Category: human services

Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers

By Erica C. Barnett

Next week, the governing board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will vote on a proposed budget that would nearly double the amount of money the authority is requesting from Seattle and King County, which fund the authority.

Overall, the proposed $209 “base budget,” not counting $12 million in one-time COVID relief funds, would require the county and city, collectively, to contribute an additional $90 million to the regional authority, on top of this year’s total contribution of $119 million. The majority of the KCRHA’s existing funding—about $70 million—comes from the city through its annual budget process; the rest comes from the county.

Nearly 40 suburban cities, organized as the Sound Cities Association, receive services funded through the KCRHA and have seats on its governing board, but do not contribute any funding to the authority.

The KCRHA has not presented a detailed breakdown of its budget requests to each of its two funders yet, but if the money was divided up along similar lines as this year’s contributions, it would amount to about $54 million in additional funding from the city, for a total of more than $122 million.

At a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board, agency CEO Marc Dones said, “I agree that this is a hefty ask,” but added that even doubling the authority’s budget won’t fundamentally transform the homelessness system, given the scale of the need in King County. “We went into this saying, and maintain, this is not the transformational budget for us,” Dones said.

PubliCola asked the spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, county council budget chair Joe McDermott, and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, how realistic they considered the KCRHA’s request, given the likelihood of significant budget gaps this year. The city, for example, currently estimates next year’s budget shortfall at around $34 million, and has asked departments to come up with potential cuts of 3 to 6 percent.

The budget proposal includes tens of millions for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve a total of 130 vehicles at a time.

Harrell’s spokesman said the mayor’s office “is still in the early stages of evaluating this preliminary budget proposal. We look forward to working with the KCRHA and CEO Dones, as well as our partners at King County, to help develop a budget through a collaborative and iterative process. We will at the same time be considering our own budget needs, addressing a significant financial gap, and working to determine what investments will most effectively address the homelessness crisis.”

A spokesman for Constantine said the county executive’s office is “reviewing the draft budget and are in communication with KCRHA and our partners at the City of Seattle to discuss needs and realistic budget expectations, as well as potential opportunities for funding.”

Mosqueda said she had not seen the budget proposal yet, “but with Seattle currently funding 68 percent of the budget, it underscores that regional funders are necessary.”

McDermott did not respond to our request for comment.

Lewis, the council’s homelessness committee chair, said the size of the request demonstrates the scope of the need. “I don’t think, in and of itself, that the total number is an unreasonable amount of money to be asking for some of the stuff that they want to do,” he said. “But we’re already paying 70 percent of [the agency’s budget], and Seattle taxpayers are actually paying more, because we pay into the county’s contribution too.”

On Thursday, Dones told PubliCola that even if the authority factored in all the money suburban cities are spending on homelessness, there would still be a “substantial” need for more funding. Under its charter, the authority has no ability to raise taxes or require suburban cities to help fund it: “The limit of what we can do is, this is what is necessary. This is the price tag,” Dones said. The governing board, made up largely of elected officials, could, however, advocate for a new local or county tax to fund homelessness. “They can’t effectuate it, but they are the ones politically situated to call that question and to be the appropriate envoys of the discussion.”

The budget proposal includes tens of millions of dollars for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing for 345 people; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve up to 130 vehicles at a time.

Last year, the city council declined to fund the KCRHA’s request for the high-acuity shelter, citing a revenue shortfall and concerns that the authority had not coordinated their request with the city. Subsequently, King County expanded its shelter complex in the SoDo neighborhood, built with federal COVID relief funds, to include shelter for people with physical and behavioral health care needs. A  spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the $20 million would be for “new capacity, locations [to be determined].”

The 400 proposed new shelter and emergency housing beds represent just 20 percent of the 2,000 new shelter or housing beds Harrell vowed to add this year in the city of Seattle alone. Harrell’s office did not respond directly to a question about this discrepancy between the KCRHA’s proposal and his campaign promise.

Dones has advocated for emergency or “bridge” housing, which they recently described as “non-time limited housing-style options for people” moving from homelessness into permanent housing. The city began moving away from traditional transitional housing in the last decade, after a 2016 report by consultant Barb Poppe called the model “extraordinarily expensive” and the average time people stayed in transitional housing units “shockingly long.”

The agency’s analysis, in contrast, concluded that transitional housing had the lowest “cost per exit” of any shelter or emergency housing type KCRHA funds, and that tiny house villages—a type of shelter Dones has frequently criticized in the past—are the most expensive and have the longest average stay of any shelter type, with a 45 percent rate of exits to permanent housing.

