Even in a crisis, new homeless strategy raises fears
After living in his Honda Civic for two years, Vincent Spirlin, 23, decided it was time to get some help. He was working at Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits at the time, but couldn’t find a place to rent in King County’s brutal housing market. His income was thin and he had a felony on his record, both points against him in the eyes of landlords.
Meanwhile, life in a car was getting old. “You can’t do what you need to do when you want to do it, like use the restroom, brush your teeth, warm up some food,” he says. “It got real stressful and cramped.”
A month ago, Vincent found a new place to lay his head. It’s a small room with a foldout couch in North Seattle, in a house subdivided to fit up to eleven. He landed here thanks to the YWCA and its so-called rapid rehousing program, an approach some city policymakers want to commit to fully, while defunding some of the region’s longtime strategies to address homelessness.
Under the rapid rehousing program, Vincent received a case manager who traveled with him to open houses and advocated on his behalf. When they found his current place — owned by a man named Riz — Vincent was promised rental help for a year and an on-call case manager for when he had issues. After the year of help, it’s up to Vincent to pay the bills. He’s not worried, and quit his job at Popeye’s to work construction for Riz, which pays better. He’s saving money now, and plans to go to school to be an electrician.
Vincent is a hopeful story within the local housing crisis. More than 10,000 people lack a permanent residence in King County, a number that goes up every year. Tents sprout like mushrooms under highways and in the city’s green spaces, growing reminders of the issue’s magnitude, spurring intense debate among Seattle policymakers over how to respond.
It's been exactly a year since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency. Despite some steps forward, the problem feels as bad as ever.
Last summer, amid the noise, Murray floated a plan built on the back of recommendations from the former director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Barbara Poppe. It’s called Pathways Home, and predicated on the idea that Seattle should expand the homeless strategies that accomplish the most for the least money, and cut everything else.
At the center is scaling up rapid rehousing programs. The report calls for doing away with the interim steps that are thought to bring people off the streets — most significantly, those provided by transitional housing — and placing people in what could be a more permanent home instantly.
And why not? The cost of subsidizing rent in the private market is much less than having the city or non-profit organizations develop their own temporary homes. And for some rapid rehousing providers, the success rates are astronomical. Catholic Charity Services of Western Washington (CCSWW) conservatively estimates 70 percent of the people it places in homes don’t return to homelessness. In its pilot, the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC) successfully placed 48 of 50 clients in permanent housing.
Yet even the purveyors of rapid rehousing have expressed worries that they are not ready to take the model system-wide. At a Seattle City Council meeting on October 19, Councilmember Kshama Sawant echoed some of that hesitancy, saying she found the approach "rushed."
Underneath this caution is a sense of unknown. For people like Vincent — who have simply struggled to get a foot in the door — the strategy is a neat fit. But when it comes to helping the more complex or troubled cases, the report’s total embrace of rapid rehousing is not widely shared. The city's own limited data shows that success like CCSWW's is not necessarily the norm.
In interviews with service providers, reactions to the Pathways Home plan were some combination of skeptical and scared, while acknowledging that the current system is not working and it’s time to try something new.
Pathways Home, and specifically rapid rehousing, have been elevated to near-mythic status in the debate over homeless encampments — some city councilmembers speak casually of what to do in the “gap” between now and when the system gets its overhaul, implying encampments will subside with the eventual implementation of the plan.
This December, Town Hall is hosting an event titled, “Can Rapid Rehousing Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis?”
In making a case for this strategy, Poppe’s report came down hard on Seattle and King County’s approach to funding homeless services, saying that service providers were setting the agenda, not the city, and that low-performing services were gobbling up scarce dollars.
“What we’ve done so far is we’ve added new interventions,” says Director of King County’s All Home Mark Putnam. “But we’ve added those on top. We’ve never subtracted.”
For the first time, city policymakers were explicitly advocating for just that, replacing transitional housing with systems that the authors see as a better use of resources. It would be painful, the authors said, but necessary.
Under rapid rehousing, you skip the transitional part and go right into the private market. Programs then provide clients with exactly what they need and nothing more: If Vincent can pay half his rent from his work in construction, the YWCA will float the other half.
And because Vincent is fit, both mentally and physically, he doesn’t need the full support that’s built into transitional housing. Putnam calls it an “a la carte” approach, instead of “offering the full meal deal up front.”
By contrast, transitional housing residences are run by non-profits like the Low Income Housing Institute and staffed with support. People live in these residences with an expiration date — 18 months to a year. There are 73 such housing projects in Seattle, which cost nearly $20 million.
Broad national research has led to transitional housing "going out of vogue," as one provider put it. This is because its effectiveness in moving people permanently off the streets has been questioned relative to the cost.
“When they make that jump from transitional out of transitional, they’re just as likely to go back to homelessness as rapid re-housing,” says Putnam. That may be the case nationally, but according to the limited data from the so-called Focus Strategies report — a data-heavy look at Seattle's homelessness system that ran in tandem with Poppe's work — transitional housing has a 73 percent success rate for families in the city, and 60 percent for single adults.
Rapid rehousing, by comparison, has only a 52 percent success rate for families and no data for single adults.
Rapid rehousing is about a third the price as transitional housing, however. This is key to serving more people, according to the report. "As funds are shifted from expensive programs to those that are more cost effective per person served, system capacity will increase and the numbers of homeless people will be reduced."
As the system is expanded, the question for providers is whether rapid rehousing is simply “creaming” right now, as DESC Director Daniel Malone put it — skimming off the cream of easy cases. When the shift occurs, will those who use transitional housing now actually succeed in rapid rehousing? Can the relative success of small pilots work on a larger scale?
Rapid rehousing hit the national scene around 2009 as money from the stimulus package trickled into local jurisdictions. Local organizations didn’t start trying it out until around 2014, when city and county grants funded pilot programs.
“Our first year was wildly successful,” says Christina Korpi with DESC, citing the 96 percent success rate out of its first 50 participants.
But the pilot came with high barriers, namely that people needed to be employed. These were the folks who had temporarily fallen on hard times, and the breathing room of rent assistance allowed them to find more stability. Cases like Vincent’s look ideally suited for this approach over transitional housing — it’s less costly, and gives people a permanent place to live. Some wonder if that's the right comparison, though.
“The calling card for people advocating for rapid rehousing is, ‘It gets people out of homelessness and they don’t come back into homelessness. We don’t really know what happened to them. Somehow they figured it out. They made it work somehow,’” Malone says. “What has not been done is a comparison study of those who didn’t get rapid rehousing resources, and what portion of them left (homelessness assistance) and didn’t come back into homelessness.”
In other words, how big a role did rapid rehousing play in Vincent’s newfound stability? He’s not sure; his felony record was the biggest roadblock for him in finding housing, not his income, and rapid rehousing certainly sped up his exit from his car. But “success” is a hard metric without an understanding of Vincent’s trajectory in the absence of the rapid rehousing assistance.
Ryan Key with CCSWW, an optimist who's "passionate" about rapid rehousing, believes that when given the opportunity, people will surprise you. “As a whole, we’re really bad at determining who will be successful,” he says, so it's worth a shot.
The extent of how many added complexities (eviction history, sex offenses, drug or alcohol addiction) rapid rehousing can handle, however, is relatively unknown. And the unknown can be a scary thing for service providers. In fact, none of the providers of both rapid rehousing and transitional housing that Crosscut spoke with were at all willing to renounce the transitional model, regardless of a national shift away from it.
“Having a system that has both options and options in the middle is important,” says Jana Lissiak with CCSWW.
The urge to add and not subtract remains. "I’m just cautious," says Key. "I think, yes, we should look at low-performing programs … I just think there’s value in both types of services."
To further complicate things, rapid rehousing means working with private landlords. “We’re willing to do everything,” says Lissiak with CCSWW. “But landlords aren’t always so willing…. To a certain extent, they hold the power over who gets housing [in rapid rehousing].”
Rizwan Rizwi runs Muslim Housing Services (MHS) out of a lamp-lit office in the basement of a housing complex on Rainier Avenue. MHS runs both rapid rehousing and transitional housing. “What we’ve found is families which have substantial barriers to getting any housing at all, we’ve used our transitional housing program to house those families,” he says. “With a private landlord in our rapid rehousing program, they wouldn’t be accepted.”
Poppe downplayed the housing market in her report to the city. But the fact is landlords will do what makes sense to them financially first. In King County, where vacancies are low and competition tough, that sets a pretty high bar.
Accordingly, Amanda Launay from Friends of Youth says they have to “start from a business standpoint” when working with landlords. "Charity is part B," she adds. How difficult that is varies depending on whom you ask. If a subsidy is only guaranteed for 6 months, a landlord might be hesitant to take on the risk that the person won’t be able to pay afterward.
Key from CCSWW says the security of having a point person and essentially a “realtor” for the tenant can balance that out. If there’s a problem — noise, late check — the landlord can make a phone call they wouldn’t be able to make for other tenants. Working with the landlord to create incentives, such as providing a higher security deposit, can help too.
For DESC, the issue is finding landlords willing to look past a criminal record. When asked how many landlords they know willing to take a sex offender, Korpi says two, thinks about it, then says, “One just came back and said they’re going to be doing background checks. So we’re down to one.”
It's a problem every provider flags. The Seattle-based Supportive Services for Veteran Families has been running a rapid rehousing program for five years. Locally and nationally, significant decreases in veteran homelessness have been a bright spot in an altogether bleak picture. In many ways, it’s what has spurred the federal government to push local jurisdictions toward rapid rehousing.
The combination of fierce competition on the open housing market and the needs of individuals (if Vincent works in North Seattle, busing from Federal Way is not a good option) means rapid rehousing clients tend to wait a few months for housing. And even then, that person won’t necessarily end up in the ideal spot.
That's of particular concern for members of immigrant and refugee communities, who are more likely to live in specific pockets around the region, and therefore more likely to be isolated with a move to the cheaper edges of the county.
Despite the hype around rapid rehousing (remember the event, “Can Rapid Rehousing Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis?”) it is ultimately a piece in a system.
“If there was some movement to take the money out of existing shelters ... I think we’d be squalling and saying that’s not right. But the thing now is to say, ‘Take it out of one temporary intervention and use it more efficiently.’ I guess I can subscribe to that,” says Malone.
Long-term interventions like permanent supportive housing, which has no expiration, will still have a role for the highest needs people. The issue is resources, which is what this effort ultimately boils down to.
Were it not for the money, the answer is simple. Malone says there's "no skepticism" over the need for permanent supportive housing. "The problem is, not only is it expensive but it’s indefinite,"he says. "The thing people love about rapid rehousing for any given person being helped is you get to stop spending money.”
At less than a third the price of transitional housing, advocates say, the rapid rehousing approach opens up a lot of money that could go elsewhere.
Vincent will live out the year in his bedroom. It is perhaps not the most bucolic of settings, but he takes great satisfaction in the four walls and the agency they allow him. "A place to call home? A place to come back to with four actual walls? Oh my God! It's definitely a lot better."
When the year's up, success will mean Vincent has vanished from the system, no longer parking his car in driveways or side streets, a positive through absence.
This series made possible with support from Northwest Harvest. The views and opinions expressed in the media, articles, or comments on this article are those of the authors and do not reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Northwest Harvest.