Tag: emergency shelter

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week

Seattle Center Exhibition Hall | TeenTix

By Erica C. Barnett

With freezing weather and possible snow in the forecast for the coming week, the city will make about 200 emergency beds available for single adults living unsheltered to come inside. The temporary shelters will be at two locations: The Compass Housing Alliance day center at 210 Alaskan Way S (80 beds) and Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall at 301 Mercer St (between 100 and 130 beds). There are currently no plans to open City Hall, which has historically served as severe-weather shelter, or other city locations, such as community centers or the Seattle Municipal Tower.

The emergency shelters will open at 7pm and close at 7am, despite the fact that daytime forecasts call for sub-freezing weather throughout the day from December 26 through the end of the year. A daytime warming center at the Seattle Center Armory building is currently supposed to open at 10am, and the Compass building is open to clients during the day. UPDATE December 24: The city announced that several more warming centers will be open during the day for the duration of the declared winter weather emergency; information and hours are available on the city’s website.

Otherwise, the city is encouraging people living unsheltered to go to public libraries, which are open various hours (and not at all on holidays.)

Families with children who need shelter from the cold should call the King County emergency family shelter intake line at 206-245-1026.

The city’s emergency winter shelter protocols call for emergency shelter to open whenever the forecasted temperature is 25 degrees or less for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulates on the ground, which is known as a “Phase II” winter weather event. A Phase III event—requiring “prolonged emergency response,” potentially including shelters in community centers and other city buildings—is the same as a Phase II event, plus a snow accumulation of six inches or more.

Historically, the city has opened emergency shelters before the city reaches these thresholds, which haven’t been updated for more than 20 years; last year, when PubliCola asked about the 25-degree threshold, HSD told us that changing the criteria (and thus opening emergency shelters in slightly less harsh subfreezing temperatures) would have cost implications. According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the city has two contracts for emergency shelter this year—one with Compass, and one with the Salvation Army. Each is required to offer 15 days of 24-hour shelter per year; we’ve asked HSD for more information about why each agency is only offering shelter for 12 hours a day.

In years past, the city’s temporary emergency shelters have not always filled up despite the cold. The group primarily responsible for going out to encampments and identifying people who are at risk of dying if they stay outside in freezing weather (and transporting them to city-funded shelters) is the HOPE team, a group of Human Services Department employees who offer shelter and services to people living in encampments the city is about to sweep. During a major snowstorm last February, according to Mundt, the team transported a total of 40 people to shelter.

Health One, the Seattle Fire Department team that responds to non-emergency crisis calls, won’t be mobilized until December 27 because of staffing shortages; when they do, according to SFD spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley, their job will be to “reactively and proactively respond to distribute supplies (food, hand warmers, blankets, etc.) and offer transport to severe weather shelters.” Continue reading “Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week”

Rules Aren’t Censorship, Activists Aren’t Policymakers, and Solutions to Homelessness Aren’t Cheap

1. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant learned the hard way yesterday that the standard for decorum in the state legislature is not the same as the standard in city council chambers, when state Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) cut her off during a hearing on a proposed state capital gains tax yesterday.  Frame is a cosponsor of the legislation, and the prime sponsor on a separate proposal to impose a wealth tax on the richest Washington state residents.

Legislative committees typically hold no more than one public hearing for each bill, and commenters are supposed to restrict their remarks to the legislation on the agenda during the meeting at which they’re testifying.

In her testimony, Sawant mentioned the bill number that was on the agenda before launching into testimony about wealth and income taxes in general, focusing on a theoretical preemption clause in a different bill that hasn’t even been proposed yet—a potential state payroll tax, which some advocates worry could could preempt Seattle’s own JumpStart payroll tax. After about a minute. Frame interrupted, asking Sawant to “keep your comments focused on the bill at hand, please?”

Sawant responded, “It is focused on the bill at hand” and continued reading from her speech about the payroll tax. Frame interrupted two more times as Sawant quoted from a Crosscut article about the payroll tax proposal, accused Frame of “completely suborning the Constitution,” and insisted she had a “Constitutional right” to testify on “every bill that you will talk about focusing on the wealthy and big business.” At that point, Frame cut Sawant’s mic and moved on to the next public commenter.

“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet. It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.” — Washington State Rep. Noel Frame

Sawant posted her remarks later in the day, broken up by a large pink box reading “[Censored from this point on].” The charge of censorship prompted Sawant’s fans to dogpile Frame on social media, calling her a “corporate shill” and worse. (Frame, a Bernie delegate in 2016, does not accept corporate contributions—and, again, is sponsoring measures to tax capital gains and personal wealth.)

