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Should Seattle follow Portland’s model to help the homeless?

The Joint Office of Homeless Services was created soon after the homelessness crisis hit Multnomah County. Three years later, something similar could be coming to King County.

The Kenton Neighborhood Tiny Home Pilot houses are viewed in Portland, March 7, 2017. (Photo by Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

The crisis had been building since the recession, but became fully visible in 2015. Rents had increased in some buildings by double digits, and tenants of entire apartment buildings were being evicted en masse. Tents, surrounded by people’s belongings, were being pitched in parts of Portland, Oregon where homeless camps had never been before.

Services for the emerging homeless population were fragmented and confusing, both for providers and their clients. For example, a man and woman who were married would receive services from the county, but if they divorced, the newly single man would then receive services from the city. To serve both the family and the single man, a social service nonprofit might have had to seek budget dollars from two local governments through two separate contracting processes.

The local government acted quickly. In 2015, the Portland City Council declared a homeless state of emergency, which is still in place. Then, the following year, the city council and the Multnomah County Commission took the fragmented homeless services and combined them all into one government office, the Joint Office of Homeless Services. 

The city of Seattle and King County are on the cusp of creating a similar office, almost four years after declaring their own state of emergency concerning homelessness. It is an effort that has been years in the making and one that has been a priority since Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine signed a memorandum of understanding in May 2018 stating that the two governments would work to consolidate the region’s homeless services. 

The plan for how to do that is expected to be released this fall. It’s a wonky effort that will include the city of Seattle, King County and the consulting firm National Innovation Service, but something elected leaders and homeless service providers see as necessary to better confront the region’s worsening homelessness problem.

Guiding the work to consolidate services in King County is a report by the consulting firm Future Laboratories, released in December 2018. The report made a number of recommendations that Constantine and Durkan have endorsed, including not only consolidating all homeless services into one agency, but also making that office more transparent and accountable to the public and prioritizing services that create “economic stability” for low-income people, preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place.

Many of those recommendations mirror reasons why the Portland-Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services was created in 2016.

Much like the system in Multnomah County before the creation of that office, King County’s homeless response remains fragmented and ineffective, say government officials and service providers. An examination of the approach in the Portland area sheds some light on how that might change.

The city of Seattle oversees services that help homeless adults; King County oversees services for homeless families and children. All Home, which is housed under King County, is a regional body that brings together local government, homeless service providers, philanthropic organizations and other entities to set out strategies and policy priorities for ending homelessness.

Yet the agency, created in 2015, holds no authority over any of those entities and has no control over how budget dollars for homelessness are spent. 

There is some coordination, especially in regard to the region’s system for prioritizing homeless people for shelter beds. But overall, “it’s more of a collection of programs than an actual system,” says Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

Malone, a member of All Home’s board, adds that “there’s definitely been a lot of talk for a long time” of creating a single regional entity.

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, says he has had “very general conversations” with Seattle and King County leaders about the joint office, as well as other government entities across the country.

“There is an understanding that to get the most of the resources you have, how you oversee the implementation of your programs is significant,” he says. “That’s effectively, to my mind, what the governance structure is there to do.”

Kira Zylstra, acting director of All Home, says the work to create a regional authority is “foundational” to creating homeless programs in the region that are “more effective and collaborative.”

Before the creation of the joint office, Portland and Multnomah County had a homeless system similar to the one currently serving Seattle and King County: the city of Portland oversaw homeless services for single adults; Multnomah County oversaw services for homeless families, youth and women, as well as domestic violence, mental health, and drug addiction programs.

“It wasn’t very transparent and it wasn’t very strategic,” says Deborah Kafoury, chair of the Multnomah County Commision and a champion of homeless issues. “We felt like we had done as much as we could with the disjointed effort. Combining efforts under one roof seemed to be the next step.” 

The new office came online at a time that rents skyrocketed; Portland’s vacancy rate, or the availability of rental units from month to month, was close to zero, and the proliferation of homeless camping made homelessness impossible to ignore.

“There was a heightened focus and sense of urgency,” Jolin says.  

That urgency helped to secure a dramatic increase in funding for homeless services: the joint office’s first budget of $48.1 million nearly doubled what had been spent on homeless services in the previous year. The next year, 2017-2018, the budget grew to $58.2 million, then $70 million the next year.  

Funding has increased or remained stable each year since. The office first had 14 employees; it has grown to 27. Throughout the office’s existence, administrative costs have taken up 4% of the office’s overall budget.

In the three years since it was created, the office has overseen the opening of 600 new shelter beds, both for homeless single adults and families; funded a tiny house village for homeless women; has been directly involved in efforts to purchase low-income single room occupancy (SRO) hotels that faced closure; and helped relocate evicted tenants.

