Category: housing

“Every Community Should be Using FEMA Dollars” for Hotel-Based Shelter. So Why Isn’t Seattle?

Andreanecia Morris, executive director, HousingNOLA

By Erica C. Barnett

JustCARE, the pioneering program that has moved about 130 high-needs people off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District and into hotels, got a reprieve from King County this week that will allow it to continue operating through June. According to King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton, the county will provide $5 million for JustCARE and a smaller program run by the Public Defender Association, Co-LEAD Burien.

PDA director Lisa Daugaard says the “survival funding” from the county will allow JustCARE to “retain some of our existing rooms, and [let] us use a hotel the County has leased to replace some others.” But, she said, “the real impact of the JustCARE model is that we keep making new hotel placements for people still on the streets” in Pioneer Square and the CID. “Our ability to make new hotel placements has been paused for two months, and the current County rescue package will provide very little room to place new people.”

As one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”

Local advocates and city council members have asked the mayor to open hotels to unsheltered people who are at risk to COVID infection due to age or underlying health conditions, such as addiction, using federal FEMA dollars that are set aside for this purpose. Durkan and her budget office have responded by providing long lists of objections to the idea, and by arguing that FEMA does not pay for any kind of “services” at the hotels it does fund—only the cost of basic room and board.

As PubliCola has reported, this is not the experience of other cities that have used FEMA funding for hotel-based shelters and services; FEMA does not fund non-shelter services such as individual case management or counseling, but it does fund the costs of running a shelter, such as shelter staff. Cities across California, an early adopter of the hotel-based shelter model, have received reimbursement for the vast majority of services they provide to the thousands of formerly unsheltered people who have been staying in hotels since the pandemic began.

On Tuesday, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition held a panel discussion that provided important national perspective on Seattle’s reluctance to fund any hotels using FEMA-reimbursable dollars. From New Orleans to California, the common theme was that the process of seeking FEMA reimbursement (which was at the heart of many of Durkan’s objections) was well worth the lives that were undoubtedly saved by bringing people indoors. And, as one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Ann Oliva, a former HUD staffer who is now a fellow at the Center on Budget and Police Priorities, said that “every community should be using their FEMA dollars to support … a non-congregate sheltering approach”—and seeking additional federal money to pay for the small percentage of services that FEMA won’t pay for. “What’s important for you all to think about,” she told the local leaders and service providers on the call, “is how you can us either CARES Act [dollars] or these new resources coming thru the [American Rescue Plan Act that was announced last week to ensure that you have the money you need” to fund supportive services such as case management. Continue reading ““Every Community Should be Using FEMA Dollars” for Hotel-Based Shelter. So Why Isn’t Seattle?”

City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally

King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.

“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness. 

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The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.

Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”

A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.

The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets. Continue reading “City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program”

Durkan Focuses on Vaccination, “Reopening Downtown” in Brief State of the City Remarks

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s final State of the City speech, delivered from the Filipino Community Center in southeast Seattle, was notable more for its brevity than its content. The speech, which clocked in at just over six minutes (more than 35 minutes less than the shortest of her other three State of the City speeches) included plenty of platitudes about Seattle’s resilience and future recovery (“we have a tough road ahead, but there is hope on the horizon,” she said), but few specifics about what the city has done and will do to ensure that recovery—for small businesses, low-income residents, people experiencing homelessness, or people impacted by systemic racism.

“Never bet against Seattle,” Durkan said. “This year, we will continue to be tested but we will begin to recover and rebuild more equitably.”

Durkan gave few specifics about how she planned to make that happen in her final year, other than widespread vaccination and economic recovery downtown.

In the coming weeks,” Durkan said, “we’ll discuss and implement plans to continue progress on” climate change, public safety, and systemic racial inequity. Including the concrete steps we’ll take together to recover and reopen downtown. Including steps we will take to improve the livability and safety of downtown.”

“We’ll address public safety,” Durkan continued, “expand alternatives to policing, and have other responses.”

Durkan mentioned homelessness just twice, both times in the context of reopening downtown. “We’ll open hundreds of shelter spaces and affordable homes to bring more neighbors inside from our streets and parks so they can get stability and services,” Durkan said. Later, she added, “We will bring more people from our parks and streets into permanent supportive housing and new 24/7 spaces and tiny homes.”

As PubliCola has reported, the city’s plan to open around 300 new hotel-based shelter beds using federal COVID emergency funds has stalled over a dispute between the mayor’s office and providers about how much each bed should cost. Even if all the new shelter beds opened next week, the grants are temporary; once the money runs out, the hotels will have to close unless service providers can come up with new funding for the beds.

No neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle merited a mention in Durkan’s speech, except as future vaccination sites. Even a press release from the mayor’s office said Durkan’s speech laid out “her vision for Seattle to reopen and recover, especially downtown.” There was a time when appearing to kowtow to downtown businesses was seen as a liability, or a sign that a politician was out of touch with people outside the city’s commercial core. In a six-minute speech from a mayor who isn’t seeking reelection, it felt like the only clear sign of where she plans to focus her attention during her last 11 months.

Queen Anne Project Approval, Delayed for Years, Illustrates Issues with Seattle’s Design Review Process

By Erica C. Barnett

In a three-hour meeting Wednesday night, Seattle’s West Design Review Board approved the design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment building in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood, capping off several years of debate over virtually every element of the project, from the placement of flower pots to brick colors to the number of doorways that will open into the 50,000-square-foot urban grocery store.

The process for approving the development has dragged on for more than three years, as Queen Anne Greenways’ Mark Ostrow has meticulously documented on Twitter. Barrientos Ryan is the third developer to take a crack at the site, after community groups rejected plans by two previous developers.

Delaying the project, which will replace an outdated one-story Safeway and a large surface parking lot, has added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the cost of the project so far, an amount that accounts only for the cost of redesigns, sketches, and studies of changes suggested by the DRB. Delay typically adds significant costs to projects themselves, as the cost of labor and materials tends to go up, not down. This makes housing more expensive, and contributes to the city’s ongoing lack of affordability, as Seattle’s ongoing population growth forces renters to compete for a limited number of apartments.

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The building, which will replace an existing Safeway with a large surface parking lot, will add more than 320 new apartments to the neighborhood, including 30 that will be affordable under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation. (Barrientos Ryan will contribute another $6 million to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.) It will also include a 2,000-square-foot public plaza, outdoor seating, a mural, and four additional pedestrian entrances to mimic the appearance of many small sidewalk-facing storefronts.

At Wednesday’s public hearing and at previous meetings, neighborhood residents pleaded with the board to move forward with the project. “I have thoughts about the design elements that have just been discussed in the last 70 minutes, but I’m not going to offer them because the only thing I want is for the Design Review Board to move forward,” Queen Anne Community Council member Justin Allegro said. “Design review shouldn’t be about appeasing a few neighbors who show up but about the whole neighborhood,” another commenter, Joshua Whitney, added.

SO MUCH BRICK

Design review was not originally intended to give neighborhood residents effective veto power over every element of a project. Over the years, though, it has turned into a tortuous process, one where individual preferences for Juliet balconies or garage-style rolling windows can hold up an entire project for months or years. Design review is frequently used as a cudgel to prevent projects or impose personal preferences that aren’t really about design at all—such as mandatory parking and whether people living in apartments have air conditioning or washers and dryers in their units.

Seattle’s design review process, it’s important to know, isn’t inevitable or—as public commenter Whitney put it—”a natural law.” And we don’t have to abandon all community control over building design to prevent development from being hijacked by individual residents who oppose housing or just have strong personal opinions about design.

In Portland, design review is done by a single, seven-person commission, made up primarily of professionals with experience in design, engineering, construction, and development, along with one representative of the general public. In contrast, Seattle’s eight neighborhood design review boards have five members each, all from the neighborhoods surrounding the projects they review.

After City Rejects Expansion Plan, Hotel-Based Shelter Program Seeks Path Forward

Tents along 2nd Ave. South in Seattle. JustCARE, a shelter and case management program run by the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and several other groups, moved many from the area into hotels.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city has formally rejected a proposal by the Public Defender Association to operate a non-congregate shelter at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle, telling the PDA by email that the plan—negotiated over several months—was too expensive. (The city is in the process of finalizing a separate proposal, to operate a smaller shelter out of King’s Inn near South Lake Union, from the Chief Seattle Club).

In a four-line email to PDA director Lisa Daugaard, Seattle Homelessness Strategy and Investments division director Diane Salazar wrote, “Unfortunately, your proposed cost per room does not fit within our program or budget framework for enhanced shelter beds in hotels. …Based on your proposed program cost, which is out of synch with the per room cost we provided, we will not move forward with your proposal.”

Planning for a “shelter surge,” including 300 hotel rooms and 125 new enhanced shelter beds, began last fall, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis announced a new plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to fund hotel-based shelters for ten months. The idea is to move hundreds of people quickly from unsheltered homelessness to hotels and into housing, mostly through temporary rapid rehousing subsidies for market-rate apartments. Providers submitted responses to a Request for Qualifications for the project last year.

The rejected PDA proposal would have expanded the successful King County-funded JustCARE program. The project has moved about 130 people, most of them chronically homeless and involved in the criminal justice system, directly from encampments in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District into hotels in Seattle, where they receive behavioral health care and other services.

The program, a collaboration between the PDA,  is designed to mitigate the impacts of encampments on the two neighborhoods while “addressing the overlapping realities that, due to COVID, jail bookings need to stay low, most congregate shelters aren’t viable, and local leaders have rightly pledged to stop sweeping people camping outside from one point to the next,” Daugaard said.

The PDA’s proposal to expand JustCARE into the Executive Pacific—a hotel Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly favors because it already has a sister hotel serving as a shelter in San Francisco—would have cost around $28,000 per room, or about $11,000 more than the $17,175 maximum the city decided on late last month.

Daugaard tells PubliCola that that figure doesn’t allow the her organization to pay people “appropriate wages for this frontline work, much less “hazard pay, COVID exposure paid leave, the need for 24/7 clinical supervision, and partnering with a 24/7 safety team to deescalate issues without calling 911.”

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According to the PDA, the city asked the agency to replicate JustCARE using federal funds, not the other way around. In an email to Diane Salazar, PDA deputy director Jesse Benet wrote, I was under the impression that the City believed in the efficacy of our model and was assured many times over by your team that it was what the City wanted to buy.”

An RFQ does not require agencies to submit a budget; the aim is to solicit proposals that meet certain terms established by the city. 

Although the city said that they were rejecting the PDA’s proposal primarily because it was too expensive, the PDA is hardly the only provider that requested more money than the city’s bare-bones budget. For example, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, whose shelter at the Red Lion in Renton Sixkiller has held up as a model for the Seattle program, requested $25,500 per unit. Continue reading “After City Rejects Expansion Plan, Hotel-Based Shelter Program Seeks Path Forward”

Mayor’s Office Defends Hotel Shelter Plan as Council Pushes for Tiny Houses: UPDATED

Yep, this hotel again.

By Erica C. Barnett

UPDATE Thursday, Jan. 28, 6:30pm: The city has reportedly rejected the Public Defender Association’s plan to operate hotel rooms using the model established through its county-funded JustCare program after yesterday suggesting that the model was too expensive. The PDA’s application for the hotel-based shelter contract, which we first reported on last November, requested around $28,000 per room to pay for food, case management, and behavioral health services. That number was similar to the amount requested by another applicant for the same program, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

According to providers, the city is seeking to cap expenditures on services at $17,000 per room, or about $5 million—a little over half what the city plans to spend on rapid rehousing subsidies for hotel-based shelter clients, many of whom will likely be people with disabling physical or behavioral health conditions. This is a developing story.

On Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller assured city council members that the mayor’s office was moving forward on schedule with plans to open 300 new hotel rooms, 125 enhanced shelter beds, and new tiny house village spaces as part of a “shelter surge” proposal announced last fall.

But the details he provided, in response to council questions about issues with the program that PubliCola reported exclusively yesterday, largely confirmed that the city is at an impasse with the providers it has chosen to run its two hotel-based shelters. The issues are financial—as we reported, at least one of the two providers has informed the city that they can’t serve high-needs homeless clients for the amount the city is willing to pay—and logistical: The hotels, the Executive Pacific downtown and King’s Inn near South Lake Union, have small rooms that lack kitchenettes, microwaves, and other amenities that would make them better suited to serve as long-term living spaces.

Asked why the city budget office (which reports to the mayor) capped the total cost of services for each hotel unit so low—at $17,000 a year, although Sixkiller erroneously cited a slightly higher number—Sixkiller said that the service providers knew what they were getting into when they responded to the request for qualifications with proposals. Besides, he added, the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been running a hotel in Renton (a hotel, he hastened to add, that the city has supported financially) for less than $19,000 per bed, and that hotel serves some of the highest-need clients in the region.

“I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than [$17,000 per room], but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” — Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

“When we just look at the services column, we have been able to really zero in on what works,” Sixkiller said. “I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than that, but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” Getting more specific, he cited costs of “$100,000 a room” for another, unnamed hotel shelter provider.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda countered that one reason DESC’s costs are lower is that they aren’t able to pay staffers a living wage, resulting in high turnover. “I don’t want to use as a benchmark something that is too low due to the city outsourcing and under resourcing these services for far too long,” Mosqueda said. Mosqueda also noted that the city rejected DESC’s proposal because it was “nonresponsive,” in that it would have moved people already in shelter at Exhibition Hall to a hotel, freeing up more shelter space at Exhibition Hall.

Sixkiller’s reference was clearly to the Public Defender Association, which since last year has run a King County-funded program called JustCare that moves people from encampments to rooms in hotels around the region. The PDA’s proposal for the shelter surge program, which is one of two the city accepted (the other was from Chief Seattle Club), is for an expansion of JustCare, which includes behavioral health care and 24/7 wraparound services for its high-needs clients.

And the high figure Sixkiller cited was apparently extrapolated from just the second month of the program, when it was ramping up, hiring new staff, and moving people indoors on an emergency basis; the program includes intensive wraparound services similar to what clients would receive in permanent supportive housing, which is beyond the scope of the city’s proposed hotel program.

The PDA’s actual proposal requested around $28,000 per bed—not the “$100,000 a room” Sixkiller cited.

As it turns out, DESC submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year.

As for DESC’s purported ability to provide hotel services on a much tighter budget of around $18,000 a year (still higher than the city’s $17,000 cap? As it turns out, DESC actually submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year, right in line with what other providers such as the PDA said they needed to operate hotel-based shelters in the city.

“The thing about the Renton situation is that there are a number of costs involved with that operation that the county has picked up directly” that DESC doesn’t have to factor into its contract, such as meals and utilities, Malone said. “I’m guessing that the city is relying on… a cost profile for what we’re doing at the Red Lion that is not reflective of all the costs involved” in running the Renton shelter.

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates eight tiny-house villages around the city, also applied for the hotel contract. LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, said she never heard back from the city on that application or LIHI’s application to provide the 125 enhanced shelter beds.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, the city’s plan is to invest about twice as much—$9 million—in short-term rapid rehousing subsidies as they are on services at the hotels.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Council members asked for a progress update on tiny house villages. Sixkiller said the city added 95 tiny house units last year, and hopes to add another 120 this year, although only one site, on Sound Transit-owned land in the University District, has been identified. (Sixkiller said the mayor’s office was “doing a deep analysis” of two additional sites “that I’m not prepared to talk about right now.”) When Durkan’s became mayor, she vowed to build 1,000 new tiny houses in her first year. More than three years later, there are fewer than 300.

Andrew Lewis, the chair of the homelessness committee, rolled out a plan this week, which he’s calling “It Takes A Village,” to create up to 12 new tiny house villages citywide, using a combination of funding the council allocated for tiny houses last year (about $4 million) and another $7.2 million in private funding, some of which the city has already secured. The private dollars would pay for one-time capital costs to set up the new villages; the rest of the money, and additional ongoing funds from the city budget, would pay for operations.

Image via LIHI.

Tiny house villages provide temporary, non-congregate shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and are one of the most sought-after forms of shelter, in large part because they provide more privacy than dormitory-style shelters.

Lewis told PubliCola he hopes to use the villages to fill a gap or serve a “niche” that isn’t captured by the hotel-based shelters or enhanced shelters the city hopes to add this year. “I don’t know if I’d be leaning into them quite this hard if the situation wasn’t as bad as it is,” Lewis said. “What it really comes down to for me is, it is going to be years—it is going to be years!— until we have the types of housing options at the scale required to have a measurable impact on what we’re seeing on the street, and in the meantime we need to do something” about encampments.

Right now, just two of LIHI’s tiny house villages operate on a “harm reduction” model that allows residents who are in active addiction, but “we know that HSD wants the next few villages to be for adults and couples (no minors) operated with a harm reduction model,” Lee, from LIHI, said said. The median length of time a client stays at a LIHI village is seven and a half months, according to Lee, which is more than twice as long as the 90-day “performance minimum” the city sets for authorized encampments.

Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”

2020 In Review: Following up On the Everspring Inn, the Navigation Team, and “Digital IDs” for Homeless Residents

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of the people who were suddenly kicked out of an Aurora Avenue motel by the city, a proposal to keep track homeless system clients using fingerprints or digital IDs, or the detective who had the city’s Navigation Team haul away her personal trash, read on.

The Everspring Inn Eviction

One of the saddest and most complex stories we covered this year was a sudden mass eviction at the Everspring Inn on Aurora Ave. N—a semi-derelict motel that was home to dozens of people who were already living on the margins when the pandemic hit. The ouster was unusual among COVID-era evictions because it was instigated not by the landlord, but by the city—specifically, the Seattle Police Department, which declared the property a “chronic nuisance” after two shootings, multiple reported rapes, and ongoing drug activity.

In the days after the eviction notices (which said they had to leave “immediately,” almost certainly in violation of landlord-tenant law), tenants reported that security guards hired by the motel’s owner, Ryan Kang, had boarded up their doors and windows, locked them out of the property, and offered them as little as $100 to leave. Not all of the tenants did, and they said Kang cut off their hot water and towed their cars in retaliation.

Perversely, once a person is in any kind of housing, however tenuous, they become ineligible for many of the supports that could keep them housed.

Since then, most of the tenants have been moved temporarily to another hotel with the help of the Public Defender Association, whose LEAD and Co-LEAD programs help people engaged in low-level and subsistence crimes such as drug dealing and sex work. Although it took a while, the city of Seattle eventually gave the PDA authorization to use money left over from its 2020 contract to move the Everspring residents to another hotel and released funding so that they could enroll many ofthe residents in the LEAD program. (SPD, which was aware that many of the tenants were engaged in low-level criminal activity, had the authority to refer them to LEAD all along, but did not do so.)

It’s a common misconception that people experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness, all require expensive interventions such as permanent supportive housing, mental health treatment, or jail if they’re engaged in low-level criminal activity. In reality, many just need a place to live that they can afford with a little financial help. However, precisely because they are not disabled, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or unable to work, people in this category are generally last to receive subsidies through rapid rehousing programs, which prioritize clients with more barriers to housing, not those who can almost pay for housing on their own.

The former Everspring tenants typify a group of homeless or marginally housed people who work in the illegal economy because they can’t find legal jobs that pay enough to cover rent, Daugaard says. They’re “high-functioning but economically insecure, and many have had no alternative to the illicit economy.”

The PDA has paid for the former Everspring residents to stay in a hotel for the next several months. By pre-paying for hotel rooms, rather than providing short-term rent subsidies for “permanent” housing, LEAD ensures that its clients remain eligible for other housing subsidies and assistance that’s only available to people who are “literally homeless”; perversely, once a person is in any kind of housing, however tenuous, they become ineligible for many of the supports that could keep them housed.

But funding for the PDA’s other hotel-based programs, including Co-LEAD and JustCare, which uses federal relief dollars to move people directly from encampments (like the ones near the downtown King County Courthouse) to hotels, is running out. If the city (or county) doesn’t come up with a new funding source for these hotel-based shelters, many will have to close at the end of January. 

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Digital IDs for people experiencing homelessness

Back in 2019, PubliCola reported exclusively, Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered the Human Services Department to study biometric tracking of the city’s homeless population, using fingerprints or other unique identifiers. The idea was to create “efficiencies” in the homelessness system by making it easier for service providers (and clients themselves) to keep track of clients’ personal records, such as medical documents, IDs, and the services they access across the homeless system. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following up On the Everspring Inn, the Navigation Team, and “Digital IDs” for Homeless Residents”

2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of efforts to shelter people in some of the city’s thousands of empty hotel rooms, the closure of public restrooms during the COVID pandemic, or the delayed transition of city homelessness services to a new regional agency, read on.

City OKs Hotel Shelter

After staunchly resisting requests from advocates and service providers to fund and facilitate non-congregate shelter in hotels, the city reversed course this fall, agreeing to use federal dollars to fund a 10-month pilot program that will place several hundred people in hotel rooms. The plan, shepherded through by deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller earlier this year, is to move people through the hotel rooms and into regular apartments through short-term “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

The Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services will be the service providers at the hotels the city will soon announce it is renting as part of its 10-month hotel-to-housing program, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.

The city has not announced which nonprofit agencies will receive the contracts or which hotels they’ll be renting with federal relief dollars, but PubliCola has learned the names of the three agencies and one of the hotels. The Public Defender Association, which provides hotel rooms and case management to unsheltered people through its existing Co-LEAD and JustCares programs, and the Chief Seattle Club will provide services at the hotels, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown and at least one smaller motel.

Catholic Community Services will serve as the rapid rehousing provider, connecting shelter residents to housing in market-rate (non-subsidized) apartments by providing short-term (up to one year) housing assistance.

Restroom closures

At the beginning of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population faced an elevated risk of exposure not just to COVID-19, but to other communicable diseases such as hepatitis A, because the closure of public buildings and retail businesses greatly diminished their access to restrooms and running water. According to the city auditor, the number of public restrooms available to people experiencing homelessness was already inadequate before the pandemic.

As we documented throughout the spring, the city itself exacerbated the problem by shutting down or failing to reopen dozens of public restrooms, then claiming that they were actually open and providing a map directing people to restrooms that weren’t actually available. In our review of 27 restrooms the city claimed were open to the public at the end of March, eight were closed and locked.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Eventually, the city did reopen many of the restrooms it shut down (although most library and community center restrooms remain closed), and it slowed down the barrage of press releases touting wide availability of restrooms for unsheltered people. Restroom access after hours remains a major problem, as does access to potable water, but things are better now than they were in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.

As winter approaches, many public restrooms will be shut down again, although many that were subject to “seasonal closures” last year (those at beaches and parks that don’t get much winter traffic) will stay open. According to Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, many of the city’s park restrooms were built more than 70 years ago and have pipes that can’t withstand winter weather. Schulkin provided a list of nearly 30 parks restrooms that will be closed for the winter, including Alki Playground, Greenwood Park, Little Brook Park, and others across the city. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs”

Sinclair-Owned KOMO’s Latest Exploitation Film Ignores Causes of Homelessness—and Solutions

By Ashley Archibald

A 90-minute KOMO special, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” debuted on Dec. 13, prompting alarm among homeless advocates. The program, a sequel to the infamous (and viral) “Seattle is Dying” special, presents Seattle as a seedy den of iniquity fostered by elected officials with lenient policies toward drugs and crime.

Since 2013, KOMO has been owned by the right-leaning Sinclair media conglomerate. Much of its recent programming, including “Seattle Is Dying,” seems aimed at painting a misleading portrait of a city in chaos for a national audience primed to believe the worst about progressive West Coast cities.

“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” aims to reveal a city held hostage by a few thousand people experiencing homelessness caught in the thrall of addiction, propped up by lenient harm reduction policies, and never facing the consequences of their actions—unlike the upstanding (housed) citizens who suffer at their hands. It throws in references to the uprising against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as further evidence of social unraveling.

In reality, it is 90 minutes of tape exploiting the most vulnerable people in Seattle, shoved through a sepia filter and tailor-made to confirm the preexisting beliefs of people who wish they never had to see a poor person again.

To be clear, Seattle has issues. Homelessness and drug use are real. The human suffering on the streets cannot be swept away. But the weakness in “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” stem from the fact that it fails to grapple with root causes, instead using homelessness as a wedge issue.

Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions

“I’m going to start by saying this,” reporter Eric Johnson intones at the top of the piece. “Seattle no longer feels the need to stop anyone from doing anything for any reason at any time.” The words land over images of homeless people asleep on the ground, exposed to the elements, evidence of the city’s culture of permissiveness.

Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” which ran in March 2019, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions like affordable housing, access to mental health services, provision of appropriate shelter space and the ability to raise funds through equitable taxation.

As though housed people do not commit crimes. As though they do not suffer from addiction. As though homelessness was some kind of moral failing.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

If there is any kind of failing here, it is one of journalism.

“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” is replete with long-distance shots of people experiencing homelessness at the nadir of their lives, including some who Johnson alleges are using drugs right on camera. But there is no evidence that Johnson spoke to the people whose lives he trots out on screen as proof of Seattle’s decline. This is bad practice, but it’s also perilous. In Johnson’s previous work, “Seattle is Dying,” he included long-distance shots of a man rolling on the ground, insinuating that he was homeless.

Crosscut reporter David Kroman found Robert Champagne, who hadn’t been homeless in more than three years by the time “Seattle is Dying” aired.

And, while he insinuates that the block in front of the Morrison Hotel—site of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter—is the most dangerous area of Seattle, Johnson did not bother to contact the shelter itself.

I know this because I did.

Daniel Malone is the executive director of DESC, Seattle’s largest shelter provider. In the nine months since the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC decamped from its main shelter to the Red Lion hotel in Renton, although it still offers housing at the Morrison and behavioral health services in the vicinity.

“It’s not like we picked up and left,” Malone said.

Had KOMO contacted him for the piece, Malone said, he would have shared the stark reality. He would have explained the efforts that DESC goes through to provide help to people dealing with serious mental health challenges. He would have explained the limitations of what they are able to provide.

“But I didn’t have that opportunity,” Malone said.

Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor to Mayor Ed Murray, did.

“Let’s be super clear,” Lindsay says. “It is the drugs.”

In a follow-up interview via email, Lindsay clarified that he objects to the way that the city handles homelessness and crime. Continue reading “Sinclair-Owned KOMO’s Latest Exploitation Film Ignores Causes of Homelessness—and Solutions”