Progress on Outreach, Shelter, and Homeless Services Depends on Mayor-Council Unity. Good Luck With That!

By Erica C. Barnett

As Mayor Jenny Durkan rolls out the details of her proposed 2021 budget, an image has begun to emerge of the city’s post-COVID approach to unsheltered homelessness. Although the city budget office dropped the 751-page “budget book” last week, Durkan has continued to stage-manage announcements about specific budget line items, making it difficult for reporters and the public to get details about the budget until the mayor is ready to put out a press release.

The biggest headlines, so far, are the city’s decision to lease “up to 300” hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness—a significant change to the city’s previous policy of placing most people in large, “deintensified” congregate facilities; and the dissolution of the Navigation Team, which will be reconstituted as a new “outreach and response” team that currently lacks a catchy name.

Bye-bye, Navigation Team, Hello “Outreach and Response” Team

Last week, Durkan’s office put out a scorched-earth press release announcing that in light of the council’s decision to eliminate the Navigation Team, which has removed homeless encampments since 2017, she would cease all city-led outreach and engagement efforts immediately and lay off current team members or reassign them to other duties. In a letter to the council that accompanied the announcement, deputy mayor Mike Fong said the Navigation Team would stop responding to encampments and begin disposing of people’s property the city currently has in storage, returning the team to a pre-Navigation Team world where the only option for removing encampments was to call the police.

The letter sparked outrage on the council, and a retort from council members Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold that the council had never proposed eliminating the Navigation Team without replacing its outreach functions. In fact, the two council members noted in a joint statement, they had explicitly allocated $1.4 million in savings from eliminating the team to city-contracted outreach providers so that the outreach work the team has been doing during the COVID-19 epidemic could continue without a hitch.

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“Let’s be clear. The Council had a plan. That plan would increase services and allow the Navigation Team a smooth cooperative transition,” Morales said. “What the Mayor is offering this week is counter to that plan, and honestly doesn’t serve our housed or unhoused neighbors. Neither does it start to repair the relationship between our constituents living outside and our City.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that it’s still unclear how the mayor’s proposed outreach and response team will work and how many encampment removals the newly reconstituted team will do after the mayor’s COVID-19 “moratorium” on sweeps expires.

The role the new team will play in “coordinating” outreach—and, specifically, how much authority the city will have over the day-to-day operations of nonprofit outreach providers that receive funding from the city—remains similarly unclear. What seems likely is that the new team will oversee outreach providers in a more direct way than the city has before—telling them, for example, where to deploy and which clients to serve, even if those clients are not among a provider’s traditional client base.

The new team may also require service providers to track metrics similar to those that the city council previously required of the Navigation Team, including things like shelter and service acceptance rates and the number of contacts a provider has with individual unsheltered people. Efforts to increase the amount of data providers give the city could be hampered, however, by the fact that providers don’t currently have the ability to track this kind of information; even the Navigation Team has reported difficulty, for example, tracking the number of people who receive referrals to shelter and actually follow up on those referrals.

New Shelter, Hotel Rooms, and Permanent Housing

The mayor’s 2021 budget proposal also includes COVID-19 relief funding “from the City reserves and other funding sources” for 125 new “enhanced” shelter spaces—24/7 shelters where people can store their belongings and have a guaranteed bed—and “up to 300” hotel rooms that will be available for about 10 months.

The city’s decision to lease hotel rooms comes nearly eight months after advocates and some council members began advocating for this approach when the pandemic began. The 300 or so rooms, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller told council members, will ideally serve far more than 300 clients, with residents cycling quickly into private apartments through rapid rehousing vouchers (the city says it will provide an additional 231 such subsidies) or into the 600 new permanent supportive housing units the city will help fund, using housing levy dollars, next year.

Sixkiller contrasted the city’s approach favorably to that of King County, which has placed about 300 clients of the Downtown Emergency Service Center in a Red Lion hotel in Renton. “When folks came into [the Red Lion] hotel, there was not an exit plan for them, and that was problematic,” Sixkiller said. The city, he suggested, would be able to move people through hotel rooms more quickly by working on housing plans right away.

