City Confirms: No Idea Exactly How Many Are Housed Through Programs
On Monday, during a briefing to highlight the progress the city made on homelessness last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan and representatives from the city’s Department of Human Services publicly confirmed what I reported last Friday: The city has no idea exactly how many individual people have moved from homelessness into permanent housing last year. Although Durkan, in her state of the city speech, said that the city had moved “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing,” the reality is that that number includes about 1,800 households who aren’t actually homeless; they live in permanent supportive housing and maintained that housing last year. Moreover, the remainder of that number—about 5,600—reflects exits from programs rather than actual households leaving homelessness; since most households use multiple programs before exiting the homelessness system, the 7,400 number includes many duplications.
Durkan, and interim HSD director Jason Johnson, were quick to point out that “duplication” also worked in the opposite direction: Households, or families, can have more than one member. “There’s many more people that are associated with these households,” Johnson said. “It could be one person or four people, or it could be the same person who comes back and cycles repeatedly through the system, and we can’t measure that.” According to All Home King County’s 2018 point-in-time count of the county’ homeless population, about 77 percent of all homeless households have just one or two members, which would suggest that one person sleeping in a shelter is more typical than an intact family of four.
More importantly, the fact that the county knows the size of the households it counts means that the city could theoretically use that information to eliminate the problem of having no idea whether a household is one person or four. The county, through the federally mandated Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) also has a pretty good idea of how many programs each household in the system uses before they exit from homelessness, and whether they cycle back through the system after finding housing for a while. (“Pretty good” because Washington State allows people to receive services anonymously if they don’t want to provide their personal information.) Surely the city could use the county’s data, plus its own information about “exits” (that 5,600 figure) to get a fairly good idea of how many people are being housed. Right?
Asked whether the city could at least triangulate its way toward a more accurate number, HSD division director Tiffany Washington said, “There is a way to do all of that. The reason we don’t provide that information here is because it would be a 700-page PowerPoint. After the briefing, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding followed up: “In collaboration with King County, we can look at unduplicated interaction with the homeless service system across the entire county. The only way to do that is through regional governance.” The information, she said, “exists, but we don’t have it in one place.”
Durkan and HSD emphasized repeatedly that the real number they wanted to focus on was the comparison between 2017 and 2018, which shows the number of exits from homelessness—regardless of how many people that actually represents—going up. “Regardless of what you call it, we know from the data we have … that we’re performing better than in previous years,” Durkan said. “Exits to housing means that those people do become housed.” After the briefing, Washington added: “You have to remember that we’re comparing this year to last year, so no matter how you look at it it’s getting better.”
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Performance Measures Kick In, $2 Million Housing Voucher Program Helps 28 Into Permanent Housing So Far
In addition to the success of enhanced shelter at getting people into permanent housing, which I wrote about on Friday, a couple of items jumped out from the report. The first is that since the city instituted (somewhat controversial) new performance measures last year, 20 of the 46 city-funded programs that were required to meet new performance standards to get the full amount of their contracts failed, at least initially, do so. Of those 20, 16 completed a “performance improvement plan” and will get the rest of their funding, which HSD calls “performance pay,” this year. I have asked HSD for a list of the 20 organizations that initially failed the city’s standards, more information about where they fell short, and which four programs were unable to meet HSD’s requirements.
Second, a pilot program to provide temporary rental assistance to help about 150 of the families that are currently on the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list for permanent Section 8 housing vouchers, has provided rent vouchers to about 142 families, of which 28 “have been housed in affordable, stable housing in Seattle,” according to the presentation. Given that the pilot program, which continues this year, will cost a total of $2 million, it’s unclear how cost-effective or successful HSD will decide it has been compared to other “prevention” programs aimed at keeping people from becoming homeless. I have a call out to HSD for more information about this program and whether the department considers it a success so far; on Monday, Johnson said only that “We are going to continue to watch this pilot and see if it’s something that we want to invest in further.”
Durkan: HSD Director Nomination Has Been “A Continued Circus”
Durkan was getting up to leave when I asked her how she thought the council has handled her nomination of Johnson, who has served as interim HSD director for ten months, but she sat back down. As it turned out, she had a lot to say. “I’m feeling very positive about the prospects for confirmation for Jason Johnson, once we get a vote,” Durkan said. “I admit that I am frustrated that the council has not scheduled a vote. Their own procedures and guidelines require vote by March 11. It hasn’t happened.” (In the council’s defense, Durkan just sent Johnson’s nomination down in December, after he had already served in the position, without a formal nomination, for nine months.)
Durkan added: “It does a disservice to the department and to the really important mission that this department serves to have a continued circus instead of a substantive discussion on what we need to do as a city. And I am disappointed that the current chair of the committee”—Sawant—”basically was AWOL month after month after month and had no hearings whatsoever on [homelessness], to the point that the city council felt the need to create a select committee on homelessness.”
Council member Kshama Sawant, whose committee would ordinarily oversee Johnson’s nomination, has held a series of nighttime public hearings/”Pack City Hall!” rallies to denounce the process that led to Johnson’s nomination and, sometimes, Johnson himself. Since last July, Sawant has canceled all but one of her regularly scheduled human services committee meetings, which are supposed to happen every other Tuesday at 2pm.
“For those people who say that there wasn’t a process,” Durkan concluded, “I would say that is nonsense. I would challenge anybody to go through a [hiring] process where your process was you had to do the job for 10 months. … It has been both the most exhausting and exhaustive process that a person could have to try to get this job.”
Some service providers, HSD employees, and community members have argued that the city should do a national search for an HSD director rather than just appointing Johnson to the position. Sawant, for her part, has said she wants to appoint a search committee made up of human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees.