Morning Crank: Perverse Incentives

FEMA tent in New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons

1. Interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson looked visibly shaken at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness and housing affordability this past Monday, hours after Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she was pulling his nomination to serve as permanent director. Johnson’s inability to secure council approval came up only once during the meeting—committee chair Sally Bagshaw mentioned briefly that “I know that today is a tough day in particular”—but the fact that he is serving without council approval will almost certainly be a factor in his relationship with the council at least through the next council election.

Although Durkan has the authority to keep Johnson on as an interim director indefinitely, council member Lorena González said this week that he will need to answer some of the questions that were raised during his appointment process about the culture at HSD and the relationship between management and employees. (A recent survey of HSD staff found that employees, especially those in the homelessness division, felt unappreciated, unheard, and out of the loop).

“Regardless of what [interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson’s] title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out.” —Council member Lorena González

“Regardless of what his title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out in HSD,”  González told me. “The HSD director serves at the pleasure of the mayor. The mayor is his direct supervisor. And as a council member, it’s my expectation that the mayor provide Jason with the direction and the support he needs to be able to address some of the reasonable, legitimate concerns that I heard from HSD employees about the culture” of the department.

2. The subject of Monday’s meeting was how the city measures “success” among homeless service providers and when and how HSD will provide publicly accessible information about its performance metrics and how well providers are meeting them. As council member Teresa Mosqueda noted, the council has been requesting a “dashboard” showing which programs are working and which are underperforming. Johnson noted that while the city has been “laser-focused” on “exits from homelessness”—a term that refers to the number of exits from programs that get logged in King County’s homeless tracking system—”there is also debate about whether that is the right metric to pay attention to,” or whether returns to homelessness—a term that refers to people who leave the homelessness system in King County and then reenter the homelessness system in King County—is a better measure.

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However, members of a second panel, which included representatives from Family Works, Solid Ground, and the Public Defender Association, pointed out that the “returns to homelessness” metric is incomplete, and may actually discourage providers from accurately reporting information about those they serve. “When we look at returns to homelessness, I think it’s an important metric to look at, but we also have to keep in mind that it is an inaccurate number, because it only includes people that are coming back into homelessness that then go into another program” in King County, Solid Ground’s Shannon Rae said. “Folks that returned to the street and [are] not actually accessing other services… don’t show up” in the system—that is, the city may be counting them as “successes” when they have simply given up on trying to use local services. Additionally, a lot of the folks who Solid Ground serves end up homeless in neighboring counties, “so we’re not capturing all the returns to homelessness,” Rae said. On the flip side, she said, service providers get dinged by the new performance metrics—which determine whether agencies receive full funding or have a portion of their funding withheld by the city—when families decide to move in with other people, go into transitional housing, or do something else that’s “best for them” but doesn’t count in the system as an “exit to permanent housing.”

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, added that the current measures of “success” create a perverse incentive for providers to serve people who are the easiest to serve, because clients who are the hardest to house—for example, chronically homeless men with severe addiction and criminal records related to that addiction—are also, by definition, the ones who are the least likely to result in “success” by the city’s measures. (They also tend to rank lowest on the county’s “vulnerability index,” putting them at the back of the line for housing and services.)

Instead of rewarding providers who manage to get the most difficult-to-serve people into better living situations, the city penalizes and rewards providers on the basis of how many bodies they get into permanent housing, without regard for the difficulty of housing certain populations, and no matter how much impact they have on neighborhoods, property crime rates, and the kind of general “disorder” that was highlighted (sensationalistically and misleadingly) in KOMO’s viral “Seattle Is Dying” report. As a result, Daugaard said, service providers end up “run[ning] away from the most difficult folks out there” for fear of getting dinged. “We should flip that on its head.” That, in fact, is one of the key recommendations homelessness consultant Barb Poppe made in 2016, when she advised the city of Seattle to “[p]rioritize for housing interventions those families and individuals who have the longest histories of homelessness and highest housing barriers” even if they don’t score highest on the vulnerability index.

The city did not put this recommendation into practice, and continues to penalize human service providers for falling short on five measures, which include exits to housing and returns to homelessness. This year, 20 of 46 service providers with HSD contracts failed to meet HSD’s standards and had 12 percent of their funding temporarily withheld by the city. “Financial incentives in contracts to do hard and important work should be true incentives rather than penalties,” Daugaard said Tuesday. “This really was one of the important national realizations in No Child Left Behind”—the George W. Bush-era law that withheld funding from schools that failed to meet testing-based performance standards—”that taking money away from  an institution that’s struggling to do hard work is generally not the best way to improve their ability to do that work.”

3. The question of how to measure success was on my mind when I watched a District 6 city council candidate forum held by the activist group Speak Out Seattle on Tuesday night. The questions for this forum, which featured ten of the candidates running for the Northwest Seattle’s seat, were similar to those at previous SOS forums—written, generally speaking, in a way that implied that homelessness is a choice caused primarily by the decision to become addicted to illegal drugs, and that the most effective solutions to homelessness tend to involve some kind of involuntary commitment. (One question at a recent SOS forum, written by an audience member and read verbatim by KIRO Radio’s Mike Lewis, was: “How do you plan to get the drug-using free campers off the streets? Will you enforce current ordinances about vagrancy, littering, public urination, [and] public drug use?”) Such questions can provoke interesting discussions if candidates are willing to pivot (as council member Lisa Herbold did, skillfully, at SOS’s forum in District 1); but sometimes they’re just the wrong questions.

