Tag: State of the City

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: Kind of the Magic of the Place

1. In a State of the City address that focused on major initiatives like a $55 million property tax levy for homelessness and a potential lawsuit against the Trump Administration, Mayor Ed Murray’s brief announcement that he was activating the city’s Emergency Operations Center to respond to the homelessness emergency was easy to miss.

Murray didn’t explain how he planned to repurpose the facility, which is designed to respond to short-term emergencies like riots and weather events, to address the slow-drip homelessness crisis.  So I called up Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta, who serves as the operations director for the city, to ask him how the mayor’s plan would work.

First, Podesta clarified that the EOC won’t be addressing homelessness full-time; rather, from 8:30 to 10:30 on weekday mornings., representatives from every city department—from the Seattle Police Department to the Office of Film and Music—will sit down to discuss the day’s top homelessness-related priorities and come up with a solution for addressing them. For example, if the city’s new “navigation team,” which will be headquartered at the EOC, is heading out to clear an encampment, representatives from FAS, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Human Services Department will be on hand to advise the team on connections to shelter, trash pickup, and any law-enforcement issues that might arise. (Why would Film and Music need to be at the table? Podesta says they might think of something other departments wouldn’t—like an idea for a benefit, or an impact the homeless community has on the nightlife industry that wouldn’t have occurred to other departments.)

That’s kind of the magic of the place, because it’s a very different sort of setting [than city hall], and a big place where we can get everyone in one room might shake loose some sorts of innovations that we might not have thought of before,” Podesta says. “If you lock everybody in the room and say, ‘I want a solution to this on Tuesday,’ it happens faster. Half of it is working on things we were already working on anyway. This is a way to accelerate it and get solutions that are faster and more comprehensive.”

2. UPDATE: Mayor Ed Murray’s office denies that the city has any plans to authorize more encampments. Murray spokesman Benton Strong says the city’s goal is to open just seven encampments total, including existing camps such as Nickelsville in Ballard. Four new sanctioned homeless encampments are reportedly planned as part of the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness. Last time the city announced four new encampments, they ended up opening only three, after community opposition made it hard for the city to find a suitable location. The three sanctioned encampments that opened most recently are in Highland Park, Georgetown, and Licton Springs in North Seattle.

3. Image may contain: textRemember the Women’s March, or Black Lives Matter, or the Stand With Immigrants rally at Westlake Park?

This is exactly like that, except instead of  “women”/”black people”/”immigrants fighting for their human rights,” this rally is more of a “residents of an exclusive high-rise whining that other rich people are building an equally exclusive high-rise next door” kind of thing.

To recap: Residents at the Escala condos, where units list for around $3 million, are mad because another developer plans to build a 45-story apartment and hotel tower directly across the alley from them. They want the city to intervene and enforce their nonexistent right to water views and “air,” arguing that two towers on two adjacent blocks represents too much density for downtown Seattle. I’ve been assured that this  homeowners association alert is real, so make sure you adjust your travel plans accordingly. I hear they’re bringing the Mercer Island Pipeline protesters with them.

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 funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Murray Links Pro-Immigration Positions to Pro-Urbanist Policies

This post originally ran on Next City.

In an uncharacteristically fiery State of the City address Tuesday morning, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray laid out an explicitly urbanist, unabashedly activist agenda that drew a straight line between President Donald Trump’s executive actions against immigrants and refugees to Seattle’s own exclusionary zoning laws, which preserve more than 60 percent of the city’s land for single-family use. And he laid out that vision in an unusual location: the Idris Mosque in north Seattle, a venue chosen both as a symbol of Seattle’s commitment to inclusion and a message to the new administration that Seattle won’t be cowed by policies targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

Tuesday was the first time a Seattle mayor has ever delivered the State of the City inside a religious institution; typically, the mayor makes his remarks at City Hall, during a regular meeting of the City Council. In a statement last week, Murray said that by speaking at the mosque, he hoped to demonstrate that he and the city council were “standing with Seattle’s Muslim community in their house of worship as we fight state-sanctioned discrimination by the Trump administration.”

Although some conservative commentators raised questions about whether holding a speech in a mosque violated the constitutional separation of church and state, Murray’s office pointed out that the city has held many events over the years (though not the State of the City) in Christian churches.

