By Erica C. Barnett
A review of six months of data from the HOPE Team—the team of Seattle Human Services Department staffers who do outreach and offer shelter to people living at encampments the city is about to remove—shows that only around 36.5 percent of people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up to that shelter and stayed there overnight. This number represents a 23 percent reduction in referrals from the 47.7 percent enrollment figure HSD reported in March.
The enrollment rate for the first two months of 2022—in winter, a time when people are typically most likely to move indoors—was even lower, just 33 percent. That means that out of every 100 people the HOPE team referred to shelter, fewer than a third actually showed up and stayed the night.
HSD provided its data in response to a records request from PubliCola.
A spokesman for the Human Services Department said the numbers they provided are lower than the true enrollment rate, because about a quarter of people who use homeless services have opted out of he the county’s Homeless Management Information System, which means that their identities are anonymous and can’t be tracked. For example, one shelter whose residents came exclusively from HSD referrals, Rosie’s tiny house village in the University District, had an official enrollment rate of just 52 percent, even though all 36 units were full.
However, the numbers HSD provided, which represent data from September 2021 through February 2022, are directly comparable to the 48 percent figure HSD itself reported for 2021. Both PubliCola’s numbers and HSD’s earlier report represent a straightforward comparison of referrals to confirmed enrollments, without factoring in people who have opted out of the county’s tracking system. For this reason, the more recent numbers—both the 36.5 percent enrollment rate for the last four months of 2021 and the 33 percent enrollment rate for early 2022—represent an apples to apples comparison to HSD’s own published figures.
The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 shelter beds, or about a third of all shelter beds in the city; those beds can only be filled by the HOPE Team, which leads to a shortage of beds for other providers trying to find beds for clients who are actively seeking shelter, as opposed to those who happen to be in the path of an upcoming sweep. Between September 2021 and March 2022, the HOPE Team made 533 referrals to 20 shelters, including the now-closed Executive Pacific Hotel. Of those 533 referrals, just 195 resulted in someone staying at a shelter overnight.
Within the numbers, patterns emerge. In general, tiny house villages—private mini-shelters that are among the most desirable forms of shelter currently available in King County—had a much higher enrollment rate than congregate shelters: Three of the four highest-performing shelters on the HOPE Team’s list were tiny house villages. (I’ve excluded the unspecified category “enhanced shelter,” which accounts for 32 referrals and 10 enrollments, and any shelter that had fewer than 10 referrals over six months from this list.)
However, all three tiny house villages that had higher-than-average enrollments had one thing in common: They all opened during the six-month period the data encompasses. Friendship Heights, a tiny house village on Aurora that had the highest enrollment rate at 59 percent, opened last December; Rosie’s Village in the University District, with a 42 percent enrollment rate, opened last November; and the Interbay Tiny House Village, with a 47 percent enrollment rate, expanded to add 30 new units in November.
Similarly, the Benu Community Home—a men’s shelter with dorm-style rooms in the Central District—opened in November and had an enrollment rate of 50 percent.
As we reported in March, shelter referrals and enrollments went up in 2021 because hundreds of new permanent housing and shelter beds came online all at once, adding new supply to the shelter system that was immediately filled by people being removed from high-priority encampments. A separate report from City Council’s central staff revealed that nonprofit service providers requested shelter for their clients four times more often than the city provided a referral, meaning that the vast majority of people seeking shelter were unable to find it.
At the other end of the spectrum, the shelters with very low enrollment rates had a few things in common: Three of the four are basic shelters or “enhanced” shelters that offer services but little privacy. The other is Lakefront Community House—an enhanced shelter with single and double rooms in a former drug treatment center run by the Low-Income Housing Institute in North Seattle.
The Navigation Center, an 75-bed low-barrier shelter near the contentious intersection of S. Jackson St. and 12th Ave. S, had an enrollment rate of 21 percent; all of the Navigation Center’s beds are reserved for referrals from the HOPE Team. Two emergency shelters run by the Compass Center—Jan and Peter’s Place, a women’s shelter, and the Blaine Center for men—had enrollment rates of 17.5 and 26 percent, respectively. And Lakefront Community House had an enrollment rate of 23.5 percent.
Dan Williams, senior housing program manager for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, offers some theories about why the Navigation Center’s enrollment rate has been relatively low. First, he notes, the Navigation Center has not had a dedicated housing resource on site until recently, when it gained access to Shelter Plus Care, a federal program that provides rental subsidies for people with disabilities who aren’t considered “vulnerable” enough to qualify for permanent supportive housing.
“In the past, 50 percent of the people [at the Navigation Center] would stay for years, and other people would just be fed up because there’s no housing, so what is the purpose of sitting here?” Williams said. Shelter Plus Care, like all voucher programs, has long waiting lists.
And Williams says there are other reasons people leave shelter to live outside. “Maybe there’s a more lucrative deal for people on the streets,” he said. The proximity of several large encampments, and the constant disruption from encampment sweeps, contributes to a general feeling of chaos in the shelter’s immediate vicinity, Williams said. “People would get into drug transactions [at a nearby encampment] and run into the Nav and try to use the staff as security. We had to put some precautions into place so that wouldn’t happen again.”
When the city sweeps encampments in the area, displaced people often end up dragging their stuff to the Navigation Center. The last time that happened, 20 people “laid out on the lawn,” Williams said, until shelter staff asked them to leave.