Tag: emergency shelter

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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