Tag: rapid rehousing

With Transitional Housing Under Fire, Rapid Rehousing Remains Unproven

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Graphic from Seattle Human Services Coalition letter responding to Murray’s Pathways Home proposal.

As the city council indicates it will delay any decision about how to address the issue of homeless encampments until December (a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to officially bar camping in parks appears to be the template on which the council will work once they adopt a budget), another, more sweeping homelessness proposal moves to the front burner.

Pathways Home, Murray’s response to two consultants’ reports suggesting a move away from transitional housing (a fairly structured, and costly, form of housing that includes supportive services) to “rapid rehousing,” would mandate a major shift in the way the city funds housing for people experiencing homelessness. In addition to shifting funds away from transitional housing, the proposal would change the city’s funding model from a provider-centered framework (in which housing providers create programs to serve the specific groups that are their clients, such as veterans) to a funder-centered model (in which funders, including the city and United Way, determine the best way to allocate funds and providers must adapt.)

On the ground, it means that less-“efficient” programs, like the Low-Income Housing Institute’s transitional apartments for veterans and Muslims, will be cut and replaced with “rapid rehousing” funds to provide homeless people from all backgrounds with temporary (three-to-nine-month) vouchers for housing in the private market. After the vouchers run out, most recipients will be on their own.

There’s a lot to unpack in this radical shift from the current model to the new voucher-based system, but let’s start at the top: With HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD determines federal housing policy, which filters down to states and municipalities, and right now, they’re all about rapid rehousing. That’s understandable: According to the Focus Strategies report on which (along with a set of recommendations known as the Poppe Report) Pathways Home is partly based, transitional housing “is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city, respectively, is $924, $967, and $949. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.)

So what does this purported cost savings mean for homeless people? That’s unclear, in part because rapid rehousing is such a new strategy—just five or six years old. According to Rachel Fyall, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who is studying rapid rehousing, the best study on rapid rehousing, called Family Options, only includes 18 months of data and only evaluated families with children; in Seattle, rapid rehousing is being touted as the best option specifically for single men, who tend to be the hardest to house. In other words, the study most commonly cited as evidence that rapid rehousing works to get people out of homelessness is short-term and didn’t study the very population for whom it’s supposed to work in Seattle.

“Rapid rehousing is very new,” Fyall says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this, and I’m sometimes frustrated by claims that this is evidence based and proven.”

Fyall (who stipulates bluntly that “transitional housing is not a good idea” for getting people into permanent housing either) is currently finishing up work on a study of a new rapid rehousing program run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle. Looking at the data so far, she says “the jury is out” on whether rapid rehousing actually gets people into “permanent housing” long-term, or whether people are forced back into homelessness once their subsidies run out. “We don’t know what happens to them, and that is the big unknown of rapid rehousing generally,” Fyall says.

Another big unknown is whether rapid rehousing actually houses people who wouldn’t have been able to exit homelessness on their own, or whether most of those who are quickly able to get by in the private rental market would have done so anyway.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like Fyall a skeptic of both approaches, says that DESC’s rapid rehousing program “by and large ends up being used for the higher-functioning folks who will move into an apartment, get an agreement with a landlord, and make it work for a few months.” What the studies haven’t done, he says, is compare people who receive temporary subsidies to those “who have not gotten rapid rehousing assistance and got out out of homelessness anyway. That’s the crux of the matter: Is rapid rehousing doing anything that wasn’t going to happen naturally?”

Malone also notes that the small amount of data that exists on rapid rehousing programs indicates that while people on vouchers don’t immediately fall back into homelessness once their rent subsidies run out, they also don’t tend to stay in their original, subsidized apartments. Sharon Lee, the director of LIHI and someone whose programs stand to lose a lot of funding under Pathways Home, says, “If they would just say rapid rehousing is a shelter—’rapid rehousing means we’ll get you off the street, and you can have three months of being off the street in market-rate housing’—that would be more honest.”

Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that manages homelessness policy across King County, says he understands Lee’s frustration but adds that right now, the county and city are under a HUD mandate to shift away from longer-term transitional housing and “just house people any way we can, wherever we can while we are fighting the advocacy battle to get our [housing] trust fund funded” by the state and federal governments. “It’s the reality of where we are right now. … We need more resources, but these are also reality-based recommendations. Can we house more people with [our current] resources? The answer is yes.”

One issue with the Pathways Home report, and its sanguine predictions about massive cost savings, is that the data it used was from housing markets—including Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City—that are dramatically different from Seattle’s. (The average apartment in each city is $924, $967, and $949, respectively. In Seattle, it’s $1,906.) What that means in practice is that formerly homeless people will be cast out after a few months of subsidy into a private market that is unaffordable even for many middle-class people.

Pathways Home brushes aside concerns about the relative unaffordability of Seattle by suggesting that people may just have to make some tough choices—like paying much larger proportions of their income in rent (current HUD standards for “affordability” say you should spend no more than 30 percent of your income on rent and utilities), or by moving out of town. From the Focus Strategies report:

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County. RRH is not an anti-poverty program, so households may pay a significant portion of their income for rent if it makes the difference between being unsheltered and being housed. Households should have the option of sharing units if that makes their rental budget stretch further. Clients should also have the option to move to areas where housing is cheaper. In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments.”

That may sound fine when you’re moving widgets around a map. But when you’re moving people around a region—particularly a region in which poor people, people of color, immigrant communities, and many other marginalized populations are being pushed out of an ever-wealthier Seattle—such a strategy raises huge questions about equity and economic inequality. Is it fair to say that poor people just have to live where we tell them to, even if that means they’re torn away from their jobs, friends, family, social structures, and community supports? Should immigrants who want to live among people who speak their language, or single moms who rely on family members for child care, or low-income workers who rely on public transit, be required to move to isolated areas away from those supports? And at a time when Seattle is setting up programs to help low-income residents, such as the pilot “universal preschool” initiative, does it make sense to tell many of those same residents that their only option may be moving to another county?

“[Rapid rehousing] programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County.” — Focus Strategies

Merril Cousin, director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, says while the city tries to save money and move people indoors, they should consider those people’s individual circumstances, rather than treating them as problems to be solved through increased efficiencies. For the domestic violence victims she works with, for example, “being able to maintain social support is really important to a survivor’s ability to get safe and heal from the the abuse,” and Cousin says that need for social support extends to lots of other communities.

“If we want to have a diverse and vibrant community, we can’t just say to people, ‘Just go somewhere else.’ Families are already fleeing Seattle because it’s not affordable here, and now we’re saying, ‘Veterans, you can’t afford to live here, go somewhere else. Poor people, go somewhere else,'” Cousin says. “To say, ‘Your only option is to move away from a community where you may have social support and services’—that doesn’t lead to self-sufficiency and wholeness. Social support is an incredibly important part of that.”

 

Putnam, with All Home, says he doesn’t disagree, but argues that without additional funding from the state and the feds, the city and county have to do whatever houses the most people, even if that means dislocating them from their communities.

“Moving them away—that’s a tough thing for the city to feel okay about,” Putnam says. “If everybody needs to leave Seattle or leave King County, that’s not the ideal, but my job is to get people into housing. To me, equity is about getting people housed.”

“One of the calls for us at the systems level is that we’re trying to house as many people as we can with the resources that we have,” Putnam adds, and “It seems like the choice right now between people living in tents in Seattle versus apartments somewhere else.”

Lee, whose organization runs transitional housing for teenagers, vets, immigrants, and other groups, says All Home assumes, unfairly, that the system for housing homeless people can be “fixed” simply by reshuffling money and people around, rather than by adding funds for all sorts of housing, including transitional programs. “I think the problem with Mark Putnam is that he thinks it’s a zero- sum game: We should ‘right-size’ [a term that appears several times in the Focus Strategies report] and therefore if we want to do more rapid rehousing, we have to take away from someplace else. He’s constructed his own problem. [He’s saying], ‘We shouldn’t be spending more; let’s just find creative ways of doing more with less,’ which can only take you so far.”

Lee notes that one of the longstanding criticisms of groups like hers is that they historically engaged in “creaming”—taking in the easiest-to-serve clients in order to demonstrate high success rates to funders like HUD. She predicts rapid rehousing will have the same effect: Providing apartments for those who were almost able to make it in the private market already, while leaving the most vulnerable, including those who are currently served by “inefficient” transitional housing, behind.

Funders, Lee says, “used to say, ‘You’re only taking people who are going to be successful.’ Well, we know that recent immigrants and refugees are not going to be able to exit transitional housing in three to six months and be successful so you’re setting them up to fail. If Mark Putnam overlays the same requirements [on rapid rehousing], then he’s incentivizing going back to the old way, which is, you’re only going to want to work with people who are going to be successful.

“That’s the problem of feeling like you have to cut services to fund rapid rehousing. If you’ve got 3,000 people on the street, and some of them are homeless young adults and homeless families with multiple [Child Protective Services] involvements around the care of their children, and people with issues around not just income but mental health, you’re going to need more services tied to the housing, and sticking them in market rate housing with just short term rent subsidy isn’t the answer.”

