Feds Come to Seattle to Set Up “Command Center” for Downtown Homelessness

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By Erica C. Barnett

Contractors with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened at the city’s Emergency Operations Center last week to begin setting up a formal “housing command center” for addressing homelessness in downtown Seattle, PubliCola has learned. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority requested HUD’s help setting up the command center, which agency CEO Marc Dones touted during the announcement of a public-private partnership called “Partnership for Zero” earlier this year.

HUD, which funds housing through housing vouchers and other programs, has been meeting quietly with officials from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, and officials from the city’s Human Services Department over the past two weeks. The goal, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, is to set up a “incident response system” plan for homelessness, treating it like an emergent crisis rather than a perpetual, unchanging problem.

“We’ve heard from our neighbors that we need to treat this emergency like an emergency, so that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Martens said.

The difference isn’t just semantic. “An incident command system is a management structure that can really be used to organize any big event,” from planning a wedding to planning for emergency shelter during heat and smoke, Curry Mayer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, explained. In practice, this means setting up several teams to deal with operations, logistics, planning, and administration, all reporting to a command team that runs the show and gets information out to the public and press.

“We are taking best practices learned from years of emergency housing response during disasters like hurricanes and other major displacements, and applying those proven practices to help people experiencing homelessness move inside,” Martens said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office said that although the technical assistance does not come with any new funding for housing or services, it “helps communities apply the lessons learned from other communities, including those that used a similar structure to assist people experiencing homelessness following major disasters. The duration of the technical assistance will depend on the circumstances on the ground, but it will likely last a few months.”

The team is already meeting daily to share updates on each team’s progress and challenges, the same way local agencies meet daily during short-term emergencies, like the snowstorm that shut down transportation around the city last year and left thousands of unsheltered people out in subfreezing temperatures for days.

This approach is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to homelessness, which is divided into silos such as encampment removals, emergency response, shelters, and housing. The logistics team, for example, might be in charge of figuring out ways to make permanent housing accessible more quickly, such as waiving eligibility requirements (HUD rules currently require a person to be homeless for at least a year before they’re eligible for a voucher, for example) or offering incentives to landlords to move people into apartments quickly.

“This effort will further improve coordination and speed up action, with permanent housing as the top priority,” Martens said.

Although the command center doesn’t come with additional funds for housing, multiple people familiar with the effort expressed hope that it could open the door to additional HUD funds in the future. In 2020, a McKinsey report estimated that it would cost as much as $1 billion a year to fully address homelessness in King County—more than eight times the KCRHA’s current annual budget. Mayor Bruce Harrell—whose office directed questions to the KCRHA—has indicated that he has little interest in contributing tens of millions more to the KCRHA’s budget, as the authority has requested.

The Office of Emergency Management won’t be directly participating in the command center’s operations, but they will provide meeting space and a press room for regular briefings. Because the EOC’s operations are sensitive, the question of access has been the subject of some internal debate. The building where the KCRHA is located, a former jail that also houses the county’s sobering center, and the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, were both reportedly considered but rejected in favor of the high-tech, visually appealing emergency hub.

19 thoughts on “Feds Come to Seattle to Set Up “Command Center” for Downtown Homelessness”

    1. Your spin doesn’t work well when you lack reading comprehension. The data is in the actual report, not the spin on the report.

      The link is to Crosscut, BTW.

      1. Yes, but if you read the Crosscut story you’d see it references the Times. The actual rate of homeless drug abuse in Seattle is generally agreed to be around 35 percent. And again, the drugs of choice in that 35 percent are predominantly cannabis and alcohol.

  1. Tacomee, are you honestly supporting setting up internment camps for the homeless? The 1940s just called. They want their heartless ideas back.

    1. Ah, FEMA is in town. They’re the folks who build “internment camps”, so yes, I’m guessing tents and barricade fencing.

      Mayor Bruce is done fucking around. He’s planning a hard shift to Middle Right at City Hall. So round up the Homeless!!
      Have no fear, FEMA is here!

      City elections are coming up and the Mayor needs protests against him…. and the collateral damage Seattle protests alway create…. so he can stand in middle of broken glass with business owners and say…. ENOUGH!!! (as law and order candidates win City Council)

      Of the like 13? people reading this… who’s side are you on? and can the Mayor play you like a banjo to get his. reforms through?

      1. Barricade fencing is designed to keep people inside a certain area, or others out. If it is the former, then yes it is an internment camp. The homeless would be being confined, effectively prisoners. That is what internment means, after all.

        I don’t think Harrell wants to create protests against him at all. I think that would work against him in any election. He’s already said “Enough!”, and if that hasn’t worked already it undermines his message.

        I am on the side of getting our homeless crisis managed successfully. Housing provides people with the stability needed to get jobs and treatment. It is hard to improve one’s position when one is living on the street. That goes for occupations as well as treatment for whatever ails one. That’s why housing first works. It relieves stress so that one has the mental cycles necessary to become more productive, however that looks.

        And the mayor cannot play me like a banjo. His reforms are more of the same from Durkan, only worse. He gets zero love from me.

    2. I’m going on Two years housed after decades of drug Addiction and homelessness it takes the will to be sober ongoing participation in therapy and being a good law abiding citizen and use the tools given to Start over

    3. Here’s an idea, ban the faceless corporations from buying up housing, a basic human necessity and right, for the sole purpose of building portfolios. Somewhere we lost touch with community and instead turned a very basic human need into a commodity.
      Throwing millions of dollars at a problem we as a society created, for a few months, once a year is not only a foolish waste of resources it’s insanity. The problem will not “go away” until you address the source.

    1. A minority of Seattle’s homeless are drug addicts and/or suffering from mental health issues. Of those that are, the drugs of choice are alcohol/cannabis and the mental health issue PTSD from being homeless. Housing first, housing always is the answer. Drug treatment and mental health programs detract from that simple truth.

      1. Housing first is a simple truth? How about some simple math. Nobody is going to pay the billions that would cost.The mayor says it’s to set up a FEMA camp, army tents, ports potties surrounded by fencing topped with barbed wire. Lock ’em up and lock ’em up cheap! There won’t be much of an outcry for Seattle either. Outta sight, outta mind.

      2. That is a patently false statement. The data in the annual One Night Count shows that a majority SELF IDENTIFY as having an addiction. A super majority SELF IDENTIFY as having mental illness. Some organizations, including Union Gospel Mission, report that nearly 90% of the chronically long term homeless in Seattle are addicts. Until people can honestly talk about and accept facts about addiction and mental illness (which are often intertwined, as people in trauma self-medicate), we will not make progress. So stop lying, A Joy.

  2. So, another show, more meetings of earnest people talking about it…nothing new here. Not holding my breath for any results, beyond, of course, a call for more taxes.

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