeless and why, and when Lever, who’s from Boston, suggested that his hometown had all but solved unsheltered homelessness . (Scarola reminded Lever that Boston’s winter, when the city does its annual homeless count, is almost unsurvivable without shelter, and pointed out that the city with the largest number of unsheltered homeless people is … Honolulu.)

Scarola also suggested, not for the first time, that the city might deviate somewhat from the recommendations laid out in Pathways Home, a set of recommendations based in large part on a report by Ohio consultant Barb Poppe and released last year. Pathways Home recommends directing new spending on homelessness toward rapid rehousing with short-term housing subsidies, rather than new shelters for those currently sleeping outside. “Barb Poppe would like us to spend less money on shelters and more money diverting people from becoming unsheltered,” Scarola said. “We don’t totally agree with every recommendation Barb Poppe made, but we agree with the thrust of them.”

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In addition to the Poppe report, Pathways Home is based on a report by a firm called Focus Strategies, which says the city “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.” And yet, at a briefing on the results of a new survey of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle Wednesday, staff for the city’s Human Services Department suggested that the city’s goal was to find or build affordable housing options in the city itself, rather than requiring people to move far away from their support systems, service providers, communities, and jobs, often with no reliable transit to get them back into the city.  It will be interesting to see how the city reconciles these seemingly contradictory impulses—to preserve diversity in Seattle and avoid exporting poverty to the suburbs, while also ensuring that people can afford to pay the full price of housing when their vouchers run out after three to six months.

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 it 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.

Survey Results Challenge Stereotypes of Seattle’s Homeless Population

would-move-insideToday, the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) released the results of a survey conducted by Applied Survey Research as a followup to the annual point-in-time count of people living unsheltered in King County.

UPDATE: Here’s a copy of the survey itself.

Departing from its usual practice of announcing the results of the count immediately after conducting it in January, All Home—the agency that coordinates homelessness efforts across the county—says it needs several months to crunch the numbers and won’t release them until late spring. HSD and ASR commissioned homeless and formerly homeless people to survey about 1,050 people staying in cars, shelters, transitional housing, encampments, and in public spaces, paying recruits $7 cash for every survey they returned. (Those who participated in the survey received a $5 McDonald’s gift card.) ASR also conducted small focus groups with 80 people experiencing homelessness across the city.

Watch for the city to use the survey, which cost $100,000, to make its case that homeless people living in Seattle are not, contrary to one common contention, just lazy, able-bodied freeloaders who came here from somewhere else to lounge in Seattle’s generous social safety net. Whether people who trade in those stereotypes will be swayed by a new data set based on self-reporting by homeless people is another question; so far, the sweep-’em-up-and-ship-’em-out crowd hasn’t been moved by surveys showing that most homeless people who live here are from here, or that most homeless people say they’re homeless not because of laziness or addiction but because they can’t find affordable housing.

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Some highlights of the survey:

• Seventy percent of those surveyed said they became homeless after living in King County, and 49 percent said they were living in Seattle just before they lost their housing; just 15 percent said they came here from another state or country. That breakdown isn’t much different than the sheltered population—52 percent lived in Seattle before moving into their current residence, and 16 percent moved to their current home from another country or out of state. More than half of those surveyed said they have lived in Seattle for more than five years.

• Most of the homeless people surveyed said they came here to be near family or friends (35 percent) or for a job (34 percent). On the other hand, 15 percent said they came here to access homeless services, and nearly 10 percent said they moved to Seattle because pot is legal here. (I’ve requested the specific survey questions, but HSD staff said yesterday that legal marijuana was on a prewritten list of possible responses; it wasn’t a respondent-generated answer).

• Defying another stereotype—the common belief that most homeless people are homeless by choice—93 percent of survey respondents said they would move into safe, affordable housing if it became available.  According to the ASR report, “This … suggests that the ‘traveler’ or ‘nomadic’ sojourner does not represent a significant group.”

• One reason people camp in greenbelts and fields is that they don’t want to stay in shelter, not because they’re stubborn or lazy but because shelters are often dirty, always crowded, and sometimes dangerous; in addition, they separate couples and don’t allow people with pets or more than a backpack full of possessions. According to the survey, of those not using shelters, 36 percent said they didn’t use shelters because they’re too crowded, 30 percent because of bugs, and 29 percent because the shelters were full. Twenty percent said they didn’t use shelters because they don’t allow pets, and 21 percent because they don’t allow couples.

