Evening Crank: “No Matter How You Look at It, It’s Getting Better”

City Confirms: No Idea Exactly How Many Are Housed Through Programs

On Monday, during a briefing to highlight the progress the city made on homelessness last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan and representatives from the city’s Department of Human Services publicly confirmed what I reported last Friday: The city has no idea exactly how many individual people have moved from homelessness into permanent housing last year. Although Durkan, in her state of the city speech, said that the city had moved “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing,” the reality is that that number includes about 1,800 households who aren’t actually homeless; they live in permanent supportive housing and maintained that housing last year. Moreover, the remainder of that number—about 5,600—reflects exits from programs rather than actual households leaving homelessness; since most households use multiple programs before exiting the homelessness system, the 7,400 number includes many duplications.

Durkan, and interim HSD director Jason Johnson, were quick to point out that “duplication” also worked in the opposite direction: Households, or families, can have more than one member. “There’s many more people that are associated with these households,” Johnson said. “It could be one person or four people, or it could be the same person who comes back and cycles repeatedly through the system, and we can’t measure that.” According to All Home King County’s 2018 point-in-time count of the county’ homeless population, about 77 percent of all homeless households have just one or two members, which would suggest that one person sleeping in a shelter is more typical than an intact family of four.

More importantly, the fact that the county knows the size of the households it counts means that the city could theoretically use that information to eliminate the problem of having no idea whether a household is one person or four. The county, through the federally mandated Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) also has a pretty good idea of how many programs each household in the system uses before they exit from homelessness, and whether they cycle back through the system after finding housing for a while. (“Pretty good” because Washington State allows people to receive services anonymously if they don’t want to provide their personal information.) Surely the city could use the county’s data, plus its own information about “exits” (that 5,600 figure) to get a fairly good idea of how many people are being housed. Right?

Asked whether the city could at least triangulate its way toward a more accurate number, HSD division director Tiffany Washington said, “There is a way to do all of that. The reason we don’t provide that information here is because it would be a 700-page PowerPoint. After the briefing,  HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding  followed up: “In collaboration with King County, we can look at unduplicated interaction with the homeless service system across the entire county. The only way to do that is through regional governance.” The information, she said, “exists, but we don’t have it in one place.”

Durkan and HSD emphasized repeatedly that the real number they wanted to focus on was the comparison between 2017 and 2018, which shows the number of exits from homelessness—regardless of how many people that actually represents—going up. “Regardless of what you call it, we know from the data we have … that we’re performing better than in previous years,” Durkan said. “Exits to housing means that those people do become housed.” After the briefing, Washington added: “You have to remember that we’re comparing this year to last year, so no matter how you look at it it’s getting better.”

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. 

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Performance Measures Kick In, $2 Million Housing Voucher Program Helps 28 Into Permanent Housing So Far

In addition to the success of enhanced shelter at getting people into permanent housing, which I wrote about on Friday, a couple of items jumped out from the report. The first is that since the city instituted (somewhat controversial) new performance measures last year, 20 of the 46 city-funded programs that were required to meet new performance standards to get the full amount of their contracts failed, at least initially, do so. Of those 20, 16 completed a “performance improvement plan” and will get the rest of their funding, which HSD calls “performance pay,” this year. I have asked HSD for a list of the 20 organizations that initially failed the city’s standards, more information about where they fell short, and which four programs were unable to meet HSD’s requirements.

Second, a pilot program to provide temporary rental assistance to help about 150 of the families that are currently on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for permanent Section 8 housing vouchers, has provided rent vouchers to about 142 families, of which 28 “have been housed in affordable, stable housing in Seattle,” according to the presentation. Given that the pilot program, which continues this year, will cost a total of $2 million, it’s unclear how cost-effective or successful HSD will decide it has been compared to other “prevention” programs aimed at keeping people from becoming homeless. I have a call out to HSD for more information about this program and whether the department considers it a success so far; on Monday, Johnson said only that “We are going to continue to watch this pilot and see if it’s something that we want to invest in further.”

Durkan: HSD Director Nomination Has Been “A Continued Circus”

Durkan was getting up to leave when I asked her how she thought the council has handled her nomination of Johnson, who has served as interim HSD director for ten months, but she sat back down. As it turned out, she had a lot to say. “I’m feeling very positive about the prospects for confirmation for Jason Johnson, once we get a vote,” Durkan said. “I admit that I am frustrated that the council has not scheduled a vote. Their own procedures and guidelines require vote by March 11. It hasn’t happened.” (In the council’s defense, Durkan just sent Johnson’s nomination down in December, after he had already served in the position, without a formal nomination, for nine months.)

Durkan added: “It does a disservice to the department and to the really important mission that this department serves to have a continued circus instead of a substantive discussion on what we need to do as a city. And I am disappointed that the current chair of the committee”—Sawant—”basically was AWOL month after month after month  and had no hearings whatsoever on [homelessness], to the point that the city council felt the need to create a select committee on homelessness.”

Council member Kshama Sawant, whose committee would ordinarily oversee Johnson’s nomination, has held a series of nighttime public hearings/”Pack City Hall!” rallies to denounce the process that led to Johnson’s nomination and, sometimes, Johnson himself.  Since last July, Sawant has canceled all but one of her regularly scheduled human services committee meetings, which are supposed to happen every other Tuesday at 2pm.

“For those people who say that there wasn’t a process,” Durkan concluded, “I would say that is nonsense. I would challenge anybody to go through a [hiring] process where your process was you had to do the job for 10 months. … It has been both the most exhausting and exhaustive process that a person could have to try to get this job.”

Some service providers, HSD employees, and community members have argued that the city should do a national search for an HSD director rather than just appointing Johnson to the position. Sawant, for her part, has said she wants to appoint a search committee made up of human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees.

Fact-Checking the Homelessness Claims in the Mayor’s State of the City Speech

As I mentioned in my post about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s second State of the City speech, the mayor’s statements touting the city’s achievements on homelessness deserve some additional scrutiny and context. In her speech, the mayor claimed that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018 alone. Separately, the mayor stated that the city had made “historic” investments in new enhanced shelter beds “that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have.”

Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

The mayor’s claim that the city “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018—an increase from about 5,500 in 2017— is misleading. In fact, it overstates the likely number of actual households (or “families,” as the mayor’s office put it in a social media graphic that accompanied the speech) in two key ways. First, the number is based on data from the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), used nationwide to track homeless people’s use of services. HMIS doesn’t track households; it tracks exits from programs. This means that Durkan is conflating the number of exits from programs with the number of families exiting homelessness.

For example: Under HMIS, every exit from a single program (say, food assistance, shelter, hygiene, or case management) counts as a single “exit.” That means a single household using three different services would count as three exits, not one. (“Household” refers to heads of households; according to King County, 77 percent of people who are homeless are in households consisting of one or two adults.) If the average household used just two services over the time they were homeless—and the city is working to get people to access more services, not less, in an effort to help people find housing faster—that would mean that Durkan would be overstating the number of exits from homelessness by 100 percent. This is a hypothetical—the city was unable to provide the actual number of families exited from homelessness—but given that the city has moved toward enhanced shelters, which allow people to access many services in one place, it seems more likely that people are simply using more services than that there are thousands of new people successfully moving through the homeless service system and into housing every single year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the city’s Human Services Department, acknowledges that the 7,400 number “doesn’t reflect the number of individuals” moving from homelessness into housing. She says the exit numbers “are really meant to show how our programs are doing overall. So from our point of view, it doesn’t matter to us if somebody uses one or two or six programs to get to housing, it matters that they get there.”

That makes sense—but it’s not the same thing as “help[ing] over 7,400 households move into permanent housing,” as Durkan put it. Olberding says that the city currently has no way to extrapolate a number of households from that figure. “This is the imperfection of the system as we have it, “she says.

The city’s own guidance on homeless service terminology flags this as an issue (emphasis added):

• Exits are captured for each project type (Prevention, Rapid Rehousing, Emergency Shelter, for example) in HMIS. One exit does not equal one household in HMIS. An exit represents an activity of a household in HMIS.

• For this reason, in the count of total exits to permanent housing, there may be duplicated households. This duplication would occur, for example, when one household uses the services of outreach, shelter, and rapid rehousing to find permanent housing and exit the system. This example would result in three exits, from three project types, for one household.

• HMIS cannot currently support de-duplicating households in the number of total exits to permanent housing.

To characterize each of those “exits” as a “household” or “family” who successfully found housing, therefore, is almost certainly to overstate the success of local programs in getting people into housing—perhaps dramatically. This kind of overstatement can have the perverse result of making it harder to win public support for initiatives to help the thousands of people currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Seattle. It isn’t a trivial matter, and it’s something the city itself has noted is a problem.

The second issue with the claim that the city has moved 7,400 families from homelessness to housing in the past year is that the number includes an unknown number of people who are already housed in permanent supportive housing, and stayed in that housing—that is, people who aren’t actually homeless. (People who are actually homeless can be moved into permanent housing through a variety of means, including diversion, prevention, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing, among others.)

The city acknowledges that their count includes people who live in permanent supportive housing and maintain their housing, but they don’t track how many. However, All Home, the agency that tracks homeless service results in King County, does. Extrapolating from the numbers on All Home’s System Performance Dashboard, which includes countywide numbers for 12 months starting in July 2017, and the group’s latest Count Us In report, which estimates that about 70 percent of King County’s homeless population lives in Seattle, it’s possible to estimate that about 3,900 households in Seattle that are counted as exiting from homelessness are in that category because they maintained their existing permanent supportive housing, not because they were homeless and became housed. Durkan took office at the end of 2017, so that extrapolation is obviously not apples to apples. But it does give a sense of how much lower the likely number of actual households moved from homelessness into housing is than the “7,400 households” the mayor claimed.

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The mayor also claimed in her speech that the city has “made investments in our 24/7 shelters that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have” and  “delivered on an historic 25 percent expansion of our City’s shelter space – opening more than 500 new safe places in Seattle.” This statement is confusing, because it conflates a number of different programs—including enhanced shelters (24/7 low-barrier shelters that provide one-stop access to many different services), basic shelters (overnight-only shelters with minimal services) and other kinds of “safe spaces” like authorized encampments. Overall, the city did add 516 new “safe places” between 2017 and 2019. But 220 of these are brand-new basic shelter beds of the kind Durkan (accurately) derided as less effective in her speech, including 100 new overnight beds in a King County shelter at Harborview Hall, plus 80 mats in the lobby of city hall. The 516 “safe spaces” also include motel vouchers for 40 rooms (which accounts for up to 60 “beds”) and space in tiny house encampments for about 100 people. (Under federal HUD criteria, these people are technically considered unsheltered.) Overall, the city added about 366 actual shelter beds (of all kinds) between 2017 and 2018—an achievement, but one that has to be put in context. And the context is that, far from being the kind of enhanced shelter spaces that, as the mayor put it, “are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have,” these new spaces are largely examples of the kind of shelters that have shown little success at moving people into permanent housing.

The mayor actually could have highlighted a different number—a promising sign buried in the statistics. Since 2017, the city has done a significant amount of work converting basic shelter beds to enhanced shelters—a significant and important move in the direction of spending money on what works. Here’s what numbers provided by the mayor’s office show:  In 2017, there were 1713 total shelter beds, of which 749 were enhanced—meaning that they included services, allowed people to keep their pets and possessions, and do not kick people out in the morning or require people to line up at night.  By the end of 2018 (“2019” in the chart below), there were 2079 total beds, of which 1411 were enhanced. That’s a major shift away from basic shelter to enhanced shelter—an improvement that the city should absolutely be touting as a success.

If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. 

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.