How we are handling Seattle's homelessness crisis

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In 2016, for my Master of Communication degree at the University of Washington, I decided to get educated on the homelessness crisis in Seattle, which everyone agrees has gotten out of control. As part of this research I developed a communications plan for a multimedia campaign that would document in an accessible way the saga of housing policy in Seattle (see my slide deck - 377 views!). The plan centers around a proposed YouTube web series of 5-minute episodes, serially following the people and policy decisions that are determining the fate of thousands of people living on the streets of Seattle and surrounding suburbs. I also created a proof-of-concept episode profiling a day-in-the-life of affordable housing developer Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute, and her work building tiny home villages for the homeless. 

A year later, I am picking the story back up and have aligned with Real Change News to publish the series through their website and newspaper. The first episode will focus on "Rapid Rehousing," a program initiative by the City and County that illustrates how the homeless services landscape is changing in response to the State of Emergency declared in 2015. 

Rapid Rehousing is an outgrowth of the Housing First approach championed by Barbara Poppe, former director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness under the Obama administration. Rather than placing the homeless in government-funded shelters or public housing projects, Rapid Rehousing provides short-term rent money for an apartment on the private market for about 6 months. The idea is that a large percentage of people experiencing homelessness can lift themselves out fairly rapidly if they are stably housed, and shouldn't need extensive government assistance that can become a long-term dependency. The Seattle Times reported recently that nearly half the emergency shelter beds in King County on any given night are occupied by "long-term stayers," people who have been in the system for more than 6 months and are not finding options for moving forward. Most shelters lack supportive services to help people find more permanent housing. Rapid Rehousing is one way to connect them to a workable solution.  

Critics, however, say the program merely throws vulnerable people to the mercy of the private rental market, where they are isolated, exploited, and potentially evicted within the program's short time window. "It basically forces poor people, who are disproportionately people of color, to move out of Seattle if they're going to find a rental that their Rapid Rehousing voucher is going to pay for," Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change, told me in an interview last summer. A typical voucher is about $900 per month. "So they're moving to places like Burien and Renton that are becoming these poverty enclaves. You can really view that strategy as creating a kind of racialized gentrification."

He sees the program as largely ineffective in addressing homelessness, and considerably more efficient at funneling federal money earmarked for homelessness into the pockets of predatory private landlords. "It doesn't create any bricks and mortar of lasting value," he says. "When you look at what a boon it is to the private real estate industry, it’s hard to imagine that they did not have some role in informing that policy at the federal level in DC."

When I asked the staff at All Home, the organization that administers homelessness programs for King County, about Tim's concerns, they were instantly on the defensive. "We respect the Real Change organization, but Tim has never come down here to spend an hour talking with us and hear how we operate," executive director Mark Putnam told me. Rapid Rehousing represents a small fraction of All Home's budget compared to government-subsidized housing facilities with in-house services. While relatively new, he says Rapid Rehousing has so far demonstrated better success than other programs. Performance data published by All Home shows an average 71% rate of people remaining housed after leaving the program, with just 8.8% returning to homelessness within 2 years. 

Regarding the "racialized gentrification" charge, Putnam says there are many cases where moving someone out of the city is the right thing to do. Some, for example, originally came from Burien or Renton, and migrated to Seattle because that's where the homeless services are. Landlords in outlying areas also may have less stringent background checks than in Seattle, making it easier for someone with an eviction or jail time on their record to find a space. 

"Regardless of being homeless or not, how much money you have dictates where you can live," he says. "We're all dealing with that, it's just a fact of life. But Rapid Rehousing money doesn't replace any other programs, it adds to a person's choices." 

In my next meeting with All Home, I intend to follow up on this last comment, which seems odd in the context of recent news headlines. Shifts in the city's homelessness spending priorities for 2018 have followed recommendations set by HUD at the federal level, suggesting Rapid Rehousing most definitely should replace a program called Transitional Housing. This type of facility — in which people are more gradually prepared for the private market over a 1-2 year period in a temporary unit — is seen by national homelessness analysts such as Poppe as being less cost-effective than moving people immediately to a long-term apartment. Sharon Lee has written and commented extensively in critique of this shift. Her organization, the Low Income Housing Institute, owns and operates a number of Transitional Housing facilities, and argues they are not only far less costly than analysts assume, but more effective for the large majority of homeless cases for whom paying market rent is not feasible without time and support to get on their feet. 

My next on-camera interview will be with Danielle Winslow, who heads Rapid Rehousing for All Home. In our introductory chat, she stressed the importance of high-quality case management in addressing the homelessness problem, without mentioning Transitional Housing. I will find out more about her perspective, which most likely aligns with HUD and other affordable housing experts. In one article, UW professor Rachel Fyall of the School of Social Work was quoted as saying, “I am convinced by the research that Transitional Housing is not a smart intervention for permanently reducing homelessness.” I am curious if others working closely with these programs share that assessment.

Repeatedly, Danielle spoke of the need for case managers to be able to develop unique solutions for every situation, centering "client choice" and offering just enough assistance for someone to act on those choices. Sharon Lee, alternatively, has criticized the "right sizing" of support as a disingenuous way to minimize state assistance while still meeting vaguely defined performance targets. I am unclear how to assess this for myself at this point.  

