The third floor of the west wing of the King County Corrections Center in downtown Seattle is accessed through a series of heavy metal doors, each one closing with a loud “ka-THUNK” behind visitors as they enter. Walk through a disused lobby, onto an elevator, and up a flight of institutional-looking stairs and you’ll find yourself in the old minimum-security living quarters, where a series of rooms—cells, really—look down on a central staffing station; you can imagine guards sitting behind the semicircular counter, keeping a wary eye on the large security mirrors that overlook the ward. In the rooms, rows of narrow metal bunks beds with chipping blue paint and fake wood-grain headboards are scattered haphazardly, each labeled with a different number. The views from the narrow windows are blocked by bars and glazing that makes it impossible to look outside.
The place feels, unsurprisingly, like a jail—which is just one of many hurdles that King County, and its future, still-unnamed nonprofit partner, will have to surmount before the former jail wing, which has been closed since 2012, can reopen as a 24/7, low-barrier shelter. Last week, staffers from the county’s Community and Health Services department took reporters on a tour of the building, followed by a press briefing with King County Executive Dow Constantine. Here’s what we currently know about the county’s plans for the shelter, as well as a few questions that remain unanswered.
The new shelter, which Constantine said he hopes will open sometime before this coming winter, will include dormitories, storage space, case management, showers, and laundry facilities for up to 150 people. The county hasn’t chosen a partner to operate the facility, which county officials said would cost about $2 million to renovate and $2 million a year to operate. (That funding is included in Constantine’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, which the King County Council is considering now.) The shelter will be open 24/7, allowing people to leave some of their stuff on site during the day and giving those without daytime jobs a place to be during the daytime hours other than on the street.
“As I look around and I see the number of people who are continuing to be out on the streets… and then I see a vacant building right here in the middle of downtown Seattle., it seems to me that we really have a moral obligation to open that up and provide the opportunity for people to get out of the weather and to get the services they need,” Constantine said Thursday. “This is an element of what we need to do. This is not the solution. The solution is the heavy lifting we’ve been doing on root causes, on housing, on behavioral health treatment, on job connectedness, on all of these other root causes. But meanwhile there are people on the streets and that is a humanitarian crisis that we absolutely must deal with.”
Jurors and county court employees have complained about people congregating in parks and on sidewalks near the downtown courthouse, which sits in close proximity to several shelters that require people to leave first thing in the morning. King King County Housing and Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook said the new shelter will include indoor areas and a courtyard where clients will be able to spend time during the day, and will be connected to a new day center just a block away, at a county-owned building on Fourth and Jefferson that currently serves as a winter shelter.
A recent City of Seattle report on homeless services found that enhanced shelter is several times more effective at getting people into permanent housing than basic shelters that only offer mats on the floor, which are mostly a basic survival tool for people who would otherwise be sleeping out in the elements. “There’s no real opportunity to connect folks with services in that environment,” Ellerbrook said.
Opening a shelter inside a jail building presents what a political consultant might call some challenging optics—and not just because homelessness is not a crime. People experiencing homelessness are more likely than other groups to have past experience in the criminal justice system, and to want to avoid any place that feels like jail. Asked how the county planned to overcome the obvious association between the jail and the shelter, which will not connect directly but will share an emergency stairwell, Constantine responded, “Clearly, this is not ideal … for people who have been incarcerated and may have been traumatized by that experience. This would not be the ideal choice for them to go to, and they don’t have to. Nobody’s going to make them. But for others, it is a very good alternative to being out on the street, to be able to be in a place that is well built, that’s warm and dry and has all of the facilities they need.”
On the flip side, many people who leave jail depart directly into homelessness; prior incarceration is one of many factors that make it difficult for people to find a place to live or a job to lift them out of homelessness, according to the county’s most one-night homeless count. Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose organization is one of several in the running to operate the shelter, said, “I certainly can see it as sort of a swords to plowshares situation, where you could repurpose a facility that previously had really negative connotations into something much more positive for people’s lives, but that said, I think there remains some work to be done that would really examine, will people who would be the intended recipients of the help use it in a facility like that?”
Constantine said he sees the new shelter as an opportunity to divert people leaving jail directly to services and “interrupt that process when people are coming out of the jail and to be able to bring them next door to a, set them up with the services they need to be able to be successful. … It gives us a unique opportunity for those who have been justice involved to help them get their lives back on track and not fall into homelessness and then be another person who ends up back in the justice system.”
Constantine said he wants to open the new shelter before this winter. That leaves a lot of details to be hammered out in a short period of time, including who will run the shelter and who it will serve. Constantine said last week that the new facility will house “primarily men,” but Ellerbrook said the county would try to allow partners, possessions, and pets to the extent possible, which means—among other things—that parts of it might be coed. The shelter will be low-barrier—meaning, as Constantine put it, that “this is not going to be a situation where you have to solve life’s problems before you’re offered a safe place to sleep—but to what extent people with major mental health and addiction issues will be targeted is unclear.
Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose group runs the Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue across the street from the King County Courthouse, says DESC will be most interested in running the new shelter if it “prioritizes people with longer-term homelessness and more complicated types of situations that would [require] the more robust set of services that we would like to deliver. Ideally,” he adds, you’d want to build in as few barriers as possible, so making it coed would be in support of that.”
1. Sitting at the year’s first meeting of the Progressive Revenue task force Thursday morning, it was hard not to flash back to a press conference the previous day, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would spend some of the $11 million it expects to receive from the sale of a city-owned property in South Lake Union (a different property than the “teardrop” site council members discussed as part of their budget deliberations last year). At that briefing, held in front of two “tiny houses” under construction at the Seattle Vocational Institute, Durkan said it would take time to build all the housing that will ultimately be funded by the $290 million 2016 housing levy, and that in the meantime, a $5.5 million investment in “bridge housing”—or, in the clunky title Durkan chose for the initiative, “building a bridge to housing for all”—would give people living on the street slightly better options. “In an ideal world, we would not need to be building tiny houses,” Durkan said. Then she acknowledged that state and federal support for affordable housing is about to fall off a cliff.
The rest of the money would pay for rental assistance for people on SHA’s Section 8 voucher waiting list—”we’re going to focus on the people who need that assistance the most,” Durkan said— design of a new fire station, and city expenses related to the land sale. The developer buying the property would also provide $2 million of a total $7.7 million payment toward affordable housing projects elsewhere, required as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, to build actual affordable housing.
The reason I was thinking about Durkan’s announcement Thursday morning is that it was basically a rounding error—what government staffers sometimes call “budget dust”— in the funding needed to actually address the city’s homelessness problem, which has been growing every year since at least 2013. According to task force co-chair Kirsten Harris-Talley, if every unit of affordable housing requires $160,000 in capital expenditures from the city (more on how advocates for a higher employee hours tax arrived at that number in a minute), and the city will need around 20,000 new units for very low-income people in the next 10 years, that means the city will need to spend around $3.2 billion over that time. As you can probably imagine, the city isn’t spending anywhere close to that right now—according to the presentation, the city spent just under $95 million from all sources on capital housing investments last year. At that rate, it would take more than 33 years to come up with $3.2 billion (and that’s assuming housing costs stayed flat).
Obviously, none of this is an exact science. The $160,000 figure is an estimate provided by council member Kshama Sawant’s office, of what the city would need to contribute if it ramped up its affordable housing production and was unable to find a significant amount of new funding from other sources to help pay for all the new units. (Currently, each new unit costs the city about $93,000 in capital costs, but the programs that pay for the difference between the city’s contribution and the total cost to build a new unit, about $311,000, are only committed to a certain number of units, requiring the city—theoretically—to pay more for each additional unit out of its own pockets.)
If Harris-Talley and Sawant’s figures are correct, that provides a ready-made argument for the employee hours tax (effectively a flat annual tax for each full-time employee on every business over a certain revenue threshold) that they’ve wanted to pass all along. Today, the task force looked at potential revenues from the so-called head tax at different levels and with different sizes of business exempt from the tax, which I’ve copied below. (Last year’s proposed head tax would have exempted businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenues, up from $5 million in the initial proposal; some businesses argued that basing the tax on gross revenues was unfair because it didn’t take into account thin profit margins in certain industries, like restaurants.)
If the city goes through a recession, of course, the amount it can expect to collect will shrink. However, recessions tend to actually lower rents; Downtown Emergency Service Center director and task force member Daniel Malone pointed out that during the last recession, the county’s annual point in time count of people living outdoors tends to stagnate or even decrease, as it did between 2010 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2012. That’s one of the paradoxes of a weakening economy: Although revenues from taxes that are less stable, like direct taxes on businesses, tend to decline, so do rents, making it possible for some people forced onto the street by an impossible housing market to actually find a place to live.
2. In a King County Board of Health discussion about the possibility of a Hepatitis A outbreak in Seattle yesterday (a nationwide outbreak, ongoing now, began in California and was widely blamed on lack of access to handwashing facilities for the state’s homeless population), King County Health Department Director Patty Hayes expressed concern about the city’s decision last year to cut funding for three downtown hygiene centers that provide restrooms, showers, and handwashing and laundry facilities for homeless people living and moving through downtown.
City council and Board of Health member Sally Bagshaw—a vocal proponent for cutting funding to the facilities as part of the city’s new “performance-based” approach to homeless service contracts—objected to Hayes’ characterization of the problem.
“I think that [problem with the closure of the hygiene centers] is more apparent than real,” Bagshaw said. “We’re putting huge investments into new 24/7 shelters … I’m working with those 24-hours shelters to say, ‘Can you open these up for people who aren’t [staying] here tonight” to take showers, she said. “We opened up community centers [for people to shower]. There are more facilities open now than before. It’s just that the money’s being shifted. I don’t want that rumor to be perpetuated. There were some organizations that didn’t get funded” because the city went to a competitive process, Bagshaw said.
I covered the cuts to funding for hygiene centers, and the reason some advocates believe community centers and shelters are not an adequate substitute for public restrooms and dedicated hygiene facilities, here.
3. The Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank that researches and covers of housing, transportation, and environmental policy from a green, pro-transit, pro-housing perspective, just brought on a new (unpaid) fellow to cover “issues of infrastructure, technology and energy with a view towards sustainability.” His name: Daniel Malarkey.
If that name sounds familiar, it should. (If it doesn’t, you weren’t following Seattle politics in the early 2000s.) He was the finance director for the Seattle Monorail Project, the transportation agency that was going to build a monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle. That project was doomed to failure after Malarkey’s revenue projections overshot the mark by about 50 percent, and after the agency compounded the problem by trying to paper over the error. (The error Malarkey made was counting revenues from taxes on every single car in Seattle, when in reality, thanks to heavy lobbying from the auto industry, all new cars and cars brought to the city by people moving here from out of state were exempt from the monorail tax. The result was that Malarkey overestimated the monorail’s tax base by a third) When he resigned at the end of 2003, I wrote this. Interestingly, it looks like his three years consulting or working directly for the monorail agency aren’t on his official Sightline bio.
Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Sightline and often use their research in my reporting.
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Homeless service providers and the city of Seattle say they’re confident that they can double the number of people moved from homelessness to permanent housing in the next year through a combination of traditional tools like permanent supportive housing and private market-based solutions like rapid rehousing with short-term rent assistance vouchers. Yesterday, the city’s Human Services Department released a list of programs, operated by 30 local organizations and agencies, that will receive $34 million in new homeless service contracts. By this time next year, Mayor Tim Burgess predicted yesterday, the city will have moved “more than twice as many people from homelessness to permanent homes compared to this year.” Burgess added that he has “confidence … that the new approach will be effective. …I recognize this is a huge change, but it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need that we face on the streets of Seattle. Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.” See below for sassy footnote.*
The city also released a list of the dozens of projects that did not receive city dollars because they failed to meet HSD’s new funding standards, which prioritizes low-barrier shelters and programs that promise to get people into housing quickly over longer-term transitional housing and “mats-on-the-floor” shelters that have high barriers to entry and don’t emphasize permanent housing. This year, according to HSD, 56 percent of the city’s shelter funding goes to bare-bones night shelters; as of next year, “mats-on-the-floor” shelters will make up just 15 percent of HSD’s shelter budget, with the remainder going to enhanced shelters. Overall, there will be 300 fewer HSD-funded shelter beds in the city.
Several longstanding programs will be defunded partially or completely, including the SHARE/WHEEL nightly shelter program, which provides high-barrier nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people per night. (SHARE’s shelters are high-barrier because they require adherence to a long list of rules that varies from shelter to shelter, require prospective shelter residents to pass a “screen” by a current member, and restrict residents’ comings and goings—for example, by requiring them to stay at a shelter consistently for a certain number of nights.) HSD deputy director Jason Johnson confirmed yesterday that SHARE’s application for $694,153 to run its shelters ranked dead last among all applications for emergency shelter service funding; its sister organization for women, WHEEL, also ranked poorly, according to HSD.
HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said that in deciding which providers received funding, the agency prioritized “quality” over “quantity,” noting that having to line up every night for a shelter bed is stressful and makes it harder for homeless people to improve their lives.
“Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” HSD director Catherine Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”
In response to yesterday’s announcement, SHARE released a portion of the application it submitted to HSD (the full applications will be unavailable, HSD officials said, until after an appeal period concludes on December 12), which asserted that the city’s goal of drastically increasing the rate at which people move from homelessness to permanent housing “is a painful impossibility considering the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.Demanding it forces competition, false promises, and a practice commonly called ‘creaming’—programs rejecting hard-to-serve folks to gain better housing outcomes.” SHARE has been vocal during the city council’s budget deliberations, and will almost certainly show up at city hall to protest the cuts; they will still receive funding to operate the city’s six sanctioned tent encampments.
HSD’s prediction about how successful its new approach will be does appear optimistic in light of the high, and growing, cost of living in Seattle, where a one-bedroom market-rate apartment might cost $1,800 to $2,000. As Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization lost funding for two transitional housing projects in the Central District and Georgetown, noted pointedly, permanent housing is always the ultimate goal—but vouchers for formerly homeless people to rent on the private market will only work if people can go from minimal or no income to a relatively high income extremely quickly. If, as seems more likely, they can’t, they may end up worse off than when they accepted the voucher—homeless again, but now with a broken lease or eviction on their record.
“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold,” Lee said. “I think there is a way to lie with statistics. I think they say, ‘We put someone into market-rate housing, and if they don’t show up in the [Homeless Management Information System] later, then it is successful,’ but they haven’t checked” to see if that person is still living in the “permanent housing” after their rent subsidy runs out. Lee said that about 80 percent of the people who live in LIHI-owned and -operated transitional housing would not be good candidates for rapid rehousing, because they are living with physical and developmental disabilities, PTSD, or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing would be the solution, but we don’t have enough permanent supportive housing”—long-term housing with wraparound services. (Interestingly, as SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield points out, HSD appears to estimate the cost of each “exit” to permanent supportive housing as just $1,778 per household, which is far less than any other program, including diversion, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing.).
Enhanced shelters, like the 24-hour, low-barrier Navigation Center that opened earlier this year, are also key to HSD’s plan to permanently house 7,400 people by the end of 2018. The goal is to move most clients through enhanced shelter and into permanent housing within 60 days—but that goal, as I’ve reported, has been harder to achieve in practice than the city predicted. (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it should be noted, has issued a mandate saying people should move through enhanced shelters and into permanent housing in no more than 30 days.) As of October, the Navigation Center, which is run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center had housed just one person—in transitional housing, not the permanent housing the city hopes will be the key to solving the homelessness crisis. (Another person left town, saying they planned to move in with family.)
“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold.”—Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee
Asked why they have confidence that other low-barrier, high-service shelters will be able to rapidly move people from homelessness to permanent housing when the Navigation Centers has struggled, HSD staffers said only that they have faith in the organizations that were chosen for funding and that the 7,400 number is actually a lowball, based on the assumption that most enhanced shelters will need some amount of “ramp-up time.” Johnson also alluded to the need for the Navigation Center to show “fidelity to the San Francisco model,” a reference to the original Navigation Center in that city, on which Seattle’s Navigation Center is modeled. But San Francisco’s Navigation Center benefited early on from the fact that San Francisco was able to steer clients into units the city owned, which meant that people exiting the center didn’t have to find units in the private market; now those units are full, and recent reports suggest that three-quarters of that Navigation Center’s clients have failed to find permanent housing and that most have returned to homelessness.
DESC director Daniel Malone, like LIHI’s Lee, points to high rents in the Seattle area as a key barrier to moving people from shelter to housing in the private market. “While some of the resources in this plan will help pay for people to get into housing, I do believe we still have a major problem in this community with the accessibility and availability of housing that’s affordable to low-income people, so I think we’ve got to address both the navigation”—steering people toward the services that can help them—”and the availability of housing in order to achieve the goals that we all share, and I worry that we haven’t paid enough attention to that second part.”
The city’s grants for rapid rehousing providers did not say that the vouchers needed to pay for housing in Seattle, making it a near-certainty that many voucher recipients who would prefer to live close to their current homes, jobs, and communities may be forced to move to suburbs where rent is cheaper. Given that one of the key criteria HSD considered in the grant process was racial equity—the groups that will receive funding include several organizations that serve Native Americans, African Americans, and African immigrants—I was surprised that HSD was so blithe about pushing more low-income people, especially people of color, out of the city. Lester, the HSD director, said it was a question of priorities: Is it more important to make sure people can find housing in Seattle, or to get them off of the streets or out of their cars? “Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”
As readers of this blog may recall, the city council is still discussing ways to put more funding into homeless services, after rejecting a $125-per-employee tax on the city’s largest 1,100 or so employers. If that funding comes through, HSD staffers said yesterday, the agency already has a list of “tier two” projects that didn’t quite make the cut for this round of funding.
A full list of the projects that received funding is available here.
* Permanent housing, by the way, doesn’t always mean a room or an apartment; it also includes things like crashing on a couch with friends or moving out of the state to live with family; the thing that makes it “permanent” is that it isn’t time-limited, and the thing that makes it “successful” in the city’s eyes is that a person doesn’t re-register as officially homeless with the county, so people who pack up to be homeless elsewhere are out of sight, out of mind.
Late last month, the city’s Human Services Department released its first annual report on Pathways Home, a new framework for serving homeless residents that emphasizes “rapid rehousing” and submits service providers to new performance standards. Among other conclusions, the report found that the Navigation Center, a 75-bed shelter that serves people who don’t do well in traditional shelters, has struggled to place people into permanent housing within the 60-day time limit set by the city.
“People coming inside from being unsheltered have a big adjustment to make and multiple issues to address and many barriers to housing stability; the Navigation Center is finding that mapping out a strategy to get them housed could take more than 60 days,” the report says.
In fact, as of October, the Navigation Center had placed just two people into housing, according to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which runs the Center. DESC’s director of administrative services, Greg Jenson, says that one of those clients is now in transitional housing and one went to live with family. According to the Pathways Home report, of the 105 clients who came through the center in its first six weeks, 32 have left, and “nearly half” of those “have refused to disclose or didn’t know where they were exiting to.”
DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go.
The Navigation Center is designed to serve clients who are the “hardest to house”—people experiencing chronic homelessness who often face multiple barriers to finding a place to live, such as ongoing substance abuse and mental-health issues. It “was not designed to serve the needs of the higher-functioning individuals who are more likely to thrive in traditional shelter settings which have strict rule requirements,” Jackie St. Louis, the coordinator for the Navigation Team, says.
However, DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go. “One thing that has been good is being able to identify people who have a natural priority for the limited housing that is available in the community,” by giving them an assessment that scores them on the number of barriers to housing they face, Malone says. But, he adds, “If we aren’t producing new housing, they’ll just be getting it instead of someone else.”
Seattle’s Navigation Center isn’t the first of its kind; that distinction goes to a low-barrier shelter by the same name in San Francisco, which also serves a hard-to-house clientele. In San Francisco, clients seeking permanent housing stay an average of 90 days, and that figure would likely be larger if the city didn’t set aside some low-income housing units specifically for Navigation Center clients, something Seattle does not do. Although Seattle officials were familiar with the challenges San Francisco faced in housing people through its Navigation Center, the city adopted a 60-day cap, predicting that Seattle’s Navigation Center would be able not only mimic but surpass San Francisco’s success.
The city’s Navigation Teams—groups of police and outreach workers who facilitate encampment removals—frequently refer encampment residents to the Navigation Center. According to a report issued by the Navigation Team itself earlier this month, the teams have sent about 75 people to the center this year.
Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, says she’s confident that the city is sending people who want and will benefit from the services that the center provides. “HSD and DESC are satisfied that the right clients are being referred to the Navigation Center,” she says.
But Malone notes that DESC has “definitely heard from some people that they only came there because they were having to leave where they were staying out, and they hadn’t really decided for themselves that was something that they wanted yet.”
Malone cautions against reading too much into what happens at the Navigation Center in the first few months. “Has it changed the face of homelessness in less than three months? No,” he says. “There have definitely been some start-up issues, and we need to try different things out.”
In San Francisco, Navigation Centers have been successful at getting some homeless people off the street, but they’re hardly a panacea. The success or failure of Seattle’s Navigation Center will be measured not by how many hundreds of people it moves on to permanent housing, but by how many dozens.
Five years of living on the street takes a toll on a person.
You get used to little indignities—constantly being told to move along, a lack of safe places to use the restroom after 5pm—as well as big ones, like the total lack of privacy, or having all your possessions stolen while you sleep.
For Lisa Sawyer, a Real Change vendor and advocate for homeless services who testifies frequently at Seattle and King County Council meetings, the past five years have been a constant struggle against hopelessness and despair. Rejected for housing over and over by landlords who took one look at her bulky pack and street clothes and decided she wasn’t worth the risk, Sawyer finally signed a lease earlier this year. At $1,350 a month, the one-bedroom apartment in Greenwood was more than she and her boyfriend, a veteran who works as a contractor, could afford, but they had made ends meet despite daunting odds before. They decided they could make it work. Anything was better than sleeping outside.
