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City’s new homeless funding plan: quality over quantity

A man sleeps on a bench in a Seattle park. Credit: Mitchell Haindfield

More than a year after Seattle declared it would make a radical shift in how it addressed homelessness — drifting away from stopgap measures and towards permanent housing — those promises will soon be reality.

City officials detailed Monday how it would redistribute $34 million worth of human services funding. It’s a process that will result in winners and losers, strengthening the ties between the city and some nonprofit service providers while finally burning the bridges with others.

The goal, said Mayor Tim Burgess in his final appearance as chief executive, is to more than double the number of people moved into permanent housing every year, from about 3,000 in 2017 to nearly 7,400 in 2018. It’s an aggressive target, but one the city says service providers believe they can meet.

In order to meet that goal, the city will see a decrease of about 300 emergency shelter beds, opting, per city officials, for quality over quantity.

Further, the city will foster more partnerships with private landlords for housing over nonprofit facilities, a strategy known as rapid rehousing.

“I recognize, this is a huge change. But it’s a huge change motivated by the scale of the need on the streets of Seattle,” said Burgess. “Business as usual is really not an option because we’re not moving people off the streets into permanent housing.”

This contracting rebid is the executive branch’s response to the homelessness crisis. Paired with steady increases in homeless service funding over the last several years, it’s a reaction to a report from private consultant, Barbara Poppe, that determined the city could more effectively and efficiently tackle its homeless problem.

At the center of that report was a finding that the city should redouble its emphasis on moving people through the homeless services system quickly. It called for more efforts to prevent people from entering homelessness in the first place and to clear space used up disproportionally by chronically homeless people.

The city got over 180 applications, from 57 agencies, totaling $105 million in proposals. In the end, 30 agencies received funding.

The most dramatic shift in dollars is in emergency shelter. Specifically, the organization SHARE/WHEEL, which has a network of shelters that provide nearly 200 beds, will lose all of its funding. Catholic Community Services will also lose funding to provide shelter.

Instead, the city is opting for more so-called “enhanced shelter” — 24/7, with few restrictions and guaranteed space for clients to return. In a document provided to reporters, the city says SHARE/WHEEL and Catholic Community Services could not demonstrate that their shelter space could provide more comprehensive services, nor could they demonstrate a track record for moving people into permanent housing.

Board President of SHARE Anitra Freeman disputed that the application was poor and said the services the organization provides are critical. “We’re dealing with the frontline of people who need emergency shelters,” she said. “We’re dealing at the survival level.”

 She said the organization plans to appeal.

Providers may apply for “bridge funding” to keep shelters open until at least April so the city will not see a decrease in beds during the winter months.

In that period, the hope is to move enough people into housing to ease the burden the fewer number of beds may create.

Since the city last opened up service provider contracts to a competitive bidding process more than ten years ago, the city and the county have seen an explosion in the number of people living on the streets, a crisis that’s run parallel to the region’s heated housing market. At last count 11,643 people in King County struggled with homelessness, with 5,485 living on the streets on a single night last winter.

Of those living without permanent homes, 29 percent are African American, compared to just 6 percent of the county’s total population, and 6 percent are Native American, compared to just 1 percent total. 

The rising number and relentlessly increasing death count has spurred desperation among city officials. This year’s budget debate was the most tense in years as the Seattle City Council fought bitterly over new funding proposals for homelessness, all of which were voted down.

The city will also begin its long advertised shift to rapid rehousing — a program to subsidize private-market housing through vouchers that taper off over time — which will receive a 41 percent boost in funding. Meanwhile, the Low Income Housing Institute’s transitional housing programs — which provide temporary housing in nonprofit-owned housing — will lose funding.

One of its “urban rest stops” in the U-District, which provides showers and laundry services, will lose funding as well. Although the Institute’s Ballard location remains fully funded, its director Sharon Lee remains an outspoken critic of the city’s shift in priorities.

“In addition to the emphasis on permanent housing, we need to stop people from dying on the streets of Seattle,” she said. “…The SHARE shelters, they’re 12 churches and shelters that house people on a nightly basis. So those people are warm and safe overnight. And they’re not going to be able to stay in a church basement or a church community hall and that’s going to have a devastating impact.”

For other providers, however, the announcement is a happy one. “We’re going to be able to do some amazing work with that [money],” said Colleen Echohawk. She’s the Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club, which focuses on Native American homelessness and was awarded over $2 million in funding. “We’re going to be able to hire more case managers, we’re going to have more money to go towards rapid rehousing, we’re going to be able to do more for families. So we feel that this is a remarkable time for us.”

The city is confident it can meet the goal of housing 7,400 people in 2018. City officials told reporters that that goal was what the providers themselves said they could provide. And even that number had been “scrubbed” to be a more conservative estimate.

What can’t be changed is the city’s insane housing prices. Service providers were not required to provide housing inside the city’s limits when calculating their goals, and fears of gentrifying the problem out to the suburbs remain. 

Human Services Director Catherine Lester acknowledged that was a concern. “Ideally we want to support people living in their own choice community,” she said. But, in the middle of a crisis, “The more important ideal is people living inside.”

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