Tag: FEMA

Mayor’s Office Says Hotel Shelter “Service Costs Are NOT Eligible” for FEMA Funding; Shelter Providers, and FEMA Guidelines, Disagree

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council continued to seek clarity on why Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has not sought to fund hotel-based shelters with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which recently announced it will reimburse the cost of such shelters, with exceptions for non-shelter services such as case management, at 100 percent. (Previously, FEMA reimbursed for 75 percent of eligible costs, but President Biden increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to January 2020).

As PubliCola has reported, the City Budget Office, which answers to the mayor, sent a memo to the council late last month outlining a series of objections to funding hotel shelters using FEMA money. Most of the objections related to administrative headaches and hurdles associated with applying for funds. However, the memo also claimed that FEMA “is not paying for any services,” and that such “services” at shelters typically cost between $18,000 and $25,000 a year.

Deputy mayor Tiffany Washington reiterated this point in an email to members of the city’s volunteer commissions this week that explicitly said PubliCola’s reporting was “inaccurate and misleading.” (We stand by our reporting.) “While facility costs (the actual hotel rooms) and operations costs (like security, cleaning, and meals) are eligible, service costs are NOT eligible,” Washington wrote (emphasis hers), and reiterated the $18,000 to $25,000 figure.

Reimbursable items, according to FEMA’s guidelines, include “shelter management,” “health and safety,” “medical staff” “personal assistance service staff,” and other “support services” needed to operate a shelter. 

In fact, FEMA’s own guidelines for non-congregate shelter options during COVID lay out exactly which “shelter services” the agency covers, and they are not limited to “the actual hotel rooms” and operations costs associated with running a bare-bones hotel. (As a city council staffer put it Tuesday, “just leaving them there without any interactions and just dropping a meal off now and then” does not constitute a shelter).

Accordingly, reimbursable items, according to FEMA’s list, include “shelter management,” “health and safety,” “medical staff” “personal assistance service staff,” and other “support services” needed to operate a shelter.

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee tells PubliCola this shouldn’t be news to the city; FEMA has already paid for multiple tiny house villages and one enhanced shelter facility that LIHI opened in response to the pandemic, “and there were only a small number of items that they didn’t cover.” (This was during the period when FEMA only reimbursed 75 percent of costs.) Among the items FEMA covered, Lee said, were “office supplies, education expenses, client assistance… all operating costs, and the rest of the staff” who were not engaged in direct case management.

Case managers and behavioral health counselors also make up only a small minority of the staff that will be working at one of the hotel-based shelters that city plans to open using Emergency Solutions Grant (that is, non-FEMA) funding later this month.

According to Chief Seattle Club operations director Virgil Wade, the shelter CSC will operate at King’s Inn in Belltown will have between 10 and 13 staff, including three case managers, to “monitor and assist the clients” living in “about 60 rooms” at the 66-room facility. Consistent with LIHI’s experience operating shelters for people vulnerable to COVID infection, the majority of staff fall under the categories the FEMA guidelines define as reimbursable, assuming all other conditions are met.

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, FEMA has already paid for multiple tiny house villages and one enhanced shelter facility that LIHI opened in response to the pandemic, “and there were only a small number of items that they didn’t cover.”

Like other service providers we’ve spoken to, LIHI’s Lee said it’s unclear to her why the city hasn’t gone after more FEMA funding for these services at other kinds of shelter, such as hotels. “We’ve been urging the city and other jurisdictions to make better use of FEMA, but we do know that there’s some hesitancy,” Lee said.

Asked about FEMA”s list of reimbursable services, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas responded by reiterating that the city is seeking reimbursement for “eligible items like meals and security” at other shelters, but not “behavioral health, case management, and mental health.” This does not, unfortunately, answer the question about FEMA’s list of reimbursable services that are not on this concise but ill-defined list.

Formas added that the mayor’s office doubts that every single client being sheltered by the Public Defender Association’s JustCARE program—in the news lately because its funding from King County runs out in less than two weeks—would be considered vulnerable to COVID under FEMA’s standards for reimbursement. That’s a matter of debate on which the mayor’s office and service providers have taken different sides, with the mayor’s office using it as one of many reasons not to try for federal funds and service providers urging them to do so. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Says Hotel Shelter “Service Costs Are NOT Eligible” for FEMA Funding; Shelter Providers, and FEMA Guidelines, Disagree”

Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, PubliCola reported on a memo from Seattle’s budget director Ben Noble, who reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, outlining the reasons Seattle has not sought reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration for the cost of hotel-based shelters. The memo raised seven objections to requests that the city go after FEMA funding.

Since last year, advocates for people experiencing homelessness have implored the city to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of leasing hotel rooms and turning them into shelters for the thousands of vulnerable people living outdoors in Seattle during the COVID pandemic. The city, unlike King County, has not done so, arguing that FEMA’s standards are too stringent and the process too “onerous,” as the memo puts it.

Under the Trump administration, cities across the country, as well as King County, were guaranteed 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of hotel-based shelters, but the Biden administration increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to the beginning of 2020. The requirements for FEMA reimbursement are stringent—for example, hotel-based shelters must serve people with underlying conditions such as age, health issues such as addiction that make them vulnerable to infection, or compromised immune systems—but they are not insurmountable, and many cities (as well as the state of California) have chosen to jump through significant hoops to get the money.

Later on the same day the PubliCola story was published, two city council members, Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales, issued statements imploring the mayor to use FEMA funding to pay for hotel-based shelters.

The memo begins, “With many questions regarding FEMA reimbursements, [Office of Emergency Management director] Curry [Mayer] and I wanted to share the guidance we have received to clarify the significant challenges the City faces towards receiving any reimbursements for non-congregate shelter.”

Noting that advocates for people experiencing homelessness have been asking the city to use FEMA to fund hotel shelters for many months, Morales said, “Right now, we urgently need to expand non-congregate shelter for people who are outdoors and are especially vulnerable to COVID, and we have an opportunity to get Federal money to allow us to do it. Even if there are logistical challenges, it is incumbent upon this City to try to overcome those issues to save people who are stuck living outside and scared of dying from COVID.”

Among those logistical and administrative challenges, according to Noble’s memo: “Failure to comply with federal contracting and procurement requirements puts local jurisdictions at risk of not receiving reimbursement or not being able to use FEMA grant funds for otherwise eligible costs”; “FEMA Reimbursement Must Be Approved and Is Not Guaranteed”; and “FEMA Assistance Currently Ends in September 2021.”

Noble’s memo also claims flatly that “FEMA is not paying for any services” involved with providing shelter in hotels, a claim mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower reiterated in an email after PubliCola’s story ran. “I think you’re aware that FEMA is in fact not paying for services within hotels, which are a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” she wrote.

Homeless service and shelter providers have strongly disputed this claim, saying that the federal government has not said that it won’t pay for any services whatsoever, just “support services” above and beyond the cost of leasing and operating 24/7 shelters for COVID-vulnerable people in hotels. (In any case, the cost of services in hotels is actually a fraction of the cost to rent the hotels themselves, as agencies’ prospective contracts for providing hotel-based shelter and PubliCola’s reporting on comparative costs make clear).

Is it possible that, more than a year into the pandemic, the mayor’s office could have a change of heart and decide that they do want to stand up new hotels using FEMA funds after laying out all the reasons doing so is infeasible in a detailed seven-point memo? Sure, in the same way that it is possible the mayor could decide to defund the police after spending most of the last year raising similarly couched objections to that idea.

Homeless advocates also point out that FEMA’s guidelines detailing what the federal agency does and does not cover are brief and ambiguous, saying only that “[e]ligible costs related to sheltering should be necessary based on the type of shelter, the specific needs of those sheltered, and determined necessary to protect public health and safety and in accordance with guidance provided by appropriate health officials.” Anything that goes beyond what’s needed to meet the “specific needs” of people living in hotel shelters—services such “case management, mental health counseling, and others”—will not be covered. Which services are covered and which services aren’t, advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue, is not clearly defined nor a foregone conclusion.

Whether FEMA decides to cover the cost of some services, all services, or no services at all, the combined cost of all services related to hotel-based shelters is a small fraction of the overall price tag; the monthly rent on the hotels alone, which is unambiguously reimbursable, is significantly more costly than the price tag for live-in staff, assistance with things like IDs and housing, and other services to help stabilize people so they will stay in the hotels. (In an email, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower told PubliCola that services make up “a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” but the opposite is true.)

After PubliCola’s story ran, Mayor Durkan’s office got in touch to tell us that they felt the story was inaccurate and to demand several corrections.

First, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas said, the city is seeking FEMA funding—for tiny house villages and “eligible activities” at hotel-based shelters—and is using federal funds to pay for the two hotel shelters it plans to open late next month. “[I]t is unfortunate for reporters, advocates, service providers, or ‘people’ to takeaway that the City is not ‘asking for FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter.’ We are,” Formas wrote. “In fact, City Council approved a budget that deliberately spent federal funds on hotels through [Emergency Solutions Grant, a separate COVID-related federal program] and asked for reimbursements for tiny home villages and every other possible homeless service.”

“[W]e have only sought FEMA reimbursement on tiny home villages and meals because the hotels are already federally funded (and not eligible) but your story and my concerns are that you are stating as a fact the future of these funds without talking to CBO or the Mayor’s Office,” Formas continued.

PubliCola did not report that the city was not spending Emergency Solutions Grant funds on hotels, or that the city did not seek reimbursements from FEMA for tiny house villages and other purposes. Rather, we reported that the city has not sought FEMA funding for hotel rooms and reimbursable costs related to those rooms, and has provided a detailed explanation of the reasons why. Pivoting to tiny house villages and “every other possible homeless service”—and referring to an entirely different federal program that the mayor’s office also resisted using to lease hotels— obfuscates the fact that the city has consistently chosen not to seek FEMA funding for hotels, a decision for which Noble’s memo provides retroactive and ongoing justification.

Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office.

As the memo makes clear, the city considers the cost of hotels to be either ineligible for FEMA reimbursement or too administratively challenging to pursue, so when the mayor’s office says they will seek funding for “FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter,” they are referring to items that they consider within the scope of FEMA reimbursement, such as tiny houses and meals. The federal funds it is using for the two shelters it announced last year are existing funds that the city has in hand from a different COVID-related federal program, the Emergency Solutions Grant.

As for the claim that PubliCola never talked to the budget office or the mayor’s office, in fact, we reached out to the budget office and mayor’s office for this story. The mayor’s office responded to both inquiries, stepping in on the budget office’s behalf. Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels”

Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter

By Erica C. Barnett

As funding runs out for JustCARE, a program that has moved more than 100 very high-needs people from tent encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels where they receive case management and services, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has made it clear that it considers one source of funding off the table: Money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which recently announced it would pay 100 percent of the cost for eligible hotel-based shelters.

“While we appreciate the work of President Biden’s administration,” city budget director Ben Noble and Office of Emergency Management director Curry Mayer wrote in a memo to council members this week, “there continues to be no option to receive 100% reimbursement of the operation and services of non-congregate shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness in King County or Washington.” In other words: The city is grateful that the new administration is offering to pay for hotels; they just don’t consider it a viable option for Seattle.

Advocates for JustCARE, which serves unsheltered people with disabling behavioral health conditions, have been arguing for months that the city should seek FEMA reimbursement for the program, whose funding from King County runs out March 15. Without funding, the program will need to “exit” 124 substance-addicted people, most of them with disabling mental health conditions, onto city streets, at a time when both homeless advocates and business boosters agree that there are an unacceptable number of tents on sidewalks and in parks around the city. 

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met.”—Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The program, which is a partnership between the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, REACH, and the Chief Seattle Club, among other groups, provides non-congregate shelter options now that the COVID pandemic has reduced capacity in congregate shelters.

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met” and going back onto downtown streets, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the center city, said earlier this week.

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

Under the Trump Administration, FEMA reimbursed jurisdictions 75 percent of the cost of COVID-related expenditures, including shelter; once President Biden took office, however, that number increased to 100 percent, retroactive to January 2020, prompting cities across the country to take advantage of the new, more generous reimbursement opportunity. Shelter advocates were urging the city to fund shelter now and seek reimbursement later even when the feds were only funding 75 percent of the cost; It’s critical, they argue, not to leave any resources on the table.

“It seems clear the Biden administration is sending a signal to use FEMA; if we qualify, we just have to do the work and go through the steps,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “We are willing.”

Other cities began renting hotels on the presumption of future reimbursement shortly after the pandemic began. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have used FEMA dollars to pay for thousands of hotel rooms funded through Project Roomkey, California’s effort to bring people experiencing homelessness indoors. When the Biden administration announced the costs for efforts like Project Roomkey would be completely reimbursed by FEMA, local officials in LA called it “manna from heaven.” Continue reading “Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter”

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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

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

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

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

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