The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday afternoon, the city council’s homelessness committee will get a long-awaited update from the city’s homelessness division about what the division, and the homeless service providers the city funds, have done over the past seven months to move people into shelter and housing—including a report on the two hotel-based shelters the city belatedly funded as part of its pandemic response earlier this year.

Both hotels—the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, and the 139-room Executive Pacific, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute—are nearing the halfway mark on their 10-month leases. Yet neither has made much visible progress toward a key goal of their contracts: Moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness and into permanent housing, using short-term rapid rehousing subsidies to help fund apartments on the private market.

While both rapid rehousing programs have enrolled a similar percentage of clients into rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually identified housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments.

After resisting calls to open hotels to shelter people living outdoors during the COVID pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announced it was signing short-term leases on the two hotels in February. The plan, announced by then-deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller (who quit to run for mayor) and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis last October, was to take people directly off the streets, stabilize them and assess their needs, and move most of them quickly into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies administered through separate contracts with the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, respectively. By cycling most clients quickly through the hotels and into private-market apartments, proponents said, the hotels could serve hundreds of people.

The reality, however, hasn’t lived up to the initial promise. While both Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services have signed up a similar percentage of clients for their rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually found housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments. (Although the online presentation says the Chief Seattle Club has enrolled no households in its rapid rehousing program, its executive director, Derrick Belgarde, says the current number is 38). At the Executive Pacific, 17 people have moved into apartments with rapid rehousing subsidies—seven more than the total three weeks ago. At King’s Inn, not a single person has moved out using a rapid rehousing voucher. Several people have exited both programs into other types of housing—moving in with relatives, for example—and some simply left the hotels and didn’t return.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly. “It’s going to be hard to find them a place they can afford with little to no income,” Belgarde said. “With their underlying conditions, they’re going to need permanent supportive housing.”

One option, Belgarde said, would be moving some of the people currently at King’s Inn into ?ál?al, a Club-owned 80-unit studio apartment building that’s opening in Pioneer Square in October. Some of those living at King’s Inn could use rapid rehousing vouchers to live at ?ál?al, for a year, Belgarde said, and then, if they couldn’t afford market-rate housing, they could apply to move into Sacred Medicine House, a 125-unit permanent supportive housing development in Lake City that’s supposed to open in October 2022. Both buildings, which are designed to cater specifically to Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, are subject to fair housing law, so ensuring that their residents are by and large Native is a matter of getting people’s applications in quickly.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, said he initially hoped that the hotels would enable the city to “rapidly house hundreds of people … but that does not seem to be where we are at right now.” Instead, he said, the hotels have turned into a “bottleneck” while the subsidies go unused.

One option, Lewis said, might be to “open up” access to the subsidies to other providers, such as the Public Defender Association and its JustCare program, whose clients might be a better fit for rapid rehousing. Rapid rehousing programs typically best for people who can return to full employment before the subsidy ends—people facing temporary setbacks, not permanent disability.

“They’ve had decent luck in JustCare in moving people into subsidized, market rate placements or even unsubsidized market-rate placements,” Lewis said. “Their people tend to be younger and more functioning but with higher-acuity barriers—severe untreated behavioral health conditions or substance use disorders—but once they get access to more resources through JustCare, they’ve been able to stabilize,” Lewis said. If the subsidies could be extended to 24 months from the existing 12, Lewis added, that would give people a better opportunity to get on their feet before they have to pay market rent.

We have a call out to the City Budget Office to find out how and whether the funds, which come from the federal government, could be shifted in this way.

Wednesday’s meeting will also include an update on several tiny house villages LIHI plans to open in the next few months, including a new 32-unit village on Sound Transit property in the University District and an expansion of an existing village on Port of Seattle land in Interbay. The U District tiny house village, known as Rosie’s Village, has been delayed until at least October, according to the presentation.

Beyond their immediate impact—fewer people housed, more people remaining unsheltered while various jurisdictions negotiate contracts—the delays point to a fundamental problem with the Compassion Seattle initiative.

Sound Transit reportedly wanted the city to provide more liability insurance against potential litigation damages than the city considered reasonable.  A Sound Transit spokesman declined to provide additional details about the negotiations or the delay, and LIHI executive director Sharon Lee did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.

Beyond their immediate impact—fewer people housed, more people remaining unsheltered while various jurisdictions negotiate contracts—the delays point to a fundamental problem with the Compassion Seattle initiative, which would the city to fund and deliver 2,000 “units” of shelter next year. This year, Lewis pointed out, the city has funded about 1,650 noncongregate shelter beds, including tiny house villages, hotels, and new shelters.

But as tomorrow’s presentation notes (in a section titled “2021 Accomplishments”) the city has only been able to add 350 additional “safe spaces” this year for people living unsheltered, largely by “reactivating” beds that closed in 2020. The bottleneck for shelter and housing is largely at the implementation level, and not (as initiative supporters would have it) at the level of “priorities.” Telling the city council they have to budget for 2,000 new shelter beds is one thing; getting local government agencies, outside funders, land owners, neighborhood residents, and service providers on the same page is a much more complicated matter.

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