Seattle high-needs homeless program at risk of ending

JustCARE's funding will run out in June. The Seattle City Council could spend $10 million annually to keep the program going.

a tent encampment in Seattle

Tents and structures seen at a homeless encampment near South Dearborn Street in Seattle's Chinatown-International District, Feb. 25, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Seattle’s homeless outreach and shelter program targeting people with the most challenging mental health, addiction and criminal issues will shut down in June, unless the city can find a new source of money to pay for it.

The program, called JustCARE, does intensive outreach with high-needs residents of encampments downtown, in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District. Several hotels serve as temporary shelters, with onsite staff providing medical, mental health, behavioral health, addiction and legal support, as well as help finding permanent housing.

The program launched in 2020 using federal pandemic relief funds. Last year, the Seattle City Council and the King County Council provided additional money to keep JustCARE going until June of this year. Now Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the neighborhoods in which the program operates, is hoping to find at least $10 million a year to fund the program permanently.

“It would be an absolute failure of our duty as a city to not keep and, quite honestly, expand the impact of JustCARE,” Lewis said. “I hate seeing the headlines where people are wringing their hands about what we could possibly do to reach people in the throes of addictions, people who have an undiagnosed behavioral mental health condition, people who are committing prolific property crime offenses. And it’s staring us in the face.”

JustCARE was created by the Public Defender Association, REACH (a longtime Seattle homeless outreach nonprofit), Asian Counseling and Referral Service and Chief Seattle Club. It is currently run by Public Defender Association, REACH and We Deliver Care (formerly Wheeler Davis Conglomerate, a safety and de-escalation service) with support from other community-based homeless service providers. It was launched in response to shelters and jails pushing people out in the early days of the pandemic in an attempt to reduce crowding and the spread of COVID-19. As a result, many formerly sheltered or incarcerated people ended up living on the streets with few resources to help.

“It was a miserable and very critical situation for many communities around the city,” said Public Defender Association Executive Director Lisa Daugaard at a March 2 presentation about JustCARE before the Seattle City Council. “These are long-standing issues, but the level of acuity was escalating to a degree that obviously needed a response.”

In its roughly year and half of existence, the program has cleared 14 unsanctioned homeless encampments in the Chinatown-International District, Pioneer Square and downtown, reaching about 300 individuals. Most of those people voluntarily moved into one of the five hotels JustCARE uses as shelters, a tiny house village or another homeless shelter.

The thing that differentiates JustCARE’s model from other street outreach and shelter approaches is the level of time and help JustCARE invests. Its outreach workers spend weeks visiting encampments each day to get to know residents and bring them food, warm clothes and other essential supplies. Doing so builds trust and helps JustCARE create an individual housing and treatment plan for each person the organization works with.

The organization also reaches out to surrounding businesses and community members to inform them of its work and plans to address encampments.

Once moved into one of JustCARE’s hotel shelter sites, the residents get mental health, substance use, medical and other aid. After residents get stabilized, the organization works to find them permanent housing. That last piece is especially challenging, given the region’s shortage of affordable housing.

JustCARE has moved 50 participants into permanent housing, with 13 others on waiting lists for affordable housing. The program has housing vouchers for 80 other participants that can be used to offset the cost of renting on the private market. But housing vouchers are notoriously difficult to use, especially in a scarce housing market like King County’s.

Vouchers often expire before people can find an apartment. Publicola reported that, as of mid-February, just a handful of JustCARE voucher holders had found housing.

That leaves about 170 participants still living in temporary shelters. They would almost certainly end up back on the street if the program ends in June.

JustCARE’s time- and resource-intensive approach is expensive. The city council central staff calculated that it would cost an estimated $32 million to purchase enough hotels to provide the program with 150 beds to use as shelter. The program's operating costs would be an additional $7.3 million a year.

Councilmember Lewis is hoping Seattle might be able to pay for JustCARE by accessing some of the hundreds of millions the state Legislature just appropriated for homelessness. But barring that, he has proposed issuing bonds to purchase hotels and support ongoing operations. The annual debt service for those bonds would add $2.4 million to the price tag, bringing the program’s cost to about $10 million a year.

That number gave some council members pause. Councilmember Lisa Herbold raised concern that finding an additional $10 million a year would be difficult, given that the city is actively looking at ways to trim its budget in the face of projected revenue shortfalls.

Lewis argued that not continuing JustCARE’s program would lead to bigger budget shortfalls in the future since the program addresses both street homelessness and public safety.

“We need to be investing in the things we know are holding back our recovery,” Lewis said. “We hear business owners saying they’re not going to come back downtown because it’s not safe or ‘I’m not going to reopen my storefront if there’s a tent in front of it.’ … If we don’t take this moment to invest in the thing we know will have the biggest impact on our recovery, we’re going to continue to have conversations about budgets that are shrinking.”

JustCARE has garnered support from business groups such as the Downtown Seattle Association.

“We know sweeps don’t work,” said Brian Cannon, director of safety, hospitality and outreach at the Downtown Seattle Association, in the March 2 city council presentation. “What does work is the JustCARE approach. … JustCARE is the most effective program I’ve seen for addressing encampments, moving people indoors into supportive environments and helping to stabilize individuals to adjust the course of their life.”

Without certainty about its future beyond June, JustCARE has stopped doing outreach in new encampments and is instead directing all of its resources toward trying to find housing for program participants living in temporary hotel shelters.

“Our goal in starting down this road was to demonstrate that this can work,” said Daugaard during her city council presentation. “One hundred fifty rooms can support hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people over a several year period. That begins to have a real impact on the citywide [homeless] population that fits the suite of services we’re providing here.”

UPDATE: This article was updated to distinguish between JustCARE's founding nonprofits and the nonprofits currently running it. The article has also been corrected to reflect that Wheeler Davis Conglomerate changed its name to We Deliver Care. 

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