By Erica C. Barnett
The city’s plan to use federal COVID dollars to move unsheltered people to hotels, then housing, has hit a serious snag—several, actually—that could put the centerpiece of the city’s planned 2021 “shelter surge” in jeopardy.
Last year, after a bruising budget season, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a $34 million plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant (COVID) grant dollars to create hundreds of new shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness, including 125 new enhanced shelter beds in traditional congregate settings and 300 hotel rooms that would be repurposed as noncongregate shelter.
According to a request for qualifications for the funding, the grant money is supposed to pay for programs that “assist those experiencing homelessness in finding safe alternatives through investment in shelters/hotels that result in permanent housing through Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing.” The idea is that homeless service providers will move hundreds of people out of encampments and into hotels, from which they’ll emerge on one of two tracks: Permanent supportive housing (for those who require comprehensive, 24/7 support) or market-rate apartments (for everyone else.)
The surge was also supposed to include 125 new 24/7 congregate shelter beds. So far, the city has only granted funding for the hotel-based shelters, and it’s unclear whether any agencies applied for the additional shelter funding.
The hotels were supposed to be up and running “beginning in December 2020.” None have opened, and a number of serious issues remain unresolved. The first is a $17,000-per-unit spending cap, established by the city budget office, which will limit what services and amenities are available to clients staying in the rooms. (The city is paying for the rooms themselves separately using the federal ESG funds.) The mayor’s office has said they expect the hotel units to turn over as people move rapidly through the hotel rooms and on to permanent housing, so the $17,000 cap is for each unit, not each client.
From that money—a total of around $5 million, assuming the city eventually opens all 300 rooms—the service providers must pay for food, supplies, janitorial services, security, protective equipment, and salaries for the onsite case managers who will be charged with setting clients up for success in housing. So far, the city has offered contracts to two providers, Chief Seattle Club and the Public Defender Association, to run the hotels. The agencies have reportedly balked at this spending cap, which could make it difficult to provide the kind of high-touch services necessary to deal with the complex behavioral health issues, including addiction, that are common among people living unsheltered, especially those who are chronically homeless.
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Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said a typical enhanced shelter or tiny house village unit costs between $16,000 and $22,000 a year. “We are in active contract negotiations with multiple providers to operate new hotel shelter units,” Lemke said in a statement. “As expected, each provider has a different proposed approach and we are working through those details now. …Program approach and associated costs are key drivers.”
The city has set aside almost twice as much money, $9 million, for the rapid rehousing component of the program, which it has dubbed “Street to Housing.” The city has picked Catholic Community Services as its rapid rehousing provider, in addition to the Chief Seattle Club’s own rapid rehousing program. The city plans to use those funds to move 231 single hotel shelter clients into market-rate apartments and subsidize their rent for up to 12 months. As PubliCola has reported, the premise behind rapid rehousing programs is that many, perhaps most, people experiencing homelessness need only minimal assistance, including rent subsidies and financial counseling, to afford an apartment.
The people who provide rapid rehousing tend to disagree with this optimistic assessment. They say the clients who do best in rapid rehousing are the ones who have just become homeless, who are already employed or recently lost a job, and who don’t require intensive case management or other services, such as mental health or addiction treatment. People with addiction, untreated mental illness, or other temporarily disabling conditions often need more than a short-term financial boost, but don’t require the comprehensive, long-term services offered in permanent supportive housing programs. There simply aren’t many programs for people who fall into that gap.
Another issue with the hotels the city has chosen is that the rooms are not set up for long-term residents. Neither of the two hotels the city is currently considering—King’s Inn, a block away from Amazon headquarters, and the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown—offers in-room kitchenettes or microwaves, meaning that the providers will have to either purchase microwaves so people can heat up food they bring in (impossible in the case of the Executive Pacific, whose wiring is apparently too old to withstand microwaves in every room) or pay for catering at significant expense.
Additionally, the Executive Pacific is in the middle of downtown, and offers no common area for residents to gather, making it likely that they will congregate outside and contribute to the sense of “disorder” that causes business groups and law-and-order activists to call for crackdowns. Both hotels are clearly better than nothing, but they need to be places people want to stay. It’s unclear the city is setting either up for success.
Ultimately, the question the city has to consider is this: What is the point of these new shelters, and is a program that skimps on direct services while investing lavishly in a market-based solution likely to lead to that result?
If the point is to simply create the appearance of responding to the homelessness crisis during a global emergency that—like Durkan’s term— will have largely ended by the time the grant runs out, then limited-service shelters that spit chronically homeless people into the private market may do the trick. But if the goal is to actually move people facing complex, persistent challenges into housing where they will thrive, it will take more than a single “shelter surge,” and very likely more than a few thousand dollars a person, to get there.
The mayor’s office will provide a “Status Update on 2021 Homelessness Investments” at the city council’s Homelessness Strategies and Investments meeting today, Wednesday, at 2pm.