Eight months later, Sawyer is once again at risk of ending back on the street, this time with an eviction on her record—a black mark that would make it all but impossible for her to find housing in the private market. Last month, $2,900 behind on rent, she received a three-day pay or vacate notice—the precursor to a formal eviction. A few days later, the organization Facing Homelessness stepped in and paid her arrears, but next month presents another challenge—and the next month, and the next.
Sawyer’s path from homelessness to housing and, potentially, back again is a case study in how Seattle’s system for housing people experiencing homelessness can fail, and a cautionary tale for leaders who want to go all-in on programs that rely on the private market to catch people at risk for falling through the cracks.
Sawyer, who graduated from Cleveland High School and has lived in Seattle all her life, lost her housing when a roommate lit a candle near some cleaning supplies and the house where she was renting a room burned down. She never imagined she would be homeless this long. “I thought that was the worst day of my life,” she says. “I never thought that having a place could be so much more difficult than being outside.”
Sawyer started out her search for housing armed with a “rapid rehousing” voucher, which would have temporarily paid a portion of her rent in a privately owned apartment. Rapid rehousing, which is the centerpiece of Seattle’s Pathways Home plan to combat homelessness, provides case management and short-term housing vouchers for people experiencing “literal homelessness”—meaning people who are actually living outside or in shelters. The idea behind rapid rehousing is that most homeless people just need a short-term financial boost before they can start making enough money to pay rent on their own. Critics say the program makes unrealistic assumptions about how quickly a person can go from homelessness to full self-sufficiency, and fails to take into account how expensive housing in Seattle can be.
Downtown Emergency Services director Daniel Malone, whose organization distributes some rapid-rehousing vouchers, says “there are a few circumstances where you could use rapid rehousing very confidently and feel very confident that there’s going to be longterm success,” including a situation “where the person has a really good income and is already working a full-time job that pays them enough to rent in the private market.” In that situation, Malone says, rapid rehousing might provide enough money to get a person in an apartment and on their feet. But, he adds, “that’s not the case with a ton of people that are homeless.”
The other circumstance where rapid rehousing works well, Malone says, is when a person with very high service needs—say, a physically disabled person with a serious mental illness—is about to move into permanent supportive housing but just needs a place to stay until a spot becomes available. Sawyer, who works full-time selling Real Change papers at Fourth and Union in downtown Seattle, doesn’t need service-intensive supportive housing, but is unlikely to make enough at her job (which pays as little as $40 a day) to afford a market-rate apartment.
In any case, Sawyer never got a chance to try out rapid rehousing, because she couldn’t find a place that would accept her. From 2015, when she received her voucher from DESC, until this year, when she and her boyfriend moved into their market-rate apartment, Sawyer says she got rejected more than 20 times. “I just gave up hope of finding an actual place, because every time I went to a housing interview, I had all my stuff with me. A lot of people look down on that,” she says. When she did find landlords willing to give her a chance, they weren’t willing to sign a 12-month lease—a requirement for federally funded rapid-rehousing vouchers. The 12-month mandate is meant to ensure rent stability—a landlord can’t sign a three-month lease, then raise the rent beyond a level a voucher recipient can afford—but it also creates a loophole that allows landlords who don’t want to participate in the program to opt out by offering shorter leases.
Eventually, Sawyer got approved for the apartment in Greenwood—but she would have to sign a ten-month lease, making her ineligible for the rapid rehousing program.
Desperate to get indoors, and fed up with caseworkers who urged her to hold out hope, she signed. “We were just fed up with going from interview to interview and getting denied, denied, denied,” she says.
“If you tell a person who’s been outside for a long period of time that they can move in, of course we’ll say yes,” Sawyer says. “It’s heartbreaking. We were giving up. We were getting at each other’s throats because of being outside this long.” Sawyer’s problems were compounded by the fact that she is not in the county’s “coordinated entry” program, which is run through the shelter system. Like many people experiencing homelessness, Sawyer and her boyfriend avoided the shelter system, which separates opposite-sex couples and can be full of, as Sawyer puts it, “bedbugs and drama.” Sawyer preferred sleeping outside or in motels, where she and her boyfriend could have a semblance of privacy. She put her name on the lottery for several low-income housing developments, but never won; when the Seattle Housing Authority briefly allowed people to sign up for a lottery to get on the waiting list for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, she didn’t bother, because the waiting list is currently several years long. (Section 8 vouchers distributed through the Seattle Housing Authority expire after 120 days, and many people return them unused because they were unable to find housing they could afford or landlords willing to rent to them.)
“I thought this program was going to be a good experience for me, because with that voucher, we thought our housing problems were over,” Sawyer says. “Instead, we got stuck in a place that we cannot afford.” She says she has often been forced to choose between paying rent and buying food; when she makes enough money selling papers at Fourth and Union downtown, she spends “$30 or $40” at the nearby Safeway, but says “that food doesn’t last more than a couple of days, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while.”
Sawyer says she hopes to hang on to her apartment through the end of her lease in September, when she’ll try to find another place—without an eviction on her record. “I can’t be outside again. It’s too heartbreaking,” she says. “We want to get into an apartment so bad. When you have housing, but you know that you might be back outside again soon—that’s the worst feeling that anyone can have. … I’ve worked so hard fighting for affordable housing, fighting for these programs to get more funding, and when it all comes down to it, I wonder: ‘Why are you fighting if you got a voucher that doesn’t really help you?'”
Malone, who has expressed some skepticism at the city’s wholesale embrace of rapid rehousing as a one-size-fits-most solution to homelessness, still thinks living indoors is always preferable to sleeping outside—even when a person has to go through the trauma of losing their home to eviction. “You need to guard against eviction, for sure, but I don’t know that the way you guard against it is eliminating the possibility of it happening by never putting somebody in a rental situation in the first place,” he says. “I don’t want to keep people homeless to protect them or ‘for their own good,’ because the situation of being homeless is so harsh that we should do as much as we can to get people out of it—even if we are far from resolving all their problems.”
Rapid rehousing proponents say stories like Sawyer’s aren’t, in themselves, a repudiation of the program. Mark Putnam, director of All Home—the quasi-governmental agency that oversees King County’s homelessness programs—says rapid rehousing gives people a choice over where they live and how much they want to pay. Putnam says that ideally, someone like Sawyer would have a case manager who would sit down and talk to her about whether $1,350 in rent was realistic, given her current and potential future income; however, case managers in housing programs turn over frequently, and Sawyer herself said she felt desperate enough to sign a lease with any landlord who would rent to her.
“Clearly, the system didn’t work for her, so the question is: What can we learn from it?” Putnam says.
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1. One element of Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $275 million homelessness levy that didn’t get mentioned at his press conference earlier this month—perhaps because it involves a significant concession to labor—is that it helps pay for higher wages for the caseworkers and counselors who will be integral to the success of the outreach and treatment elements of the proposal. (The Service Employees International Union 1199 advocated for the inclusion of higher wages in the levy.) Those workers include public health nurses and mental health and substance abuse counselors who will evaluate and treat formerly homeless people who seek services through the city’s navigation teams and at the proposed new 24-hour shelters; outreach workers who talk to people living in encampments during encampment sweeps; case managers who get people connected with rental assistance in the form of new temporary housing vouchers funded through the levy; and the people who staff the new 24-hour shelters and permanent supportive housing. Turnover in those positions is notoriously high, in large part because many people who take those jobs burn out or leave Seattle because they can’t afford to live here, and because high-quality clinical workers and case managers tend to leave for better-paying jobs in the private sector.
The exact cost of raising wages for these positions is unclear, since the increase would also apply to existing contracts. The initiative itself alludes to the wage increases just once, in this blink-and-you-missed-it line: “The Director of Finance and Administrative Services shall make appropriate allowances for (1) the higher costs of high-quality programs staffed with clinical or social service professionals and paraprofessionals and (2) a reasonable wage differential in organizations where employee wages have increased or will increase as a result of the City’s minimum wage.” A more detailed program-by-program breakdown for the initiative indicates that public health nurses and mental health counselors will be paid $45 an hour; therapists in the pilot “Journey of Hope” residential treatment program will be paid $35 an hour; substance abuse counselors and caseworkers will be paid $25 an hour; and outreach workers will be paid $22 an hour. Previously, according to SEIU, some of those workers were making as little as the $15-an-hour minimum.
Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone argues that agencies like his need to be able to pay higher wages to attract and retain high-skilled workers. “Some of the client services that we’re able to deliver are highly dependent on establishing a trusting relationship with a person who has had, quite often, bad experiences with treatment or social services, and when somebody’s case manager is changing all the time, that really interferes with making progress with them. You needs staff who are skilled at working with and providing help to people who sometimes have challenging behaviors, and you can’t have a workforce that is always principally comprised of people who are basically brand new and just learning.”
2. State Senator Mark Miloscia—perhaps best known to readers of this blog as the Republican who proposed two bills that would ban Seattle from allowing homeless encampments and safe injection sites, respectively—met with teenagers from the immigrant rights group OneAmerica outside the Senate chamber in Olympia the other day, and things did not go smoothly.
According to the version of events I heard from a source in Olympia, Miloscia “grilled” the students (including one young woman wearing a headscarf) about whether they were “Catholic or Christian,” then engaged them in an animated argument over race and religion.
I talked to Miloscia this week, and here’s his version of the story. He says he was approached by a group of kids who “peppered” him with questions, and that one of them, a person of color, “said ‘I can only be represented by somebody who looks like me.” Miloscia (who is white) claims he used religion merely as another example of how a person could feel represented by someone who doesn’t share their race—then asked whether the teenagers were “Christian, or Catholics. I said, ‘You can be represented based on religion, not just skin color.'”
Miloscia says he noticed the young woman who looked Muslim, and thought about using her religion as an example, but didn’t want to “put her on the spot. I was going to say she could be represented by a white Muslim or an Asian Muslim, not just a black Muslim.” He said the group then discussed two versions of a statewide voting rights act—one that would give citizens the right to sue if their city’s voting system disenfranchises minority voters, and another, proposed by Miloscia, that would not. “They impressed me with their knowledge of what’s in both bills,” Miloscia says. OneAmerica didn’t want to comment on the record about the exchange, but it’s probably safe to say the admiration wasn’t mutual.
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At a news conference in the common room of a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run permanent supportive housing facility this afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray released details of his five-year, $275-million proposal to address homelessness, which includes short- and long-term housing vouchers, new funding for 24-hour shelters, expanded medication treatment for opioid addiction, and permanent housing for people who need intensive services. What the proposal doesn’t include is funding for transitional housing, traditional overnight shelters, or a broad expansion of inpatient treatment for people whose addictions can’t be treated by medication.
Acknowledging that the $55 million annual commercial and residential property tax levy would represent an additional burden for Seattle taxpayers, Murray said he had hoped the federal government would pick up some of the tab for addressing what is also a national emergency. “When I announced the [homelessness] state of emergency, when we announced [the homelessness response plan] Pathways Home, I emphasized … that we could not do it alone; we needed the federal government,” Murray said. “In my State of the City address, I basically conceded a point that many of you in the media have challenged me on: that federal help is not coming.” In fact, Murray said, “we will probably see less money than we see today.”
The briefing came just one day after the city removed the few remaining stragglers from the SoDo homeless encampment known as the Field, to which the city itself directed people five months ago when it cleared the vast encampment under I-5 called the Jungle. Earlier this week, residents of the camp and their supporters showed up to the 2pm city council meeting to ask the council to delay the sweep, arguing that the city had failed to respond to repeated requests for things like sawdust, additional port-a-potties, fire extinguishers, and trash pickup, making the squalor at the camp inevitable. The city argued that the camp was not just unsanitary but unsafe, citing the arrest last week of a camp resident for rape and sex trafficking of teenage girls.
Murray’s proposal emphasizes getting people indoors through “rapid rehousing” in the form of temporary rental subsidies for housing on the private market; the mayor’s proposal would divide those subsidies into “short-term, medium-term, and long-term vouchers,” Murray said today. (The proposals are based on a set of recommendations called Pathways Home, which in turn is based on a report by Columbus, Ohio consultant Barb Poppe, and another firm called Focus Strategies). Short-term vouchers could provide rental assistance for as little as three months, while medium-term vouchers could last 18 months or longer, and long-term vouchers would effectively be permanent.
A slightly more detailed breakdown of the measure provided by the city reveals that the vast majority of the housing vouchers it would pay for would be either short- or medium-term, meaning that when they run out, formerly homeless renters will need to make enough money to pay for a market-rate apartment. (Currently, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is just under $2000). About 4,250 of the 5,100 “housing exits” the proposal aims to accomplish over five years take the form of short- or medium-term housing vouchers; another 475 people would receive long-term vouchers, and 373 would be moved into permanent supportive housing. The proposal also aims to prevent 1,750 people from becoming homeless through diversion programs, and to provide subsidies for 1,500 people to move into clean-and-sober Oxford Houses over the next five years.
Other than the subsidies for Oxford housing, the mayor’s proposal includes no new funding for transitional housing, temporary housing that’s somewhere between a shelter and a private apartment. It does include 200 new beds at 24-hour, low-barrier shelters, which would replace some funding for traditional overnight-only shelters in the city’s 2018 budget, according to details provided by the city.
Although rapid rehousing hasn’t been implemented on the scale Murray is proposing in a city with a comparably unaffordable rental market (in the cities most commonly cited as rapid-rehousing success stories, Salt Lake City and Houston, a one-bedroom apartment costs about half what a comparable unit rents for in Seattle), council human services committee chair Sally Bagshaw said it was time to stop asking questions and start taking action. “We can debate, we can continue to study, or we can do what our experts have recommended to us,” Bagshaw said. “Do we just keep studying it, or do we invest big in what we know works?”
The proposal also includes a $10 million “housing innovation fund”—unallocated dollars that will go toward finding new housing models and building types that might be cheaper and faster to bring online than conventional low-income housing. Murray’s housing policy advisor Leslie Brinson Price said today that the fund is meant to “spur new thinking and provide a way to pilot projects” that the city might not try otherwise, like modular construction and cohousing.
Substance abuse treatment makes up a relatively small portion of the proposed levy, about $20 million of the $275 million total. That treatment consists primarily of programs that expand access to buprenorphine, brand name Suboxone, a replacement opiate that reduces cravings in people who are addicted to heroin and other opioids, and “housing with intensive outpatient substance use disorder treatment,” which Price said would also focus on buprenorphine distribution.
The measure would add 16 new inpatient treatment beds as part of a pilot project based on Philadelphia’s Journey of Hope project, which offers long-term residential treatment for chronically homeless individuals. The proposal does not appear to explicitly include treatment for alcohol addiction, which is also extremely pre homeless people as as addiction to heroin and other opiates, or other drugs with more complicated courses of treatment than taking a daily dose of Suboxone.
Asked about the relatively small emphasis on treatment—a subject that comes up often in discussions about homelessness—Murray said, “Remember, addiction treatment is not a city function, it is a county function. … We are getting into new lines of business that I hoped we wouldn’t get into, but again, if you look at the restricted nature of the county’s funding and the fact that they constantly find themselves cutting budgets, that’s why we’re getting into buying some services from them.”