Another question raised by the Housing First approach is the role of short-term emergency shelter, which includes things like tiny home villages and tent encampments as well as church basements and gyms. Definitely the boldest move in next year's homelessness budget is to cut the number of emergency shelter beds in the city by about 300, in favor of upgrading the remaining shelters for performance. Something like 1,000 people are expected to become newly homeless in Seattle in the next year, but service organizations aligned with Housing First say they can make up for the loss in shelter beds by more than doubling the number of people moving to a combination of state-funded and market-rate permanent housing, to 7,400.

Emergency shelters in Seattle have been widely disparaged by members of the homeless population for their restrictive rules on who gets admitted, when people can come and go, and their lack of places to store belongings — as a result, many prefer to camp outside illegally, even if they are subject to sweeps by the city. The newly enhanced shelters seek to remove these barriers, encouraging more people to come to shelters where they will theoretically find more case managers ready to help them locate housing.

Danielle says that housing isn't always going to be ideal. "What's your perfect situation? Near your school or job? We try to find a good solution, but we also say it's not your forever home," she says. "It's a place to get started and then talk about the long-term decisions." Many times, the solution may be to move in with a roommate or family, or take an apartment away from your community rather than live on the street. All Home doesn't deny that displacement occurs, they just see it as preferable to the alternative. "There's a lot of construction going on, but we just don't have the units right now," she says. "For a lot of people, if you weren't in Rapid Rehousing, you would be on the street."

All agree that the short supply of affordable housing in the Seattle area is a huge bottleneck, and the resulting rent hikes are in fact seen by All Home as a leading cause of the homelessness epidemic, far outstripping other factors such as opioid dependence. Some worry there is not enough emphasis in the current strategy on building more housing in the city accessible to the lowest 20% of income, averaging about $16,500/year, where rents would need to be in the range of $400/month. (In Columbia Court, a Transitional Housing facility run by LIHI, rent for one refugee family with two disabled parents is $156/month, 30% of its household income.)  

Tiny home villages and authorized tent encampments have been approved by city officials as a short-term crisis response, but they are difficult to find land for—currently the number of people they serve is just a few hundred, while illegal encampments continue to be swept by police, forcing hundreds more to move from one campsite to another. Some 20,000 units of affordable housing are projected to be added to the city in the next 10 years through the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), including units affordable at or below 30% area median income, but over a timeframe that does not meet the current homelessness emergency.

Efforts by low-income housing advocates to substantially increase local government funding for rent controlled units are typically met with fierce opposition by private housing developers, leading to compromise solutions. HALA's funding mechanism requires that all private housing developers in the city pay into a fund for affordable housing, in exchange for increased zoning capacity that makes up for any loss in profit. 

For now, the main focus seems to be on optimizing and streamlining the pathway from homelessness to getting a unit in the existing stock of permanent housing. An analysis by the national consulting group Focus Strategies (colleagues of Barbara Poppe) found that Seattle is unique among major metropolitan regions in its sheer number of affordable housing providers, all operating independently with no standardized or centralized process for helping people navigate the system.

To that end, the City and County rolled out a program in 2016 called "Coordinated Entry for All," which seeks to shorten the waiting list times that have plagued case management programs for years. As part of this strategy, the city opened a walk-in Navigation Center last year, albeit with disappointing results. Journalist Erica C. Barnett reported in October that it had successfully housed only two people since opening, one of whom left the region to live with family, while the other moved to Transitional Housing. More walk-in hubs have been proposed throughout the city, although the fate of these is currently unclear.

Next: My on-camera interview with Danielle Winslow, and a visit with Jana Lissiak and Ryan Key of Catholic Community Services.

Bibliography:

  1. Service providers react to loss of funding from competitive funding process, Real Change, 12/6/17
  2. Seattle makes a promising shift toward actually housing homelessSeattle Times 11/30/17 (Op-Ed by Barbara Poppe)
  3. $34 million in city contracts overhaul Seattle’s funding for homeless services: The contracts prioritize permanent housing, Curbed Seattle, 11/29/17
  4. Funding cliff: City’s grant funding process boosts some, cuts others, Real Change, 11/29/17
  5. The overselling of rapid re-housing, Shelterforce, 11/28/17 (article by Sharon Lee)
  6. City bets big on enhanced shelter, rapid rehousing in new homeless spending planThe C is for Crank, 11/28/17
  7. Seattle awards $34M in fight against homelessness, wants to double the number of people who get off the streetsSeattle Times, 11/27/17
  8. How much do Seattle and King County spend on homelessness?Seattle Times, 11/8/17
  9. The bottleneck in Seattle’s homeless shelters that leaves thousands on the streetsSeattle Times, 10/26/17
  10. Seattle may take new tack in helping the homeless: spend more on housingSeattle Times, 9/6/16
  11. New system to house the homeless could ‘work out really great or really bad’Seattle Times, 6/29/16
  12. Can ‘rapid rehousing’ work if rents keep soaring in Seattle?, Seattle Weekly, 6/28/17
  13. Local homeless programs: performance targets for doing good?Seattle Times, 5/21/17
  14. Stop opening tent cities, homelessness expert tells Seattle leaders, Seattle Times, 2/26/16 (Op-Ed by Barbara Poppe)