A good case in point was a question at Tuesday’s forum, about whether the candidates would support erecting “FEMA-style tents or other emergency-type shelters to get people out of their vehicles”—which, practically speaking, would mean leaving their cars or RVs behind.

The assumption behind this question, as well as the city’s outreach to people living in vehicles, is that rational people will give up their last asset for a mat on the ground. The reason this is the wrong framing is not only because this isn’t what rational people will do—given the choice, most people would prefer the autonomy and relative dignity of sleeping in their own vehicle—but because people living in their vehicles consistently say that they don’t want to give them up to move into a shelter. When outreach workers (or policy makers, or candidates for office) offer a mat on the ground in a large group tent as an “alternative” to vehicular living, they’re actively insulting people living in their cars by ignoring their wishes. This is dehumanizing, and if you don’t care about that, it also doesn’t work. People experiencing homelessness, like people who are housed, do things for reasons, and when we listen to those reasons, we can craft solutions that actually help.

Creating safe lots for people living in their cars is a much better option than taking people’s cars away and relocating them into camps, because it respects people’s stated wishes and doesn’t require them to give up their last remaining asset, which happens to double as their home. (Someone living in their car could, theoretically, stay in a shelter as long as they make sure to return to their car and move it every 72 hours, but it’s pretty hard to justify adding another poverty chore to the long list faced by people existing on the margins of society, just because we don’t think people should sleep in cars.) And there’s another reason safe lots make more sense than FEMA tents, too: People living in vehicles tend to need fewer services than chronically homeless folks or those who run a circuit from treatment to shelter to jail. Given limited resources, it makes little sense to pour millions into “wraparound services”—another popular buzzword among the candidates at Tuesday’s District 6 forum—for people who really just need some help paying rent.

4 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Perverse Incentives”

  1. thoughts:

    1) re: “FEMA” tents:
    I am surprised that the SOS group is still calling for ‘FEMA’ tents rather than ‘enhanced shelters’ or ‘bridge shelters’. The photo on this post shows what the FEMA tents looks like – hastily put up in response to a disaster. By contrast, below is coverage of one of the bridge shelters that Alpha Project has up in San Diego. While it obs. does not represent ‘end state’ – seems a lot more humane than the our current misery of cold + wet blue tarps + presumably terrifying conditions for many who are sleeping outdoors each night.

    2) re: “Safe Lots”
    Our own previous experiments with Safe Lots seemed to be a total failure. In concept they seem to make sense, but unclear to me why our prior attempt seemed to be such a costly bomb. Meanwhile other cities (e.g. San Diego) seem to be moving forward with an approach that significantly expands safe parking lots while putting guidelines/limits for vehicle residency.

    3) re: “RV camping” examples:
    a] we recently had a person in RV living on our street; basic, dated vehicle, nothing fancy – a used car salesman would probably call the condition ‘well loved’. occupant was in town for prolonged medical treatments, made contact & introduced herself to neighbors, kept things tidy, and was welcomed with open arms. we even helped with access to electricity, water.

    b] have a friend w/small retail biz in Rainier Valley. one day RV parked right out in front of their retail entrance. No tabs, not even license plates – both observations + circumstantial evidence that it was being used as a locus for distribution. At the risk of sounding judgmental, vehicle appearance was unkempt with random debris + tarps piled on top, and litter frequently strewn about. small biz made contact w/owner, politely asked to relocate down the block and not block view of shop/entrance from the street. no results.

    tried again, no results. contacted City multiple times, no results. several weeks later RV leaves, but returns ~1 week later. Still no tabs, no plates, same ol’ activities going on. This is a small biz that is already struggling financially – and now gets to deal with this, unsure what to do.

    I would like to see new SCC come up with a *6-District Plan* that includes at least 1+ of these per district:
    1) enhanced/bridge shelter (some w/specialized focus areas)
    2) overnight safe parking lot (vehicles must have mobility to participate)
    3) upzone that allows for 1+ hyper-density rezones along transit lines (i.e. mixed-economic residential towers). easy place to start might be ‘big box’ upzones b/c current commercial owners have incentive to convert for redevelopment while avoiding ‘Macefield syndrome’ where nostalgic holdouts present limitations to ++capacity buildng of residential.

    Interesting that one of the grievences at the (now infamous) North Seattle Town Hall was that questions were to be selected by a moderator. SOS team used a similar approach for their event which clearly presents opportunities for selection bias in the questions.

    After the event, I suggested that they publish/post *all questions* submitted to improve transparency and allow candidates opportunity to comment on any if desired. SOS team seemed open to the idea but since I don’t use Facebook not sure if they were able to do it, or if/when it would be posted. Otherwise, I do commend them for hosting an event that remained calm, respectful, and served as an informtive ‘baseline’ to learn about some of the candidate positions.

  2. Thank you for writing about vehicle residency in a realistic, calm way. As you say, people living in vehicles won’t leave their last remaining asset to sleep on a mat. They’re living in a way that makes the most sense, and all that hectoring from unhappy neighbors doesn’t take away their agency.

    And I just want to add that “poverty chore” is one of my favorite new terms regarding homelessness, along with Tim Harris’s “misery porn.”

  3. It’s really concerning that the city is “laser focused” on astoundingly poor choices of metrics (e.g. simply counting exits without any regard to whether the clients in question are high- or low-risk). Optimizing for a bad metric is worse than not quantitatively optimizing at all.

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