Just One Group Applies to Lead Participatory Budgeting; Funding for Hotel-Based JustCARE Program Ends this Spring

1. Only one nonprofit applied to run Seattle’s public safety-oriented participatory program this year: the Oakland-based Participatory Budgeting Project, which had a hand in convincing Seattle’s city council to set aside money for the project in 2020.

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy in which residents generate and vote on city spending proposals. Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation has used participatory budgeting to fund some of its capital improvements since 2017. In the fall of 2020, the council set aside $30 million to pay for a new participatory budgeting program, ostensibly as part of an effort to direct city dollars toward alternatives to policing. Though the council originally intended to launch the program in 2021, the consultants hired to lay the groundwork didn’t deliver a workable plan for collecting community proposals and holding a vote.

Instead, the council delayed the program until 2022 and handed the reins to the city’s Office of Civil Rights (SOCR), which set about searching for a nonprofit partner to finally put the $30 million set aside for participatory budgeting to use. Only the Participatory Budgeting Project submitted an application, offering to get the program off the ground with $2.4 million in overhead costs—a far cry from the $8 million overhead cost estimated by last year’s consultants. However, the Participatory Budgeting Project’s proposed timeline for launching the program would delay voting until January of 2023, delaying the council’s goals by another year.

Although SOCR plans to wait until March to debut its plans for running participatory budgeting, including the identity of its nonprofit partner, the office’s options are limited. If the Participatory Budgeting Project wins the contract, it plans to hire five Seattle-based staff to help run the program; the nonprofit does not currently have any staffers in the Seattle area. According to the nonprofit’s application, they also plan to rely on a network of “workgroups” made up of as many as 25 paid community members from marginalized backgrounds—a plan originally pitched by last year’s consultants—in addition to SOCR staff.

2. JustCARE, a program that provides hotel rooms, medical care, case management, and other services to unhoused people, has been widely credited with helping to alleviate the impact of encampments in several neighborhoods while providing a path to stability for people with substance use disorders, behavioral disabilities, and criminal records.

But funding for the program, which comes from both local (city of Seattle and King County) and federal (American Rescue Plan Act) sources, runs out at the end of June. (The lease for Equity JustCARE, a specialized program serving people with acute mental-health needs, ends one month earlier). And that means that, in the absence of additional funding, about 230 JustCARE clients—the number currently living in the five hotels where the program leases rooms—will join the tens of thousands of unhoused people looking for permanent or temporary housing across King County.

JustCARE is a joint program that currently includes the Public Defender Association, Urban League, REACH, and the WDC Safety Team, a group affiliated with the nonprofit Community Passageways. The program has worked to assist and relocate people living in high-profile encampments, including encampments under I-5 in the Chinatown-International District, at City Hall Park, and under the historic pergola in Pioneer Square.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor has not decided whether to extend funding for JustCARE, and King County, which funds the program through its Department of Community and Human Services, has not responded to questions about a possible JustCARE extension.

Meanwhile, JustCARE is trying to place some clients in housing using 80 federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs)—housing subsidies that cover a portion of a tenant’s rent for apartments in the private market. Criminal records, low credit scores, and high credit-to-debt ratios can pose significant barriers to finding an apartment, and JustCARE clients often need ongoing, intensive case management, not just a place to live.

As of last week, according to PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard, JustCARE had submitted voucher applications for 67 clients, but fewer than five had actually secured apartments (none of them in the high-acuity Equity program). “Quite a few of the applicants still need to gather documents and be approved” for their vouchers, Daugaard said. “Those who have been approved are, as one might predict, requiring a lot of support to even have a possibility of securing a unit.”

The city council’s homelessness committee will get an update on the status of JustCare at its meeting on March 16.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett