If you’re interested in harm reduction, homelessness, and evidence-based responses to chronic homelessness and addiction (and if you’re a reader of mine, you probably are), check out my new piece in Crosscut about 1811 Eastlake, the 15-year-old program that provides no-strings-attached housing for chronically homeless people with alcohol use disorders. Here’s a teaser:
It was the late 1990s, and Seattle leaders were trying to decide what to do about an addiction epidemic. Residents of several center-city neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square, complained about public urination, trash and the constant parade of ambulances ferrying people to Harborview Medical Center. People told stories about coming home to find homeless addicts passed out in their yards. A task force was assembled to come up with solutions.
Back then, the substance at the center of the debate wasn’t heroin — it was alcohol. But the conversation about how to deal with what were then known as “chronic public inebriates” would be familiar to anyone following the opiate epidemic in 2019. “These people would be urinating, defecating, sleeping in doorways,” says former Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel, who was then commander of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct. “We were spending $1,000 just to send people a mile up the road to Harborview. That’s the most expensive detox you can deliver.”
The best solution the city could come up with — creating special alcohol impact areas, where stores would be barred from selling certain kinds of high-alcohol malt liquor that low-income and homeless drinkers favored — was unpopular with store owners, the beverage industry and residents of nearby neighborhoods, who argued that the bans would simply push the problem into their front yards. “We were stuck in the middle,” Pugel recalls.
Into this impasse stepped Bill Hobson, the head of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, offering a third option: “Wet housing,” where chronically homeless people with alcohol use disorder would be allowed to live, and drink, without judgment or expectations. Hobson’s theory was that people could move successfully from the streets to housing without first going through treatment or other interventions — a controversial position, given the prevailing view that people living on the streets would “fail” at housing unless they got sober first.
Today, the concept of “Housing First” is enshrined in city housing policies across the country, including Seattle and King County. (The authorizing legislation for the proposed new regional homelessness authority, for example, explicitly mandates “evidence-based, housing first” policies.) So it can be easy to forget how radical the idea was just 20 years ago, when most programs targeting chronically homeless people required sobriety and intensive case management as prerequisites.
“We were skeptical — hell, yeah, we were. We thought, if you want someone to stop drinking, you should just make them stop drinking,” says Pugel, currently running to represent District 7 on the Seattle City Council: “My views have evolved since then. I’m not a Cro-Magnon anymore.”
The result of Hobson’s vision, known simply as “1811 Eastlake,” now sits on the edge of the South Lake Union neighborhood and has been serving Seattle residents for the past 15 years. The unobtrusive blue-and-gray, four-story building houses 75 formerly homeless men and women with severe alcohol use disorders and provides them with meals, counseling and health care, no strings attached. The program has saved money, and lives, by using the principles of “harm reduction,” which holds that reducing the harm people cause themselves and others through their substance use is beneficial in itself, whether or not the person quits using the harmful substance.
Pugel recalls that Hobson, who died in 2016, would declare loudly, “This is housing for drunks!” to anyone who seemed to misunderstand the purpose of what DESC was doing. Although current DESC Director Daniel Malone doesn’t remember him using “those exact words,” he says Hobson was always clear that the purpose of 1811 wasn’t to get anyone sober or to turn clients into clean-cut, productive members of society; it was to provide housing for people who had “failed out” of abstinence-based treatment and housing programs multiple times, were chronically homeless and had less than a 5% chance of “achieving and maintaining sobriety.” The point wasn’t to stop alcoholics from drinking; it was to improve their quality of life and reduce the amount they cost the public, in that order.
Read the whole story, complete with excellent photos by Matt McKnight, at Crosscut.
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1. If you’re concerned about homelessness and think that Governor Jay Inslee has been a bit too distracted by electric cars or solar panels or running a quixotic campaign for president to pay the issue proper attention, wait until you meet your governor pro tem, Lieutenant Gov. Cyrus Habib. Habib, who is otherwise best known for breaking ties in the state Senate, serves as governor when Inslee is out of the state. Last Friday, when Inslee “visiting with his friends and family in Iowa,” Habib delivered a coruscating keynote (“on behalf of all 7 million residents of Washington State,” he joked) at the 40th anniversary fundraiser for the Downtown Emergency Services Center.
First, Habib dismissed the notion, popular among “some of our most vocal neighbors here in Seattle,” that it matters where homeless people in the city originally came from (even though, as he noted, more than 80 percent of the people surveyed as part of last year’s one-night homeless count said their last address before becoming homeless was in King County. “My parents came from Tehran. I was born in Baltimore. This city is full of people whose last known residence was not in King County,” Habib said. “How is what you’re saying any different from the intolerance that the president shows to asylum seekers? How can you say that about Trump, and then turn around and blame someone for coming from Wichita out of desperation? It makes no sense.”
According to the Navigation Team’s weekly reports, the team removed 39 encampments in the last month. Of those, 34 were deemed “hazardous” or an “obstruction,” and were therefore exempt from the requirements that would ordinarily apply to encampment removals, including the offer of an alternative place to sleep, notification requirements, and an opportunity to access services before being forced to move along.
Similarly, Habib said, people often dismiss their neighbors experiencing homelessness by saying they’re “all drug addicts”—another dehumanizing distinction that puts people with the disease of addiction outside the bounds of what “upstanding citizens” should have to care about. “I truly think that for most people, this comes from a place of fear,” said Habib, who is blind—fear that if things don’t go according to plan, the person condemning and othering homeless people might end up homeless one day herself.
“You know, there was a time before about three generations ago when, if you were blind, there was a good chance that you would be homeless and begging. I think about, what if everyone were blind? But what if everyone were suffering from a substance abuse disorder? Surely the way to approach and to encounter that person is not with less empathy. It’s certainly not to put them on a prison island somewhere.”
2. I had Habib’s words about fear in my head as I sat down on the bleachers at District 5 city council member Debora Juarez’s “public safety town hall” at the Bitter Lake Community Center Monday night—fearing, myself, that the meeting would turn into a reprise of the awful Ballard town hall last year, where an angry mob shouted obscenities at a panel assembled to discuss the proposed employee hours tax last year. The mood was reassuringly polite and respectful, but the questions—aimed at a panel that included Juarez, Mayor Jenny Durkan, assistant SPD chief Eric Greening, and SPD North Precinct Captain Eric Sano—were based on the same misconceptions Habib referred to in his remarks on Friday: Why can’t police just remove all unsheltered homeless people from their locations without notice or due process? Why can’t the city hire 300 more police officers immediately? What can be done with people who refuse to go into shelter or treatment?
Durkan made clear that one of the top priorities for her administration, when it comes to responding to neighborhood complaints about encampments, is to remove encampments in parks and other places where the city has deemed them to be inherent obstructions, and to ensure that they don’t return. If the city determines that an encampment represents an obstruction or immediate hazard, the Navigation Team, which conducts the removals, is not required to provide outreach, referrals to shelter or services, or any prior notice before removing people’s tents and other belongings from a location.
“This city is full of people whose last known residence was not in King County,” Habib said. “How is what you’re saying any different from the intolerance that the president shows to asylum seekers? How can you say that about Trump, and then turn around and blame someone for coming from Wichita out of desperation?”
Durkan said the city is using a new strategy called “clean and hold,” in which “we move the encampment out [and] we hold it so that people don’t return. … You will start seeing that happen in more places in the city.”
Later, in response to a question about how the city’s Navigation Team will ensure that camps they remove don’t come back, Durkan elaborated. “There are some encampments or single tents that, if they’re obstructions to the roadway, they can be cleared immediately, and when you call, they will be treated differently than encampments” whose residents must receive a minimum of 72 hours’ notice before the city can start hauling away tents and belongings. In practice, the Navigation Team gives the residents of encampments deemed to be “hazardous” or “obstructions” 30 minutes’ notice before clearing them out, although they are not required to do so.
Second, Durkan said, the Navigation Team, whose budget the city nearly doubled last year, is being aggressive about posting notices in places with persistent encampments and patrolling those areas to make sure people don’t come back. “If you look on the waterfront and at Sixth and James, there are a couple of locations where what we’ve done is, once we clear it, if we post [no camping signs] then… as people start to set up, we say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t set up here. Can we help you get some services?” Durkan said.
According to the Navigation Team’s weekly reports, the team removed 39 encampments in the last month. Of those, 34 were deemed to be “hazardous” or an “obstruction,” and were therefore exempt from the requirements that would ordinarily apply to encampment removals, which are outlined in detail here.
This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.
Private landlords aren’t the only ones taking tenants to court for unpaid rent in Seattle. As “Losing Home” points out (the September 2018 report on eviction from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project), nonprofit housing providers are also evicting low-income renters, often for what appear to be very small amounts of rent, typically less than $1,000. Of all the nonprofit providers that turned up in the groups’ survey of evictions in Seattle in 2017, one—the Low Income Housing Institute—stood out, not only for initiating more evictions than any other provider, but for charging legal fees that often far exceeded the amount of rent a tenant owed, according to the report.
“[I]n cases where the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sued a tenant for nonpayment of rent, the median rent demanded was $551 and the median legal costs added to the tenant’s balance was $761.25,” the report states. (Tenants who lose eviction cases, including tenants who live in nonprofit-run housing, typically have to pay attorneys’ fees in addition to whatever they owe their landlords. These fees are not capped and are frequently more than the amount of unpaid rent a tenant owes.) “Given that LIHI specializes in providing affordable housing to low-income tenants, the imposition of an additional $761.25 to the tenant’s balance is substantial and likely to interfere with the tenant’s ability to find new housing in the future.” In 2017, the report notes, LIHI initiated 54 eviction cases in Seattle over unpaid rent, and ended up evicting all but eight of those tenants.
“When we look at the overall eviction rates, LIHI is a lot higher than all the other” nonprofits, says Edmund Witter, managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project. “They evicted pretty much everyone they actually started an eviction against.” According to the data used in the report, the amount evicted tenants owed LIHI ranged from $49 to $1,250. “In all cases in which the Low Income Housing Institute sought back rent at or below $500, the tenant was evicted,” the report concludes.
LIHI director Sharon Lee says the organization “go[es] out of our way to help people by getting our social managers or caseworkers to help them find funds so that they can pay the rent, and we’re very generous when it comes to payment plans.” But, she adds, the organization has to draw lines. “Even if you are very sympathetic, if you let a whole group of people [go without paying rent], and then they tell their neighbors, ‘I’m not paying the rent,’ it will start affecting our ability to operate our housing. If we want to be developing more housing, we can’t say to our funders, ‘The budget is just out of whack and we need more subsidies.’”
It’s notable, however, that other nonprofit housing providers that serve formerly homeless clients, such as Pioneer Human Services, Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing, Services of Western Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), rarely appear to evict tenants for failing to pay rent. According to court records, DESC evicted seven people in 2017, all for violations unrelated to rent, including violence against staff, dealing drugs and trafficking in stolen goods. “We try to come up with solutions to avoid people losing their housing,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “We regard housing loss as a failure of ours, not just of the person.” Like Lee, Malone says that unpaid rent adds up and can eat into his organization’s bottom line; however, Malone says DESC is “not about to kick someone out on the streets [simply] because of unpaid rent.”
Lee contends that neither the raw data nor the eviction filings themselves reflect every reason for an eviction. “It could be nonpayment of rent, it could be breaking the lease, it could be violence, [or] in some cases, it could be housekeeping—if the unit fails a government inspection,” Lee says. “We also have people who intentionally do damage [or] who refuse to follow direction when it comes to pest control or bedbugs.” At the request of Seattle magazine, Lee looked at three specific cases, chosen at random from the 54 nonpayment cases listed in the report. For all three, Lee cited additional violations that she said contributed to LIHI’s decision to evict, including “violent and threatening behavior” toward other tenants, unauthorized guests and refusal to accept case management.
“We try not to evict people, because we don’t want to have people return to homelessness,” Lee says. “But we also know that some people, particularly young adults, may not work out in one place, and they may go somewhere else and have it be a good fit. We have housed people who have been evicted from DESC. It’s not like only one agency takes the ‘tough’ people.”
1. The King County council voted 7-2—with one Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, joining the council’s six Democrats—to spend up to $381,000 next year on postage-paid ballots for this year’s midterm and general elections. King County voters have voted exclusively by mail, or by dropping their ballots at designated drop boxes, since 2009, but it has been voters’ responsibility to buy stamps for their ballots. Voting rights advocates have argued that the postage requirement is burdensome for younger voters (who are less likely to have stamps) and very low-income voters (for whom a 49-cent stamp represents a real impediment to voting); those who oppose providing postage say that it’s voters’ responsibility to make the minimal effort required to buy a stamp, and that those who feel they can’t afford it can just trek to their nearest ballot box.
Before the measure passed, County Council members Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn offered several amendments that would have watered down or placed conditions on the legislation, including a proposal by Lambert to clarify that the county measure did not set any “precedent” for the rest of the state. Lambert argued that if voters in King County were able to vote more easily than voters in the rest of the state, it would put other counties, particularly more rural counties with fewer resources that are “hanging on by their fingernails,” at a disadvantage—essentially the same argument offered by Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman when she urged the council to reject the measure one week ago. That amendment failed, as did another Lambert proposal that would have required the county elections office to turn around a complicated report about turnout and ballot box usage three days after the November election was certified. Another, from Republican Reagan Dunn, would put language on the outside of every prepaid ballot encouraging people to put stamps on their ballot anyway, ostensibly in an effort to save King County money. Although King County Elections director Julie Wise made it clear that Dunn’s amendment would almost certainly cost the county far more than it saves (election workers would have to pore over hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand, photocopy them, and mail them to the post office for a refund), the amendment actually passed, after Dunn said the language in his amendment left some wiggle room for the county to reject the idea if it cost too much.
“I like the voters’ drop boxes [because] it’s not shredded, I know it’s in, it’s going to get counted, and I know that there are very few people that are going to handle it.”—King County Council member Kathy Lambert
Before the final vote, Lambert offered a strange, last-ditch anecdote to explain why she opposed voting by mail. “I pay my property taxes in person,” Lambert began, because one year when she sent them by mail—she knows it was her anniversary, she said, because she was about to go to Hawaii—and they never made it to the tax assessor’s office. When she went to the post office to find out what had happened, she said, “they brought me out two huge bags of mail that had been shredded, and they said, ‘If you find your check in here, you can take it out and prove that you have found it.’ I hope that we won’t find out later on that there are bags and bags of shredded ballots that have gotten caught in the machinery,” Lambert continued. “I like the voters’ drop boxes [because] it’s not shredded, I know it’s in, it’s going to get counted, and I know that there are very few people that are going to handle it.”
Lambert did not note that voters can track their ballots, and find out whether theirs was counted or “shredded,” at the King County Elections website.
2. A rumor was circulating yesterday that ousted King County Democrats chair (AKA ousted King County Assessor’s office spokesman) Bailey Stober will announce today (or this week) that he is not running for 47th District state representative, despite announcing that he plans to do so in an interview with the Seattle Times. As I reported last week, Stober’s announcement came just two days before Debra Entenman, a deputy field director for Congressman Adam Smith, was planning to formally announce that she would seek the same position with the full support of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. The announcement gave Stober some positive press shortly after he was forced out of two positions of power when four separate investigations concluded he had engaged in sexual harassment, bullying, and multiple acts of workplace and financial misconduct. (Each of the investigations upheld a different combination of allegations).
Stober received a $37,700 settlement from King County in exchange for resigning from his $98,000-a-year position, from which he had been on fully paid leave for most of 2018. On Friday, he posted a photo on Facebook of what he said was his brand-new jeep. “New life new car 💁🏽♂️😏#adulting,” the caption read.
3. Three low-barrier shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which were all scheduled to shut down this month, will stay open for the rest of the year, though their fate after that remains uncertain. The shelters—an overnight men’s shelter on Lower Queen Anne, the Kerner-Scott House for mentally ill women in South Lake Union, and DESC’s auxiliary shelter at the Morrison Hotel downtown—lost funding under the new “Pathways Home” approach to funding homeless services, which prioritizes 24/7 “enhanced” shelters over traditional overnight shelters and withholds funding (see page 7) from agencies that fail to move at least 40 percent of their clients from emergency shelter into permanent housing. When the city issued grants under the new criteria, it increased DESC’s overall funding but eliminated funding for the three overnight shelters. All told, about 163 shelter beds were scheduled to disappear in May unless DESC could come up with the money to keep them open or another operator stepped forward.
Oddly, the decision to close at least one of the shelters does not appear to have been strictly about money, but about DESC itself. According to a letter HSD sent to concerned community members in mid-April, the city had “HSD reached out to Salvation Army to discuss the possibility of taking over operations of the Roy Street Queen Anne shelter in June when the DESC contract ends. Salvation Army has agreed and is going to have a May-Dec contract so there is some overlap time during the transition. Shifting operations to the Salvation Army would have required a special budget allocation from the City Council to keep the shelter running under new management for the rest of the year.
DESC’s overall budget request included significant pay increases for all of the agency’s staff, who are unionized but remain notoriously underpaid, even by human service provider standards. DESC’s $8.6 million budget request for its enhanced shelter program included more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. Even those higher salaries remain paltry by private-market standards, but by proposing to implement the raises all at once, DESC inflated its budget request dramatically at precisely the time when the city was looking to cut “fat” from the system and reward programs that promised fast results and cost savings for the city.
The good news for DESC (and the men and women) who use its overnight shelters) is that funding for the shelters appears to be secure for at least the rest of 2018. The bad news is that the reprieve is temporary, and major issues, including low salaries for shelter workers, remain unresolved.
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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.
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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