In my search for a big-picture documentary narrative on housing policy in Seattle, in recent weeks I've spoken with three young professionals with leadership positions managing Rapid Rehousing in the regional homelessness response system. I did an on-camera interview with Danielle Winslow of All Home, the central organization influencing and implementing homelessness funding for King County. I also chatted with Jana Lissiak and Ryan Key, program directors for Rapid Rehousing at Catholic Community Services (CCS), one of the area's largest homeless service providers. CCS programs cover all of the "big four" low-income housing types: Rapid Rehousing, Transitional Housing, Permanent Supportive Housing, and Emergency Shelter. They confirmed an expansion in program funding for Rapid Rehousing this year.
My questions for them were based on reading through extensive coverage of homelessness policy in the local press, and familiarizing myself with critiques of Rapid Rehousing by two of the city's most influential and long-standing homelessness activists, Tim Harris of Real Change and Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). As I explored in the last post, the Rapid Rehousing model is a relatively recent idea advocated nationally by HUD in the last decade, which encourages service organizations to bypass the overloaded public housing system and move homeless people and families into apartments on the private market.
I pressed Danielle, Ryan, and Jana to address some of Tim and Sharon’s comments, and to some extent they were defensive, it being their job and all to implement the program. They say no one working on Rapid Rehousing would be able to do it if they didn’t believe in it. But they were also very articulate and convincing about their position. To a large degree, the debate centers around whether or not you buy into the “Housing First” philosophy, and what that means in the Seattle area context.
Danielle got her BA from Seattle University in 2012, and rose to her current position at All Home after working in the trenches as a Rapid Rehousing case manager at Catholic Community Services. She says the Seattle area has had some form of Rapid Rehousing since 2010, and this new funding surge from the city marks the end of the program’s informal trial period. “In the past few years,” she says, “there’s been an accumulation of all that work to hone in on what works and what doesn’t.”
In terms of what works, she says the piece that All Home is doing differently from rental assistance programs of the past is placing a major emphasis on case management. The argument by someone like Sharon Lee that Rapid Rehousing merely seeks to sweep vulnerable people out of sight to cut government spending, throwing them to a predatory rental market to “sink or swim,” isn’t an accurate representation, she says. “A misconception with Rapid Rehousing is that it doesn’t come with support.”
Danielle wouldn’t comment on the exact degree to which city and county funding is being shifted away from Transitional Housing facilities like those operated by LIHI, and toward Rapid Rehousing programs. But she says All Home is totally aligned with the national best practice on the issue, and where a previous generation of social services saw Transitional Housing as the ideal way to lift someone out of homelessness, that view is fading.
In Transitional Housing, people with disabling conditions are prepared gradually for the housing market by moving into a specialized temporary apartment for 1-2 years where they receive intensive case management. The Housing First approach sees that as not only too costly, but also presumptuous about what someone actually needs. When considering what will work for each individual case, a leaner, shorter strategy that doesn’t involve a dedicated facility may be a better choice.
In other words, Danielle blasts Transitional Housing as a one-size-fits-all approach—ironically the same criticism Sharon makes about Rapid Rehousing and its short 6-month time window.
As Sharon puts it in her recent article in Shelterforce, a national affordable housing journal, “HUD and other supporters have a fervent, almost cult-like devotion to Rapid Rehousing as a solution for all, without taking into consideration different population groups, the unique needs of each family and individual, and the local housing market.” Where Rapid Rehousing may be an ideal solution for a small segment of the homeless population, she writes, it will not work for most of them.
But Danielle argues Transitional Housing is the opposite of Housing First, which takes as its first principle that everyone is ready for housing. “You’re making the assumption that someone who has been able to maintain their housing for the vast majority of their life suddenly is not ready for housing,” she says, noting that most people who touch the system are adults, not children, and are experiencing homelessness for the first time. “At a systems level we are trying to have the ability to say that we don’t know someone’s predetermined resiliency.”
Per Housing First, the moment people start living in a permanent rather than a temporary home is when they cease to be homeless, and for many, that is the point when recovery begins. “Housing is health care,” Danielle says. Social services can provide the same level of case management after they have a lease. That way, a distressed household only has to move once.
Ryan corroborates that approach — the concept is known as “transitioning in place.” While the ideal assistance period for Rapid Rehousing is about 6 months, he says case managers may sometimes stay with a client for 1 to 2 years depending on how things go, matching the level of Transitional Housing support.
“Part of the Rapid Rehousing process is we build a community of support, we don’t leave them in a void,” he says. “We connect them to services. And in events where it is not effective, we move them out in such a way that it isn’t penalized with an eviction.”
Next: My proposal to Catholic Community Services