Ironically, the city council’s own rules require that people testifying before the council limit their comments to items on the council’s agenda, a rule that admittedly tends to be more honored in the breach.

“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet, and she kept referencing wealth, and I was like, ‘The wealth tax hearing was last week,'” Frame told PubliCola. “It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.”

As for the issue of preemption: The capital gains tax proposal includes a clause explicitly stating that it does not preempt any other taxes.

2. The city opened two cold-weather shelters on Thursday in anticipation of freezing temperatures, bringing the city’s winter-shelter capacity to about 165 beds. (King County opened a men’s only shelter downtown that will serve another 25.)

Emergency shelter unquestionably saves lives, but it’s worth putting these temporary beds into context: The city lags far behind its own revised schedule to open up 300 federally-funded hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness, a plan the mayor’s office unveiled before cold weather had even set in last fall. Those 300 rooms are supposed to serve as a temporary way station for 600 or more unsheltered people, who the city plans to move swiftly into permanent supportive or market-rate housing, freeing up rooms for more unsheltered people.

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The mayor’s office and the Human Services Department have been reluctant to release any details about the hotel proposals or even confirm the locations of the hotels, which we’ve reported several times and which the city council has begun discussing openly. The city rejected the Public Defender Association’s proposal to use the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown for an expansion of its successful JustCare hotel-based shelter model because, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the PDA’s proposal was too expensive; the city is now reportedly in conversations with the Low-Income Housing Institute, which also responded to the city’s request for qualifications for hotel-based shelters last year.

So what, exactly, is the holdup? I asked Durkan this during a press conference on the winter weather shelters, and she responded by making a hard pivot back to the winter shelters and responding as if I had asked about them—an odd dodge, in my view, since the context for my question was the fact that 300 more people would be inside and warm right now if the hotel shelters had been opened according to the city’s original schedule.

In response to a followup question, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said, “the City is working to implement the shelter surge program and is in active negotiations with hotels and service providers.” (In addition to the Executive Pacific and potentially LIHI, the Chief Seattle Club plans to open a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown.) “The significant change in weather had us redirect some resources towards emergency weather response but we plan to announce our new partnerships soon.”

Neither council member backed down or gave ground when neighborhood activists tried to goad them (“I can already hear the snarky comments about how it’s called the HOPE Team because you hope they’ll do something!” one man guffawed) and both stayed on message

The delay, which was going on long before yesterday’s cold snap, likely comes down to two issues: Cost and capacity. Every provider who submitted a bid to operate a hotel-based shelter proposed a plan more expensive than the city’s original $17,000-per-bed spending cap. And every provider in the city is stretched thin, as HSD interim director Helen Howell noted in her remarks at Wednesday’s press conference— for example, the city is relying on groups that don’t ordinarily operate emergency shelters, like LIHI, to staff the winter-weather shelters. To run a successful hotel-based shelter program, agencies will either have to hire more staff (which increases) or spread themselves even thinner (which can decrease service quality.)

The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel plan would have entailed moving existing DESC clients from a congregate shelter at Seattle Center rather than taking on a whole new group of residents. The city rejected it as non-responsive because, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, it did not bring a new set of unsheltered people into the shelter system. Continue reading “Rules Aren’t Censorship, Activists Aren’t Policymakers, and Solutions to Homelessness Aren’t Cheap”

Fact-Checking the Homelessness Claims in the Mayor’s State of the City Speech

As I mentioned in my post about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s second State of the City speech, the mayor’s statements touting the city’s achievements on homelessness deserve some additional scrutiny and context. In her speech, the mayor claimed that the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018 alone. Separately, the mayor stated that the city had made “historic” investments in new enhanced shelter beds “that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have.”

Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

The mayor’s claim that the city “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing” in 2018—an increase from about 5,500 in 2017— is misleading. In fact, it overstates the likely number of actual households (or “families,” as the mayor’s office put it in a social media graphic that accompanied the speech) in two key ways. First, the number is based on data from the Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), used nationwide to track homeless people’s use of services. HMIS doesn’t track households; it tracks exits from programs. This means that Durkan is conflating the number of exits from programs with the number of families exiting homelessness.

For example: Under HMIS, every exit from a single program (say, food assistance, shelter, hygiene, or case management) counts as a single “exit.” That means a single household using three different services would count as three exits, not one. (“Household” refers to heads of households; according to King County, 77 percent of people who are homeless are in households consisting of one or two adults.) If the average household used just two services over the time they were homeless—and the city is working to get people to access more services, not less, in an effort to help people find housing faster—that would mean that Durkan would be overstating the number of exits from homelessness by 100 percent. This is a hypothetical—the city was unable to provide the actual number of families exited from homelessness—but given that the city has moved toward enhanced shelters, which allow people to access many services in one place, it seems more likely that people are simply using more services than that there are thousands of new people successfully moving through the homeless service system and into housing every single year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the city’s Human Services Department, acknowledges that the 7,400 number “doesn’t reflect the number of individuals” moving from homelessness into housing. She says the exit numbers “are really meant to show how our programs are doing overall. So from our point of view, it doesn’t matter to us if somebody uses one or two or six programs to get to housing, it matters that they get there.”

That makes sense—but it’s not the same thing as “help[ing] over 7,400 households move into permanent housing,” as Durkan put it. Olberding says that the city currently has no way to extrapolate a number of households from that figure. “This is the imperfection of the system as we have it, “she says.

The city’s own guidance on homeless service terminology flags this as an issue (emphasis added):

• Exits are captured for each project type (Prevention, Rapid Rehousing, Emergency Shelter, for example) in HMIS. One exit does not equal one household in HMIS. An exit represents an activity of a household in HMIS.

• For this reason, in the count of total exits to permanent housing, there may be duplicated households. This duplication would occur, for example, when one household uses the services of outreach, shelter, and rapid rehousing to find permanent housing and exit the system. This example would result in three exits, from three project types, for one household.

• HMIS cannot currently support de-duplicating households in the number of total exits to permanent housing.

To characterize each of those “exits” as a “household” or “family” who successfully found housing, therefore, is almost certainly to overstate the success of local programs in getting people into housing—perhaps dramatically. This kind of overstatement can have the perverse result of making it harder to win public support for initiatives to help the thousands of people currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Seattle. It isn’t a trivial matter, and it’s something the city itself has noted is a problem.

The second issue with the claim that the city has moved 7,400 families from homelessness to housing in the past year is that the number includes an unknown number of people who are already housed in permanent supportive housing, and stayed in that housing—that is, people who aren’t actually homeless. (People who are actually homeless can be moved into permanent housing through a variety of means, including diversion, prevention, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing, among others.)

The city acknowledges that their count includes people who live in permanent supportive housing and maintain their housing, but they don’t track how many. However, All Home, the agency that tracks homeless service results in King County, does. Extrapolating from the numbers on All Home’s System Performance Dashboard, which includes countywide numbers for 12 months starting in July 2017, and the group’s latest Count Us In report, which estimates that about 70 percent of King County’s homeless population lives in Seattle, it’s possible to estimate that about 3,900 households in Seattle that are counted as exiting from homelessness are in that category because they maintained their existing permanent supportive housing, not because they were homeless and became housed. Durkan took office at the end of 2017, so that extrapolation is obviously not apples to apples. But it does give a sense of how much lower the likely number of actual households moved from homelessness into housing is than the “7,400 households” the mayor claimed.

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The mayor also claimed in her speech that the city has “made investments in our 24/7 shelters that are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have” and  “delivered on an historic 25 percent expansion of our City’s shelter space – opening more than 500 new safe places in Seattle.” This statement is confusing, because it conflates a number of different programs—including enhanced shelters (24/7 low-barrier shelters that provide one-stop access to many different services), basic shelters (overnight-only shelters with minimal services) and other kinds of “safe spaces” like authorized encampments. Overall, the city did add 516 new “safe places” between 2017 and 2019. But 220 of these are brand-new basic shelter beds of the kind Durkan (accurately) derided as less effective in her speech, including 100 new overnight beds in a King County shelter at Harborview Hall, plus 80 mats in the lobby of city hall. The 516 “safe spaces” also include motel vouchers for 40 rooms (which accounts for up to 60 “beds”) and space in tiny house encampments for about 100 people. (Under federal HUD criteria, these people are technically considered unsheltered.) Overall, the city added about 366 actual shelter beds (of all kinds) between 2017 and 2018—an achievement, but one that has to be put in context. And the context is that, far from being the kind of enhanced shelter spaces that, as the mayor put it, “are moving more people out of homelessness than basic shelters ever have,” these new spaces are largely examples of the kind of shelters that have shown little success at moving people into permanent housing.

The mayor actually could have highlighted a different number—a promising sign buried in the statistics. Since 2017, the city has done a significant amount of work converting basic shelter beds to enhanced shelters—a significant and important move in the direction of spending money on what works. Here’s what numbers provided by the mayor’s office show:  In 2017, there were 1713 total shelter beds, of which 749 were enhanced—meaning that they included services, allowed people to keep their pets and possessions, and do not kick people out in the morning or require people to line up at night.  By the end of 2018 (“2019” in the chart below), there were 2079 total beds, of which 1411 were enhanced. That’s a major shift away from basic shelter to enhanced shelter—an improvement that the city should absolutely be touting as a success.

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