“We’ve been able to achieve some things as a community that, for a long time, we weren’t able to do,” Jolin says. 

There have been some very public pitfalls, especially in regard to how the office works with Portland’s neighborhood associations on siting shelters in different parts of the city. In one particularly vociferous neighborhood meeting in December 2017, Kafoury’s voice was drowned out by boos and jeering when she said the decision to site a shelter in the working-class Foster-Powell neighborhood had already been made before the meeting.

In response to the pressure from the neighborhood’s residents, the joint office created a steering committee, made up of office staff, representatives of the service provider that would operate the shelter and residents. The group met for six months in 2018, resulting in a good neighbor agreement. The shelter is expected to open this August.

Jolin says the joint office’s effectiveness wouldn’t be possible without A Home For Everyone, the all-volunteer advisory board. It was created by the city, Multnomah County and the local housing authority and is similar to All Home. It's made up of local government leaders, homeless nonprofit providers and other entities that advise the office, set out policy priorities and develop budget recommendations.

Early on, A Home For Everyone began prioritizing programs that prevented people from becoming homeless and housing homeless people as quickly as possible, including rental assistance programs and eviction assistance. The oversight body also identified the targeting of specific subpopulations as a priority, especially homeless families, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities within Portland’s homeless population. 

An audit released late last year showed that the connection between this oversight body and efficacy was strong. The audit, conducted by Multnomah County, analyzed the spending of all homeless services dollars in the county between 2014 and 2017, the first time such an analysis had been undertaken.

The audit not only showed dramatic increases in spending on homeless programs to address the increased demand for services, but also showed a clear link between what A Home For Everyone identified as priorities and how money is spent.

Between 2014 and 2017, the total amount of money spent on homeless programs increased by 70%, from $48.2 million to $83.8 million in 2017. And overall, the audit showed the number of people served — that is, how many people got into housing, were successfully prevented from becoming homeless or received another service, per dollar — increased by 57%.

Programs that placed people directly into housing saw the amount of money available to them increase by 74%; homeless prevention programs saw funding increase by 64%. Spending on rental assistance — which pays a percentage of a low-income person’s rent for a short period of time and is considered one of the most effective means of preventing people from falling into homelessness — increased by 67%, from $13.9 million to $23.2 million.

Other funding increases were even more dramatic. The amount of money available to serve different racial and ethnic groups within the homeless population — including African Americans and Native Americans — increased by a whopping 510%, while funding for homeless family programs increased by 417%, from $6.1 million to $14.6 million.  

Joint office spokesperson Denis Theriault thinks the increase in outcomes is a result of multiple factors. There are more services available than ever, duplication of efforts has been cut down, and work has been done over the past three years to better target services to people who can benefit the most.

He uses the shelter system as an example. Shelters no long turn away people during the daytime or have set hours. People can store their possessions in on-site storage containers, as well have their partners and pets with them — what Kafoury calls the “three P” shelter policy.

“All that stuff makes a difference,” Theriault says, to hopefully create a “holistic system that moves people … to housing.”

Homeless in the Portland Region,” an October 2018 report by the Portland-based consulting firm ECONorthwest, praised the joint office’s work to date. “Work going forward must … recognize the coherence — and success — of homeless strategies and tactics to date,” the report said. Citing the region’s “tight” housing market, the report found that “high rents and low vacancy rates should have led to more homelessness than exists today.” 

A joint office in the Puget Sound area could possibly replicate these efforts, although the size of the homeless population in the Seattle area will require at least some scaling up of efforts. The most recent point-in-time count available for King County, conducted this year, showed that there are 11,199 homeless people living in the county. The 2017 count for Multnomah County, by comparison, was 4,177. The joint office expects to release this year’s point-in-time count for Multnomah County in early August.

Zylstra, the acting director of At Home, would not share any specific elements of the Portland-area operation that All Home wants to replicate. “Generally speaking, the overarching goals are similar — a regional response,” she says. “We can’t address homeless project by project or program by program.”

Ultimately, how money is spent — and how much money there is to spend — is more important than whatever governance structure Seattle and King County propose, says Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy organization.

“We clearly need a governance structure,” says Eisinger. “The governance structure is not the heart of the matter. If we don’t have the resources, I don’t care what the governance structure is. It has to be additional funding.”

She points to the bombshell McKinsey Report published in May 2018 pro bono for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which made the key finding that Seattle and King County need to spend an additional $400 million more to adequately respond to homelessness in the region.

Malone of the Downtown Emergency Services Center agrees, saying, “I worry that we can bog ourselves down in too much reinvention rather than moving forward by bringing to scale the things that we know are effective.”

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Should Seattle follow Portland’s model to help the homeless?

About the Authors & Contributors

Amanda Waldroupe

Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist, based in Portland, Oregon, who reports on poverty and income inequality.