Armed with two pricey consultants' reports, Mayor Ed Murray's administration is promising changes to the way Seattle spends millions of dollars a year combatting homelessness. Consultants hired by the city and county say local governments should focus more on long-term housing efforts that can prove they effectively move people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. While the consultants' reports do not tackle Seattle's controversial tent encampments directly, the shift could mean less funding for encampments and certain types of temporary housing in coming years.
This year, Seattle will spend about $50 million on programs to address homelessness, including $7.3 million the mayor and city council set aside when Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness in November. Yet, the number of people sleeping unsheltered on the streets has increased in recent years. The region's last one-night count found about 3,000 people sleeping on the streets of Seattle and 4,500 countywide, a 5 percent increase in the city and a 19 percent increase countywide.
As Murray continues to clash with homeless advocates and the city council over his administration's handling of people who sleep on the streets, he has attempted to shift the conversation toward more long-term efforts to get homeless people into housing.
The two reports released today echo that shift. They call on the region to better organize its sprawling social service network and focus money on programs that show the best results getting people into long-term housing rather than just immediate shelter. The reports do not call for a simultaneous significant increase in money spent on homelessness or housing, meaning cuts will be necessary.
"The analysis says we can house more people—significantly more people—with the resources that we have," Mark Putnam, director of the countywide homelessness group All Home, told reporters today. "It's not going to happen overnight and it's not going to make everybody happy."
The reports call on the city to move funding for "transitional housing" toward "rapid re-housing" instead. Both types of housing serve people trying to move out of homelessness. The difference: Transitional housing refers to temporary apartments for homeless people while they look for permanent housing, either on the private market or through a permanent subsidy program. That type of housing often lasts two years. "Rapid re-housing" includes subsidy programs that homeless people can use for help renting apartments on the private market. Those subsidies typically last three to nine months. When they run out, tenants are responsible for paying the rent themselves. The consultants said transitional housing is not successful enough at keeping people out of homelessness to justify its higher cost. (For people with severe long-term needs, the consultants are supportive of long-term housing with case managers and caretakers.)
Some advocates for unsheltered people are skeptical. Sharon Lee, executive director for the Low Income Housing Institute, defended transitional housing. (LIHI operates some of this type of housing and receives city funding.) Lee said the short timeframes for rapid re-housing vouchers are often unworkable in Seattle, particularly for immigrants and refugees. She said three or nine months is not often enough time for homeless people to get back on their feet and be able to afford market rents. If they can't get enough work by the time the subsidy is up, they end up homeless again.
"It's a cheap solution," Lee said, adding later, "The mayor and city council should not take this report blindly and implement it."
Focusing on subsidies is also a major gamble because it depends on housing that is "outside the control of the homelessness system," said Nicole Macri, deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which operates housing and shelter services in Seattle.
Providing homeless people with subsidies to use in private market apartments means they have to be able to find landlords who are willing to accept those subsidies—even in a tight housing market like Seattle's. There are well-known, very long waiting lists for renters who get federal Section 8 vouchers. And housing advocates have long complained that landlords don't want to rent to tenants who get subsidies (the city council just passed a law about it).
When one of the report authors, former United States Interagency Council on Homelessness director Barbara Poppe, was asked about this today, she said the subsidy programs must make "business sense" for landlords. "You also are a very compassionate and caring community," she said, "so there may be some moral argument... [Landlords] want to be part of the solution." (Like I said, a gamble.)
Overall, the reports offer few surprises for people who've followed ongoing discussions about how the city should tackle homelessness. They emphasize "housing first," the idea that homeless people should be provided housing as soon as possible and then helped with their other needs. When offering homeless people shelter space, the reports say the city should prioritize people who are "literally homeless" rather than in unstable housing situations, people who have been homeless the longest, and families with infants.
In response to the reports, Murray's office released a two-year plan he's branding "Pathways Home," promising to follow the recommendations and shift city dollars away from programs that don't fit that vision. (City staffers were reluctant to name specific programs that may be cut today.) Murray promises to move 500 homeless families "indoors" by the end of next year and open a 24-hour shelter known as a Navigation Center.
"It is time to stop studying and begin acting," the mayor's plan reads.
Macri, from DESC, said she agrees with many of the reports' findings, but questions how quickly the system can be overhauled.
"I've seen so many plans for [reducing homelessness] over the years," Macri said. "They paint this utopian vision where we get from where we are now to the other side. Then everything sort of falls apart in the transition to that vision."
The two reports were not cheap. Seattle, King County, and United Way paid a Sacramento-based firm $75,000 to assess how the city and county spend their money now. (That report is here.) The city paid Poppe more than $100,000 to make recommendations on how the city should better spend its homelessness money going forward. (Here.)
Poppe has been analyzing homelessness in Seattle for months. In February, she told the Seattle Times tent encampments "are a real distraction from investing in solutions" to homelessness. At the time, Poppe had not visited any of Seattle's authorized tent encampments. Later in her work, Poppe did visit encampments. Today she said improving the overall homeless network will offer "a way out" of encampments.
Poppe's report—the cornerstone of today's news and sure to be cited repeatedly in coming months—is an excruciating read. Not only is it peppered with meaningless bureaucratic phrases like "move from the current state of growing homelessness to a desired state that enables all members of Seattle to benefit from the advantages of Seattle’s thriving economy" and "create a person-centered response which 'right sizes' the intervention to the individual/family needs," but it also includes hashtags like "#LeadershipMatters, #ChangeIsGood, and #NoExcuses. The hashtags do not, of course, go anywhere or serve any purpose at all because the report is a fucking pdf. (When Poppe presented some of her early findings to the city council in June, Council Member Sally Bagshaw asked about the purpose of the hashtags and Poppe told her, "I decided to put hashtags in here because they speak to a sense of urgency and it gets a conceptualization of a thought." Which does not mean anything.)
Poppe will speak to city council members about her findings in a committee meeting today at 2 p.m. In a statement, Council Member Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council's human services committee, said the report will inform the council's budgeting process that begins next month.
"General fund dollars are scarce, so I’m committing to invest in programs where we can make the most difference," Bagshaw said.
This story is developing and will be updated.