By Erica C. Barnett
The homeless service agencies running Seattle’s two hotel-based shelters are running into a predictable problem: Now that the hotels are full, few of their residents are moving out.
The reason, the shelter providers say, is simple: Most of the people currently staying at Kings Inn, run by the Chief Seattle Club, and many of those living at the Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by the Low-Income Housing Institute, have complex challenges, including chronic homelessness and disabling medical conditions, that make them poor candidates for the rapid rehousing program the city said would be hotel residents’ path to self-sufficiency.
Last October, when the city announced plans to open three hotel-based shelters using federal COVID relief funds, city officials said the providers that ran the hotels would move residents into housing quickly using rapid rehousing subsidies—short-term rental assistance that dwindles over time as people gain income and can afford to pay full rent in private, market-rate apartments. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the plan to open around 300 hotel rooms as temporary shelter by December of last year, the city estimated that about 231 hotel residents would receive rapid rehousing subsidies through the federally funded program.
“I would say that the majority are not candidates for rapid rehousing,” said LIHI director Sharon Lee. “They’ve been chronically homeless, they have significant drug use, significant disabilities, and their status is unlikely to change.”
Two of the promised hotels, totaling around 200 rooms, opened in March. So far, though, only a handful of people have “exited” the hotels into rapid rehousing through the programs the city funded for this purpose, and the people moving into the hotels, most of them from “priority” encampments that are scheduled for sweeps, need intensive, long-term services, not just a subsidy.
“I would say that the majority are not candidates for rapid rehousing,” said LIHI director Sharon Lee. “They’ve been chronically homeless, they have significant drug use, significant disabilities, and their status is unlikely to change.” (A person is chronically homeless if they have a disabling condition and have been homeless more than a year.) “When you have people who have co-morbidities and are high-acuity, it’s very challenging” to use rapid rehousing, Lee said.
Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for the Chief Seattle Club, added, “Most of our residents have mental health and substance abuse issues, and are better suited to PSH [permanent supportive housing],” where residents receive long-term services and are not expected to pay full rent.’
As we reported in January, the people who tend to do best in rapid rehousing are those who are working or who can find work, those who have been homeless only a short time, and those who don’t face significant barriers to employment and housing.
Instead of seeking out people with those characteristics, the Human Services Department has reserved rooms in the hotels—particularly the Executive Pacific—for people living in encampments the city decides to sweep. The result of this somewhat random process is that, according to Lee, “we’ve only moved two or three people into rapid rehousing.”
The city believes these numbers are turning around. At a press conference about new federal investments in housing and homelessness Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Durkan touted new numbers showing that between the two hotels, about 50 people had “enrolled in a rapid rehousing program.” But all that means, according to Catholic Community Services deputy director Dan Wise, is “that they have met with our team and have said that they believe rapid rehousing is a good path forward for them.”
The city’s hotel strategy was explicitly based on the premise that a couple hundred rooms would be able to serve far more individual people, as many residents moved quickly on from the hotels and into market-rate units using rapid rehousing subsidies
Wise said CCS is nimble enough to “pivot” when it turns out someone who initially wanted one service turns out to be a better fit for another program, as the agency does frequently in its long-term rapid rehousing program for veterans.
“What we know is that if we engage a veteran and [a certain] service isn’t the right match for them along the way, then talk to the VA about another opportunity, like a long-term voucher or supportive services,” Wise said. “So I think what we’re learning from the hotel is to allow the participants in the hotel to lead their own process listen to them and what they want out of housing and then work with the city to support that.”
Asked whether the mix of people currently at the city’s two hotel-based shelters has made the city’s plans to cycle people through quickly using rapid rehousing, Durkan said, “It’s impossible to classify any category of people as a monolith. Are they eligible for rapid rehousing? Are they not? It really is going to depend on the individuals. … The first thing you have to do us bring people inside and get them stabilized in an enhanced environment, and then you will see what paths are available.”
The problem is that the city’s hotel strategy was explicitly based on the premise that a couple hundred rooms would be able to serve far more individual people, as many residents moved quickly on from the hotels and into market-rate units using rapid rehousing subsidies. If the truth is that most of the people living at Kings Inn and the Executive Pacific need permanent supportive housing, a much more expensive and scarce solution, it means that the city’s current practice of using hotels as receiving sites for encampment sweeps is running smack into the city’s promise of turning hotels into short-term lodging for people who just need a little financial boost.
While local housing agencies are working to build or acquire several hundred new units of permanent supportive housing, including 300 new units announced last week as part of the Seattle Rescue Plan, construction of new housing units takes years, and the hotel shelter program will start ramping down this coming winter. “We’re very concerned that at the end of February, the lease is going to be up and then we’re going to have all these people who are going to have to leave in the middle of winter,” Lee said.
And Clark, from the Chief Seattle Club, noted that there is currently no culturally competent permanent supportive housing program for American Indian and Alaska Native people in King County. “We are hoping to move the majority of residents into ʔálʔal—a new eight-story independent housing building with some services on site—”when it opens in October.” Sacred Medicine House, CSC’s permanent supportive housing project, is scheduled to open in 2022.