The proposed budget increase would fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).

It’s unclear how the authority derived the “cost per exit” metric, which differs from more frequently uses measures such as average cost per client per year. (Asked for more details about the math the agency used and for the data underlying the numbers, the KCRHA spokeswoman said the number came from “Performance data from HMIS, funding data from our contracts database” and did not provide the data itself.)

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates tiny house villages throughout King County, disputes the authority’s metrics, saying their own analysis shows about 50 percent of tiny house residents exit to permanent housing, and that the cost of sheltering one person in a tiny house for one year comes out to just over $9,000. Continue reading “Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers”

Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022

Chart showing HOPE team shelter enrollment rates over timeBy 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. Continue reading “Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022”

City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps

Tents and other items on the ground during a recent encampment sweep at City Hall
The city put up signs announcing this encampment across from city hall would be removed at 6am, giving residents less than two hours’ notice.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s Human Services Department has asked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to modify its contracts with  outreach providers (including the city’s largest outreach provider, REACH) to require them to show up and offer services to unsheltered people up to the day their encampments are swept.

REACH does not have a strict policy against showing up before encampment sweeps; instead, they make decisions on a case by case basis, REACH director Chloe Gale said. In 2019, the group decided to withdraw from the Navigation Team, a group of police and city outreach workers that used to be in charge of encampment removals, because of concerns about their ability to build trust with clients while appearing to participate in sweeps.

UPDATE: On Friday, a spokeswoman for the KCHRA told PubliCola the authority “confirmed with the City that we are not making any contract modifications.”

In a message to council members, the department said that its HOPE Team—a group of city staffers that connects people whose encampments are about to be swept to beds in shelters to which the HOPE Team has exclusive access—is “often the only entity on site that’s willing to make shelter offers and connections during the posting period (i.e., the time between a site being posted and the time of the removal).”

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor “support[s] providers offering outreach and service connections to encampments before the day of removal.”

UPDATE: On Friday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said in an email to homeless service providers that “despite what you might have seen in [PubliCola’s] recent article” (the one you are currently reading), “KCRHA has not received any requests from the City of Seattle that would change our shared approach to outreach responsibilities.” The Human Services Department confirmed its request for contract changes, provided the request to PubliCola in full, and explained the intent of the request in more detail in an email, and PubliCola stands by our reporting.

REACH and other outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

In recent years, the city has largely abandoned the previous practice of providing 72 hours’ notice before it removes an encampment, a timeline that gave encampment residents time to move into shelter or relocate their tents. Instead, the city designates encampments as “obstructions,” a broad term that can be applied to any tent in any public space, and removes them with little or no advance notice.

This is not the first time the city has attempted to include a requirement to participate in sweeps in its contracts with outreach providers; former mayor Jenny Durkan made a similar attempt last year, but ultimately backed down after some nonprofits said they would refuse to sign contracts that included this stipulation.

Outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “While the funding for these contracts continues to come from the City of Seattle, the oversight of contracts, and the ability to modify those contracts, now live with KCRHA. We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

Responding to questions about the city’s request during the council’s homelessness committee meeting Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the authority had not “entered into any conversations at this point around modifying contracts with providers. What we are discussing at this point is working to support humane responses to folks that are at our prioritized encampments”—that is, encampments the city prioritizes for removal.

HSD spokeswoman Stasha Espinoza said HSD “has yet to request RHA’s assistance with making outreach available on the day of a removal, and that in for now, “HSD has asked their System Navigators”—the HOPE Team’s outreach workers—”to make offers of shelter prior to and during a removal. This includes transportation to a shelter if such services are requested.” Continue reading “City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps”

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”

Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate

1. Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation (HB 2075) that would have required the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to meet minimum service requirements by keeping their physical offices open, come up with a plan to achieve phone wait times of 30 minutes or less, and generally ensure “that clients may apply for and receive services in a reasonable and accessible manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, including but not limited to, technology, language, and ability,” according to a staff summary of the legislation. The bill passed both houses with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, adding to its sponsor, Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21) surprise at Inslee’s veto.

“I had zero idea that this [veto] was even being considered, so getting over the initial shock and confusion took at least half a day,” Peterson said.

The legislation was aimed at addressing a persistent problem at DSHS, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps: Because DSHS, unlike most other government agencies, had never reopened its physical offices, clients—many of them homeless—could only access the agency by phone, and wait times were often several hours.

DSHS secretary Jilma Meneses agreed to reopen most of the agency’s 181 physical offices in March, which eliminated much of the cost associated with the legislation; eliminating a 30-minute wait time mandate and replacing it with language saying DSHS should “strive for” 30-minute wait times made that issue a debate for a later time and reduced the bill’s short-term cost to nothing. 

“We all know a significant investment needs to be made into upgrading the systems that they use—the phone system, the ability for people to access [DSHS] online, and the in-person service, which was the crux of the bill,” Peterson said. He said he trusts that Menenses will keep her word and keep the offices open, but added that the legislation provided a guarantee that would have lasted beyond the tenure of a single DSHS secretary.

In a statement, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said, “We wish we had not had to advocate so forcefully to get the CSOs to reopen, and that the governor had not vetoed this commonsense bill. Together with our service and advocacy partners across Washington, we look forward to working with the governor, DSHS Secretary Meneses, and the legislature in 2023 to guarantee that never again will the state lock its doors on people in need of services, especially in an emergency.”

Inslee’s veto message shed little light on the reasons for his veto. “The executive branch always strives to manage state programs in the best manner possible, within the authorization and resources provided by the legislative branch,” Inslee wrote. “Identifying specific performance metrics, in particular without the necessary resources, is an overreach in our respective roles.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said the “performance metrics” Inslee referred to in his veto letter include “not only having offices open but also tracking call wait times and dropped calls with the aspirational goal of keeping that response time to 30 minutes or less. Costing that out is very difficult. … Secretary Meneses has her team working on outreach to advocates and those who access our systems to determine what the buildout should look like.”

2. Back in February, as state legislators were working on a capital budget that would include hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) proposed—and Rep. Noel Frame’s (D-36) office set up—a meeting between King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones and the 45 members of King County’s legislative delegation (not all of whom were expected to attend). Until that point, legislators had not met formally with Dones, and the KCRHA had not provided a list of legislative priorities for the 60-day session.

The meeting was set for 12:30 on February 17. At 9:40 that morning, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig sent an email to the 45-member delegation to cancel.

“As you may have read in the Seattle Times this morning, the KCRHA will be making an announcement about our plans to address unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle,” Herbig wrote. As we reported, the announcement was about private donations totaling $10 million to fund, among other things, 30 “peer navigators” in downtown Seattle.

“Because of this announcement, and how busy you all are right now with session, we are canceling today’s 12:30 meeting,” Herbig continued. “We appreciate your understanding, and look forward to opportunities to introduce ourselves and answer any questions you have about us or our work after Sine Die,” the end of the legislative session.

“I am inferring from your cancellation [that] KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”—State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in an email to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Macri, who works for the Downtown Emergency Service Coalition when the legislature isn’t in session, called the cancelation “a slap in the face” in an email response to Herbig. “Tell me why I should not read it as this—’Sorry, elected officials, we have no time for you because some billionaires are giving us a small shiny thing, which they can only do it on the one day we have a meeting with the group who collectively represents the interests of 2.3 million people from our region,'” Macri wrote.

“I am inferring from your cancellation,” Macri continued, that “KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”

In a followup email, State Sen. David Frockt (D-46) added, “Our proposed Senate capital budget has over 470m for housing and stabilization investments, so I concur with Rep. Macri it would be good to connect since I presume KCRHA and key agency partners will be seeking some of this money at some point. … [P]artnership with the key budget writers and the former speaker,” Frank Chopp (D-43), “would be helpful and will help me relate to all of my more conservative colleagues in the Senate why these investments toward King County are worthwhile.” Continue reading “Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate”

Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee at an event promoting a proposed tiny-house village in South Lake Union last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle Times published a story about state Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43) decision to allocate $2 million in state funding to the Low-Income Housing Institute to build tiny house villages. Both Chopp and LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, took issue with the piece, which suggested that Chopp (who co-founded LIHI 31 years ago, but has no financial interest in the nonprofit) had improperly used his power to take the money away from three other projects that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority had chosen through a competitive bidding process.

The story of the $2 million is both more complicated and simpler than the Times’ coverage suggested. More complicated, because the state allocated the funds for tiny house villages almost a year ago; the money was never spent because of decisions made by Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose administration gave a series of excuses for not releasing the funds before her term ended last year. And simpler, because the money is ultimately controlled by the state, which can do what they want with it—including funding LIHI directly without going through any bidding process.

Chopp says he first agreed to find $2 million to fund tiny house villages after City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, asked Chopp to help fund his “It Takes A Village” strategy—a plan to build 12 tiny house villages across the city. The 2021 state capital budget, adopted last April, dedicated the $2 million explicitly to “tiny homes (Seattle).” Last June, the council adopted—and Durkan signed—the Seattle Rescue Plan, which, among other things, allocated another $400,000 in operations funds to supplement the $2 million from the state (on top of $2.8 million from the 2021 budget that had gone unspent) to build new tiny house villages. The Durkan Administration, however, never spent the money.

“They never had the money. It was not theirs to begin with.”—State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43)

At the time, Durkan’s staff gave several reasons for declining to take action on the funding, including the fact that the city hadn’t allocated long-term funding to keep the villages for years in the future (as council members pointed out at the time, the city only budgets in one-year increments); a lack of staffing as the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division emptied out in the runup to the KCRHA taking over; and a desire to let the KCRHA’s new director, Marc Dones, implement their own shelter strategy.

Dones has made no secret of their desire to overhaul the region’s shelter system. On several occasions, Dones expressed skepticism about the tiny-house village model, suggesting that group houses or a more direct route from the street to permanent housing might be a better option. This created a sense of urgency for tiny-house proponents to get the new villages up and running by the end of 2021, before the authority took over, as well as a mistrust between LIHI and the new authority that persists to this day.

Advocates for tiny house villages were still asking the city to spend the $2 million as late as September, but gained no traction. “We were all frustrated that that money sat there for a whole year, and we kept asking the mayor’s’ office and [the Human Services Department, why aren’t you putting out a [request for proposals?]” LIHI director Sharon Lee recalled.

According to Chopp, as 2021 wound down, he called Lewis and the interim director of the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, Robin Koskey, and said “‘Time’s up. A year ago, you promised it was all ready to go, and you promised the money would be spent by the first quarter of this year,'” which ended on March 31. At that point, Chopp said, he decided to take action by writing a local community project request—a way of earmarking capital funds for specific projects—to fund the three LIHI villages. Chopp said he told Nigel Herbig, the KCRHA’s intergovernmental relations director, “Nigel, you don’t have the money” in the third week of January.

The Times reported that Chopp withdrew money that the KCRHA had in hand, a contention Chopp called “ridiculous. They never had the money,” he said. “It was not theirs to begin with.”

A KCRHA spokeswoman, Anne Martens, did not respond to detailed questions about Chopp’s conversation with Herbig, subsequent conversations between Chopp and the KCRHA, or why the authority moved forward to seek bids for the $2 million even after being told the money was going to LIHI. “[A]s you know, the RFP as awarded does fund tiny house villages,” Martens said in an email—a reference to a 25-unit project the Chief Seattle Club proposed in partnership with LIHI and a separate expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet Shelter on 15th Ave. W.

Despite Chopp’s action to earmark the $2 million for LIHI, the agency still applied for funding through the KCRHA’s process; as we reported, the authority rejected both of their applications to build and operate their own tiny house villages, saying that their proposal to build a village on City Light-owned property in South Lake Union, which Lewis supported, would require people to live in “inhumane living conditions.”

Martens said she would have to look into our question about what specific conditions were “inhumane” when we asked about this last Tuesday, and had not followed up by press time. In a previous conversation, Martens said the awards prioritized “equity” and “lived experience.” The authority, Martens said, used “competitive bidding in order to be more equitable… and that is reflective of our commitment to centering lived experience.”

Asked why she applied for KCRHA funding if she knew Chopp had already earmarked the $2 million for LIHI, Lee said she “assumed that KCRHA had chosen to backfill (add) the $2 million from other sources,” such as leftover rapid rehousing funds from the Durkan Administration’s unsuccessful effort to cycle unsheltered quickly through hotels into permanent, often market-rate, apartments.  “Why would the RHA take this information and then proceed to award the funds if they were told that the funds were not available?” Lee said. “Why wouldn’t they make another plan or find additional funding?”

“We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

KCRHA has not said how they plan to pay for the projects that won funding through its bidding process. One possibility, Martens said, is to go to the city of Seattle, which provides about 70 percent of the authority’s funding, for the money. “We are talking to the City about this whole snafu to figure out what the next steps are,” she said.

Barring a dramatic turnaround in its budget forecast, the city seems unlikely to provide the authority with additional money this year. “We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for,” city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said. “Marc and the RHA are receiving 68 percent of their funding from the city of Seattle. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”

Mosqueda called Chopp’s action to allocate the $2 million to LIHI “appropriate,” adding, “We have to be good partners with the state legislature when they trying to help with the most pressing issue in our city. You either use funding or you lose funding, and I’m glad that the  funding is being deployed so that people can continue to get access to tiny house villages, regardless of whether through RHA or directly from the state legislature.” Continue reading “Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System”

New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences

By Erica C. Barnett

In October 2020, a little more than six months into the pandemic, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority quietly changed the criteria it uses to place people in the so-called “priority pool” for housing—sometimes known as the “top 40 list.”

Instead of relying on an interviewing tool that has been widely criticized for producing racially biased outcomes, the KCRHA will use a simpler list of criteria developed in response to COVID-19 that prioritizes older people, people of color, and people with specific physical conditions, such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, that make them susceptible to COVID. The new system relies on data from local medical providers and information people self-report through the Homeless Management Information System used by most homeless service providers. Unlike other tools, it does not include factors such as mental illness or substance use disorders, which are common barriers to housing and part of the standard definition of “chronic homelessness.”

The need for a quasi-objective tool to decide who gets housing is a product of scarcity: For decades, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has far outpaced the amount of available housing for people with little or no income or who need extra support to stay housed. Today, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority estimates there are as many as 45,000 homeless people in the region. Because there isn’t enough affordable housing for all those people, the homeless system has to triage—picking and choosing who gets access to housing based on their level of “vulnerability,” a term with a shifting definition. The calculus is brutal: Without enough housing, most people will always be left out in the cold; the only question is who makes the cut.

“Only a very small slice of people who are homeless are getting help,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Not many people qualify and there’s not a lot of funding in the system for people experiencing homelessness.”

“When we do have enough housing, prioritization as we’ve known it is something that that will no longer be necessary,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said.
“But as long as there’s that scarcity, then we have to be able to identify a group of folks” to prioritize.

King County has used a number of different tools over the years to assess people’s vulnerability and prioritize them for housing—most recently (between 2016 and 2019) an interview-based assessment called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT for (sort of) short. For years, critics argued that the VI-SPDAT led to racially biased outcomes—Black people, in particular, were underrepresented compared to white people—and King County adopted new criteria that de-prioritized the VI-SPDAT, but didn’t discard it, in early 2019.

Later that same year, a study from a group called C4 Innovations confirmed that the VI-SPDAT gave white people a better shot at housing and services than Black people and other people of color, and suggested some possible reasons why: The tool asks a number of extremely personal questions about things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex work, that white people may feel more comfortable answering in the affirmative, especially if the interviewer is also white. The study also found that the VI-SPDAT asked questions about vulnerabilities that white people were more likely to have than people of color.

The new criteria do away with that by only looking at race, age, and physical health (including pregnancy)—and by foregoing in-person interviews altogether. “What is fundamentally different [with the COVID-19 criteria] is that instead of asking folks a lot of invasive, retraumatizing questions,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said, is that “the tool is based on data… so that litany of really invasive, not trauma-informed questions doesn’t have to happen.” The KCRHA gets its information from both “administrative data” taken from the Health Care for the Homeless Network and Medicaid, and from the Homeless Management Information System, a giant database used by most homeless providers that is based on self-reporting.

In the year and a half the new system has been in place, the percentage of Black heads of household prioritized for housing increased from 27 percent to 49 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 32 to 11 percent. (The percentage of Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native households that were prioritized for housing also increased slightly, while the number of Asian and multiracial households declined). The change was also striking among families with children, where the percentage of Black households increased from 33 percent to 52 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 27 to 6 percent.

But the biggest change since the KCRHA started prioritizing people for housing based on COVID vulnerability has been in the age of single adults who receive priority for housing placement. Because the COVID criteria put a premium on age—seven of eight “tiers” count age as one of a small handful of potential qualifiers, with a lower cutoff of 65—the average age of single adults who were prioritized for housing skyrocketed, from 41 to 61 years old. For a typical middle-aged person without any physical ailments that make them specifically vulnerable to COVID, the odds of getting bumped up the queue for housing are slimmer than ever.

Looked at one way, this makes perfect sense: By the time a homeless adult is 60, they are usually much “older,” biologically, because living outdoors is terrible for a person’s health. “The population of older adults who are homeless is expected to double by 2025 and triple by 2030,” Roman said, and “few are going to make it past 60. [By the time] they’re 55, they present as older and they have the problems of older people, but they’re not eligible for federal assistance to older people because they’re not old enough.”