As I noted earlier this week, by gathering enough signatures to take his measure directly the ballot, Murray is effectively bypassing the city council, which tends to tinker with (and often reduce) mayoral spending proposals. Asked why he chose this tactic over the more traditional course of sending the ballot measure to the council for approval, Murray said, “I thought it was important for this to come from the community, for signatures to be gathered through a grassroots effort, rather than the usual model of doing things where the council puts it on the ballot. .. It gives people the chance to think about whether they want to sign that measure and whether they want to vote for that measure.” Then, smiling slightly, Murray added, “I mean, I’m a former legislator. [Legislators] always change the executive’s budget.”
Assuming supporters gather the requisite 20,000 valid signatures, the measure will be on the August 1 ballot—alongside Ed Murray, who is running for reelection.
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San Francisco’s Navigation Center for the homeless is a promising model for Seattle—if the city decides to really embrace it.
Last month, the Seattle Human Services Department dropped several pieces of bad news in the laps of the city council’s human services committee: First, the department had failed to locate sites for all four of the sanctioned encampments Mayor Ed Murray promised as part of his “Bridging the Gap” proposal to shelter some of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, now several thousand strong. Second, ongoing sweeps of unauthorized encampments will no longer be monitored by the city’s Office of Civil Rights, which was charged with overseeing encampment removals and making sure workers comply with rules about notice and disposal of people’s tents and other possessions. And third, a planned low-barrier shelter known as the Navigation Center, to be operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, won’t open on schedule due to trouble locating an acceptable site for the facility. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said at last month’s meeting.
The Navigation Center delay was a blow to advocates who’ve argued that Seattle needs shelter options that serve the hardest to house among the city’s growing homeless population—those who don’t use regular shelters because they have one or more of the “three P’s”—pets, partners, and possessions, which aren’t allowed in traditional shelters—or because they’ve been scared away by bad experiences in the shelter system. Add to those three disqualifiers a fourth “P”—problems. Shelters don’t work well for people in acute mental distress, people who happen to be drunk or high, or people whose mental or emotional troubles make it difficult for them to stay in close quarters with hundreds of other people.
It’s a fairly safe bet that the city will announce the Navigation Center site sometime in January—too late to help those stuck sleeping outside in subzero temperatures during the first half of this unusually cold winter, but in time for Murray to attend the opening before his reelection campaign begins in earnest. But what do city officials really mean when they talk about “low-barrier” shelter, anyway—and what will make the Navigation Center different from other shelters DESC operates, like the Morrison Hotel downtown, which takes people in any condition on a first-come, first-served basis?
To help answer those questions, I headed south to San Francisco, where the original Navigation Center opened in the Mission District in March 2015. (The city has since opened another Navigation Center, and is working on a third; all three are temporary facilities on public land slated for eventual redevelopment.) Located in the middle of a a dreary street of Mission Street populated largely by street kids and older people just sort of hanging around, the Navigation Center stands out for its clean sidewalk, airy entryway, and woodsy, modern exterior. It looks more like the entrance to a pricey new condo building than a shelter—if that condo building was flanked by two portable buildings painted institutional yellow, and fronted by a short but official-looking sturdy iron fence.
“It’s hard to explain that it’s never looked so good [on the street outside], but there it is,” Sam Dodge tells me as we walk through the center. Dodge is the deputy director of San Francisco’s new Department of Homelessness, and he—along with John Ouertani, the site manager—is one of the chief evangelists for the Navigation Center model. “This property is open 24 hours and is very low-threshold,” Ouertani says. “There are a few rules, but the guests pretty much come in and out as they please.” As we’re talking, a new guest comes in—a skinny young man, probably 30, staggering under some unseen weight, his head parallel to the dusty ground. A case worker steers him toward his dorm, urging him to get some sleep.
Physically, the center consists of several low portable buildings—an admissions center, a dining hall/TV room, an ADA-accessible building with showers, restrooms, and free laundry facilities, and five dorms—clustered around a central courtyard. The layout gives clients (the Navigation Center calls them “guests”) more physical room than a traditional shelter, to walk around, play with their pets—and sleep. The dorms themselves house a maximum of 15 people each, a far cry from the hundreds of bunk beds that crowd a typical shelter, and some beds are pushed together in pairs, to accommodate couples who want to sleep together. Meals are available all day and night in the common building, and showers are open 24/7, to give people a sense of autonomy and to differentiate the center from other institutional living situations that guests may have encountered and found unwelcoming or traumatic in the past.
“A lot of people [the Navigation Center serves] haven’t had contact with a shelter for a very long time, but they have past memories of shelter or they’ve heard rumors on the street, and that’s kept them out,” Dodge says. “I think it’s really important that we’re telegraphing to people that ‘You are going to make this amazing life change, and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of appointments and all this stuff, but we’re here to make it easy for you, and we want to make a tranquil environment where you can rest when you need to rest, and you can eat when you need to eat, and stay focused on the goal of ending your homelessness.” In contrast, traditional shelters typically serve meals, if they serve meals at all, at standard times, clear out sleeping areas during the day, and are anything but tranquil.
DESC director Daniel Malone says that during one of his visits to the San Francisco Navigation Center, he and his colleagues witnesses a client become “really agitated about something,” yelling and pacing around frantically. What they noticed, he says, is that the man “was basically able to blow off some steam—the physical environment there seemed to allow for him to have that moment, or that event, without really significantly affecting anybody else. And some of us from DESC observed that and immediately made the connection that if that had happened in the DESC shelter—and things like that happen in the DESC shelter all the time—he would have had a different reception, because a lot of people would have been around and wouldn’t have had the patience for that happening.
“It helped some of us feel more confident that there could be some real differences by going this route of creating a place where we weren’t just trying to squeeze in as many people as humanly possible.”
Another key difference between the Navigation Center and a traditional shelter is that the Navigation Center is truly low-barrier, welcoming people who have partners, pets, possessions—and problems. Ouertani estimates that at any given time, there are a dozen or more dogs on the property—many of them pit bulls—and says that as long as they’re vaccinated, on a leash, and don’t attack people or other dogs, they can stay. “We had about 17 pets come in within the first month and an half after we first opened up, and that’s pretty much what dictated where the guests went, because you can’t put 10 pit bulls in one dorm,” Ouertani said. People are also allowed to bring large possessions, like shopping carts, bikes, and what Dodge calls “survival stuff from the street.” (Weapons are taken at the door and stored for clients to retrieve later.) And they’re allowed to stay with partners‚ unlike typical shelters that require couples to split. (Dodge says there have been times when women, for example, or transgender people have said they felt unsafe sleeping in coed dorms, and the Navigation Center has accommodated them by making one of the five dorms single-gender). Finally, they’re allowed to stay at the center even if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol—or, in most cases, even if they consume drugs or alcohol at the center. “We’re not so much focused on the drugs and alcohol,” Dodge says, “because we know those are almost a given. So if you get caught using on the property, it does not mean that you are asked to leave. That’s our time to outreach to you.”
Clients can’t just walk in to the Navigation Center, nor will they be able to do so in Seattle. Instead, the center seeks out new clients at encampments (often right before announced raids by San Francisco city authorities) and through groups serving homeless people from marginalized communities. “One of our [initial] ideas was that we could go and just take a whole encampment and bring them inside,” Dodge said. “And then we saw from some of our data that in taking the whole encampment, we started to preference a younger, whiter group that felt comfortable in places of conflict, so then we started to say, ‘Let’s select for some racial equity and try to balance those numbers out a little bit.'” Like the city of Seattle, San Francisco uses a race and social justice lens when designing and funding city programs. “And then we went to the Haight Ashbury [neighborhood] and worked with some of the groups up there, and said, ‘Let’s work with a younger cohort. Let’s try to preference transgender people who seem to feel unsafe in a lot of our shelter system.'” The result is a population that goes through demographic changes based on the center’s current outreach priorities. f the population looks a little too young and white, they can tweak their outreach to bring in more Latino immigrants; if it’s skewing heavily toward straight, older couples, the center can increase outreach to groups that serve LGBTQ youth.
“Part of the model is being able to experiment and try new things and collect data and analyze it and experiment again,” Dodge says.
One reason the original Navigation Center has been so free to experiment is that it’s funded largely by private dollars, through a no-strings-attached grant from an anonymous wealthy donor; Seattle’s Navigation Center will be funded by a combination of state and local dollars.
Daniel Malone, the DESC director, says his group plans to emulate the experimental spirit of the San Francisco Navigation Center, but notes that the city will choose clients based on its own set of criteria, which will in turn be dictated, to some extent, by federal priorities. “Essentially, folks are going to [come] to us after being selected by the Human Services Department,” Malone says. Johnson, the HSD deputy director, says Navigation Center clients will be chosen by outreach workers who will “engage with an unsheltered person or couple to try to tease out what that couple might need to move from living outside to living inside”; if it seems like they’ve rejected other shelter options because of barriers like restrictions on partners and pets, “then the Navigation Center comes into play.”
Johnson says Seattle’s Navigation Center, when it opens, will still embrace “the core themes that hold true at the San Francisco Navigation Center,” but it will be uniquely Seattle.” For example, Johnson says, people will be expected to move out of the center, and into more stable (if not permanent) housing within 30 days—an ambitious goal given that, also according to Johnson, the average shelter stay in King County is 200 days. Johnson says the San Francisco Navigation Center has “changed their model” to move people through the center in 30 days, but Dodge says that for those who are seeking stable housing (as opposed to shelter or treatment), moving through the system takes longer, about 90 days on average.
San Francisco’s Navigation Center has moved nearly 300 people into more stable housing since it opened in 2015, which is quite a feat—especially when you consider that many people enter the center with few or no prior connections to the city’s homeless “system.” That’s another thing that’s different about the Navigation Center—instead of just providing phone numbers and addresses for service providers and sending clients on their way, the center provides each client with an on-site case manager who helps them make appointments and actually show up, as well as service providers who come to the center weekly. Of all the barriers to housing, Dodge says, the sheer number of appointments can be one of the most daunting. “At one point, we were averaging 28 appointments that someone had to make coming from the street [before getting] housing, and for some of these other cases, where you’re dealing with immigration and maybe the Veterans Administration, it’s much more.”
The most ambitious versions of San Francisco’s plan max out at about six Navigation Centers, which works out to about 450 theoretical clients at a time. The unsheltered homeless population of San Francisco is nearly 6,700, according to a 2015 count; in Seattle, it’s around 3,000. (The actual numbers are likely much higher, since those figures only represent the number of people homeless count participants actually encountered sleeping on the streets.) Johnson says Seattle has no immediate plans to start siting a second Navigation Center, and indicates that the site the city will choose won’t be a temporary use of publicly owned land, like the ones in San Francisco. Given that a single low-barrier shelter will barely make a dent in the growing demand, many advocates point out the obvious: Seattle needs more low-income housing, and not just in the form of short-term “rapid rehousing” rental vouchers.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that, when I got to Seattle 20 years ago, there were literally a third of the homeless people that we see now,” says Real Change director Tim Harris. “My issue with the [Navigation Center] approach is just simply that 75 beds doesn’t go all that far, given the depth of the need.”
Malone, whose organization will be charged with making the Seattle Navigation Center a success, says that “if the Navigation Center fails and doesn’t have a lot of throughput”—that is, people entering the center and exiting into housing—”then it’ll end up being a very expensive shelter, and that’s not what anyone’s looking to do.”
A final unknown: What will federal housing policy look like under the Trump Administration? Immediately after the election, housing and homelessness advocates were deeply concerned about who Trump would pick to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets federal housing policy. (The federal government provides about 40 percent of Seattle’s budget for homeless services). Now that Trump has chosen Ben Carson, the libertarian-leaning surgeon and failed Presidential candidate, they’re looking for funding closer to home, at the state and local levels.
Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s health and human services committee, says that “as dire as it is, what we’re facing right now, I actually don’t think that the federal government was going to help us anyway, because of the Republican Congress. I believe firmly that what we do, and every step of progress that we make is going to be done by the city and the county, with, hopefully, some help from the state.”
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As the city council indicates it will delay any decision about how to address the issue of homeless encampments until December (a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to officially bar camping in parks appears to be the template on which the council will work once they adopt a budget), another, more sweeping homelessness proposal moves to the front burner.
Pathways Home, Murray’s response to two consultants’ reports suggesting a move away from transitional housing (a fairly structured, and costly, form of housing that includes supportive services) to “rapid rehousing,” would mandate a major shift in the way the city funds housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition to shifting funds away from transitional housing, the proposal would change the city’s funding model from a provider-centered framework (in which housing providers create programs to serve the specific groups that are their clients, such as veterans) to a funder-centered model (in which funders, including the city and United Way, determine the best way to allocate funds and providers must adapt.)
On the ground, it means that less-“efficient” programs, like the Low-Income Housing Institute’s transitional apartments for veterans and Muslims, will be cut and replaced with “rapid rehousing” funds to provide homeless people from all backgrounds with temporary (three-to-nine-month) vouchers for housing in the private market. After the vouchers run out, most recipients will be on their own.
There’s a lot to unpack in this radical shift from the current model to the new voucher-based system, but let’s start at the top: With HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD determines federal housing policy, which filters down to states and municipalities, and right now, they’re all about rapid rehousing. That’s understandable: According to the Focus Strategies report on which (along with a set of recommendations known as the Poppe Report) Pathways Home is partly based, transitional housing “is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household.”
One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city, respectively, is $924, $967, and $949. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.)
So what does this purported cost savings mean for homeless people? That’s unclear, in part because rapid rehousing is such a new strategy—just five or six years old. According to Rachel Fyall, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who is studying rapid rehousing, the best study on rapid rehousing, called Family Options, only includes 18 months of data and only evaluated families with children; in Seattle, rapid rehousing is being touted as the best option specifically for single men, who tend to be the hardest to house. In other words, the study most commonly cited as evidence that rapid rehousing works to get people out of homelessness is short-term and didn’t study the very population for whom it’s supposed to work in Seattle.
“Rapid rehousing is very new,” Fyall says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this, and I’m sometimes frustrated by claims that this is evidence based and proven.”
Fyall (who stipulates bluntly that “transitional housing is not a good idea” for getting people into permanent housing either) is currently finishing up work on a study of a new rapid rehousing program run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle. Looking at the data so far, she says “the jury is out” on whether rapid rehousing actually gets people into “permanent housing” long-term, or whether people are forced back into homelessness once their subsidies run out. “We don’t know what happens to them, and that is the big unknown of rapid rehousing generally,” Fyall says.
Another big unknown is whether rapid rehousing actually houses people who wouldn’t have been able to exit homelessness on their own, or whether most of those who are quickly able to get by in the private rental market would have done so anyway.
DESC director Daniel Malone, like Fyall a skeptic of both approaches, says that DESC’s rapid rehousing program “by and large ends up being used for the higher-functioning folks who will move into an apartment, get an agreement with a landlord, and make it work for a few months.” What the studies haven’t done, he says, is compare people who receive temporary subsidies to those “who have not gotten rapid rehousing assistance and got out out of homelessness anyway. That’s the crux of the matter: Is rapid rehousing doing anything that wasn’t going to happen naturally?”
Malone also notes that the small amount of data that exists on rapid rehousing programs indicates that while people on vouchers don’t immediately fall back into homelessness once their rent subsidies run out, they also don’t tend to stay in their original, subsidized apartments. Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI and someone whose programs stand to lose a lot of funding under Pathways Home, says, “If they would just say rapid rehousing is a shelter—’rapid rehousing means we’ll get you off the street, and you can have three months of being off the street in market-rate housing’—that would be more honest.”
Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that manages homelessness policy across King County, says he understands Lee’s frustration but adds that right now, the county and city are under a HUD mandate to shift away from longer-term transitional housing and “just house people any way we can, wherever we can while we are fighting the advocacy battle to get our [housing] trust fund funded” by the state and federal governments. “It’s the reality of where we are right now. … We need more resources, but these are also reality-based recommendations. Can we house more people with [our current] resources? The answer is yes.”
One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city is $924, $967, and $949, respectively. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.) What that means in practice is that formerly homeless people will be cast out after a few months of subsidy into a private market that is unaffordable even for many middle-class people.
Pathways Home brushes aside concerns about the relative unaffordability of Seattle by suggesting that people may just have to make some tough choices—like paying much larger proportions of their income in rent (current HUD standards for “affordability” say you should spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and utilities), or by moving out of town. From the Focus Strategies report:
“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County. RRH is not an anti-poverty program, so households may pay a significant portion of their income for rent if it makes the difference between being unsheltered and being housed. Households should have the option of sharing units if that makes their rental budget stretch further. Clients should also have the option to move to areas where housing is cheaper. In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments.”
That may sound fine when you’re moving widgets around a map. But when you’re moving people around a region—particularly a region in which poor people, people of color, immigrant communities, and many other marginalized populations are being pushed out of an ever-wealthier Seattle—such a strategy raises huge questions about equity and economic inequality. Is it fair to say that poor people just have to live where we tell them to, even if that means they’re torn away from their jobs, friends, family, social structures, and community supports? Should immigrants who want to live among people who speak their language, or single moms who rely on family members for child care, or low-income workers who rely on public transit, be required to move to isolated areas away from those supports? And at a time when Seattle is setting up programs to help low-income residents, such as the pilot “universal preschool” initiative, does it make sense to tell many of those same residents that their only option may be moving to another county?
“[Rapid rehousing] programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” — Focus Strategies
Merril Cousin, director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, says while the city tries to save money and move people indoors, they should consider those people’s individual circumstances, rather than treating them as problems to be solved through increased efficiencies. For the domestic violence victims she works with, for example, “being able to maintain social support is really important to a survivor’s ability to get safe and heal from the the abuse,” and Cousin says that need for social support extends to lots of other communities.
“If we want to have a diverse and vibrant community, we can’t just say to people, ‘Just go somewhere else.’ Families are already fleeing Seattle because it’s not affordable here, and now we’re saying, ‘Veterans, you can’t afford to live here, go somewhere else. Poor people, go somewhere else,'” Cousin says. “To say, ‘Your only option is to move away from a community where you may have social support and services’—that doesn’t lead to self-sufficiency and wholeness. Social support is an incredibly important part of that.”
Putnam, with All Home, says he doesn’t disagree, but argues that without additional funding from the state and the feds, the city and county have to do whatever houses the most people, even if that means dislocating them from their communities.
“Moving them away—that’s a tough thing for the city to feel okay about,” Putnam says. “If everybody needs to leave Seattle or leave King County, that’s not the ideal, but my job is to get people into housing. To me, equity is about getting people housed.”
“One of the calls for us at the systems level is that we’re trying to house as many people as we can with the resources that we have,” Putnam adds, and “It seems like the choice right now between people living in tents in Seattle versus apartments somewhere else.”
Lee, whose organization runs transitional housing for teenagers, vets, immigrants, and other groups, says All Home assumes, unfairly, that the system for housing homeless people can be “fixed” simply by reshuffling money and people around, rather than by adding funds for all sorts of housing, including transitional programs. “I think the problem with Mark Putnam is that he thinks it’s a zero- sum game: We should ‘right-size’ [a term that appears several times in the Focus Strategies report] and therefore if we want to do more rapid rehousing, we have to take away from someplace else. He’s constructed his own problem. [He’s saying], ‘We shouldn’t be spending more; let’s just find creative ways of doing more with less,’ which can only take you so far.”
Lee notes that one of the longstanding criticisms of groups like hers is that they historically engaged in “creaming”—taking in the easiest-to-serve clients in order to demonstrate high success rates to funders like HUD. She predicts rapid rehousing will have the same effect: Providing apartments for those who were almost able to make it in the private market already, while leaving the most vulnerable, including those who are currently served by “inefficient” transitional housing, behind.
Funders, Lee says, “used to say, ‘You’re only taking people who are going to be successful.’ Well, we know that recent immigrants and refugees are not going to be able to exit transitional housing in three to six months and be successful so you’re setting them up to fail. If Mark Putnam overlays the same requirements [on rapid rehousing], then he’s incentivizing going back to the old way, which is, you’re only going to want to work with people who are going to be successful.
“That’s the problem of feeling like you have to cut services to fund rapid rehousing. If you’ve got 3,000 people on the street, and some of them are homeless young adults and homeless families with multiple [Child Protective Services] involvements around the care of their children, and people with issues around not just income but mental health, you’re going to need more services tied to the housing, and sticking them in market rate housing with just short term rent subsidy isn’t the answer.”
Putnam and Lee differ on the issue of whether HUD’s shift away from transitional housing is a mandate on Seattle or an unproven idea from which Seattle can deviate. Lee points to the Seattle Housing Authority’s Stepping Forward program—a Pathways Home-style initiative that would have increased some public housing residents’ rent up to 400 percent—as a time when Seattle decided to go its own way and abandon a market-based strategy that was pushed by the feds. Putnam says funding from HUD is contingent on adopting “performance-based contracting” and moving away from transitional housing, so Lee’s strategy is unrealistic.
Fyall, the UW researcher, suggest that the real solution may be long-term housing subsidies—especially in a market, like Seattle’s, where people who work multiple jobs find it hard to stay afloat.
“A key component of homelessness is the inability to afford housing, and for many people, affordability”—not mental health or addiction or any other personal issue—”is really the number one difference between people who are homeless and pole who are housed: They can’t afford a place to live,” Fyall says. She says some groups cite the 18-month Family Options study (which will be updated with 37 months of data in December) as “the success of rapid rehousing, which I find bogus, because my read on the study is that the only thing that works permanently is a permanent subsidy, and the rest of it is just spitting people back into homelessness.”
“When I think about the homelessness problem in our region, everything that’s happening at a intervention level is really just bailing out buckets of water from the ocean of rising rents,” Fyall says. “When you have people at all income levels struggling to find housing that is affordable to them, that is what I would consider the root cause of homelessness.”
And here’s what Focus Strategies has to say about affordability. “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in Seattle/King County is critical to the community making progress towards ending homelessness.”
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