At last, about 11,600 people were experiencing homelessness in King County.
At last count, about 11,600 people were experiencing homelessness in King County. PhilAugustavo/getty

A King County audit released this week portrays a lagging regional homelessness response system with scattered oversight and no overarching authority. The audit is filled with bureaucratic jargon but highlights the way the region is failing to adequately respond to one of the nation's most acute homelessness crises. The report highlights racial disparities in the county's homeless response as well as concerns about one of Seattle's key plans for housing homeless people, known as rapid rehousing.

Included in the audit is a response from King County, in which its Department of Community and Human Services pledges to implement changes over the next few years. King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Jenny Durkan also announced Thursday they plan to sign a legal agreement between the city and county to centralize authority over the regional response to homelessness. During a 2017 count, 11,643 people were experiencing homelessness in King County, about 5,500 of them unsheltered. Those numbers meant King County had the third largest homeless population in the country, and that's probably still an undercount.

The audit highlights several issues hindering the county response to that crisis:

"Diffuse authority." Because the county, regional cities, and local housing authorities work separately, there is little coordination on spending, the audit says. All Home, a regional agency meant to oversee homeless response, "lacks the authority" to really oversee anything. All Home, for example, "has no authority to compel" the city, county, or housing authorities to "address systemic gaps in homeless services and housing."

Simple! King County Auditor

The former executive director of All Home, Mark Putnam, has raised these concerns, too. According to the audit, multiple consultants have found that this system hinders the region's ability to quickly respond to homelessness, yet little has changed.

Coordinated Entry: Coordinated entry is the process local service providers use to dole out the limited amount of services and housing available. But the process is plagued by long waits and other issues.

In coordinated entry, the county and service providers score people experiencing homelessness based on their vulnerability and then prioritize them for housing. According to the audit, federal rules say people should wait no longer than 60 days between their coordinated entry assessment and a referral to housing, but the wait in King County was more than twice that during part of 2017. Long waits make assistance less effective, according to the audit. Why are people waiting so long? The shortage of homeless housing, according to the audit. Even if no new person was added to the list in King County, it would take more than seven years for everyone already on the list to get housing, according to the audit.

A look at how long homeless people wait to be referred to housing in King County.
A look at how long homeless people wait to be referred to housing in King County. King County Auditor

The coordinated entry process was meant to address the disorganized, scattered way different service providers operated before. Yet a core issue has always been a lack of supply of affordable housing, as Putnam told the Seattle Times in 2016.

According to the audit, there is a high rate of unsuccessful referrals to housing through the coordinated entry program, but it's not always clear why they're unsuccessful. Looking at racial disparity data, the audit found that while coordinated entry did a "good job" assessing black or African American people experiencing homelessness, the process was less effective for American Indians or Alaska Natives, Latinos, and multi-racial people. American Indians and Alaska Natives waited nearly a month longer for housing than other groups, the audit found.

Rapid Rehousing: A particularly damning section of the audit calls into question one of Seattle's core plans for addressing the homelessness crisis.

Rapid rehousing helps find housing in the private market for people exiting homelessness, by providing temporary rent assistance and case management. The process can offer the fastest way to get someone into housing, but also operates at the whim of high private rental costs in Seattle.

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According to the audit, rapid rehousing in King County is failing to meet national and local standards for the time it takes to get people into housing and how many of them exit into permanent housing. A central flaw the audit highlights: Housing people in the private market assumes that even after the tenant's government assistance runs out, they'll be able to keep paying the rent. But with high local rental costs, that's true of "very little housing" here, the audit says.

The audit also calls out "potential side effects" of rapid rehousing, including eviction. Eviction history can make it harder to find housing in the future, further disadvantaging people trying to exit homelessness. If the region is housing formerly homeless people in expensive housing that they can't afford to hold onto after the assistance runs out, eviction may be an "unintended consequence" of rapid rehousing, the audit explains. However, because local governments don't require housing providers to track client evictions, it's impossible to really analyze the issue, the audit says.

Recommendations: The audit's recommendations stop short of calling for an end to any of these programs, but say the county should create a "formal, binding process" to better coordinate spending decisions. The audit also recommends new data collection, including information about rapid rehousing evictions.