Still, the exclusion of behavioral health conditions from the criteria is a significant shift—one that could mean some people with substance use disorders or disabling mental health conditions have to wait longer for housing. Ebrahimi, from KCRHA, says the authority may take behavioral health into consideration in the future, but notes that this information isn’t readily available through data; people have to disclose it voluntarily through the kind of interview process that the VI-SPDAT, with its biased outcomes, was based on. Continue reading “New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences”

Most City Shelter “Referrals” Don’t Lead to Shelter, Police Preemptively Barricade Encampment Against Protests, City Says It Can’t Risk Handing HOPE Team to County

Chart showing trends in outreach and service connections by Navigation Team and HOPE Team
Source: Seattle City Council central staff report

1. Fewer than half the people referred to shelter by the city’s HOPE team last year actually showed up to shelter and stayed there for at least one night, according to data released by the city’s Human Services Department during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee this week.

The city’s HOPE Team, which provides shelter referrals to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, referred 1,072 people to shelter in 2021; of those, 512 enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and slept in a shelter for at least one night within 48 hours of receiving a referral. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 beds, or a third of the shelter beds in the city.

HSD deputy director Michael Bailey told council members the department is prioritizing people in the highest-priority locations (like downtown Seattle and Woodland Park) for shelter first, along with “individuals with multiple vulnerabilities from all over.”

“As you know, we can’t overrule someone’s decision to decline shelter, but we can work with the individual to better understand their unique needs and the factors contributing to that decision,” Bailey said.

Although the number of referrals went up in 2021, that was largely 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. As a separate report from the council’s central staff notes, 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.

2. One of the persistent oddities of the city’s homelessness system is that the HOPE Team has remained at the City of Seattle, serving as a kind of vestigial arm of the disbanded Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, even as every other aspect of the homelessness system has transferred to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

At Thursday’s meeting, Bailey introduced a somewhat novel explanation for the city’s decision to retain the HOPE Team: Without control over shelter referrals, Seattle risked violating rules that govern how and when the city can remove encampments. “The city is unable to shift this liability” to the RHA by making the authority responsible for outreach in advance of city-led encampment removals, the, Bailey said.

The Multi-Department Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the city to provide 72 hours’ notice and offers of available shelter before removing an encampment, unless that encampment is an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way or poses an immediate danger to the public. For several years, the city has defined “obstruction” very broadly, allowing it to routinely skirt the 72 hour and shelter referral requirements whenever an encampment is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or on any other public property.

Following up by email in response to PubliCola’s questions, Bailey said the HOPE Team “remains a City entity because it allows the City to meet its obligation to comply with the encampment removal rules. … Specifically, the City must identify or provide alternative shelter before removing non-obstructing encampments. The City is unable to shift this obligation to the RHA, despite the contracts moving to RHA, and is thus responsible for ensuring that it has the resources necessary (i.e., the HOPE Team) to do this body of work in the event RHA or its service providers decline to assist.”

Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

3. According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the HOPE Team did offer shelter referrals to 14 people (of 18 who were on site) when it removed an encampment under I-5 in the Chinatown/International District on Thursday, although it’s unclear how many of those people actually ended up in shelter. (A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the encampment was an obstruction.)

Although the sweep was typical in certain ways—the city routinely removes people from this location, a perennial encampment site that offers some protection from wind and rain —it was noteworthy in one respect: The presence of a phalanx of bike officers, who blocked off the encampment with police tape and issued verbal warnings that any protesters who tried to enter the area could be arrested.

Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.
Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.

Prior to COVID, the city routinely stationed police outside encampments—a practice that tended to heighten tensions rather than alleviate them. Mayor Bruce Harrell appears to be reviving the practice; according to a spokesman for Harrell’s office, the city decided that “[g]iven potential protest activities, a larger SPD presence was required to ensure the safety of City workers and encampment residents” at yesterday’s removal. Stop the Sweeps Seattle posted photos of the city’s encampment removal notices on social media, but did not turn up in large numbers on Thursday.

The mayor’s office may have felt burned by a protest that temporarily halted the removal of a large encampment across the street from city hall. After a weekslong standoff with protesters, the city swept the encampment abruptly last week, barricading several blocks of downtown Seattle in an early-morning action that sparked numerous verbal confrontations between police officers and mutual aid workers who tried to enter the area.

