With changes, Seattle could shelter all of its homeless


A homeless man keeps warm in a Seattle park.

Our region has long been a leader on the issue of homelessness, making extraordinary investments and informing best practices used by other communities across the country. Still, more people are living unsheltered in Seattle that ever before. And the prevalence of black and brown people in our community who are homeless is particularly disturbing.

This is a humanitarian crisis that requires us to take a step back to honestly assess what is working and build upon those practices, while having the courage to shift away from the practices that are not. Mayor Ed Murray has made this idea the cornerstone of his three-pronged strategy for addressing homelessness and its systemic causes, including last week’s announcement of an initiative named "Pathways Home."

The first prong of his strategy has focused on crisis response and emergency stop-gap measures. The Mayor declared a state of emergency to bring more resources to help those without shelter on our streets. From designated RV safe lots and authorized encampments on City property to the launch of a low-barrier, 24-hour navigation center, the Mayor has taken unprecedented steps to recognize the plight of those who are living unsheltered and minimize the harm of their circumstances.

The second prong has focused on affordability. Here, Seattle has led the nation. We committed to a living minimum wage of $15-per-hour. We’ve committed to the creation of 50,000 new housing units over the next decade, including 20,000 affordable units. And we doubled the Seattle Housing Levy, which preserves more than 2,100 affordable housing units and provides rental assistance for more than 4,500 families.

The third prong is focused on systems transformation. "Pathways Home" is based on recommendations from an in-depth review of our homeless system by national experts, commissioned by the City of Seattle, King County, United Way of King County and All Home King County.  It is a person-centered, systemic plan that funds work proven to move people out of homelessness, and will involve a reinvestment plan for the nearly $50 million that the City manages and invests annually.

Imagine you are ill. You need medical attention, but our health care system has funneled you immediately to the emergency room as your first order of care – no initial visit with a primary care doctor, no visit with a specialist, just straight to the most precious and expensive form of care our system has. This would not be the best use of resources, would fail to give you the individualized care you need, and would congest the system for those who actually need emergency treatment.

Our homeless response system is similar. If you become homeless, it automatically connects you to an emergency shelter – one of the most precious and expensive types of assistance our system has – without assessing whether a shelter is the best option for you and your family.  This, too, is not efficient use of resources, may fail to stabilize your circumstance, and would certainly clog up the system for those who do need an emergency bed.

In the past, the City’s response to a clogged shelter system has been to invest in more shelter capacity. And in fact, 70 percent of the money spent by the City on homeless services is spent on emergency shelters. But every dollar spent on emergency, temporary shelters is a dollar not spent on helping people stay or get into permanent, stable homes.

A more customized approach might include mental health or addiction treatment, a job or rental assistance, or flexible funding that helps you avoid the shelter system or quickly get back into housing – which is exactly the approach Pathways Home takes.

By developing a coordinated, by-name list of people waiting for housing, the city meets people where they are, and partners with other funders and nonprofit agencies to creatively and actively problem-solve the barriers that keep people outside. We believe this will help us reduce homelessness for long-term shelter stayers and those living outside.

By reducing barriers to our emergency shelters – such as restrictions on partners, pets or possessions, or clean-and-sober requirements – enhancing the services accessible to people needing emergency shelter, expanding low-barrier, 24-hour shelter options, and restricting our emergency shelter beds to those who are not just homeless but lacking shelter, we can bring more people in off the street, properly identify their individual needs and shift them on to a stable housing situation.

We will also increase investments in diversion for every family at risk of becoming homeless and for more rapid rehousing of families without shelter. No family with young children should experience the distress of being outside.  We can and must do better.

Lastly, we must institute performance-based contracting to make sure the City is investing in what works. Our accountability to results depends on the City clearly establishing performance standards in every contract and for service providers operating with a laser focus on those standards. The City has not established performance expectations, nor have we competitively bid our homeless services contracts in over a decade. This must change.

By taking these and other steps outlined in the Pathways Home plan, the City can make a visible and dramatic difference in the number of people living homeless in Seattle. In fact, our national experts show that, with the proper investments in diversion, rapid re-housing, mid-level permanent housing and additional housing stock, our region has the shelter capacity to shelter all people currently living outside. This will take time and refocused investment, as well as additional investment from our state and federal partners.

As an immediate step, Mayor Murray and I believe that we can respond to the 500 families with children currently known to be living outdoors, and move them indoors by the end of next year.

Seattle will continue doing all we can and will work with our partners at the county, state and federal level to address this crisis.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Catherine Lester

Catherine Lester

Catherine Lester is the director of the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department.