By Erica C. Barnett
This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally
King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.
According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.
“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”
As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness.
The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.
Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”
A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.
The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.
The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets.
According to the PDA, the program costs more because JustCARE clients need more intensive case management than the lower-needs people who tend to do well in rapid rehousing and diversion programs; about 75 percent of JustCARE clients have several mental health disorders, and about two-thirds are addicted to meth. More case management means more staffing; in addition, the PDA pays higher wages than other Seattle organizations that provide shelter and case management, like the chronically underfunded Downtown Emergency Service Center.
Funding for JustCARE runs out on March 15. Although FEMA now offers full reimbursement for cities’ COVID-related hotel expenditures, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has been reluctant to tap this resource, saying that FEMA dollars should be used as a last resort after all other federal funding options are exhausted.
Lee said LIHI will focus on finding clients who can be successful in rapid rehousing, diversion, and other subsidized or market-rate housing options, such as those who already have jobs but need short-term assistance to get into an apartment. “I think we’re going to end up serving more people than rapid rehousing” alone could, said Lee, a longtime vocal skeptic of rapid rehousing programs. Referrals to the shelter will go through the city’s HOPE team, which coordinates shelter referrals at the city level, but will originate from LIHI, which Lee says will find clients through street outreach, at its existing Urban Rest Stop hygiene centers, and among people “who might be suitable and working” who already live in one of LIHI’s tiny house villages.
The city rejected a hotel shelter proposal from DESC, in part, because DESC proposed moving people from its congregate shelters into hotel rooms, rather than finding an entirely new set of clients. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said today that the “goal” of the program “is to support people living unsheltered, so it should not be a transition from one location to another.”
Because it will focus primarily on people who can move on to housing quickly, LIHI’s program likely won’t serve the same clients as JustCARE, who are more likely to be involved in the kind of low-level street crime and disorder that has made many commentators (including the mayor) lament the current state of downtown. Lee says shelter guests will have to adhere to a code of conduct that includes no fighting and no substance use in public areas, and will have access to in-room microwaves and refrigerators, plus three meals a day, provided by Operation Sack Lunch.
Councilmember Lewis says he isn’t worried about “disorder” outside the downtown hotels, because “I measure everything against the disorder associated with encampments.” Nor is he too concerned about which population of homeless people the hotels, which are both inside his council district, ultimately serve.
“I meet a lot of people [experiencing homelessness] who are working who would probably be able to benefit from some kind of rapid rehousing program, and that does make a difference, because they’re currently living in tents or vehicles and that perception of tents or vehicles is part of the aggregate issue,” Lewis said. “If you have an encampment and 80 percent of those people can be helped with this surge program, it does help to remove those tents and make the situation more manageable” for the higher-needs people who remain.
County funding for JustCARE runs out March 15. Lewis says he’s committed to keeping the program, whether that means using city dollars now in anticipation of FEMA reimbursement or tapping into the approximately $12 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars that the city has left over from last year. “I do worry that some people are going to get scared away based on the cost, but I think we just need to stipulate to the fact that chickens come home to roost,” Lewis said. “When you’re a state that ranks 46th in the nation for adult mental health care and you get a crisis that just obliterates your mental health treatment system, it’s going to be expensive to figure out a way to tread water in a system like that.”