City Bets Big on Enhanced Shelter, Rapid Rehousing in New Homeless Spending Plan

Mayor Tim Burgess: “Business as usual is not really an option.”

Homeless service providers and the city of Seattle say they’re confident that they can double the number of people moved from homelessness to permanent housing in the next year through a combination of traditional tools like permanent supportive housing and private market-based solutions like rapid rehousing with short-term rent assistance vouchers. Yesterday, the city’s Human Services Department released a list of programs, operated by 30 local organizations and agencies, that will receive $34 million in new homeless service contracts. By this time next year, Mayor Tim Burgess predicted yesterday, the city will have moved “more than twice as many people from homelessness to permanent homes compared to this year.” Burgess added that he has “confidence … that the new approach will be effective. …I recognize this is a huge change, but it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need that we face on the streets of Seattle. Business as usual is really not an option, because we’re not moving enough people off the street and into permanent housing.” See below for sassy footnote.*

The city also released a list of the dozens of projects that did not receive city dollars because they failed to meet HSD’s new funding standards, which prioritizes low-barrier shelters and programs that promise to get people into housing quickly over longer-term transitional housing and “mats-on-the-floor” shelters that have high barriers to entry and don’t emphasize permanent housing. This year, according to HSD, 56 percent of the city’s shelter funding goes to bare-bones night shelters; as of next year, “mats-on-the-floor” shelters will make up just 15 percent of HSD’s shelter budget, with the remainder going to enhanced shelters. Overall, there will be 300 fewer HSD-funded shelter beds in the city.

Several longstanding programs will be defunded partially or completely, including the SHARE/WHEEL nightly shelter program, which provides high-barrier nighttime-only shelter to about 200 people per night. (SHARE’s shelters are high-barrier because they require adherence to a long list of rules that varies from shelter to shelter, require prospective shelter residents to pass a “screen” by a current member, and restrict residents’ comings and goings—for example, by requiring them to stay at a shelter consistently for a certain number of nights.) HSD deputy director Jason Johnson confirmed yesterday that SHARE’s application for $694,153 to run its shelters ranked dead last among all applications for emergency shelter service funding; its sister organization for women, WHEEL, also ranked poorly, according to HSD.

HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said that in deciding which providers received funding, the agency prioritized “quality” over “quantity,” noting that having to line up every night for a shelter bed is stressful and makes it harder for homeless people to improve their lives.

 

“Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” HSD director Catherine Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

 

In response to yesterday’s announcement, SHARE released a portion of the application it submitted to HSD (the full applications will be unavailable, HSD officials said, until after an appeal period concludes on December 12), which asserted that the city’s goal of drastically increasing the rate at which people move from homelessness to permanent housing “is a painful impossibility considering the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.  Demanding it forces competition, false promises, and a practice commonly called ‘creaming’—programs rejecting hard-to-serve folks to gain better housing outcomes.” SHARE has been vocal during the city council’s budget deliberations, and will almost certainly show up at city hall to protest the cuts; they will still receive funding to operate the city’s six sanctioned tent encampments.

Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

HSD’s prediction about how successful its new approach will be does appear optimistic in light of the high, and growing, cost of living in Seattle, where a one-bedroom market-rate apartment might cost $1,800 to $2,000. As Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization lost funding for two transitional housing projects in the Central District and Georgetown, noted pointedly, permanent housing is always the ultimate goal—but vouchers for formerly homeless people to rent on the private market will only work if people can go from minimal or no income to a relatively high income extremely quickly. If, as seems more likely, they can’t, they may end up worse off than when they accepted the voucher—homeless again, but now with a broken lease or eviction on their record.

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold,” Lee said. “I think there is a way to lie with statistics. I think they say, ‘We put someone into market-rate housing, and if they don’t show up in the [Homeless Management Information System] later, then it is successful,’ but they haven’t checked” to see if that person is still living in the “permanent housing” after their rent subsidy runs out. Lee said that about 80 percent of the people who live in LIHI-owned and -operated transitional housing would not be good candidates for rapid rehousing, because they are living with physical and developmental disabilities, PTSD, or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing would be the solution, but we don’t have enough permanent supportive housing”—long-term housing with wraparound services. (Interestingly, as SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield points out, HSD appears to estimate the cost of each “exit” to permanent supportive housing as just $1,778 per household, which is far less than any other program, including diversion, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing.).

Enhanced shelters, like the 24-hour, low-barrier Navigation Center that opened earlier this year, are also key to HSD’s plan to permanently house 7,400 people by the end of 2018. The goal is to move most clients through enhanced shelter and into permanent housing within 60 days—but that goal, as I’ve reported, has been harder to achieve in practice than the city predicted. (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it should be noted, has issued a mandate saying people should move through enhanced shelters and into permanent housing in no more than 30 days.) As of October, the Navigation Center, which is run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center had housed just one person—in transitional housing, not the permanent housing the city hopes will be the key to solving the homelessness crisis. (Another person left town, saying they planned to move in with family.)

 

“I think that rapid rehousing is totally oversold.”—Low Income Housing Institute Director Sharon Lee

 

Asked why they have confidence that other low-barrier, high-service shelters will be able to rapidly move people from homelessness to permanent housing when the Navigation Centers has struggled, HSD staffers said only that they have faith in the organizations that were chosen for funding and that the 7,400 number is actually a lowball, based on the assumption that most enhanced shelters will need some amount of “ramp-up time.” Johnson also alluded to the need for the Navigation Center to show “fidelity to the San Francisco model,” a reference to the original Navigation Center in that city, on which Seattle’s Navigation Center is modeled. But San Francisco’s Navigation Center benefited early on from the fact that San Francisco was able to steer clients into units the city owned, which meant that people exiting the center didn’t have to find units in the private market; now those units are full, and recent reports suggest that three-quarters of that Navigation Center’s clients have failed to find permanent housing and that most have returned to homelessness.

DESC director Daniel Malone, like LIHI’s Lee, points to high rents in the Seattle area as a key barrier to moving people from shelter to housing in the private market. “While some of the resources in this plan will help pay for people to get into housing, I do believe we still have a major problem in this community with the accessibility and availability of housing that’s affordable to low-income people, so I think we’ve got to address both the navigation”—steering people toward the services that can help them—”and the availability of housing in order to achieve the goals that we all share, and I worry that we haven’t paid enough attention to that second part.”

The city’s grants for rapid rehousing providers did not say that the vouchers needed to pay for housing in Seattle, making it a near-certainty that many voucher recipients who would prefer to live close to their current homes, jobs, and communities may be forced to move to suburbs where rent is cheaper. Given that one of the key criteria HSD considered in the grant process was racial equity—the groups that will receive funding include several organizations that serve Native Americans, African Americans, and African immigrants—I was surprised that HSD was so blithe about pushing more low-income people, especially people of color, out of the city. Lester, the HSD director, said it was a question of priorities: Is it more important to make sure people can find housing in Seattle, or to get them off of the streets or out of their cars? “Ideally, we want to support people living in their own choice community,” Lester said, but “for me, a more important ideal is that we’re supporting people living inside, and unfortunately, there are times when it means people will be living outside of their choice community.”

As readers of this blog may recall, the city council is still discussing ways to put more funding into homeless services, after rejecting a $125-per-employee tax on the city’s largest 1,100 or so employers. If that funding comes through, HSD staffers said yesterday, the agency already has a list of “tier two” projects that didn’t quite make the cut for this round of funding.

A full list of the projects that received funding is available here.

* Permanent housing, by the way, doesn’t always mean a room or an apartment; it also includes things like crashing on a couch with friends or moving out of the state to live with family; the thing that makes it “permanent” is that it isn’t time-limited, and the thing that makes it “successful” in the city’s eyes is that a person doesn’t re-register as officially homeless with the county, so people who pack up to be homeless elsewhere are out of sight, out of mind.

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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