By Erica C. Barnett
JustCARE, the pioneering program that has moved about 130 high-needs people off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District and into hotels, got a reprieve from King County this week that will allow it to continue operating through June. According to King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton, the county will provide $5 million for JustCARE and a smaller program run by the Public Defender Association, Co-LEAD Burien.
PDA director Lisa Daugaard says the “survival funding” from the county will allow JustCARE to “retain some of our existing rooms, and [let] us use a hotel the County has leased to replace some others.” But, she said, “the real impact of the JustCARE model is that we keep making new hotel placements for people still on the streets” in Pioneer Square and the CID. “Our ability to make new hotel placements has been paused for two months, and the current County rescue package will provide very little room to place new people.”
As one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”
Local advocates and city council members have asked the mayor to open hotels to unsheltered people who are at risk to COVID infection due to age or underlying health conditions, such as addiction, using federal FEMA dollars that are set aside for this purpose. Durkan and her budget office have responded by providing long lists of objections to the idea, and by arguing that FEMA does not pay for any kind of “services” at the hotels it does fund—only the cost of basic room and board.
As PubliCola has reported, this is not the experience of other cities that have used FEMA funding for hotel-based shelters and services; FEMA does not fund non-shelter services such as individual case management or counseling, but it does fund the costs of running a shelter, such as shelter staff. Cities across California, an early adopter of the hotel-based shelter model, have received reimbursement for the vast majority of services they provide to the thousands of formerly unsheltered people who have been staying in hotels since the pandemic began.
On Tuesday, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition held a panel discussion that provided important national perspective on Seattle’s reluctance to fund any hotels using FEMA-reimbursable dollars. From New Orleans to California, the common theme was that the process of seeking FEMA reimbursement (which was at the heart of many of Durkan’s objections) was well worth the lives that were undoubtedly saved by bringing people indoors. And, as one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”
Ann Oliva, a former HUD staffer who is now a fellow at the Center on Budget and Police Priorities, said that “every community should be using their FEMA dollars to support … a non-congregate sheltering approach”—and seeking additional federal money to pay for the small percentage of services that FEMA won’t pay for. “What’s important for you all to think about,” she told the local leaders and service providers on the call, “is how you can us either CARES Act [dollars] or these new resources coming thru the [American Rescue Plan Act that was announced last week to ensure that you have the money you need” to fund supportive services such as case management.
In general, the message of the experts and leaders on the call was that it’s better to pay for hotels and improve or save lives now than wait forever for a 100-percent guaranteed solution that will never come. In California, for example, Project Roomkey started a year ago as an emergency plan to put thousands of homeless people in hotels and grew to about 17,000 rooms. The program didn’t start out with an exit strategy; it developed one over time after people were already settled in. Project Homekey will provide grants to local jurisdictions to buy hotels and use them to re-house people who have been living in hotel-based emergency shelters once FEMA and other federal funding for those shelters runs out.
“You can’t be afraid of what comes next. You have to start,” Jason Elliott, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s senior advisor on homelessness, said. “I talk about it in terms of problems of success and problems of failure. A problem of failure is, we have massive outbreaks of COVID. A problem of success is we have 35,000 people that we need to rehouse. … If you’re going to force me to pick a problem, I’d much rather have the problem of rehousing tens of thousands of people.”
By that definition, Seattle is still creating problems of failure. The two hotel-based shelters announced so far, with just over 200 rooms between them, are late and will make a minimal dent in the threat to unsheltered people during the pandemic, given the scale of unsheltered homelessness in Seattle. (Those hotels will be paid for with pre-existing Emergency Solutions Grant dollars, not FEMA funds.) And JustCARE, whose clients all have substance use disorders (which Daugaard says should qualify them for FEMA reimbursement), can’t expand without additional funds, ideally the FEMA dollars that are paying for similar projects in other cities across the country.
This week, city council member Andrew Lewis announced legislation he crafted in collaboration with Durkan’s office that would provide $12 million in funding from the Human Services Department to be spent on “non-congregate shelter services in hotel rooms, tiny home villages, or enhanced shelters.” Council members lauded the bill on Monday, calling it a welcome sign of progress in the mostly stalemated debate over shelter funding.
But there’s less to the legislation than meets the eye. For one thing, enhanced shelters in Seattle are all congregate shelters, which suggests that the city could use this funding to pay for more mass shelters like the ones it has been opening since the beginning of the pandemic—large spaces where people can access services and come and go as they please, but must live and sleep in congregate settings with many other people. The alternative would be creating some new type of shelter—non-congregate, enhanced, but not located in a hotel or tiny house village—that does not exist.
It also opens a door a mile wide for the mayor and her Human Services Department to continue funding the things it has always funded—tiny houses and mass shelters—while continuing to sidestep the hotel question completely.
The fact that months of debate over hotel-based shelter has led to an essentially toothless bill bodes poorly for the future of JustCARE, which is currently an entirely hotel-based program. Hamilton, the DCHS spokeswoman, said the city and county are “in discussions to determine whether the two jurisdictions would co-fund a procurement process that would award funding for ongoing intensive outreach, support, and hoteling services for persons at elevated risk of COVID illness or effects” after the county’s bridge funding runs out in June. Nothing Durkan has said so far indicates that she will have a change of heart about JustCARE in the next several months.
Although both tiny house villages and 24/7 congregate shelters have merit, they do not offer many of the benefits of hotels; there is no privacy in mass shelters, for example, and hotels provide more room to stretch out, bathe, and relax (Daugaard and other hotel proponents have noted the psychological benefits of television as something to occupy people’s time) than do tiny homes, which are small, wooden structures that offer privacy and community but do not have individual restrooms, showers, kitchens, or other amenities hotels offer.
On Tuesday’s call about FEMA funding for hotels, HousingNOLA director Andreanecia Morris expressed frustration that conversations around homelessness have continually failed to emphasize the need for housing, even in the face of a deadly pandemic. “We’re having what are incredibly frustrating conversations with policy makers about money,” she said. “You can have the very logical, straightforward argument about what it costs… in terms of human life, what it costs to the system to leave these folks in the street. And we’re choosing to do that rather than meeting this need.”