By Erica C. Barnett
King County and the city of Seattle announced today that they will use $10 million in one-time private funding to launch a new “Partnership for Zero” campaign focused on downtown Seattle in which “peer navigators”—case managers with lived experience of homelessness—will work to “navigate” people experiencing homelessness downtown into shelter and housing. Each peer navigator will work directly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and have a relatively small caseload of clients experiencing homelessness downtown.
At a press conference Thursday morning, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the public-private partnership would fund a new approach that, unlike existing outreach and case management efforts downtown and elsewhere, will provide “longitudinal” case managers who will work with clients to find services and housing and then keep working with them after they become housed.
Currently, Dones said, “So many of the things that we provide are these leaky hallways where, yes, we put people on a path, but …we see people drop out constantly. It’s the relational architecture that we see in communities that have implemented this well that actually drives success.”
PubliCola reported exclusively on the peer navigator proposal last week.
Today’s announcement adds new details about how the homelessness authority plans to deploy these new workers and its five-phase plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness,” starting with the downtown business district.
In addition to 30 peer navigators—a number Dones said could ultimately grow to 70 or more—the one-time contribution will fund 15 “incident responders,” who will “focused on immediate crisis response for deescalation,” according to King County Regional Homelessness Authority spokeswoman Anne Martens. These responders would supplement, not replace, Health One and Triage One, two specialized units within the Seattle Fire Department that respond to crisis calls that do not require an ambulance or police response, Dones said Thursday.
The announcement includes more details about a consolidated “unified command center” to which Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell alluded in his state of the city speech last week—part of the first phase of the “Partnership for Zero” five-phase plan the KCRHA says it will use in neighborhoods across the city, starting downtown.
The center will include a Joint Information Center (similar to the JIC at the city’s existing Emergency Operations Center) and a “multi-agency coordinating body” that will include representatives from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. This coordinating body will be “empowered to prioritize and allocate private resources such as funding, property, or personnel,” according to the announcement.
The announcement does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time spending for the 45 new employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out.
Subsequent phases of the plan will include the creation of a “by-name list” of people experiencing homelessness downtown; a “draw down” period in which peer navigators, having “establish[ed] the trust needed to help people move from homeless to housed,” relocate the entire downtown homeless population to shelter and services; and a “hold steady” period, in which the authority responds quickly to address any “new individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the target areas.”
The announcement—perhaps aiming to avoid the fate that befell the region’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness by 2015—does not include a date to reach its goal of zero homelessness. But Dones told PubliCola they “feel confident that we can execute on placements for the folks who are currently living downtown, with what the system is slated to generate this year and already has available through natural turnover,” within a year. Those placements, Dones said, will include spots in new permanent supportive housing projects as well as Emergency Housing Vouchers from the federal government.
After that, Dones continued, the homelessness authority will need more resources to keep the momentum going. “Revenue generation is not a power we have, so my role on that is limited to advocacy,” Dones said.
Last year, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association, whose membership includes most of the operations that chipped in for the $10 million gift, sued the city unsuccessfully to overturn a payroll tax on large corporations that will fund housing, equitable development, and jobs programs in Seattle.
Downtown Seattle has always been the epicenter of homelessness in Seattle; it’s where most homeless services are located, and it’s where people end up when they leave the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center or the King County Jail. Setting up a system in which people who happen to be homeless downtown have more access to resources, such as peer navigators and potentially shelter and housing, will almost certainly attract some number of additional unsheltered people into the area, Dones acknowledged. “It’s unrealistic to say that there won’t be some people who see this as an opportunity to get support and make a decision to try to engage with that support through what we are providing,” they said.
But DSA director Jon Scholes told PubliCola that he believes downtown will look substantially different, with “fewer people on the streets,” within a year. The new peer navigator approach “means that if you end up homeless on the streets, or in an alley, or in a park, that there’s somebody there that’s gonna engage with you immediately,” Scholes said. “And over time, that population is not going to be as large.”
The partnership does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time funding for the 45 new KCRHA employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out. “Our system doesn’t have enough money,” Dones said Thursday, particularly for “spaces for people to be.” A key question raised by skeptics of the homelessness authority’s emphasis on peer navigators is where the agency plans to navigate people to.
King County has been slowly adding hotel-based housing and shelter units across the region through its sales tax-funded Health Through Housing program. The hotels have, at times, been controversial (nearby residents have vociferously opposed plans to open one Health Through Housing hotel in Kirkland, for example). And they aren’t a permanent housing solution for everyone: The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Mary Pilgrim Inn in North Seattle, which serves chronically homeless people, including active drug users, has had to kick out a number of guests for disruptive behavior.
Because the donation is one-time, today’s announcement creates a fiscal cliff after the first year of operations that the city of Seattle or King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—will have to fill. Authority CEO Marc Dones has said they believe the agency will be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for the program’s operation costs after the first year, although the council expressed skepticism about this plan last year when it declined to immediately fund the program.
One of the council’s concerns last year was that the KCRHA appeared to be proposing a parallel system that would duplicate the work that several existing nonprofits that employ people with lived experience, such as the Public Defender Association, REACH, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center, are already doing.
The PDA, in partnership with homeless service providers, focuses on providing resources, case management, and (through the JustCARE program) shelter to people who are involved in the criminal legal system. DESC’s HOST program focuses on people with severe behavioral health disorders. And REACH is a citywide outreach program that works to connect unsheltered people to services, shelter, and housing. All three organizations, like other human-services nonprofits, have experienced difficulty hiring and retaining qualified workers because of low pay and difficult working conditions.
Peer navigators will make far more money than outreach workers and case managers employed by the nonprofit organizations that contract with the homelessness authority, even after a one-time 5.8 wage adjustment the Seattle City Council secured last year. According to Martens, the KCRHA will pay the navigators and incident responders a “living wage” of around $75,000; supervisors for the program, as we reported last week, will earn between $100,000 and $130,000.
The new peer navigators will also have smaller caseloads than many nonprofit case managers, who often often work with dozens of clients at a time. This sets up two parallel tiers for homeless outreach and case management workers working for government-funded nonprofits, on one hand, and the government itself, on the other. The proposal announced today does not include any additional funding to improve wages or reduce caseloads for nonprofit homeless service providers.
Dones said Thursday that they hope to raise wages for nonprofit service providers as well as the new workers their agency will employ directly. “Everyone in our sector needs to get a living wage,” they said.
Dones told PubliCola that the peer navigators will not (like the city’s existing HOPE Team) receive preferential access to certain shelter beds, a situation that frustrates many homeless service providers. Nor, they said, does the authority intend for the navigators to supplant people working with people who have specific challenges, such as criminal-just involvement, that make them harder to house. Many of the public “disorder” issues in downtown and other neighborhoods are caused by people with significant behavioral health needs, including drug use and addiction, or who commit frequent low-level crimes.