According to Harrell’s spokesman, “The number of officers and their equipment is dependent on the circumstances of the removal and potential protest activities. Encampment removal teams have always worked in partnership with SPD, and SPD officers will continue to be onsite during removal activities.”

The city’s aggressive approach to encampments in public spaces downtown (which, technically, are almost all “obstructions” in that they occupy public space) could come into conflict with the regional homelessness authority’s recently launched “Partnership For Zero,” a plan to eliminate almost all encampments downtown through intensive case management, led by “peer navigators” who have been homeless themselves.

Sweeps scatter people and exacerbate the chaos of their lives. Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

—Erica C. Barnett

DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons

1. Proponents of a bill (HB 2075) that would force the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to offer services in person scored a victory this week, as the agency agreed to reopen almost all its community services offices—key access points, prior to the pandemic, for people seeking services ranging from food stamps to cash assistance.

Since 2020, DSHS has required people seeking services to use an online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. The department opened the community service office lobbies late last year so that people seeking services could call the department on a land line or use a computer to access its online portal, but only agreed to offer services in person again after months of pressure from advocates for low-income and homeless people.

In a letter to stakeholders last week, DSHS Community Services Division director Babs Roberts wrote, “we have heard clearly from many of you and agree that some elements of our plans will not sufficiently meet the needs of all the people we serve, particularly those experiencing the deepest impacts of poverty and homelessness. Thus, we are making changes.”

However, Roberts added, short-staffing and social distancing requirements may result in “limited waiting space and possibly long wait times in our lobbies. This moment (like so many before) will require flexibility and patience.”

As PubliCola reported in January, the closure of in-person services made it essentially impossible for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unsheltered people, to access critical services to which they are entitled, including food stamps, cash assistance, and housing subsidies.

Advocates are still pushing for the bill, which would direct DSHS to “strive to ensure” telephone wait times of no more than 30 minutes and would bar DSHS from restricting the kind of services clients can access in person. Friday is the cutoff date for the bill, which is currently in the senate rules committee, to pass out of the senate.

2. After a surprisingly contentious process, the Seattle Public Library Board unanimously appointed interim library director Tom Fay as the city’s Chief Librarian yesterday, rejecting another candidate, former Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library director Chad Helton, who resigned from his previous job amid criticism over his decision to work remotely from Los Angeles.

The vote, coming after a process that was mostly invisible to the public, shed little light on why the board chose Fay over Helton. (The two men were the only candidates that made it to the public stage of the vetting process.) During his one public interview, Helton defended his decision to run the Minnesota library system from California, saying he was just one of many people who started working from home during the pandemic. “The staff wasn’t really aware” that he lived elsewhere, Helton told the board, adding, “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary.” Fay lives in Pierce County.

As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported last week, Helton resigned from his position on February 1, after the Hennepin County Board of Supervisors passed a law, effective January 1, requiring the heads of public-facing departments like the library to live inside the state. Helton received $60,000 for “emotional damages,” plus $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, as part of a settlement.

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

3. Hours after the vote, Fay gave a presentation on library operations to the Seattle City Council’s public assets and homelessness committee. Although the presentation was mostly a high-level look at how the library spends its money, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used the opportunity to ask Fay whether the library would consider allowing social-service providers to open and operate library branches as day centers during rare weather emergencies like last year’s Christmas snowstorm, when most library branches were closed.

“Does your plan [for emergency weather operations] consider the possibility of opening as a [day] shelter only, not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter, like we do [when] we open up City Hall as a shelter?” Herbold asked. Continue reading “DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons”

Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past two years, a broad consensus emerged that non-congregate shelter—hotel rooms, tiny houses, and other kinds of physically separated spaces—was both healthier and more humane than the typical pre-pandemic congregate shelter setup, in which dozens of people sleep inches apart on cots or on the ground. When people are offered a choice between semi-congregate shelter and more private spaces, they’re far more likely to “accept” a hotel room or tiny house, and once there, they’re more likely to find housing than they would in traditional congregate shelters.

In January, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority issued a request for proposals for almost $5 million to fund new non-congregate shelter spaces. (An RFP is a preliminary step in the process of selecting and funding nonprofit service providers). The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates a dozen tiny house villages in and around Seattle, applied, as did Seattle’s JustCARE program, which offers hotel-based shelter and case management to people with complex behavioral health challenges and criminal justice involvement.