Last year, a man claiming to be armed with an assault rifle made an online threat against the mosque; fortunately, police defused the situation after a brief standoff and no one was harmed. However, in the wake of that threat — and in recognition, mosque trustee Hisham Farajallah said Tuesday, of “the environment we now live in” — the mosque remains on high alert. Members of the public who attended the speech had to navigate a phalanx of armed security guards, who rifled through bags and backpacks and confiscated bottles and cans.

Before the speech, I asked Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole whether the city would have implemented such strict security precautions if the mayor had held the State of the City at, say, a church or community center. (Security is famously laissez faire at Seattle’s City Hall, where one regular shows up at every meeting to curse out the council on the record, concluding with a Nazi salute.) “We have no concerns today,” O’Toole said, but “we’d rather inconvenience everybody for a few minutes than not take precautions. It’s just the world we live in now.”

In his speech, Murray didn’t explicitly link Seattle’s zoning laws to Trump’s “state-sanctioned discrimination,” but he got the point across. “We cannot be a city where people protest the exclusionary agenda coming from Washington, D.C., while at the same time keeping a zoning code in place that does not allow us to build the affordable housing we need,” Murray said. “If we do not build more housing, we have seen what happens: more and more people compete for the same homes and prices go up, creating an invisible wall around our neighborhoods and locking people out.”

Specifically, Murray urged the City Council to finalize a controversial zoning plan for Seattle’s University District that would allow buildings as tall as 320 feet right next to a new light-rail station; called for a $55 million property tax levy and other investments to house the thousands living unsheltered on Seattle’s streets; and called attention to an alarming statistic: Every day, the city gains 67 new residents — and produces just 12 new units of housing.

Rejecting Trump’s “exclusionary agenda” is becoming a theme for Seattle’s mayor. Last month, Murray declared that he was “willing to lose every penny” of federal funding to protect undocumented immigrants and refugees in the city. He put an exclamation mark on that sentence Tuesday, when he threatened to sue the Trump administration if it refuses to turn over documents explaining the President’s definition of “sanctuary cities” and any actions the administration plans to take against cities that refuse to cooperate with Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration.

This is hardly the first time an elected official has observed that while Seattle liberals frequently claim they welcome immigrants and refugees, they often oppose zoning changes that would provide places for those immigrants and refugees to live. But it may be the first time a mayor has explicitly chided Seattle residents, in a major speech, for holding back policies — like the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which calls for modest density increases and imposes affordable-housing requirements on developers — that would make inclusion a reality rather than just a rhetorical device.

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 funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The Good, the Meh, the Missing

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Mayor Ed Murray’s annual State of the City address made quite a bit of news yesterday. From a proposed $55 million property tax for homeless services to a potential lawsuit against the Trump Administration, Murray’s 45-minute address (delivered with the aid of two Telepromptrs in his usual slightly stumbly monotone) was explicitly urbanist, unabashedly activist, and uncharacteristically impassioned. (Shout out to new speechwriter Josh Feit!) Here’s my take on what the mayor proposed, and what he didn’t.

The Good:

• Murray proposed a $55 million property tax levy that would pay for “mental health treatment, addiction treatment and getting more people into housing and off the streets.” I can’t think of a more critical need in the city right now than to house the thousands of homeless people living unsheltered on our streets. Even if Trump doesn’t follow through on his promise to eliminate all federal funding to “sanctuary cities” like Seattle, the city’s housing programs rely heavily on funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was recently taken over, you may recall, by a guy who thinks poor people can eat bootstraps. More funding has to come from the local level.

My primary caveat about this proposal is that we still don’t know what it will pay for. Murray’s homelessness plan, Pathways Home, relies heavily on short-term housing vouchers for people exiting homelessness; if the $55 million pays for programs that house people for a few months before dumping them back into the same unaffordable housing market that made them homeless in the first place, it may not be money well spent. TBD.

• The location. Murray’s decision to hold the final State of the City of his first term at Idris Mosque was an impressive move on two levels: 1) It  communicates to the Trump Administration—which is paying attention to Seattle, home of the “so-called judge” who first overturned his Muslim travel ban—that Seattle isn’t afraid of him. (Also today, Murray announced a series of FOIA requests seeking information about Trump’s policies targeting cities that welcome immigrants and refugees; if the administration refuses to provide the documents, the city will sue to get them). And 2) It serves as a visual and symbolic punctuation to the link Murray drew between immigration and dense, vibrant cities: We can’t call ourselves a sanctuary city if we build “invisible walls” that put most of the city off limits for housing development. “We cannot be a city where people protest the exclusionary agenda coming from Washington, D.C., while at the same time keeping a zoning code in place that does not allow us to build the affordable housing we need,” Murray said.

The Meh:

Related image A two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks that will pay for a variety of educational programs, including the Parent-Child Home Program, the “Fresh Bucks” program that helps poor families buy healthy food, and other recommendations from the city’s education summit last year.

I’m a Diet Coke drinker myself, so this won’t impact me (sugar substitutes, although clinically proven to increase cravings and contribute to obesity, would be exempt from the tax), but that’s kind of the problem: Singling out sugary drinks as scapegoats for dietary problems like diabetes is not only pretty arbitrary (I’m not over here arguing that aspartame is health food), it also disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color, who spend more of their money on soda and other sugary drinks. (Hey, you know who made this argument? Bernie Sanders!) Now, it’s true that diabetes and obesity are more common among low-income folks and people of color, which is why I’m putting this in the “meh” category rather than saying it’s a bad idea. But I would want to see a very clear nexus between this new tax, which will add $2.88 to the price of a 12-pack of Coke (or Safeway Refreshe, currently $2.99 if you buy four or more), and the programs it funds. Just as cigarette taxes should pay for health care and liquor taxes should pay for addiction treatment and prevention, soda taxes ought to benefit the communities who will disproportionately pay them.

• A new property tax wasn’t Murray’s only suggestion for alleviating homelessness. He also called on tech leaders to come up with $25 million over the next five years to fund “disruptive innovations that will get more homeless individuals and families into housing.” When I posted that on Twitter, here are some of the unsolicited suggestions that came back:

https://twitter.com/seanlinecontent/status/834240924737740801

https://twitter.com/fender_splendor/status/834191069587726336

Sooooo….I guess those tech guys can keep their $25 million?

The Missing

• Just one month before Murray made his speech, 175,000 women and allies marched in Seattle for women’s rights. Chief among the concerns I saw women raising at the women’s march: Women’s health, pay equity, family leave, access to abortion, low-cost birth control, domestic violence, and Planned Parenthood clinic funding. Yet not one of those issues made it into Murray’s speech. In fact, the two times Murray did mention women, it was about things that happened in the past: the 43-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, which secured a right that is currently very much on the new administration’s chopping block, and the women’s march, which Murray mentioned in passing as an example of “a surge of activism across the nation not seen for decades.”

Activism to what end? Murray didn’t say. Perhaps, as his spokesman Benton Strong suggested to me after the speech, he wasn’t sure what could be done at the municipal level advance women’s rights; perhaps, as Strong also suggested, he believes that good policy is good for everyone, including women—a “rising tide lifts all boats” theory of social change. I’m skeptical of the latter theory, simply because much of Murray’s speech was dedicated to a new program called “Our Best,” which specifically targets young black men; and I’m skeptical of the former, because the mayor knows how the city works.

He knows, for example, that the city has the capacity to adopt policies that help women succeed. If we can pass a tax to fund addiction treatment for our homeless neighbors, or after-school programs for vulnerable young black men, then surely we can figure out a way to fund women’s health before Trump and his radical antichoice Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price kill the affordable birth control mandate and gut federal funding for family planning. If we can fund paid leave for city workers, then surely we can require large private employers like Starbucks and Amazon to provide the same benefits to all their employees, too. If we can condemn Trump’s anti-immigration policies, then surely we can establish and fortify programs to serve domestic violence victims in immigrant communities, victims who may soon find themselves more marginalized than ever before.

Murray, who’s up for reelection this year, is popular; he wouldn’t be risking much by laying out a bold agenda for women’s rights. But the first step is talking about women, and the phrase “men and women” doesn’t count.

• Murray also failed to mention the rash of pedestrian deaths and the city’s progress toward Vision Zero—the city’s plan to eliminate pedestrian deaths and serious injuries by 2030. As I mentioned in Crank last week, the city has failed to make progress toward Vision Zero; in fact, in the first five weeks of 2017 alone, six pedestrians were badly injured or killed on Seattle’s streets. In that context, the mayor’s failure to mention pedestrian safety was a glaring omission.

• Also missing, at least for the first few minutes of the speech: City Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who Crank hears celebrated her 40th birthday Monday night.

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 funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.