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.

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Morning Crank: “Some Kind of Magical Treatment Carwash”

1. Homeless service providers and advocates expressed skepticism, and some support, for the idea of consolidating the city and county’s response to homelessness under a single regional agency on Monday. Kevin at SCC Insight has a thorough writeup of the report from NYC-based Future Laboratories, but the key bullet point was the recommendation that Seattle and King County should consolidate all the agencies providing services to people experiencing homeless in the region into a single regional über-agency, while keeping capital projects (i.e. housing construction) under the purview of individual cities.

Some of the issues service providers raised after consultant Marc Dones’ presentation were familiar. Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, cautioned that in the absence of additional funds for housing, it would be almost pointless to provide more funding for treatment and behavioral health care, which was among Future Labs’ 10 recommendations. “We are not going to realize the benefits from all of those additional investments if we don’t pair them with housing, and too many of the proposals so far are really just for the allocation of additional treatment beds,” Malone said. “There’s this idea that some people have that there’s some kind of magical treatment carwash that we can run people through, and they come out through the other end all better.” In reality, Malone said, it’s hard for people fresh out of treatment to stay on track while living on the street. “We ought to make sure that there’s a commitment to [housing] before we move on the rest of these investment changes.”

Paul Lambros, the longtime head of Plymouth Housing Group, cautioned that any new regional agency needed to have real authority, lest it get “watered down” the way previous efforts at a “regional response to homelessness” have. During the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness (which wrapped up in 2015 with homelessness more pervasive than ever), “we made recommendations, and then, through … the city council’s process and the county council’s process and others, it got watered [to the point that] there wasn’t a lot of authority there,” Lambros said.

Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, agreed with Dones’ statement that the success of a system shouldn’t be judged on how many times someone has to come back to get a new ID, but pushed back on the notion that having to get an ID again and again and again was somehow normal. “Just as we should not require people to share their personal information many, many times over and measure things like how many times someone has gotten an ID card, we should question how it is that peoples ID’s are lost so frequently, including in sweeps that are funded by public dollars,” Eisinger said.

Support

2. Fred Podesta, the former Finance and Administrative Services Department director who had served for several months as head of the city’s Navigation Team, left the city earlier this month to take a new position as the COO for Seattle Public Schools (Podesta’s reassignment, last August, was widely viewed as a demotion; he took a new). His replacement will reportedly be Jackie St. Louis—the current coordinator for the Navigation Team and part of the social-worker component of the team, which also includes Seattle Police Department officers.

Durkan has been forceful in her support of the Navigation Team, which was doubled in size thanks to a one-time grant from King County in 2018. During last year’s budget negotiations, when council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed rolling back the team to its pre-grant size in order to give city-contracted human service workers a 2 percent raise, Durkan went on the offensive, and one of her deputy mayors, Mike Fong, sent letter to council members suggesting that rolling back the size of the team, which sweeps encampments and directs camp residents to services and shelter beds, would result in “400 more people living on our streets” and “200 more encampments in our parks and public spaces.”

Durkan spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg says the mayor’s office came up with these numbers by reducing the actual 2018 numbers “by the percentage of the proposed cut.”

In an email labeled “Talking Points-Nav Team cuts,” Durkan staffer Anthony Auriemma suggested several talking points that didn’t make it into Fong’s email, including the claim that if the council rolled back funding for the Navigation Team, “the City will struggle to deliver basic services such as keeping parks open for everyone to enjoy or ensuring sidewalks are safe and accessible.”

It’s hard to say whether Durkan’s office would have actually argued that reducing the Navigation Team to its 2017 size could have forced the city to shut down public parks or that Mosqueda’s plan would have rendered sidewalks across the city unsafe and unusable. It’s easy to see, however, how such talking points (combined with claims that council members were swelling the city’s unsheltered population by hundreds of people) could be politically damaging to council members seeking reelection this fall. Back in November, Durkan’s spokeswoman categorically denied reports that the mayor had called council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, they would have to explain to their constituents why they had allowed public safety to deteriorate in their districts.

In the end, Durkan got her permanent Navigation Team expansion, and the human service workers got their 2 percent inflationary pay increase. Imagine what this debate would have looked like during an economic downturn.

After Acrimony and Battles, Council Passes Mayor’s Budget Mostly Intact

L-R: David Helde, Downtown Emergency Service Center; Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez, Seattle City Council

After a surprising amount of acrimony for a document that contained so little fiscal wiggle room, the city council adopted a 2019-2020 budget today that increases the size of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, grants modest wages to front-line human service workers, spends tens of millions of dollars on retroactive back pay for police who have been working without a contract since 2015, and funds projects in every council district.

The debate over this year’s budget—during much of which I was out of town—centered largely on a few million dollars in human services funding, including, in the last few days, funding for the Navigation Team, which removes homeless encampments and offers services to people displaced by their activities. After council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed using some of the funds Durkan earmarked for Navigation Team expansion to broaden a 2 percent “inflationary” pay increase for city-contracted human services providers to include all such workers (rather than only general fund-supported workers, as Durkan initially proposed), Durkan denounced the move.

Describing the reduced expansion as a “cut” that would harm neighborhoods, Durkan’s office claimed that the new positions that she had proposed in her budget had already been filled and that reducing the amount of new funds would “cut” those critically needed jobs—a statement that local conservative media took as a cue to write largely inaccurate pieces claiming, for example, that Mosqueda was “slow[ing] tent cleanups with huge staff cut to Nav Team.” (Durkan also reportedly contacted council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, it would be on them to explain to their constituents why they had allowed crime to increase in their districts; all seven district council positions are on the ballot next year. UPDATE: Durkan’s office categorically denied that any such calls took place.) However, this turned out not to be the case; as a central staffer told the council in a followup memo, the positions have only been filled on a temporary or emergency basis. “These are all short term actions that are funded with the $500k [in one-time funding] from the County and would be discontinued” once the budget passes, the central staffer wrote.

No matter—despite all the drama, the council figured out a way to fund the full Navigation Team expansion and add one mental health counselor to the team while also giving service providers their 2 percent increase (which is actually below the local inflation rate). The money, a little less than $500,000 a year, came from eliminating the a business and occupation tax exemption for life sciences companies, which Mosqueda said has been dormant since 2017.

In a press conference between the morning’s budget meeting and the final adoption of the budget at 2pm, four council members, plus 43rd District state representative and former Downtown Emergency Service Center director Nicole Macri, joined several front-line human service workers and representatives from housing and human-service nonprofits at DESC’s offices in the basement of the Morrison Hotel homeless shelter.

David Helde, an assistant housing case manager at DESC,  said that since he started at the agency three years ago, every single person who worked in his position when he started had left the agency. Jobs at DESC start at just over $16 an hour, or slightly more than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. “The rewards do not outweigh the benefits,” Helde said. Recalling a client with a traumatic brain injury who had short-term memory impairment but still remembered him when she returned to the shelter after a year away, Helde continued, “that is why the staff turnover is unacceptable—because it affects the quality of life for the most vulnerable people in this city.”

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been raising the issue of human service worker pay for several years, said the city needed to figure out a way to “normalize” cost-of-living increases for employees at nonprofit human service agencies, in addition to city employees (and cops.) However, asked about how the city would ensure that (as Mosqueda put it) “we’re not back here every year,” O’Brien acknowledged that “the level of specificity is not extensive” about how to ensure future COLAs. “This is about expectation-setting,” O’Brien said. “In a budget where we have finite resources and we’re making tradeoffs, we have to figure out how we identify a three-, five-, ten-year [plan] to make changes” so that human-service workers can have not just sub-inflationary pay hikes, but living wages, in the future.

Although Durkan did (mostly) get what she wanted on the Navigation Team, the group will be required to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council will release funding for the coming quarter—a significant change that amplifies the council’s power over the team.

Other notable changes the council made to Durkan’s budget included:

• Additional funding for food banks, which will come from excess revenues from the city’s sweetened beverage tax. Council member O’Brien wanted to use some of the excess money from the tax—which Durkan had proposed using to replace general fund revenues that were paying for healthy-food programs, rather than increasing funding for those programs—to fund outreach programs, as a community advisory board had recommended. The budget puts a hold on the outreach spending, a total of about $270,000, but keeps it alive for future years; today, Juarez objected to this provision, arguing that  spending $270,000 promoting healthy food when the soda industry spent $22 million to pass the anti-soda-tax Initiative 1634 was tantamount to “wast[ing]” the money. “Why are we attempting to counter corporations prepared to spend millions of dollars on advertisements with a $250,000 campaign?” she asked.

• A total of $1.4 million for a supervised drug consumption site, which council member Rob Johnson—who sponsored the additional funding—said should be enough to allow the city to actually open a “fixed-mobile” site this year. Durkan’s initial budget simply held over $1.3 million in funding for a site that was not spent the previous year, with the expectation that no site would be opened this year.

Support

• About $100,000 for a new attorney to help low-income clients facing eviction. Council member Kshama Sawant had sought $600,000 for six more attorneys, but the rest of the council voted that down.

• An expansion of the city’s vacant building inspection program, which keeps tabs on vacant buildings that are slated for redevelopment to ensure that they aren’t taken over by squatters or allowed to fall into disrepair. The proposal, by council member Lisa Herbold (who proposed the original legislation creating the program last year) would ramp up monitoring and inspections of vacant buildings that have failed previous inspections, and would not take effect until next June. Council member Johnson continued to oppose Herbold’s proposal, on the grounds that it represented a sweeping and burdensome policy change that was inappropriate for the budget process; but council president Bruce Harrell reiterated his support for the plan, noting that the council would have time to hammer out the details next year before it took effect. “We’ll have, I think, ample time to work with the department [of Construction and Inspections, which sent a letter to council members last week raising concerns about the bill) to get their feedback,” Harrell said, and “if there has to be some tweaks there will be time to make tweaks.”

City Budget Office director Ben Noble sent a memo to council members today opposing the budget item, which Noble said would force the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections to expand the program too much, too fast. “As proposed, the enhanced program would likely be over 25 times the size of the current program,” Noble wrote, comparing the number of inspections last year—179—to a possible 5,000 inspections that would be required under the new program.  Noble said Herbold’s proposal did not reflect all the costs associated with increasing vacant building inspections so dramatically.

The budget put off the issue of long-term funding for additional affordable housing, which lost a major potential source of revenue when the council and mayor overturned the employee hours tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues earlier this year. Council member Sally Bagshaw has said that her priority in her final year on the council (she is not expected to run again next year) will be creating aregional funding plan to pay for thousands of units of new housing every year. Such a proposal might be modeled, she suggested recently, after a tax on very large businesses that was just approved by voters in San Francisco.

Budget dissident Kshama Sawant—who had earlier proposed numerous dead-on-arrival proposals to fund about $50 million in housing bonds by making cuts to various parts of the budget—delivered a 13-minute speech denouncing her colleagues for passing an “austerity budget” before voting against the whole thing. The room was noticeably subdued as Sawant quoted MLK and demonized Jeff Bezos—the red-shirted members of “the Movement,” whose efforts she cited repeatedly during her oration, were mostly absent, and instead of the usual applause, shouts, and cheers, Sawant spoke to a silent chamber.

From Jail to Homeless Shelter

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

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 Basics

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.

The Optics

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.”

The Unknowns

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.”

Morning Crank: “Housing First, Indeed.”

1. Unified Seattle, a group that has created a series of  slick videos opposing “tiny house villages” (authorized encampments where residents sleep in small eight-by-12-foot buildings with locks on the doors, electric light, and heat) has spent between $10,000 and t $50,000 putting those ads on Facebook and targeting them at Seattle residents. However, since the aim of these ads isn’t explicitly related to an upcoming election—the latest ad vaguely blames the “mayor and city council” for “forests of needle caps,” “drug shacks,” and  “rampant prostitution” to—the people funding them don’t have to report their activities to the state and local election authorities. The Freedom Foundation, the libertarian-leaning think tank that funded a lawsuit to stop a temporary tiny house encampment on a piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union, has declined to comment on whether they’re funding the ads, but the rhetoric is certainly consistent with the argument the Freedom Foundation makes in their lawsuit against the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute, which claims that allowing the encampment will “encourag[e] loitering and substandard living conditions” in the area.

2. Speaking of the Freedom Foundation lawsuit: Since the group filed their lawsuit back in June, the original four-week permit for the tiny house village has expired. That, the city of Seattle argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed earlier this month, renders the original lawsuit moot, and they filed a motion to dismiss it earlier this month. LIHI still plans to open the encampment, on Eighth and Aloha, in late October.

3. In other news about unofficial campaigns: Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s Burgers founder Dick Spady and one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat the head tax, doesn’t have to file election-year paperwork with the city and state elections commissions, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Spady, who runs an ad agency called Cre8tive Empowerment, has been soliciting money for a campaign to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy and take on several city council incumbents; has has also reportedly been meeting with council candidates and taking them around to potential donors. Ordinarily, that kind of electioneering would be considered campaigning. However, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Spady hasn’t managed to raise a single dime since September 11, when he sent out an email seeking to raise “$100,000+ in the next month” to defeat the education levy and  “shift the Seattle City council in much needed moderate direction in 2019.” If he does start raising money to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures this year or next, Spady will be required to register his campaign at the state and local levels.

4. One campaign that isn’t having any trouble raising money (besides the pro-Families and Education Levy campaign, which has raised almost $425,000) is Neighbors for Safe Streets, the group that formed in opposition to a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between the Wedgwood and Ravenna neighborhoods. The PAC, led by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association government affairs director Jordan Royer, has raised more than $15,000 so far for its effort to, as the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter put it last month, “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda has argued that people of color don’t need bike lanes, which only  “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.”

Support

(Meanwhile, far away from the North Seattle enclaves that make up Save 35th Avenue NE,  neighborhood-based bike groups in the Rainier Valley have spent years begging the city to provide safe bike routes for people who live and work in the area—even holding protests to demand modest traffic-calming measures on Rainier Ave. S., the deadliest street in the city). Neighborhoods for Smart Streets has not identified which council candidates it will support next year, when seven seats will be up; so far, only a handful of contenders—including, as of last Friday, former (2013) mayoral candidate Kate Martin, who also headed up a 2016 effort to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct intact and turn it into a park. Martin joins Discovery Institute researcher Christopher Rufo in the competition for the District 6 council seat currently held by Mike O’Brien.

5. As I reported on Twitter, George Scarola—the city’s key outreach person on homelessness, even after an effective demotion from homelessness director to an obscure position in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services—resigned on October 9. In an email to city staff, Scarola praised the city’s Navigation Teams, groups like LIHI that are working on tiny house villages, and “the outreach teams, shelter operators, meal providers and the folks who develop and manage permanent supportive housing.” He concluded the email by noting that the one area where everyone, including opponents of what the city is doing to ameliorate homelessness, agree is that  “we will not solve the crisis of chronic homelessness without more mental health and drug treatment services, coupled with safe housing. Housing First, indeed.”

In a statement, Durkan said Scarola’s knowledge on homelessness was “key to the continuity of the City’s efforts and helped ensure strong connections throughout the community. Altogether, George participated in hundreds of discussions around homelessness – from public meetings to living room chats – and took countless phone calls and emails, always willing to engage with anyone who had a concern, a complaint or a suggested solution.”

Away from the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, which he usually was, Scarola could be surprisingly candid—once asking me, apparently rhetorically, whether people protesting the removal of a specific encampment were “protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions.” On another occasion, Scarola pushed back on the idea, very prevalent at the time, that money spent on emergency shelter and short-term interventions was money wasted, because—according to homeless consultant Barb Poppe—every available resource should go toward permanent housing.  “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—meaning solutions like tiny house villages, authorized tent encampments, and services that address the problems that are keeping people from being able to hang on to housing in the first place.

Homelessness Funding Could Be Flash Point in Upcoming City Budget Discussions

Things are fairly quiet on the city budget front this week as council members draft their first-found wish lists—ideas that may or may not see the light of day as full-fledged “green sheets,” proposed budget changes that require two co-sponsors and proposed cuts to balance any new expenditures—but council members did give a preview of their thinking on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s stay-the-course budget for homelessness last week. Meanwhile, advocates for homeless Seattle residents have presented a list of requests for the council’s consideration that includes $33 million in additional spending on housing, front-line workers’ pay, and SHARE’S basic indoor shelters, which the mayor’s budget assumes will close in June.

At briefings on the proposed budget for homelessness and the expansion of the city’s Navigation Team (which removes encampments and provides information about services to people living outdoors) last week, council members appeared concerned by the fact that Durkan’s budget proposal does not increase funding for actual housing production, focusing primarily on emergency shelter instead. The issue, council members said, is that when there is no housing for people to go to, the city ends up just shuffling them around and around—either from illegal encampment to illegal encampment (as Navigation Team leader Fred Podesta openly acknowledged the city is doing already) or in and out of the shelter system.

“[The budget] really places an emphasis on enhanced funding for immediate day to day assistance vs. those longer-term housing needs,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said last week, addressing her comments at Office of Housing director Steve Walker. “I don’t understand how we are goimg to be able to serve the number of people we have talked about today unless we provide housing [for them].” Durkan’s 2019 budget includes $24.9 million for all “housing” programs, including diversion (which usually involves helping a person identify somewhere they can stay for the time being, such as a relative’s house, rather than permanent housing); emergency services, which includes temporary transitional housing, totals $46.4 million, or more than half of Durkan’s proposed budget for homelessness.

Durkan’s proposal quietly extends a “rental housing assistance” program, originally begun as a pilot in 2017, which provides vouchers for up to three months for people on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority. Noting that a high percentage of households that receive Section 8 vouchers end up having to return them because they can’t find an affordable rental unit with their voucher, Mosqueda asked why the Human Services Department would still consider it a “success” when “people maintain housing until they receive their Housing Choice voucher.” Would the city still consider the program a success if people stayed in their apartment for three months, got their voucher, and still ended up homeless because they couldn’t find a place to use it? HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said the city was using a HUD standard for defining success and added that the city has “seen an improved rate of exits to permanent housing in 2018 compared to the same time last year, and an increase in households served”—something Durkan also touted in her budget speech.

Council members also zeroed in on the fact that the mayor’s proposed budget doesn’t increase funding for preventing homelessness in the first place, which is generally a much cheaper and less daunting prospect than helping people find housing once they’ve lost it. (What looks like a significant cut to prevention programs in 2019—from $6.5 million to $4.4 million— is actually an accounting quirk that reflects the fact that a program to move people off SHA’s waitlists was funded in 2018, but spent over two years. However, that program will expire in 2020, when the city will have to decide whether to fund it again.) Pointing to a recent report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project that faulted the city’s lack of any integrated system for people facing eviction to get rent assistance, council member Lisa Herbold said, “We need some kind of collaboration or cooperation between [assistance] programs, because it happens so quickly. The reality is that your landlord is not under any requirement to accept rent from you after three days even if you have the total amount and the ability to pay.”

Two other sticking points were the future of the Seattle Housing And Resource Effort and Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (SHARE/WHEEL) shelters that were defunded, then re-funded on a temporary basis, last year. SHARE’s high-barrier, nighttime-only shelters ranked dead last among shelter applications during last year’s competitive bidding process for HSD contracts, and the groups were given a grace period to come up with a plan to transition their shelter clients to other service providers or into housing. Herbold and her colleagues Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien pressed Washington on SHARE’s rate of success in getting people into housing (which is a matter of much dispute; SHARE claims a rate four times higher than the city average, which HSD says is not correct), as well as what the plan is to help its clients find other living or sleeping arrangements.

“I just want to make sure we remember why SHARE and WHEEL are not provided funding,” Washington said. “It’s actually not a cut—it was bridge funding from the mayor’s office to continue them through this year and for six months next year. … We asked all the agencies who weren’t funded to submit a transition plan to us. All of the agencies did except for SHARE and WHEEL,” who said they weren’t planning to close down. This issue of SHARE’s shelter funding, like the issue of whether the city will keep paying for bus tickets for its clients, has become something of an annual ritual—and every year, the council finds a few hundred thousand dollars to keep them going. If this year is any different, it will be a notable departure from tradition.

A few final quick-hit observations:

• The plan for the growing number of people living in their vehicles—a group that now makes up more than half the people living unsheltered in Seattle grew 46 percent this year, according to King County’s annual count—appears to be … well, it isn’t actually clear. The budget adds a mere $250,000 a year for a vaguely defined “new program” that “is still under development and will be informed by a workgroup made up of people with lived experience, a racial equity analysis using the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) strategy chart, as well as service providers, the City’s Navigation Team, other outreach workers, the Seattle Police Department and Parking Enforcement Officers, and officials working on similar programs in other jurisdictions.” Whatever the new program is, it will have to split that funding with yet another new pilot for a safe parking lot for people living in their cars, this one aimed specifically at “individuals living in vehicles who are largely self-sufficient and require a relatively low level of services.” The city budget adopted last year included $50,000 specifically to conduct “a needs assessment to identify programs and services most likely to help individuals living in their vehicles find permanent housing”; when O’Brien asked if that money had been spent, Washington replied, “Yes and no… how much of the $50,000 we’ll spend we don’t know, but we’ll definitely satisfy the intent.”

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• Low-barrier encampments like the one at Licton Springs, which is closing after months of complaints from neighbors about drug use on the premises (and drug dealers in the vicinity), may be too much of a hassle for the city, which is working to “reassess” the residents of that encampment and move them “to the top of the [housing prioritization] list,” according to Washington. Washington insisted that the encampment isn’t “closing”—”‘closing’ is not reflective, so what we’ve come up with is ‘shifting capacity'”—but the SHARE-managed encampment is in fact going away, thanks largely to neighbors who considered it an unwelcome or menacing presence. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Magnolia, appeared last week to agree. “One of the keys that I have heard over and over again is that the drug dealers have got to be arrested,” she said—a position that actually represents a departure from the city’s support for the LEAD arrest-diversion program, which focuses on low-level drug offenders and just expanded to North Seattle.

• As I mentioned above, the head of the Navigation Team himself acknowledged that the team is often reduced to moving encampments around and around—and that “there are more encampments that we’re not engaging with than we are engaging with; that’s just a fact”—reflecting the reality that as long as the city has a shortage of affordable housing, some people are going to prefer even the tenuous community and safety of an unauthorized encampment to a shelter system that can be chaotic and dehumanizing. Enhanced shelters—those that allow people to keep their possessions, offer case management, and don’t enforce sobriety requirements at the door—do a better job of getting people to come in off the streets, but there aren’t enough, and the city is creating more homeless people every day. (The eviction cases on the King County Superior Court’s weekly docket represent a steady drip-drip-drip of people being kicked out of homes and onto the streets.) “The team is no more interested in moving people around than anybody else,” Podesta said. “There are cases where we’ve had apartments [available] and they haven’t chosen to accept that”; however, he added, “no one should interpret that as anything but an exception.”

Morning Crank: Fort Lawton Drags On, Spady Drags His Feet, and Enhanced Shelter Shortage Drags Out Homelessness

1. The wait for affordable housing at the Fort Lawton military base in Magnolia—on which, as I noted last week, the city is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for security —will continue to drag on at least until the end of this year, after a city hearing examiner agreed to delay a hearing in an appeal challenging the environmental impact statement on the project until the end of October so that the complainant, Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, can secure a lawyer. The appeal process has already been delayed once, until the end of September, to accommodate Campbell’s lengthy vacation to Europe. Campbell said that she was requesting this second delay because of health concerns that have prevented her from participating in the appeal process.

The motion granting Campbell’s request for a delay, which also denied the city of Seattle’s request to dismiss the six-month-old case, includes a salty dismissal of Campbell’s claim that the hearing examiner, Ryan Vancil, should not be allowed to hear the appeal because he once served on the board of Futurewise, a conservation group with no stake in the Fort Lawton debate, and because he has represented the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which works to prevent the demolition of existing affordable housing, in the past.

The city’s rules, Vancil noted, require anyone who files an appeal before the hearing examiner to file any motions to disqualify a particular hearing examiner quite early in the process, typically at least 7 days before the first hearing. That hearing was in May.  “As explained at the prehearing conference [on May 15] the Hearing Examiner has not been a board member or officer of Futurewise for two years, and is not currently a member as alleged by Ms. Campbell. Ms. Campbell identified no specific interest in this appeal by either Futurewise, or the Seattle Displacement Coalition. … Ms. Campbell was clearly aware of these facts [and] raised [them] in the context of a response to the Hearing Examiner’s disfavorable order as a form of retaliation.” In other words, Campbell only decided Vancil’s past association with Futurewise was a problem after he ruled against her on an unrelated issue—specifically, the fact that Campbell hadn’t filed her list of witnesses and exhibits by a mid-September deadline.

(Side note: Vancil may not be on the Futurewise board anymore, but the group’s current board includes two attorneys, Jeff Eustis and Dave Bricklin, who have both fought against proposals to allow more density and housing, including Mandatory Housing Affordability, which allows developers to build more densely in exchange for funding affordable housing; a proposed 12-story building in Pioneer Square that would have replaced a “historic” parking garage; a proposed three-story apartment building in Phinney Ridge, which nearby homeowners opposed because they didn’t want to lose parking in front of their houses; and a proposal to make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units on their property. Given that track record among Futurewise board members, serving on the group’s board could be seen as an indication that Vancil is sympathetic to housing opponents like Campbell. The Displacement Coalition, meanwhile, often fights against density and development on the grounds that it displaces people and drives up the cost of housing.)

Campbell claimed that she was unable to file a list of witnesses because of her poor health. But Vancil was skeptical about that claim, noting that Campbell had managed to  five no fewer than separate, lengthy motions over a period of about two weeks in September, Vancil said, which “demonstrate[s] Appellants’ capacity to draft documents and work on this case, and/or the ability to have communicated at an earlier date that Appellants did not have the capacity to identify exhibits and witnesses within the time required.”

The next hearing on the Fort Lawton appeal will be at 9:30am on October 29.

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2. A city audit of the Navigation Team—a team  of police officers and outreach workers that removes encampments and offers services to people living unsheltered in Seattle—concluded that the city has not done enough to provide the kind of “enhanced shelter” that people living outdoors are most likely to accept, and should consider increasing the use of diversion strategies like “reunification”—that is, connecting people to family,  and sending them on their way. The idea of reunification is popular in California, where cities like San Francisco provide bus tickets out of town to homeless people who are able to find a friend or family member who will tell the city they are willing to take the person in. Such programs are controversial because, while they do relocate some chronically homeless people outside city limits, little is known about how people in such programs fare at the end of what are often cross-country journeys, and horror stories abound.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Human Services Department notes that enhanced shelters, which provide case management, a place to store possessions, and a place to be during the day, result in significantly more exits to permanent housing than stripped-down, mats-on-the-floor, in-at-9-out-at-7 basic shelters. According to the Human Services Department, 21 percent of people who entered enhanced shelters, like the Navigation Center operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, exited into some form of permanent housing. (Permanent housing can include everything from supportive housing in facilities with case management and other services, or a “rapid rehousing” voucher for an apartment on the private market.) In comparison, just 4 percent of those entering basic shelters exited directly into permanent housing.

Despite their higher success rate, the audit found that enhanced shelters are often full, making it impossible for the Navigation Team to refer many, if any, unsheltered people to them. Between March and December of 2017, the report says, there was an average of 18 beds available for all Navigation Team referrals—an average that includes 27 days when fewer than 10 beds were available, and four months in which the average daily vacancy was less than one bed, citywide. This was during a period when the Navigation Team contacted more than 1,800 individual people, many of them more than once.

Finally, the auditor recommended that the city consider “bridge to housing” strategies like the ones in place in San Diego and Sacramento, which employ large, semi-permanent tentlike structures that can house tens or hundreds of people in dormitory-style or more private rooms. The structures are similar to enhanced shelter—24/7 and low-barrier, they allow singles and couples to bring pets and possessions with them—but are less expensive because the buildings aren’t permanent.

The idea, which council members Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda brought up yesterday, elicited a testy back-and-forth between Mosqueda and Navigation Team director Fred Podesta, who interrupted Mosqueda’s question about the bridge-to-housing strategy by saying, “We need to carefully think about, are people going to accept an enormous, 150-person dormitory that’s in a tent? Before we get too bound up in the efficiency of a particular structure type, we have to think about how our clients are going to respond to it.” When Mosqueda picked up her line of question, Podesta interrupted her again, interjecting, “I just think it’s worth asking the question—if our approach is going to be to offer [housing in that type of structure to] people—’Would you go or not?’ We need to ask those questions before we spend $2 million on a tent.” The city of Sacramento estimates that a 300-bed shelter of this type would cost between $3 million and $4 million a year.

3. Saul Spady, the Dick’s Burgers scion and political consultant last seen soliciting money to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy renewal and to fill the seven city council seats that will be up for grabs next year with “common sense civic leaders,” may be improperly raising funds for an election campaign without registering with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the Public Disclosure Commission.

As I reported, Spady sent an email to supporters in September seeking $100,000 in contributions for a campaign to “educate” voters on why they should oppose the Families and Education Levy ballot measure and support “common sense civic leaders” against incumbent council members next year. The email says that Spady hosted a meeting the previous week—that is, the week of September 3—of “potential 2019 Seattle City Council candidates focused on common sense, fiscally responsible & acountable [sic] government mixed with active citizens who are concerned about the continuing slide of Seattle into the ‘corruption of incompetence’ that we’re witnessing across all sectors of city hall.” The goal of the meeting, Spady continued, “was to engage likely candidates & political donors.”

This kind of unofficial campaigning could put Spady, who owns the ad firm Cre8tive Empowerment, in violation of state campaign finance law as well as the city’s own campaign finance rules. According to the Public Disclosure Commission,  new campaigns for or against ballot measures must register with the PDC “within two weeks of forming a committee or expecting to receive or spend funds (whichever occurs first).” The Seattle Municipal Code, similarly, requires campaigns to file with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission as soon as they’ve raised or spent any money, announced that they plan to support or oppose a candidate or an upcoming ballot measure, bought an ad or reserved ad space, or put a survey in the field about a candidate or ballot measure. Filing involves paying a fee (about $1,300), setting up a campaign office, opening a bank account, and designating campaign officers. All of this, again, must be done within two weeks of soliciting money or engaging in any other campaign activities. Spady’s email went out on Tuesday, September 11—more than three weeks ago. As of midnight last night, Spady had not filed any campaign paperwork with either agency.

Morning Crank: An Even Bigger Table

1. At the inaugural meeting of her “innovation advisory council”—a group of local tech leaders brought together to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic—Mayor Jenny Durkan lavished praise on Seattle’s tech community, calling them “some of the most brilliant talent anywhere,” and noted that there has already been “an outpouring of interest” among other tech leaders in joining the group. “As big as this table is, it’s going to get bigger,” Durkan said, before leaving leaving the group to their discussion about how to help the city address its most vexing issues.

Yesterday meeting was mostly introductory—officials from the city’s human services and transportation departments gave presentations and answered questions from the group, which included representatives from Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and Tableau—but it still revealed some of the challenges this very large group will face in coming up with “innovative” solutions. The first is precisely what Durkan highlighted—the “table” already includes dozens of people, with more, apparently, to come; One Table, the last “table” effort in which Durkan was involved, met a few times, fizzled for a while, and then came back with a tepid set of recommendations for addressing the root causes of homelessness that could be summarized, basically, as “build more housing, and also treatment.” Without a targeted mission in mind—say, creating a new system to give the city’s Navigation Team instant access to a list of available shelter beds so they don’t have to call around when removing people from encampments—it’s easy to see this council meeting a few times, releasing a list of half-conceived ideas, and disbanding without any commitment to spend more time and, importantly, money on actually implementing their own suggestions. Michael Schutzler, head of the Washington Technology Industry Association, alluded to this concern, noting that “we can’t boil the ocean.”

The other issue that was immediately apparent yesterday was the fact that the advisory council would have benefited from the inclusion of someone who works full-time on homelessness and can quickly get other members up to speed on basic facts about the issue. Like many such councils, members come to the table with varying levels of baseline knowledge; nonetheless, it was somewhat jarring to hear Steve McChesney, VP of global marketing for F5, say, “I don’t understand, personally, what the behaviors are leading up to” homelessness. The city and county have done numerous studies, surveys, and presentations on the causes of homelessness, and “behavior” (such as having a substance use disorder) falls far behind high housing costs on the list of the root causes of homelessness.

The group will hold two more meetings to come up with a list of ideas, which will then be narrowed down for further discussion. City council president Bruce Harrell suggested that future meetings might not be open to the public or the press, and should include a “strong facilitator,” noting that the negotiations that got the city a $15 minimum wage didn’t happen in the public eye.

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2. One data point that jumped out at me from the city’s latest report on race and gender equity in city employment was the fact that the overwhelming majority of city employees who took advantage of paid parental leave last year—73 percent—were men. (Meanwhile, 64 percent of those who took family leave, which is provided for employees to care for children and other family members, were women.) These numbers can be accounted for, in part, by what the report calls the “very imbalanced” nature of the city’s workforce: Just 38.6 percent of the city’s workers are women, so if men and women took parental leave at equal rates, you would expect men to make up about 61 percent of those taking parental leave. However, men have not historically been the ones taking parental leave, and even assuming that they do so at the same rate as women doesn’t account for the entire gender divide.

So what’s going on here? A deeper look at the numbers reveals that the departments where men are far more likely than women to take time off for a new baby are also the ones that are most heavily dominated by men—City Light (where 78 percent of those taking parental leave since a new 12-week leave policy went into effect were men, and men make up 70 percent of the workforce), Police (where 88 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 72 percent of the workforce), and Fire (where 94 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 88 percent of the workforce). Deborah Jaquith, a spokeswoman for the city’s human resources department, says, “We can’t say specifically why there’s a higher proportion of male PPL takers, but you can see how that figure isn’t so surprising in the context of the city’s overall gender imbalances and the imbalances in these departments specifically.”

Some additional theories: Perhaps men in mostly male environments feel that they are unlikely to suffer workplace penalties for taking time off; after all, everyone else is doing it. Conversely, perhaps women in those environments are less likely to take time off precisely because they fear they will be penalized for pregnancy and childbirth in a male-dominated environment. The data don’t say, and the report does not include a survey to find out the specific stories behind the demographics.

As for the fact that women are far more likely than men to take time off to take their kids to the doctor, stay home when a child is sick, or take care of an ailing family member?  Well, women have always borne most of the burden of household responsibilities, and—despite progress in other areas, such as men’s increasing willingness to take paternal leave, which is an important advance toward gender progress—they’re still doing so today.

As City Moves Away from Eviction Prevention, Report Highlights Inequities in Who Gets Evicted, and Why

A new report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project on who gets evicted in Seattle, and why, concludes that not only are women and people of color more likely to get evicted than white men, but that they often lose their homes over very small amounts of money—just a few hundred dollars in late rent, which is usually compounded by the addition of court and attorney’s fees. Among all the people evicted for failure to pay rent on time, more than half (52.3 percent) owed one month’s rent or less, and more than three-quarters (76.6 percent) owed less than $2,500 ($1,236 on average.) Because evicted tenants are generally required to pay additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other non-rent charges on top of the rent they owe, the median court judgment was $3,129.

Sarah Stewart, a longtime Seattle resident who has been living in her car since she was evicted this past March, said at a press conference today that she lost her apartment, in a low-income building, because her landlord miscalculated her income, which varies from month to month based on her ability to work. Stewart has a degenerative illness that causes pain and fatigue. Despite her family’s efforts to help her pay “the enormous amounts they demanded,” she eventually ended up in eviction court. “In the end,” she said, “the landlord had all the power, and not only were they able to evict me, but they also burdened me with over $2,000 in late fees, attorneys’ fees and non-rent fees. In my current situation, there is no way I will ever be able to pay that back.”

The report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” describes a system heavily weighted in favor of landlords and against tenants, particularly tenants who lack attorneys. The vast majority of people who get evicted (87.5 percent) in Seattle ended up homeless (a category that includes couch surfing or living in shelters in addition to unsheltered homelessness) for the exact reason you might expect: Once you’ve got an eviction on your record, it can be nearly impossible to find someone willing to rent to you. 

Eviction prevention programs in Seattle are virtually nonexistent—in sharp contrast to other cities such as New York, where the Bronx Housing Court, which offers a one-stop shop for rental assistance programs, has helped prevent evictions in 86 percent of cases. (Other cities also give tenants sore time to pay what they owe—in Seattle, the eviction process can begin as soon as you’re three days late on your rent—and offer more discretion to judges to work out deals between landlords and tenants that allow people to stay in their homes). This can be traced, in part, to a 2016 report that recommended diverting funds away from eviction prevention and into programs to help people who are already homeless; that report ended up being the basis of the city’s “Pathways Home” strategy for addressing homelessness.

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According to the report, “The Focus Strategies report acknowledged that ‘[t]raditional prevention generally targets households who have their own rental unit and have received an eviction notice,’ but then discouraged such an approach without providing any support for their recommendation. The Focus Strategies report claimed that ‘since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction, it does not make sense to prioritize sheltering that group of people who are facing eviction; however, this overlooks the collateral consequences of eviction such as poor health, family instability, and higher financial strain on the shelter system.

The problem with ignoring people until they get evicted, Housing Justice Project attorney Ed Witter said today, is that it costs far more—between $15,000 and $17,000—to put someone up in a shelter for a year than it does to pay the $100 or $1,200 or $2,000 that separates them from eviction.  “We don’t help [people] until they’ve lost their housing, and we know this isn’t the most efficient way,” Witter said. A client who lived in low-income housing had just been evicted over $15.67 in late rent, Witter continued. “How did we get to the point that tenants are losing their housing over 15 dollars and 67 cents?”

Read the whole report, which includes detailed demographic data on who gets evicted and why as well as policy recommendations, here.

How Backyard Cottages Could Help Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

Photo by Hayley Young, Seattle magazine.

Of all the proposed solutions to Seattle’s homelessness problem, the Block Project is surely one of the most audacious. But one Seattle family is giving it a try, opening its heart—and backyard—to a homeless man. And more than 100 families are waiting in the wings.

In most respects, Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum are the owners of an ordinary Seattle home: a modest green bungalow with a small garden in the planting strip, on a quiet street of single-family homes on Beacon Hill. Walking by, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about it.

The surprise is in the backyard: a tiny, ultramodern wood-frame home occupied by a formerly homeless man named Robert “Bobby” Desjarlais. It represents one organization’s utopian vision of how Seattle can make a dent in its homeless problem.

The story of how this small structure came to be in the owners’ backyard, and how Desjarlais came to live here, begins about two years ago. That was when architect and activist Rex Hohlbein began pitching a new idea: What if one person on every block in Seattle built a tiny house in their backyard to house a single homeless neighbor?

Hohlbein’s organization, Facing Homelessness, works to break down the boundaries between housed and homeless people in Seattle; its slogan, “Just Say Hello,” exemplifies its belief that the first step toward fixing homelessness is decreasing the social distance between people who have housing and people who don’t. Last year, he pitched his plan to a group of about 30 Seattleites at the Cloud Room, a bar and coworking space on Capitol Hill. At the end of his presentation, Hohlbein asked how many of those in the room would consider volunteering for his experiment. Not a single hand went up.

But Hohlbein didn’t give up, and today, the project he started with his daughter Jenn LaFreniere, also an architect—now known as the Block Project—has more than 100 homeowners on its waiting list.

It has taken time for the Block Project to get off the ground—so far, just the Beacon Hill home is complete, and another is under construction in Greenwood. But Hohlbein hopes that once the project starts to gain acceptance, it will be possible to expedite the construction process so that those 100 homeowners can host Block homes of their own, and be followed by another 100, and another.

Currently, each home is funded by contributions from Facing Homelessness donors and built with volunteer labor and materials. For the future, Hohlbein envisions the basic components of each tiny home—essentially, four walls, a roof and a large window—being constructed off-site and then trucked in for quick assembly. For now, though, construction can take many weeks.

The homes themselves are all designed to be energy-independent and eventually water-independent as well, with composting toilets and subsurface irrigation. “We’re not just giving people shelter; we’re also putting them into the most advanced home on the block,” Hohlbein says.

Hohlbein predicts that as neighbors and the city become aware of the project and its potential, the psychological barriers to taking the program citywide will start to fall, much as they did for other sharing concepts, like Airbnb.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue. We don’t have to create compassion—I believe that’s there already in each and every one of us. We have to create a connection.”

For the Block Project, creating that connection starts with involving the surrounding community in the process.

Hohlbein has designed the Block Project process to begin well before the construction of a home. One of the early steps is for potential hosts to reach out to every neighbor on their block to let them know about the project, address concerns and answer questions.

Does the Block Project allow residents to use illegal drugs? No. Participants sign a legally binding contract that prohibits illegal drug use in the houses. Will a violent felon or sex offender be moving in next door? No. Insurance requirements prohibit it. What happens if there’s a problem? Each resident will have a case manager through a local service provider, and if an issue becomes truly intractable, the resident can be asked to leave. Do they pay rent? No. Facing Homelessness owns the homes and does not charge rent.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue.

After a series of one-on-one conversations and a community meeting, neighbors have an opportunity to formally object to the project; if even one person on the block objects, the Block home won’t be built. The idea isn’t just to get community buy-in, Hohlbein says, but to turn “NIMBYs” into “YIMBYs”—people who say, “Yes in My Backyard” and actively pitch in to make the Block Project work. A psychiatric nurse, for example, might agree to be a contact in case a resident who suffers from mental illness has a crisis, or a neighbor who owns a masonry shop might offer a part-time job to someone who always wanted to become a mason.

By creating contacts between formerly homeless people and neighborhood residents, the thinking goes, the Block Project will inspire people to think about homelessness in a different way—as a challenge they can do something to address, rather than someone else’s problem to solve.

“People need to have their lens corrected,” Hohlbein says. “Whenever someone who initially voiced fear or concern learns about the larger social good, or they learn the actual answers to the questions that they have, almost across the board, every time, it goes away.”

Bobby Desjarlais’ 125-square-foot home includes a small porch.

The first volunteers who stepped up to test this utopian vision were Sherman and Tenenbaum. They had spent years walking past tent encampments on their way to work and wondering what they could do to help. The backdrop was the 2016 election and news that hate crimes were on the rise.

“We were feeling like this was just not the world we wanted to live in,” Sherman says. Then she heard a presentation by Hohlbein about the Block Project at the firm where she works, FSi consulting engineers. “This [seemed] like an opportunity to push back against that a little bit and support something that makes the city more compassionate and caring—all those things that felt like they were in short supply,” Sherman says. (FSi now provides pro bono support to the Block Project.)

Sherman still remembers rehearsing how she would talk her husband into hosting the first Block home in their backyard. “Dan and I are pretty private, and sharing space is kind of a big deal for people who are introverted, so I was preparing the speech in my head,” Sherman says.

Colleen Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.” 

As it turned out, she didn’t have to do much convincing. “I got about two sentences into my spiel, and Dan said, ‘Oh. We should do that!’ That was the entire conversation.”

Getting from that initial conversation to move-in day turned out to be a slower process. To find its first resident—and in recognition of the fact that Native Americans experience homelessness at rates that vastly exceed their representation in the population—the Block Project turned to the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that provides culturally appropriate services and assistance to homeless and low-income Native Americans. (All Block Project residents must come to the project through an organization that provides case management. Besides the Chief Seattle Club, Hohlbein says, the project is working with Mary’s Place, The Sophia Way and the Community Psychiatric Clinic.) Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk says the group vetted a number of people, but decided that Desjarlais—a member of the Cree Tribe and a Canadian native who had been homeless for more than a decade—would be an ideal fit.

“He’s just one of the most wonderful people, with crazy amounts of joy and love for people,” Echohawk says. Tenenbaum and Sherman clicked with the 76-year-old Desjarlais right away. “I remember saying to Kim that I had a really good feeling about him,” Tenenbaum says. Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.”

Desjarlais did not want to be interviewed for this story—the couple says he has been overwhelmed by media attention—but he did allow a tour of his house, which is tidy and feels much larger than its 125-square-foot footprint. Inside, a tiny bathroom is separated by a curtain from a cleverly designed living area with a cooktop and refrigerator, built-in shelves, and a pull-out bed and desk. Outside, there’s a locked storage space and a small covered porch that looks out on the couple’s compact backyard—a peaceful space filled with sunlight, flowers and one slightly grumpy cat.

Sherman says one of the biggest things she’s learned in the six months or so of sharing their space with Desjarlais is how many things people with stable housing take for granted. “When Bobby first went into his house, we’d taken all this time to make everything perfect and all cute and arranged and homey, and he walked in and the first thing he said was, ‘Wow, pillows! I haven’t had pillows in 10 years! I’ve had to sleep with my coat and my shoes as a pillow,’” Sherman recalls. “And for some reason, I guess because that’s something that I completely take for granted, that really got to me emotionally—the idea that something as simple as a pillow can really impact the quality of your life.”

Although all their neighbors supported their plan to host a formerly homeless resident in their backyard, Sherman and Tenenbaum say that the Block Project’s vision—a network of neighbors pitching in to welcome Desjarlais and help him be a part of the community—hasn’t quite panned out. “Most people on our block haven’t been super involved,” Tenenbaum says.

Nor has Desjarlais drastically changed his routine; he still goes to the Chief Seattle Club in the morning and hangs out with his friends downtown during the day. In other ways, though, his life is completely different. He quit drinking and has gotten his diabetes under control. He gets to sleep in past 6 in the morning. And, of course, he has a home—one where, Tenenbaum and Sherman say, he is welcome to live “forever” if he chooses. Unlike many programs that offer housing to the homeless, there is no expectation that participants in this program move on to other housing.

Even after six months, Sherman says, “Bobby will send us a little text message every morning saying, ‘I can’t believe I slept so well—I slept until 7 a.m. and now I’m having cornflakes for breakfast.’ After living in a shelter where he was in a room full of 150 snoring men for so many years, just being able to sleep well has been a real luxury for him.”

At press time, the second Block home was still under construction, in the backyard of a house in Greenwood owned by Dave and Visala Hohlbein, Rex Hohlbein’s sister. On a recent weekend, volunteers swarmed the property, hand-digging a trench for a sewer line and stapling VaproShield to the exterior of the structure. When it’s complete, it will house a formerly homeless man named C’zar Carter, who is currently staying in Sherman and Tenenbaum’s basement.

It will, of course, take more than two Block homes to make this project a success, and more than one of these small houses on every block in Seattle to house the estimated 12,000 people in King County who lack a permanent place to call home. But elected officials who have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the homelessness crisis welcome all potential solutions—particularly those, like the Block Project, that rely on donations rather than government subsidies.

City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who has advocated for the Block Project and calls Hohlbein a visionary, says she sees the project as part of a “silver buckshot”—rather than a “silver bullet”—strategy for addressing homelessness. But she’s realistic about the financial and psychological challenges the project will face in scaling up to anything approaching Hohlbein’s vision.

Homeowners across the city will have to accept the idea of having formerly homeless people as neighbors; the Block Project will have to figure out how to pay for dozens or hundreds of tiny homes, which cost about $40,000 each for materials alone (though some materials are likely to be donated). “The fact is that we’ve got to work within a system and with neighbors who are saying, ‘We don’t want those people in our neighborhood,’ which is very discouraging,” Bagshaw says. “And that is what Rex is changing.”

Sherman and Tenenbaum have more modest goals—to house one person, and “put the idea in people’s heads to think of different solutions,” as Sherman puts it. Tenenbaum adds: “A lot of people want to help. They want to do good things. And I’m all for huge amounts of spending and government assistance. But there also need to be ways for people to express their need to help.”

“It feels better to be doing something than doing nothing,” Sherman says.