Morning Crank: Ten Things I Heard at the DSA Panel on Homelessness

Dave Ross, Barb Poppe, Mark Putnam, and George Scarola
Dave Ross, Barb Poppe, Mark Putnam, and George Scarola

1. City homelessness consultant Barb Poppe, who wrote the Pathways Home report that is the basis for the city’s sudden shift toward “rapid rehousing” through the use of short-term rental assistance vouchers: “I come from state of Ohio. You did the right thing in November; we didn’t. But there does seem to weirdly be this acceptance that it’s actually okay for people to be on the streets” in Seattle. “You’re smart, caring people. You know how to get stuff done. I don’t know why you don’t get [solving homelessness] done.”

2. George Scarola, appointed by Mayor Ed Murray to head up the city’s homelessness efforts, on one of the main causes of homelessness, the lack of affordable housing: “It’s an affordability problem that’s the result of income inequality. … There are about 32,000 units for people who earn between 0 and 30 percent of median income, and there are more than 80,000 households that are eligible for [those units]. So what do those other almost 50,000 households do? They’re paying 50 percent on rent or 70 percent or all of their income on rent.”

3. Poppe, in response to those “excuses”: “You go back to affordable housing and the rental crisis, and in your community, that becomes the excuse to not get things done, and in other communities, it becomes, ‘This is the reality that we’re in, and how are we going to overcome that reality and get really energized to do that?'”

4. All Home director Mark Putman, responding obliquely to Poppe’s claim that Seattle is just using the lack of affordable housing as an “excuse” to avoid action on homelessness: “A lot of times we do get caught up in ‘It’s a lot cheaper in Las Vegas or Houston’ comparisons to different cities.”  (Critics of Pathways Home have pointed out that the cities cited as proof that very short-term rental assistance vouchers work are much cheaper than Seattle, making it easier for formerly homeless people to pay full rent when their vouchers run out in three to nine months.) “Look at our data. Bring in, sure, some of your thoughts and concepts and strategies that have worked in other areas, because we all need to be learning from each other, but look at our data and tell us what we can do here.”

5. Poppe, on being shocked to find homeless children in Seattle’s tent cities: “I was taken around to sanctioned encampments and I was proudly shown that there was a hut that a newborn infant was living in with their mother. They said it was better that they’re in this hut-slash-“tiny home” with no running water or electricity. I don’t understand why that is acceptable in this community and there’s not tremendous moral outrage to do better. … In almost every community in the United States, it’s completely unheard-of and unacceptable that a child would be outside.” (I fact-checked this and it is not true; in reality, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, child homelessness is a significant and growing problem in communities across the country, including an estimated 25,000 homeless in Poppe’s state, Ohio.)

6. A questioner, who demanded to know why she had to walk past “up to 13 tents” and “piles of human excrement” when leaving her “half-million-dollar condo” in Belltown: “For people who live in tents, who really want to live in a tent, who choose to live in a tent and who don’t want the services that are offered—for these people, it’s working for them” to live on the streets.

7. Scarola, responding to moderator Dave Ross’s restatement of the woman’s question, “When can she pick up the phone and say these people need to move and they’ll be moved?”:  “The mayor fought a battle with the city council to make it clear that sidewalks, parks, or school grounds are unacceptable for people to camp in. We are standing up a team in the next week of eight police officers and outreach workers who are specialized in that problem, let’s call it street disorder. They’re going to go and say, ‘Here’s the plan for you: We will either find you shelter quickly or you will not come back,’ and they will have a police person next to them to make the point clear.”

8. Poppe, on what she calls a total lack of accountability by nonprofit housing providers that receive city funds: “You’ve let 1,000 flowers bloom and there has not been any effort to make sure that nonprofits do anything that they weren’t hired in 1985 to do, and you allow providers to perform in whatever they feel is their niche. …  You’ve had very low accountability for results and that low accountability, I would find to be a mystery. Even this year, with the recommendations that All Home and the city put out, you’ve had a lot of nonprofits say, ‘We shouldn’t be held to outcome-based funding.”

9. Scarola, trying to explain why not everyone wants to stay in existing overnight shelters: “The shelter system, it’s not very user-friendly. You cannot bring your partner or your friend. You can’t bring a dog. You can’t bring more than a small amount of possessions. The shelters are crowded. There can be bedbugs. All it takes is to have that happen to you once and you don’t want to go back. We don’t have an alternative. That’s what we’ve got to change. We’ve got to turn all those shelters into 24/7, where you don’t have to leave in the morning.

10. Poppe, on some factors she does think contribute to the lack of affordable housing in cities like Seattle: “There is a huge impact from local communities that have effectively zoned out rental housing. … As Americans, our expectation of an amount of space that we get to occupy is a way to keep others out. It’s a huge problem. The other piece … is we actually do invest very heavily in housing across the country, and disproportionately, those of us in this room get a disproportionate benefit to actually low-income people: We’re homeowners, and there’s a really high subsidy level to homeowners that is actually tied to the value of your housing and your mortgage, so the more you make, the greater your housing subsidy. There has been a national movement to reduce the mortgage interest deduction and instead fund affordable rental housing through the National Housing Trust Fund.”

The C Is for Crank clapped on the inside at that eminently reasonable and therefore totally doomed suggestion.

(The panel was hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Chamber, Visit Seattle, and Alliance for Pioneer Square.)


Downtown Seattle Association/Seattle Chamber/Visit Seattle and Alliance for Pioneer Square.


12 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Ten Things I Heard at the DSA Panel on Homelessness”

  1. Pingback: The C Is for crank
  2. Ms. Poppe: Most of what you have said while you were in Seattle and on this blog is already known to those who care about homelessness in Seattle. It’s certainly known to Erica Barnett, who currently is the most knowledgeable writer about homelessness in our region. But when you make comments/attributions such as “Seattle/KC – an affluent and progressive community” you demonstrate what you don’t know. Aside from those who are literally homeless, Seattle has an increasing number of people who can’t live on their salaries and must move out of the city — while still working here, which makes their economic situation even worse. It also has an increasing number of flat-out rich people. “Seattle” is not affluent; “KC” definitely is not affluent. As far as progressive, yes, Seattle is politically progressive. But socially, Seattle can no longer be considered progressive when homelessness is tolerated. Thus, your claim that Seattle is progressive but tolerates social ills that other areas don’t is not well-thought-out. And I’m not the only one who wishes that the Seattle funds that went to your research were used instead to add to shelter — which, yes, we need, although you disagree.

  3. Yes. Please tell the homeless that they need homeowners to forgo the mortgage interest tax deduction. I bet that will alleviate their physical health issues, trauma, addition, hunger, and shelterlessness and make them feel better. They will never sense that your irrational and ideological hatred toward people paying rents to the bank and the county assessor for an overpriced home within 1.5 hours of their job has anything to do with it.

  4. Fact checking – You missed my point. I was talking about “unsheltered children”, i.e. children living in cars, in tents, etc. There are unfortunately homeless children in every state and county in the US. In King County, there are many unsheltered children – at rates much greater than in most other metropolitan areas. For example, unsheltered children are rare in San Francisco, Houston, and New York City. No child should ever be homeless but being homeless and unsheltered is far worse than having the safety provided by an emergency shelter.

    BTW – the overall 2016 homeless count in Ohio per HUD PIT count was 10,404 and unsheltered homeless people was 1,138. King County was 10,730 and 4,504 respectively. FYI – Your reference is for the Dept of Education definition of child homelessness which includes children living doubled up as well as those who are in emergency shelter and living unsheltered.

    1. Barb – thanks for commenting. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the city of Seattle’s new encampment rules do in fact count authorized encampments as “shelter” for purposes of offering “shelter” to people living in unauthorized encampments, you’re correct that the DOE definition I used includes kids in shelters. However, even under a definition of unsheltered homelessness that counts everyone living in a tiny house or encampment as “unsheltered,” there are still thousands and thousands of unsheltered homeless children across the US. (Here’s a HUD report from 2014, for example:

      I’m glad that cities are making strides toward improving this number (although, as every source I’ve come across acknowledges, estimating child and youth homelessness is extraordinarily difficult and almost certainly results in undercounts), and I think we should as well, obviously. But to say it’s “unheard of” outside Seattle, as you did at the DSA event, is simply not accurate.

      I appreciated your remarks on the exclusionary nature of single-family zoning. Preventing the construction of apartments of all sizes places constraints on housing supply and makes cities like Seattle unaffordable.

      1. Hi Erica –

        Here’s the most recent HUD Data

        Yes by that count there were 13,310 children among the unsheltered. See page 8. I believe that is unacceptable wherever it occurs.

        You may recall that I said that other than Oregon and CA, unsheltered child homelessness is generally rare. I think the 2015 AHAR report will confirm that statement. The Seattle/KC PIT count of unsheltered will dramatically under-count children, since they do windshield/tent estimates that assume all adults so the Seattle count is completely unreliable as a count of unsheltered children. All Home reports out quarterly on unsheltered family/child homelessness via the CEA. The media has reported extensively on unsheltered children and there is widespread agreement that unsheltered child homelessness is serious problem in Seattle/KC. So I have concluded that there are significant numbers of children who are unsheltered in Seattle/KC.

        Note that unlike Seattle/KC, between 2010 and 2015, family homelessness declined by 15 percent nationally (page 5) and unsheltered homelessness by 25.8% (page 10). Since 2007, the change is even more dramatic – the decrease in the number of unsheltered people in families with children fell by 64 percent (page 30).

        As I noted, Portland (and all of OR) are also not doing a good job ensuring children have access to shelter. Oregon was the only state in which more than half of homeless people in families with children were unsheltered (53% or 1,982 people) (page 32). I find this shocking since OR is one of the most progressive states in the nation. See page 33 for other states that do well and do poorly.

        If you look at page 37, you see that NYC, LA, Boston, and DC have more homeless families than Seattle. All of these cities except LA have a right to shelter for homeless families, so unsheltered family homelessness is very rare. See page 38 and you see that CA cities and Portland are the cities with highest rates of unsheltered homelessness.

        The point I am trying to emphasize is that Seattle/KC – an affluent and progressive community – seems to be unwilling to ensure that no child is left unsheltered. Other large cities – San Francisco, Houston, Boston, DC, NYC, Minneapolis/St. Paul – have determined this is unacceptable and work to ensure that if a child is unsheltered it is very brief and they are connected to resources as quickly as it becomes known. This same ethic is in play in Richmond, Cincinnati, Indianapolis,Wichita, Hartford, etc.

        Best, Barb

        Barbara Poppe & Associates 340 Clinton Heights Avenue Columbus, Ohio 43202 614.353.6321


Comments are closed.