Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options.

Last year, the council provided $1.4 million to build three new villages in the University District, North Seattle, and Interbay (a planned expansion of an existing tiny house village.) None of those three have opened yet because of what Colby described as logistical hurdles related to permitting, demolition (for example, LIHI decided to demolish a motel building next to its planned Aurora Avenue village, causing delays), and contracts.

Then, in June, the city set aside $400,000 to operate three new villages that would be funded by $2 million in state COVID relief, for a total of six new villages this year. That legislation, known as the Seattle Rescue Plan, passed unanimously and was signed by Mayor Durkan. So far, none of those villages have opened, but council members said Wednesday that inaction by HSD and Durkan is no reason to throw away money the city has already allocated and plans to spend.

“It should be absolutely understood that this is a high priority for the entire council,” Mosqueda told PubliCola. “It feels like roadblocks are being stood up at the very time that we need to be standing up tiny house villages. … The Seattle Rescue Plan has been passed into law. That is not up for debate or discussion.”

The final point of contention was around plans to create a small, pilot “safe lot” for up to 25 households living in RVs; like the three new tiny house villages, the council and mayor funded this lot using federal COVID relief dollars earlier this year.

HSD’s, and Dones’, immediate objection to spending the money the state provided this year was that there is no ongoing funding source for the tiny house villages the city agreed to build in June—they’re all funded with one-time emergency dollars. “My board will not move forward with something that has one-time funding for budget standup,” Dones said, referring to the governing board of the regional authority. “I, in candor, believe that this would be a nonstarter as it is currently structured.”

But council members countered that the city has no way of assuring ongoing funds for any purpose—the city budgets on an annual basis, and the council (which writes the budget) can’t encumber future councils by reserving budget dollars for a specific purpose years in the future. “We did not fund those villages to build them [in 2021] and just tear them down [in 2022],” Lewis said. “That’s absurd.”

Lee, whose organization is responsible for all the city’s sanctioned tiny house villages, called it “outrageous” that the city would consider not building the tiny house villages it has already agreed to fund.

Lewis told PubliCola that what Dones referred to as “my board” includes the future mayor of Seattle and two city council members (including, currently, Lewis.) “I think there is considerable support on the governing board and on the implementation board of the regional authority for tiny house villages,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that we wouldn’t get their support to spend that funding.” Lewis said he understood the need to avoid creating “bottlenecks” in the system—people tend to stay in tiny houses for more than a year, which isn’t the level of “throughput” government officials like to see”—”but the bottleneck right now is encampments, and I would prefer to a shelter bottleneck to an encampment bottleneck, absolutely.”

The final point of contention was around plans to create a small, pilot “safe lot” for up to 25 households living in RVs; like the three new tiny house villages, the council and mayor funded this lot using federal COVID relief dollars earlier this year.

Recreational vehicles and other oversize vehicles are only allowed to park overnight along streets in industrially zoned land, which makes up about 12 percent of the city. This has led to concentrations of RVs in industrial areas and conflicts with businesses and residents in places like Ballard and Georgetown, where property owners have resorted to putting fake no-parking signs in the right-of-way or installing large concrete  blocks to prevent RVs from parking in places where they are allowed to be.

Safe lots, which are also controversial, could be a partial solution that would also enable people living in RVs to access services and get in the pipeline for housing. But Dones said they weren’t familiar enough with people living in vehicles yet to make any decisions about how to provide services to people living in RVs. “We understand it to be a population that we just don’t know enough about,” Dones said, adding that “last week, I started having lunch with people who are living in vehicles and talking about ‘What do you need, and what are we not doing.'”

Lewis said afterward that the issue Dones identified is real: There are no nationally accepted best practices for helping people living in vehicles, who make up about half of the city’s homeless population, so if the city wants to build a system focused on RV residents or vehicular residents broadly, it will have to create one. “We are going to need to innovate,” Lewis said. “The capacity issue for providers is real, but money begets capacity—if you put out [requests for proposals] and let people bid, they will show how they develop capacity and more solutions for a lot of these things will become apparent.”

The divide between the city (which provides most of the regional authority’s funding) and the regional authority itself may come down to whether a new agency needs to invent an entirely new approach to homelessness, or whether the primary issue isn’t ideas but the will and funding to put them into action.

3 thoughts on “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

  1. Let me see if I understand the argument over funding the tiny house villages. The city wants to use one time money to build them. The Regional Homeless Authority is saying, and then what? The city is saying, we can’t say, because that’s the future council’s job. To translate, the city wants to use one time money to build, and then wants the Regional Homeless Authority to take it over, and the Regional Homeless Authority is saying, nope. Right?

  2. “But Dones said they weren’t familiar enough with people living in vehicles yet to make any decisions about how to provide services to people living in RVs. “We understand it to be a population that we just don’t know enough about,…” This is almost unbelievable, since the three-person Scofflaw Mitigation Team has been working for years — only lately with City funds — to address that very situation, and has extensive experience with the needs of vehicle residents. Dr. Graham Pruss, a local academic researcher and community volunteer, lived in an RV himself before using vehicle residents as the topic of his doctoral dissertation. Case managers worked with vehicle residents within the City’s short-lived safe parking program. I’d bet that any and all of these knowledgeable people would be glad to share their experience with Dones, in addition to the RV residents he is lunching with.

    1. I found this comment to be ridiculous as well. I thought Dones was our homeless response leader. I previous comment suggested that Dones does not even live in Seattle area and just does everything by Zoom. Does anyone know if this is true?

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