• More than 40 percent of those who responded to the survey said they had a job—13 percent said they were employed full-time, and 28 percent said they worked part-time or in temporary or seasonal jobs.

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• Forty-five percent of respondents said they didn’t use drugs or alcohol; 29 percent said they drank, and 12.2 percent reported using heroin. HSD staffers acknowledged that because drug and alcohol use was self-reported, those numbers could be low—the same way many people lowball how much they drink or smoke when asked by their doctor. Thirteen percent identified drug or alcohol use as the primary cause of their homelessness. “Respondents agreed that not all persons experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and that this misconception about homeless communities has adverse consequences. However, they also agreed that drug use is linked to dealing with the stresses of being homeless, and self-medicating to manage pain.”

• Eighteen percent of survey respondents said they were under 18 when they first experienced homelessness, and almost a quarter of those surveyed said they had been through the foster care system. Eleven percent of the women surveyed said they were pregnant, and many of them already had children.

• Pathways Home emphasizes the need to house people who are chronically homeless—that is, people who have been homeless a year or more and who have a disabling mental or physical condition. Half the survey respondents reported they had been homeless for a year or more, and 30 percent met the criteria for chronic homelessness—twice the average national rate, and in line with other West Coast cities, where homelessness is more common than in areas with more inclement weather and fewer services.

• More than half the women surveyed—58 percent—said they had been victims of domestic violence. Transgender and other gender non-conforming individuals were even more likely to have experienced domestic violence—63 percent and 78 percent, respectively—and 30 percent of homeless men said they were domestic violence victims. Overall, just under 5 percent said domestic violence was the primary reason they became homeless.

• Some of the survey’s findings seemed to contraindicate some of the solutions advocated in Pathways Home, the city’s road map for future spending on homelessness. For example, Pathways Home recommends investing heavily in short-term rental vouchers that run out after a few months, leaving formerly homeless renters at the mercy of a brutal rental housing market. However, according to the survey, many respondents said they worried about “how to make ends meet past the initial deposit and first/last month’s rent and whether that meant they might end up without a home again after a few months.

“Long-term support was also identified as a key element of a well-designed program,” the survey report continues, “especially in relation to housing assistance programs, particularly in relation to rapid re-housing programs and the challenges of keeping up with rent. One participant elaborated on this recurring theme, ‘I don’t understand why they leave you after 2 months, why can’t they just [help]  6 months to a year if you need it. Then people find themselves right back in the same position that they were in, homeless because they something out of their control happens.”

Pathways Home also recommends getting people into housing wherever they can find something they can afford, even if that means they’re uprooted from communities and support systems and unable to access services and employment because they can’t afford cars.  According to the report, “When asked about housing options outside the City, responses were mixed. While some participants shared that they just wanted ‘to get off the streets,’ others worried about commuting to jobs if they were too far outside the City if they lacked access to public transportation, as well as furthering the effects of gentrification.”

On Wednesday, HSD staff said they don’t want to displace people from Seattle to far-flung suburban communities that are inaccessible by transit, but added that they did not plan to deviate from the Pathways Home recommendations.

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 it 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.

Morning Crank: A Professional Disagreement

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1. Extra Crank: 

2. A large and vocal but mostly civil crowd gathered last night at North Seattle Community College to ask officials from city departments—including the Seattle Police Department, Parks, and the mayor and city council—pointed questions about the city-sanctioned low-barrier encampment scheduled to open in March just off Aurora Ave. N in Licton Springs. Mayor Ed Murray announced that the city would be opening four new sanctioned encampments (including one low-barrier encampment that would not require its residents to be clean and sober) last fall; since then, that number has been reduced to three because the city has had trouble finding suitable sites that neighbors will accept.

Unlike meetings for previous encampments—I’m thinking particularly of Nickelsville in Ballard, where neighbors showed up to scream and berate District 6 city council member Mike O’Brien—last night’s comments were a mixture of the usual concerns about public safety, garbage, and that perennial favorite, “lack of public process”—and supportive remarks from neighbors who said they welcomed the site, including several who encouraged opponents to actually go out and meet some of the homeless people they were vilifying. For those who weren’t following along on Twitter, I’ve Storified my tweets here.

3. District 5 council member Debora Juarez stole Mayor Murray’s thunder last night when she announced, almost offhand, that the mayor’s State of the City speech would be held at the Idriss Mosque near Northgate—a symbolically powerful gesture intended to signify that Seattle is serious about its status as a sanctuary city. (Previously, Murray has said that he is “willing to lose every penny” the city receives from the federal government in order to protect immigrants and refugees here). “I don’t think this is even public yet,” Juarez said. Nope.

4. I grabbed homelessness director George Scarola briefly before the meeting to ask him about a tension I noticed during last week’s panel on homelessness.  Barb Poppe, the city consultant who published a plan called Pathways Home that emphasizes short-term rental vouchers as a solution to homelessness, seemed to push back on Scarola’s insistence that Seattle was experiencing a “perfect storm” that includes an affordable-housing shortage, the opioid addiction epidemic, and a huge number of people who became homeless after growing up in foster care. “There does seem to weirdly be this acceptance that it’s actually okay for people to be on the streets,” Poppe said. “You’ve had very low accountability for results and that low accountability for results, I would find to be a mystery.” The solution, Poppe suggested, was not short-term shelter like tent cities or tiny houses, but housing, and the city’s resources should go toward providing rental vouchers for people to move off the streets instead of those short-term solutions. At the time, Scarola pushed back, noting that with more than 3,000 people living unsheltered in Seattle (and more than 80,000 very low-income people in line for just 32,000 affordable apartments), immediate housing for every homeless person was an unrealistic short-term goal.

Last night, Scarola told me he and Poppe had a “professional disagreement” about the right short-term solutions. “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—where at least the first few of those steps involve getting people out of doorways and into demonstrably better shelter like tent cities.

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 it 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.

Morning Crank: Ten Things I Heard at the DSA Panel on Homelessness

Dave Ross, Barb Poppe, Mark Putnam, and George Scarola

Dave Ross, Barb Poppe, Mark Putnam, and George Scarola

1. City homelessness consultant Barb Poppe, who wrote the Pathways Home report that is the basis for the city’s sudden shift toward “rapid rehousing” through the use of short-term rental assistance vouchers: “I come from state of Ohio. You did the right thing in November; we didn’t. But there does seem to weirdly be this acceptance that it’s actually okay for people to be on the streets” in Seattle. “You’re smart, caring people. You know how to get stuff done. I don’t know why you don’t get [solving homelessness] done.”

2. George Scarola, appointed by Mayor Ed Murray to head up the city’s homelessness efforts, on one of the main causes of homelessness, the lack of affordable housing: “It’s an affordability problem that’s the result of income inequality. … There are about 32,000 units for people who earn between 0 and 30 percent of median income, and there are more than 80,000 households that are eligible for [those units]. So what do those other almost 50,000 households do? They’re paying 50 percent on rent or 70 percent or all of their income on rent.”

3. Poppe, in response to those “excuses”: “You go back to affordable housing and the rental crisis, and in your community, that becomes the excuse to not get things done, and in other communities, it becomes, ‘This is the reality that we’re in, and how are we going to overcome that reality and get really energized to do that?'”

4. All Home director Mark Putman, responding obliquely to Poppe’s claim that Seattle is just using the lack of affordable housing as an “excuse” to avoid action on homelessness: “A lot of times we do get caught up in ‘It’s a lot cheaper in Las Vegas or Houston’ comparisons to different cities.”  (Critics of Pathways Home have pointed out that the cities cited as proof that very short-term rental assistance vouchers work are much cheaper than Seattle, making it easier for formerly homeless people to pay full rent when their vouchers run out in three to nine months.) “Look at our data. Bring in, sure, some of your thoughts and concepts and strategies that have worked in other areas, because we all need to be learning from each other, but look at our data and tell us what we can do here.”

5. Poppe, on being shocked to find homeless children in Seattle’s tent cities: “I was taken around to sanctioned encampments and I was proudly shown that there was a hut that a newborn infant was living in with their mother. They said it was better that they’re in this hut-slash-“tiny home” with no running water or electricity. I don’t understand why that is acceptable in this community and there’s not tremendous moral outrage to do better. … In almost every community in the United States, it’s completely unheard-of and unacceptable that a child would be outside.” (I fact-checked this and it is not true; in reality, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, child homelessness is a significant and growing problem in communities across the country, including an estimated 25,000 homeless in Poppe’s state, Ohio.)

6. A questioner, who demanded to know why she had to walk past “up to 13 tents” and “piles of human excrement” when leaving her “half-million-dollar condo” in Belltown: “For people who live in tents, who really want to live in a tent, who choose to live in a tent and who don’t want the services that are offered—for these people, it’s working for them” to live on the streets.

7. Scarola, responding to moderator Dave Ross’s restatement of the woman’s question, “When can she pick up the phone and say these people need to move and they’ll be moved?”:  “The mayor fought a battle with the city council to make it clear that sidewalks, parks, or school grounds are unacceptable for people to camp in. We are standing up a team in the next week of eight police officers and outreach workers who are specialized in that problem, let’s call it street disorder. They’re going to go and say, ‘Here’s the plan for you: We will either find you shelter quickly or you will not come back,’ and they will have a police person next to them to make the point clear.”

8. Poppe, on what she calls a total lack of accountability by nonprofit housing providers that receive city funds: “You’ve let 1,000 flowers bloom and there has not been any effort to make sure that nonprofits do anything that they weren’t hired in 1985 to do, and you allow providers to perform in whatever they feel is their niche. …  You’ve had very low accountability for results and that low accountability, I would find to be a mystery. Even this year, with the recommendations that All Home and the city put out, you’ve had a lot of nonprofits say, ‘We shouldn’t be held to outcome-based funding.”

9. Scarola, trying to explain why not everyone wants to stay in existing overnight shelters: “The shelter system, it’s not very user-friendly. You cannot bring your partner or your friend. You can’t bring a dog. You can’t bring more than a small amount of possessions. The shelters are crowded. There can be bedbugs. All it takes is to have that happen to you once and you don’t want to go back. We don’t have an alternative. That’s what we’ve got to change. We’ve got to turn all those shelters into 24/7, where you don’t have to leave in the morning.

10. Poppe, on some factors she does think contribute to the lack of affordable housing in cities like Seattle: “There is a huge impact from local communities that have effectively zoned out rental housing. … As Americans, our expectation of an amount of space that we get to occupy is a way to keep others out. It’s a huge problem. The other piece … is we actually do invest very heavily in housing across the country, and disproportionately, those of us in this room get a disproportionate benefit to actually low-income people: We’re homeowners, and there’s a really high subsidy level to homeowners that is actually tied to the value of your housing and your mortgage, so the more you make, the greater your housing subsidy. There has been a national movement to reduce the mortgage interest deduction and instead fund affordable rental housing through the National Housing Trust Fund.”

The C Is for Crank clapped on the inside at that eminently reasonable and therefore totally doomed suggestion.

(The panel was hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Chamber, Visit Seattle, and Alliance for Pioneer Square.)

 

Downtown Seattle Association/Seattle Chamber/Visit Seattle and Alliance for Pioneer Square.

 

Housing the 4,500: Optimistic New Report Says It’s Just a Matter of Priorities

Just a reminder that your contributions are what makes it possible for me to write and report time- and resource-consuming feature stories like this one, in which I go deep on the recent reports recommending solutions to the city’s homelessness emergency, with reporting and analysis that goes beyond the executive summary to bring you the real story. If you enjoy the work I do here, please consider dropping a few bucks in the bucket at my Patreon. And thanks. 

Two consultants’ reports released last week recommended sweeping changes to the city’s policies to address homelessness, including a shift in emphasis toward permanent housing for the hardest to house, and suggested that the city’s failure to reduce unsheltered homelessness for decades is primarily a problem of priorities and math, not an intractable social conundrum.

The so-called Path Forward report by consultant Babara Poppe, along with a longer companion report by  Focus Strategies, concludes that the city can “shelter all unsheltered single adult and family households [in the Seattle-King County area] within one year” by focusing its resources on “rapid rehousing” programs, rather than transitional housing; implementing a comprehensive “coordinated entry and diversion system” that focuses only on people who are “literally homeless,” rather than those who are in unstable housing and at risk of homelessness; and “reaching recommended system and program performance targets.”

The Poppe report also recommend shifting the current system of funding service providers who shelter and house the homeless, which the report says relies too heavily on the preferences of service providers, toward a “funder-driven” model in which the city of Seattle would have more direct control over which programs get funded. The new model would also require providers to disclose potential conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from funding discussions, when appropriate, and, most importantly, would require them to take on clients who need housing most desperately, regardless of factors like drug use, criminal history, and the amount of time someone has spent on the streets.

Over the past several days, I’ve read both reports in full and talked to numerous homeless advocates, council members, and service providers to get their impressions of the recommendations, which aim to house or shelter the more than 4,500 unsheltered homeless people living in King County.

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The Poppe report, along with the longer Focus Strategies report on which Poppe’s recommendations are largely based, recommends a fundamental shift in the city’s approach to homelessness that’s not just tactical, but philosophical. The biggest change the report suggests is slashing funding for agencies that provide “low-performing” transitional housing—essentially long-term, publicly funded housing one step above a shelter where the typical client ends up living for more than a year—and spending those dollars on organizations that focus on “rapid rehousing,” typically in the form of vouchers for housing on the private market that phase out over time.  (These vouchers are distinct from federal Section 8 vouchers, which provide longer-term, stable housing, but for which the wait list is currently nine years.) By accelerating people’s transition from shelter to permanent housing, the report says, the city can free up shelter beds that were previously occupied by now-housed “long-term shelter stayers” for other families and individuals, getting everyone who’s currently living outdoors or staying in shelters into housing or shelter within a year. While Poppe acknowledges that “the large number of providers that will need to shift practices makes the challenge of transformation daunting,” she believes that if they do so “rapidly and with urgency,” the one-year timeline is feasible.

Others are not so sure. Council member Lisa Herbold, who worked on housing issues for nearly 18 years under former council member Nick Licata before her own election in 2015, says she’s skeptical that in the current rental market (where the vacancy rate is around 3.5 percent), enough landlords and housing providers will be swayed to provide housing to formerly homeless renters to hit the one-year target. Herbold says her “source of income” legislation, which prevents landlords from discriminating against potential tenants because their income comes from nontraditional sources, will help some, but “it’s not going to open up a whole bunch of more units, because landlords still can say that you have to have three times as much income [as your monthly rent],” Herbold says. Landlords also tend to prefer people with stable income sources, and who aren’t “high-risk” due to criminal convictions or active addiction.

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that coordinates homelessness policy across King County, acknowledges the challenge of throwing people who have been homeless for many months or years to the mercy of the housing market. But, he says, “it’s not as if at the end of nine months the client all of sudden receives a letter, and the rent assistance is over and they’ve got a $1,500 rent payment due at the end of the next month.” Instead, clients work with a case manager to help them figure out how to earn more income, get a roommate, or move into permanent supportive housing, a more expensive kind of affordable housing that provides long-term services like mental health care, addiction case management, and training. “Right now, what’s happening in many programs is that [more challenging tenants] are screened out, because maybe they’re not quite chronically homeless,” Putnam says. “It’s better to give them a chance, say, 6 or 12 months of rental assistance, than to give them nothing.”

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In theory, this approach would free up a lot of money for other purposes. Transitional housing is far more expensive than rapid rehousing, according to the report—about $20,000 for each single adults, and $32,627 for each family, compared to $11,507 per household for rapid rehousing. That makes sense, since rapid rehousing typically relies on vouchers that phase out and expire within a few months, after which a person or family is supposed to “move on” to “mainstream permanent housing,” according to the report. In practice, the success of the shift to rapid rehousing will depend on the city and county’s success at finding places for people to actually live.

The report suggests tackling this problem by creating a new housing resource center to link landlords (including private landlords as well as providers that get funding from government sources) with prospective tenants, and by providing incentives to landlords who agree to take on riskier tenants, such as a “mitigation fund” to pay for any damages or eviction costs. It also suggests eliminating questions about things like criminal history and requiring providers to take hard-to-house clients even if they’d prefer to focus on easier cases.

“We have had a lot of opposition from providers on that,” Putnam says. “It took us a while [at All Home] to make that decision because there was so much provider angst about it.” Putnam echoes Poppe’s conclusion that housing providers should be required to focus on housing the most challenging cases, regardless of whether they’d prefer to take on lower-needs clients instead. “Many of the people who are living outside are screened out of our programs because of active drug use or criminal history,” Putnam says. “It’s harder, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization runs the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program for low-level offenders, says “I’m certain that there is a strong case to be made for the existing approach,” which prioritizes people based on a checklist that measures “vulnerability,” but “I will say, that the current approach has left us pretty confident that a lot of people that we work with [at the PDA] will be unsheltered and in public.”

The report also emphasizes the need to house people who are “literally homeless” first—that is, people who are actually living outside, rather than people who are crashing on a friend’s couch, or living in an unstable family situation, for example. The idea is to get the hardest people to house (single men with addiction issues or criminal records, for example.) to move into shelter, including new shelters that allow people who aren’t sober, or who have partners, possessions, or pets, and then into stable housing, first. That, in theory, will help eliminate the bottlenecks that keep some people in shelters for years (on average, the report concludes, single adults stay in transitional housing for 328 days, and families stay an average of 527) while others languish in tents, cars, and doorways. (Pregnant women, families with children, and homeless youth will get priority over other applications if they are “literally homeless,” because they’re considered uniquely vulnerable).

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After that, the report says, the system can refocus its efforts on those who are in slightly more stable housing situations, either by diverting them away from shelter or into stable housing or by sheltering them for a brief period while they find a permanent housing solution. “The impact of housing a long term shelter stayer is also not only a humane response, it will free up a precious resource that will reduce the number of unsheltered persons within Seattle,” the report concludes. In theory, refusing shelter to people with another place to go would open up quite a few beds; according to the report, in King County, only 66 percent of single adults (a category that includes couples) and 64 percent of families with children were “literally homeless.”

Emphasizing the hardest to house is a laudable goal, and it certainly reflects a shift in priorities: Instead of allowing service providers to cherrypick the people who are easiest to house, the report recommends requiring them to take the neediest first, even when that means housing people with the greatest challenges, such as addiction problems, criminal convictions, and long-term homelessness.  In practice, though, there are some concerns. As council member Lorena Gonzalez noted last week, a “20-year-old women who has repeatedly been subjected to sexual assault and is not living on the street is in some ways equally vulnerable” as a homeless woman who’s pregnant, but the first woman would be dropped to the bottom of the list under the proposed new prioritization system. “It sounds to me like a values judgment about how we predetermine and predict who is most vulnerable.”

The new approach also assumes that everyone who needs housing can be housed (a housing-first principle that advocates praise), without spending much time on the challenges that simple-on-paper proposition represents. “None of what’s in the report is necessarily wrong, it’s just that it’s more complicated” than the report suggests, Daugaard says. “Measuring performance based on how many people you get into housing sounds great and is important information, but you have to have a context of how challenging are the people you’re working with? … The truth is that there’s almost an inverted relationship between the people it’s easy to work with and place in housing” and those who have the highest needs, Daugaard says.

All Home director Putnam says the shift toward harder-to-serve clients isn’t a slam on affordable housing programs, but an acknowledgement that programs that serve the homeless are distinct from those that provide affordable housing to non-homeless people, or those that work to combat poverty. (Indeed, the report itself says, “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in King County is critical.”) “We’re not saying that we don’t need to also have programs for the person that’s about to be evicted, but my job at All Home is strictly for people who are homeless,” PuTnam says. And within that population, too, there are distinctions. “If you’re serving people who are easy to house, that’s not a homeless crisis response so much as a affordable housing response.”

Indeed, Focus Strategies principle Megan Kurteff Schatz said last week that affordability itself isn’t an issue providers serving homeless people should be focusing on, and that placing people in housing that’s technically “unaffordable” (because it costs more than 30 percent of a tenant’s income) or less than ideal, such as a spot in a rooming house, is better than leaving them on the street. “There isn’t any reason we should be saying to people that you have to stay in shelter until we get to that day where we have enough affordable housing in the community,” Schatz said.

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Poppe’s projection that every homeless person can be indoors within a year also relies heavily on new efficiencies, governance tweaks, and a few targeted new investments, rather than additional funding. (Putnam points out that Poppe was charged with determining what the city could do within existing resources, not “how much affordable housing or behavioral health services we need,” but “can we serve and house more people,” but the tone of the report throughout suggests the city, county, and providers have simply been wasteful and inefficient until now.) Currently, the report notes, “average utilization for emergency shelter was 89% for adult households and 69% for families. This suggests that there is unused capacity to house many of the unsheltered families with children in the community with the existing inventory and available beds should be prioritized for this purpose.”

However, there are two large caveats that the report does not mention: 1) The shelter vacancy rates are for all of King County, not just Seattle, and the vacancy rate for Seattle (where more homeless people live, and where most services are located) is likely lower; and 2) The vacancy rate for family shelters, which consist of enclosed units, is based on the maximum possible occupancy of each unit, meaning that a unit that could hold six but is housing a family of four would be considered only 66 percent occupied.)

This creates the distinct impression, fair or not, that the challenges of homelessness  are basically a political problem, which could be solved if only leaders had the will to do it, and that the reason they haven’t is the outsize influence of fat-cat housing and service providers and the homelessness lobby. “It’s important to remember that we have the system that we have now because of public policy—it isn’t because service providers want it this way,” Daugaard says. In fact, “they have been raising this same critique for a very long time.”

“You can’t actually make all these efficient choices unless you do things that are going to make some members of the public uncomfortable , because they’re going to have to accept that people are living in imperfect circumstances and we’re going to provide shelter services to them anyway,” Daugaard notes.

One element of the Poppe proposal that hasn’t received much attention yet, but should, is that it places a huge emphasis on gathering more information about homeless individuals, which raises both privacy concerns (why, one service provider asked me, does the city or its service providers need to know whether someone is gay or straight?) and financial ones: “Proficient and comprehensive data platforms” and “dashboards” and “Homeless Management Information Systems” that track where every homeless person in the city is on a literal day-to-day basis, using a “By-Name List,” sound all right in theory, but they cost money, and every dollar that goes to new admin and overhead is a dollar that isn’t being spent on direct services and housing.

This emphasis raises significant questions, in my mind at least, about whether those non-“literally homeless” people are being left by the wayside to make the numbers (that is, the claim that everyone on the streets right now could be housed within just one year if, as Focus Strategies principal Megan Kurteff Schatz told the council committee Thursday, “the money was moved to more efficient programs”) work out. For example, a person who’s sleeping on a friend’s floor, but will have to leave next week because that friend’s landlord got wise to their unapproved roommate, or a woman whose home situation is harmful for her kids, would be considered “unstably housed,” but not literally homeless, which strikes me as a basically semantic distinction. In other words, unstable housing can quickly turn into literal homelessness.

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The reports, which, throughout, contain an eye-popping amount of jargon and increasingly obtuse acronyms (TAY-VI-SPDAD, anyone?) emphasize management-theory policies such as “competitive and performance-based contracting,” “evidence-based approaches,” and “data analytics,” that jump out not just because they’re a bit eyeroll-inducing, but because removing the human element from the equation in this way, and treating homeless people (and landlords, too) as elements of a math problem that must be solved, ignores the sticky problems that make homelessness so intractable. For example, when Schatz told council members that once the new “dashboards” are up and running, service providers “should be able to produce quarterly dashboards on what kind of results that they’re getting, and you should be able to ask them, ‘Well, performance dipped over here, what do you know about that?,” I wondered briefly if she was talking about quarterly results for a for-profit corporation, or homeless men, women, and children getting roofs over their heads. 

Full disclosure, if this wasn’t obvious: I have a native skepticism about any claim that a decades-old problem with many unpredictable moving parts (like, say, a person’s desire to live in the same city as their family or community support system, or a drug addict’s desire to keep using drugs) can be solved with this one simple trick, as the Poppe report suggests. (Or as Schatz put it Thursday: “You could achieve functional zero [homelessness] within five years if all the recommended changes were implemented in concert.”)

In addition to all the challenges mentioned above, there are a lot of distinctly human problems that don’t fit easily into the simple equations provided in the report, which includes no individual case studies and mostly elides complications like addiction, abuse, despair, and the desire for community that all people share, even if they’re living in a tent in the Jungle.

The Poppe report’s failure to explore addiction in any detail is particularly jarring given the fact that, according to the Focus Strategies report itself, about one in five people staying in shelters suffer from substance abuse or addiction issues. Addiction to alcohol or other drugs is not included in a list of the “root issues” causing homelessness, which, according to the report, include lack of affordable housing, lack of well-paying jobs, inequitable access to post-secondary degrees, and structural racism, among other causes. It’s an especially odd omission given the report’s repeated references to the “Housing First” philosophy, which holds, among other tenets, that people addicted to drugs or alcohol need access to housing regardless of whether they’re willing to get sober, because having a roof over your head is the most important first step before tackling other challenges like addiction. (As the report puts it, “While gaining income, self-sufficiency, and improved health are all desirable goals, they are not prerequisites to people being housed.”)

And it’s odd given the ongoing work of the Seattle-King County Task Force on Opiate Addiction, which held its final meeting Friday and will formally release its recommendations next week. Council member Rob Johnson, who has recently taken a keen interest in addressing homelessness, says “It’s important to recognize the work that the opiate task force is doing right now, and I think we’d be remiss if we were to talk about a set of strategies to address homelessness” that doesn’t integrate or acknowledge those efforts. For example, “we’ve been talking about safe consumption sites—is this part of these strategies? If it’s not, how do we think about these things from a holistic perceptive?”

Daugaard’s Public Defender Association, through the LEAD program, works with unsheltered clients who have criminal convictions, substance abuse disorders, and mental health problems that make them among the hardest to house. She notes that although the report does suggest the creation of multiple “Navigation Centers”—shelter where sobriety is not required, and where pets, partners, and possessions are allowed—it doesn’t consider the behaviors that are often associated with addiction, which might drive other homeless people out of these “everything goes” centers. “When they talk about moving from emergency shelter to 24/7, and they talk about Navigation Centers and low-barrier shelter, they do not engage with the question of, ‘should we ensure that shelter is available for everybody regardless of their behaviors? That is both an issue of the [drunk, high, or unstable] person’s willingness to go in shelter, and it’s also an issue of the person sleeping next to them in a congregate facility being willing to sleep next to a person that’s engaged in this behavior,” Daugaard says. 

“Those are the kind of real application issues that make this not just a math problem. It’s also an issue of the terms and conditions under which people are asked to live.” 

Fundamentally, as in all discussions about shelter, there is the question of whether people will want to move to shelter, or whether they’d prefer to continue living in the forest or on the street. Opponents of encampments and doorway sleepers often boil this down to a simple question of rights—they’re not supposed to be sleeping outdoors, therefore they must take whatever mat on the floor they can get—but like any question of human preference and choice, it isn’t that simple. People who avoid shelters have reasons for doing so, and we can’t dismiss their reasons and also live in a society where being homeless is not a crime. On the flip side, housing homeless people means putting them in neighborhoods, including areas where residents may be reluctant to welcome new neighbors whose previous home was a tent in the park.

“You can’t actually make all these efficient choices unless you do things that are going to make some members of the public uncomfortable , because they’re going to have to accept that people are living in imperfect circumstances and we’re going to provide shelter services to them anyway,” Daugaard notes.

One common reason people don’t go to shelter is that they want to choose who they sleep next to, and maybe even have sex once in a while; another is that people like to know where their home is going to be each day. It’s easy to just say “beggars can’t be choosers” and point to the cot on the ground, but it’s not really constitutional to force people to sleep there (nor is it affordable to jail them when they refuse). “Housing providers might not being a good job because they’re working with the people who are hardest to house, and it would be terrible to interpret this issue of performance-based housing as a math problem,” Daugaard says. “The people who LEAD program managers are working with—housing anybody in that group of people requires phenomenal resolve, talent, and tenacity, and it’s just important to have that context.”

The council is still reading the report and absorbing its recommendations, but the proposals did come with some urgency (a word that’s mentioned no fewer than 18 times in Poppe’s report) and a timeline: By next year, housing providers should be revising their programs based on evaluations that are arriving in the mail this week, and by 2018, if the council agrees to adopt this strategy, the city will start cutting off providers that don’t meet the performance standards outlined in the report. “Effective January, our contracts will reflect those [new] performance standards, but we will hold harmless for a year our decision making with regard to performance,” Human Services Department director Catherine Lester said Thursday.

As the council continues to dissect and discuss the report, I’ll be exploring what it means for unsanctioned encampments, whether the numbers add up, and what neighborhoods, privacy advocates, and service providers have to say about the new recommendations.