 

Putnam and Lee differ on the issue of whether HUD’s shift away from transitional housing is a mandate on Seattle or an unproven idea from which Seattle can deviate. Lee points to the Seattle Housing Authority’s Stepping Forward program—a Pathways Home-style initiative that would have increased some public housing residents’ rent up to 400 percent—as a time when Seattle decided to go its own way and abandon a market-based strategy that was pushed by the feds. Putnam says funding from HUD is contingent on adopting “performance-based contracting” and moving away from transitional housing, so Lee’s strategy is unrealistic.

Fyall, the UW researcher, suggest that the real solution may be long-term housing subsidies—especially in a market, like Seattle’s, where people who work multiple jobs find it hard to stay afloat.

“A key component of homelessness is the inability to afford housing, and for many people, affordability”—not mental health or addiction or any other personal issue—”is really the number one difference between people who are homeless and pole who are housed: They can’t afford a place to live,” Fyall says. She says some groups cite the 18-month Family Options study (which will be updated with 37 months of data in December) as “the success of rapid rehousing, which I find bogus, because my read on the study is that the only thing that works permanently is a permanent subsidy, and the rest of it is just spitting people back into homelessness.”

“When I think about the homelessness problem in our region, everything that’s happening at a intervention level is really just bailing out buckets of water from the ocean of rising rents,” Fyall says. “When you have people at all income levels struggling to find housing that is affordable to them, that is what I would consider the root cause of homelessness.”

And here’s what Focus Strategies has to say about affordability. “Disentangling the homelessness crisis from the housing affordability crisis in Seattle/King County is critical to the community making progress towards ending homelessness.”

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Rapid Rehousing: A Word of Caution

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Something about the proposed shift away from transitional housing (which provides supportive services like job and life skills training, as well as help getting jobs, benefits, and child care for those who need it) toward “rapid rehousing” (“a relatively new program type that provides homeless individuals and families with a short term rental subsidy (usually up to about six months), after which they take over responsibility for paying their own rent,” according to the city’s Focus Strategies report“) reminds me of welfare reform.

Remember welfare reform? (Millennials: “Nope!”) The idea, promoted by Republicans and championed by then-President Bill Clinton, was to get people off cash assistance and into jobs as quickly as possible, by cutting off assistance after two years and most welfare recipients to get jobs. Like rapid rehousing (and Section 8 housing vouchers, which replaced most public housing projects), welfare reform was supposed to be “a hand up, not a hand out.” It was also supposed to include guaranteed jobs for people who couldn’t find employment in the private sector, but the Republicans who controlled Congress in the mid-1990s made short work of that. Ultimately, the number of families receiving direct cash benefits from the government was cut in half (even as need for these benefits increased), and the number of people living in extreme poverty doubled.

That’s the issue with getting rid of, or even drastically reducing, funding for transitional housing. It looks great on paper—rapid rehousing costs a fraction of the cost of transitional housing, $11,507 compared to $32,627 per household—but what happens to all those people who are left to fend for themselves on the private market after three, six, or nine months? Is it realistic to believe that someone who can pay $100 in rent when they enter the system will be able to pay for a $1,500 apartment six months later? The Poppe and Focus Strategies reports, which look at just five rapid rehousing projects in Seattle, conclude triumphantly that rapid rehousing is far less expensive than more intensive transitional housing, but even they have to acknowledge that the rate of exit to permanent housing in those programs, at 52 percent, “is well below what is common in high-performing RRH programs.”

Nationally, even those “high-performing” programs are scarce and graded on a curve. In a survey of the few rapid rehousing programs that are up and running in the US, only a quarter of participants were in the same apartment one year after their subsidies ended, meaning that they couldn’t afford their rent after their subsidies ran out, not surprising since their incomes increased only marginally ($15 a month for every month a family was in rapid rehousing in a Philadelphia survey). The survey does conclude that rapid rehousing reduces the number of people who return to unsheltered homelessness with a year compared to transitional housing, but those numbers were already low: from 9 percent of those leaving transitional housing to 4 percent of those leaving rapid rehousing programs.

And remember, rapid rehousing is “relatively new.” We don’t know that rapid rehousing “works” long term. What we do know for certain is that it’s cheaper.

Cheaper, at least, for the government agencies that fund housing providers. But for renters experiencing homelessness, it can have profound consequences. If circumstances, job loss, family disruption, or other factors prevent newly “rehoused” renters from being able to make their payments, they may face eviction, which will not only render them homeless (or unstably housed) again but will make it much harder for them to rent in the future. (Advocates for rapid rehousing say people who can’t make it on the private market will have access to other options, like permanent supportive housing with extensive—and expensive—wraparound services, but not all families and individuals will qualify for, or need, such intensive care; many just need affordable housing).

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County,” the Focus Strategies report concludes.

The Focus Strategies and Poppe reports make clear that when they talk about rapid rehousing, they don’t mean affordable housing, nor do they mean housing that an individual would pick for herself. For all their talk of taking a “person-centered approach,” the reports suggest strongly that individuals and families should be required to accept whatever housing becomes available on a first-come, first-served basis, even if that housing is many miles removed from their community, job, extended family, services, and other support systems. “RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County,” the Focus Strategies report concludes.

Nor does this purely utilitarian view take into account the fact that if we focus on those who’ve been unsheltered the longest (generally older, single men with criminal histories and issues with mental health, addiction, or both), we risk letting other vulnerable people (women fleeing domestic violence, kids who just ran away from home) fall through the cracks. These issues should raise concern for council members considering whether to adopt a purely “performance-based” approach to housing the 4,000-plus people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Homeless people are still people with preferences and autonomy; they should not be manipulated like chess pieces to satisfy empty promises like “ending unsheltered homelessness through increased efficiency.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Council Skeptical of Plan That Could Require Moving Homeless Out of Town

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The city council started getting into the details of Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget for homelessness-related programs yesterday, and it was clear from the start of the meeting that many of them don’t plan to let the mayor ram his Pathways Home proposal, which would radically reshape the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness, through without careful scrutiny.

I’ve written before about Pathways Home and the so-called Poppe Report on which it’s based, but here’s the gist: The proposal, which hews to new federal guidelines that encourage cities to shift away from funding more expensive (and longer-term) transitional housing toward “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers that subsidize rent on the private market, would eliminate funding for “low-performance” programs and emphasize housing for those who have been homeless the longest, as opposed to those who are most vulnerable or are merely unstably housed.

The proposal also has the potential to eliminate or ignore personal agency in choosing where to live; according to a report by the consulting firm Focus Strategies, on which the Poppe report and Pathways home are largely based, “In some high cost communities, RRH clients have to move out of county to secure affordable apartments. … While this may feel unsatisfying to providers and runs contrary to community goals relating to diversity and combatting gentrification and displacement, the alternative is leaving families and individuals with long stays in shelters or living in tents or sleeping in cars.” The report also recommends a shift away from transitional housing programs that serve specific populations, such as veterans (who may benefit from living with other veterans rather than scattered in isolated apartments across the county), domestic-violence survivors, and immigrants and refugees.

This concept—that homeless people who live in high-cost housing markets like Seattle should be willing to leave behind their communities, support systems, services, and employment opportunities just to get a roof over their heads— didn’t slip past council members Friday.

Council member Kshama Sawant pointed to a footnote in the Focus Strategies report noting that “in San Francisco, where rents are extremely high, it is common practice for [rapid rehousing programs to assist families to re-locate upwards of 60 miles from the City to other counties where rents are lower.” (Side note: The report explicitly says it is not concerned with affordability, and that if people end up having to spend half their income or more on housing, at least that’s better than sleeping outside. The current federal, county, and city standard for “affordability” is that a person spend no more than 30 percent of his or her income on housing.)

“I don’t think, in any reasonable definition of housing people effectively, does this count, because where are they going to go?” Sawant said. “Sixty miles away? We know what the housing situation is in San Francisco.” Indeed, the Focus Strategies report points to Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Hennepin County, MN as examples where a shift to rapid rehousing in the private rental market has been effective at housing people who had lived in shelters for months or years—all places where median rent is a fraction of what it is in Seattle.

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Lisa Herbold, another skeptic of the Pathways Home proposal, pointed to Hennepin County as an example in which government funders and service providers tried rapid rehousing on a trial basis before closing down shelters and transitional housing programs to test whether that was the right approach, and provided supportive services to assist those moving from shelter to voucher-subsidized housing in the private market.

“I’m concerned that the Pathways Home approach, as we’re looking at it right now, will mean pathways home for people who are staying outside unsheltered, but it will mean a pathway out of town for other people who are using [transitional and shelter] housing services,” Herbold said. Moreover, “I don’t feel like the Poppe Report recommendations really did a really good job of identifying solutions and strategies that match our high-cost housing.”

Murray’s proposed budget includes nearly a half-million dollars in additional spending in 2017 and 2018 to “staff Pathways Home implementation,” which implies that the city council is supposed to embrace the Poppe recommendations in next year’s city budget, which the council will adopt next month. The skepticism some council members expressed on Friday suggests that Murray may be in for another battle.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is run entirely on contributions from readers, which pay for my time (typically no less than 20 hours a week, but often as many as 40) as well as costs like transportation, equipment, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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