This could prove optimistic. Rapid rehousing vouchers are a short-term (up to one-year) subsidy for housing on the private market, after which a client is expected to pay full rent or (more realistically) find another place to live. Although the city touts an 81 percent “success” rate for rapid rehousing programs, that rate simply means that 81 percent of people who took rapid rehousing vouchers remained in the program and were housed when their subsidy ended. Nationwide evidence suggests that people are typically unable to maintain the same housing once their subsidy runs out, and quickly end up doubling up with other families, couch surfing, and living in other unstable conditions that count as “successfully housed” for statistical purposes.

“Success” rates can also hide real impacts of program failures on clients’ lives; a person who is evicted from an apartment for nonpayment and crashes on a friend’s couch would count as a “success” under this metric, even if their ability to rent an apartment in the future is damaged by having an eviction on their record. Anecdotally, clients of homeless service providers often reject rapid rehousing vouchers for precisely this reason—it’s highly unusual for a person to go from unsheltered chronic homelessness, for example, to fully self-supporting within a year, and not everybody wants to take the risk.

Moving people into permanent supportive housing, meanwhile, depends largely on the city’s ability to build 600 units at breakneck speed, and on those units being appropriate for the people who move into the city’s hotels. Permanent supportive housing slots are typically in high demand and subject to long waiting lists and a “triage” process.

Bad Blood

The bad blood and mistrust between the mayor and council, exacerbated by the mayor’s burn-it-all-down response to their directive to eliminate the Navigation Team, will make it challenging for the two sides to come together on a consensus response to homelessness. Although both sides had hoped for a “reset” after the council overturned the mayor’s veto of their 2020 budget rebalancing package in August, Durkan’s bellicose letter announcing she was taking her Navigation Team and going home set the tone for the 2021 budget.

This tension was obvious in interactions between council members and members of the mayor’s staff on Thursday. During that discussion, council members grew increasingly frustrated as the two men filibustered, interrupted, and deflected questions about why the city plans to lease hotel rooms for just six months and whether the new outreach and engagement team will still have the authority to remove encampments.

Finally, after several attempts to ask about the new team’s authority to remove encampments, González interjected, “There have been several occasions where … you have interrupted, particularly, the women council members here. So I want you to take a pause and please listen to the question. The question I think we haven’t gotten an answer to [is] whether or not any dollars will be used for purposes of clearing obstructions or any other type of unsanctioned encampment.”

“Yes,” Sixkiller responded.

Regionalism Delayed

The discussion around the city’s response to homelessness is happening against the backdrop of ongoing efforts to stand up a new regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to take over responsibility for shelter and homeless services from cities in King County.

The creation of that authority has been beset by delays and controversy, including efforts by suburban cities to opt out of a countywide tax that would pay for permanent supportive housing, protests among formerly homeless governing board members that they’ve been cut out of decision-making processes, and ongoing delays in hiring a CEO for the authority. Originally, the CEO was supposed to come on board in September; that date has since been pushed back until January, according to the mayor’s office.

Seattle has decided to keep certain parts of its homelessness response, including both outreach and engagement and the LEAD program (renamed Let Everyone Advance with Dignity, from Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, to reflect a shift away from direct participation by SPD), under the city’s purview. The city plans to transfer all its other homeless service contracts to the new authority around June of next year, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said.

In anticipation of that shift, which will likely include layoffs, HSD’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division has been emptying out, leaving fewer and fewer people to do the same amount of work. As a result, the specialized staffers who administer homeless service contracts are dealing with larger and larger caseloads, a situation that could eventually compromise their ability to review and approve contracts with service providers and get money out the door. Asked about increasing workloads among HSI contract staff, the mayor’s office was sanguine. “We do not expect any disruption in the standard contracting process,” the mayor’s spokesperson said.