The original schedule called for the KCRHA to award the funding last month. Instead, at the end of January, the authority did something unusual: They extended the RFP by two weeks and expanded its terms to allow for-profit companies, rather than just nonprofits, to apply. The only for-profit firm that builds noncongregate shelters locally is an Everett-based company called Pallet. 

Although the KCRHA wouldn’t say whether Pallet applied for the money, the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, has frequently expressed skepticism about LIHI’s tiny house village model, arguing that people stay in tiny houses too long and that the “proliferation” of villages around King County needs to end.

Pallet might offer an alternative. The company builds “cabins” that serve a similar function to, but look and feel very different than, LIHI’s wooden shelters. If tiny houses look like scaled-down Craftsman homes, complete with sharply peaked roofs and porches, pallet shelters resemble miniature FEMA trailers—identical, white, and utilitarian. According to Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills, that’s by design. The shelters, which are made of prefabricated aluminum and composite panels, are meant to feel temporary, because shelter is supposed to be temporary.

“All our villages have some version of forward momentum” said Bills, who added that the typical stay at a Pallet shelter is between three and six months. “We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”

“We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”—Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills

On a recent sunny afternoon, Catholic Community Services program manager Jennifer Newman showed me around the pallet village at CCS’ Junction Point shelter, an expansion of a modular shelter complex that opened in 2020 as part of the effort to “de-intensify” mass shelters across the city in response to the pandemic.

The cabins, arranged in narrow rows on a barren lot facing busy Elliott Avenue West, are taller and more spacious than they appear from the road, with high windows for ventilation, a fold-out cot, and a few small shelves for personal belongings. Each row of cabins is anchored by a portable toilet, but residents can access restrooms, along with a kitchen, common areas, and showers, at the main shelter building a few yards away.

Newman said guests at the shelter, which began as a “deintensification” site for CCS’ St. Martin de Porres shelter, vastly prefer the individual shelters to cubicles in the nearby modular units.

“The advantage of a Pallet shelter, versus cubicles or congregate shelter, is just the sense of safety, and the dignity of being able to shut and lock a door is a little bit more stabilizing for folks,” Newman said. This stability, in turn, allows CCS to better assess people’s needs. Newman said CCS has “been intentional about trying to move people into the Pallet shelters who are working with case managers” to get into housing, using the shelters as “practice housing, in a way.” The bright, relatively breezy units are an obvious upgrade from the nearby cubicles, which—although more private than a mat or cot at a mass shelter site—are dark, musty, and uninviting.

Pallet shelter units cost more to build than tiny houses—the price starts at about $5,300 a unit, compared to about $4,000 for a tiny house, according to figures provided by Pallet and LIHI, respectively. King County, which owns the land where the Junction Point shelter is located, has bought 74 Pallet units, including the 20 at Junction Point and 46 for a future site on Aurora Ave. N., plus three at a shelter in Bellevue and five at Eagle Village, a group of mostly modular shelters operated by the Chief Seattle Club in SoDo.

Lua Belgarde, the site manager at Eagle Village, said Chief Seattle Club did have to ask for physical changes, which Pallet made “very quickly,” so that people in wheelchairs or on crutches could access the units and get into and out of the built-in bed, which was originally too far off the ground. The shelters also lack air conditioning, making them “hotter inside than it was outside” during last summer’s heat wave, Belgarde said.

Inside a Pallet shelter.
Inside a Pallet shelter.

Still, as at Junction Point, people at Eagle Village tend to prefer living in their own space to sleeping in a trailer in close proximity to other people, Belgarde said. Two young men who have been in Pallet units at Eagle Village for close to a year “really like the option—they say that in the trailers, the rooms are too close together, they can hear people talking, so having the tiny house option with space in between” is appealing, she said.

Pallet shelters have their critics—among them LIHI director Sharon Lee, who spent much of the pandemic seeking funds from the city to build more tiny house villages. Lee says the same “homey” qualities that Bills said can turn tiny house villages into “forever homes” are what make them one of the most popular shelter options. “Most people like to have a sense of identity with where they’re living—they can decorate it and it’s attractive,” Lee said. “We’ve also heard feedback from people, especially neighbors and community residents, that they like that they’re colorful… and of course because they look like a tiny house.” In contrast, Lee said, Pallet shelters appear “sterile-looking” and “flimsy.”

“I understand why some cities are buying pallet shelters, because they’re quick to put up, but I think it’s much better to have a higher quality of materials and living environment,” Lee said. Continue reading “Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding”