Tag: hotel shelter

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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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”

D.C. Protest Cops Sue for Secrecy, Questions About “Shelter Surge,” and Concerns About Police Contract

Seattle Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

1. Six Seattle Police Department officers who were in Washington, DC on January 6 for the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol building have sued the Seattle Police Department and four individuals who filed public records requests with the department to prevent the department from disclosing their names. The six officers are currently under investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for their potential involvement in the attack on the Capitol.

According the complaint, which the officers filed in King County Superior Court on Tuesday, the six are seeking a temporary restraining order that would stop SPD from releasing their names and unredacted personnel files. SPD and the OPA will release their names and unredacted personnel files to the public unless they receive a temporary restraining order by February 25, the officers noted in the complaint.

“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit claims that the officers will be “targeted, harassed, subjected to violent acts or sustain other irreparable harm” if their names are made public, particularly while the OPA investigations are still ongoing.

“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says. “Just as it would be anathema for a public employer to require its employees to disclose who they voted for in any particular election, and then disclosure that information to members of the public.”

The complaint says the officers did not take part in the Capitol attack, and that if their names come out, the officers will be “painted as ‘criminals’ or ‘extremists’ solely by virtue of their constitutionally-protected attendance at a political speech and rally.” It also argues that releasing the officers’ names may violate state law, which prohibits government agencies from disclosing records connected to ongoing investigations into violations of federal, state or local laws.

If the officers receive a temporary restraining order from the court, they will then seek a permanent injunction preventing SPD from disclosing their names in the future.

2. During a wide-ranging briefing about the hotel-based shelters Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller fielded questions from the council about the scope of the program, who it will serve, and why the mayor’s office seems so attached to partnering with a specific hotel in downtown Seattle, the Executive Pacific Hotel. The city fully rented the same hotel at the beginning of the pandemic for first responders and, when first responders didn’t use the rooms, for nurses and other essential workers. The hotel remained almost entirely vacant for the duration of the lease, which cost the city about $4 million.

Not all of these rooms will be used as shelter.

As we reported earlier this week, the announcement confirms PubliCola’s previous reporting that Chief Seattle Club will operate a shelter and rapid rehousing program out of King’s Inn in Belltown, and LIHI and Chief Seattle Club will run a similar program out of the Executive Pacific.

Although Sixkiller echoed Durkan’s announcement that the two hotels will provide 220 rooms for people experiencing homelessness, the actual number is closer to 200, because some of the rooms at both hotels will be used for case management, live-in staff, and other purposes. That’s about 100 less than the 300 hotel rooms the city announced it would provide last October, when the estimate for the hotels to open was no later than January. The city now says both hotels will open sometime in March, more than a year after the mayor declared a COVID-19 state of emergency.

“Our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”—Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

The mayor’s office has referred to the hotels as a yearlong program, but the plan includes a total of at least two months to ramp up and ramp down the programs, so the planned duration of the actual shelters is more like nine to ten months. 

The program has changed in other ways. Although the budget action appropriating city funds for the “shelter surge” explicitly said the hotel program would serve people with the greatest service needs—who happen to be the group causing the greatest “disorder” in areas like downtown and Pioneer Square—LIHI plans to serve people who can more easily transition into the rapid rehousing program that is also a key component of the mayor’s plan.

Councilmember Dan Strauss asked Sixkiller whether the program would also help “high-acuity” clients, as the deputy mayor said it would as recently as last December, when Sixkiller brought advocates from the Public Defender Association and REACH, two groups that serve high-needs unsheltered people, along with him to the council’s homelessness committee to promote the program.

“[With] all of our shelter units, we are trying to pair individuals with the housing that best meets their needs and the services that they need to be successful in making that transition from being outside and into housing and on the journey, hopefully, into permanent housing,” Sixkiller told the council yesterday, “so our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”

LIHI has indicated that at least some of the people who will move into the Executive Pacific will come from other LIHI programs; Chief Seattle Club did not return a call seeking more information about their program. Referrals will go “through” the new HOPE Team, which replaced the Navigation Team, but the exact details of how that will work and how the agencies will identify hotel clients are vague; the HOPE team does not actually do outreach, but coordinates referrals from their offices.

Sixkiller would not get into the cost of each hotel room, saying that was proprietary information until the city had inked the contracts. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that if the city spends all of the available money on these two hotels, the cost will work out to about $28,000 a bed, or around the same amount as the expansion of the JustCARE program the city rejected as too expensive.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked Sixkiller whether the “125 new shelter beds” the mayor announced this week were actually new. The two new tiny house villages were actually council additions to the mayor’s budget last year, and the WHEEL shelter opened earlier this month after the organization spent months pressuring the mayor’s office to allow them to open a nighttime shelter in City Hall, a plan the mayor’s office rejected. Sixkiller responded that he could get back to her about the “color of money” funding each part of the “surge,” prompting Herbold to respond, “This isn’t merely an academic exercise” about “the color of money” but a question of how many actually new beds will be available.

3. The Community Police Commission voted on Tuesday to approve a list of recommendations for Seattle’s upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the largest of the city’s police unions. The recommendations address both the transparency of the city’s bargaining process and the city’s priorities during bargaining.

The commission generally agreed on the transparency proposals, which included a recommendation to require the city to make public the membership of its negotiating team, its bargaining priorities, and any concessions it makes during negotiations. Commissioners also broadly supported a recommendation that negotiators try to remove the parts of the SPOG contract that allow the agreement to supersede city law; Officer Mark Mullens, the only SPD officer on the commission, was the only member to oppose that proposal.

Continue reading “D.C. Protest Cops Sue for Secrecy, Questions About “Shelter Surge,” and Concerns About Police Contract”

City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally

King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.

“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness. 

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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.

The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.

Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”

A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.

The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets. Continue reading “City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program”

Mayor’s Office Defends Hotel Shelter Plan as Council Pushes for Tiny Houses: UPDATED

Yep, this hotel again.

By Erica C. Barnett

UPDATE Thursday, Jan. 28, 6:30pm: The city has reportedly rejected the Public Defender Association’s plan to operate hotel rooms using the model established through its county-funded JustCare program after yesterday suggesting that the model was too expensive. The PDA’s application for the hotel-based shelter contract, which we first reported on last November, requested around $28,000 per room to pay for food, case management, and behavioral health services. That number was similar to the amount requested by another applicant for the same program, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

According to providers, the city is seeking to cap expenditures on services at $17,000 per room, or about $5 million—a little over half what the city plans to spend on rapid rehousing subsidies for hotel-based shelter clients, many of whom will likely be people with disabling physical or behavioral health conditions. This is a developing story.

On Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller assured city council members that the mayor’s office was moving forward on schedule with plans to open 300 new hotel rooms, 125 enhanced shelter beds, and new tiny house village spaces as part of a “shelter surge” proposal announced last fall.

But the details he provided, in response to council questions about issues with the program that PubliCola reported exclusively yesterday, largely confirmed that the city is at an impasse with the providers it has chosen to run its two hotel-based shelters. The issues are financial—as we reported, at least one of the two providers has informed the city that they can’t serve high-needs homeless clients for the amount the city is willing to pay—and logistical: The hotels, the Executive Pacific downtown and King’s Inn near South Lake Union, have small rooms that lack kitchenettes, microwaves, and other amenities that would make them better suited to serve as long-term living spaces.

Asked why the city budget office (which reports to the mayor) capped the total cost of services for each hotel unit so low—at $17,000 a year, although Sixkiller erroneously cited a slightly higher number—Sixkiller said that the service providers knew what they were getting into when they responded to the request for qualifications with proposals. Besides, he added, the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been running a hotel in Renton (a hotel, he hastened to add, that the city has supported financially) for less than $19,000 per bed, and that hotel serves some of the highest-need clients in the region.

“I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than [$17,000 per room], but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” — Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

“When we just look at the services column, we have been able to really zero in on what works,” Sixkiller said. “I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than that, but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” Getting more specific, he cited costs of “$100,000 a room” for another, unnamed hotel shelter provider.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda countered that one reason DESC’s costs are lower is that they aren’t able to pay staffers a living wage, resulting in high turnover. “I don’t want to use as a benchmark something that is too low due to the city outsourcing and under resourcing these services for far too long,” Mosqueda said. Mosqueda also noted that the city rejected DESC’s proposal because it was “nonresponsive,” in that it would have moved people already in shelter at Exhibition Hall to a hotel, freeing up more shelter space at Exhibition Hall.

Sixkiller’s reference was clearly to the Public Defender Association, which since last year has run a King County-funded program called JustCare that moves people from encampments to rooms in hotels around the region. The PDA’s proposal for the shelter surge program, which is one of two the city accepted (the other was from Chief Seattle Club), is for an expansion of JustCare, which includes behavioral health care and 24/7 wraparound services for its high-needs clients.

And the high figure Sixkiller cited was apparently extrapolated from just the second month of the program, when it was ramping up, hiring new staff, and moving people indoors on an emergency basis; the program includes intensive wraparound services similar to what clients would receive in permanent supportive housing, which is beyond the scope of the city’s proposed hotel program.

The PDA’s actual proposal requested around $28,000 per bed—not the “$100,000 a room” Sixkiller cited.

As it turns out, DESC submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year.

As for DESC’s purported ability to provide hotel services on a much tighter budget of around $18,000 a year (still higher than the city’s $17,000 cap? As it turns out, DESC actually submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year, right in line with what other providers such as the PDA said they needed to operate hotel-based shelters in the city.

“The thing about the Renton situation is that there are a number of costs involved with that operation that the county has picked up directly” that DESC doesn’t have to factor into its contract, such as meals and utilities, Malone said. “I’m guessing that the city is relying on… a cost profile for what we’re doing at the Red Lion that is not reflective of all the costs involved” in running the Renton shelter.

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates eight tiny-house villages around the city, also applied for the hotel contract. LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, said she never heard back from the city on that application or LIHI’s application to provide the 125 enhanced shelter beds.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, the city’s plan is to invest about twice as much—$9 million—in short-term rapid rehousing subsidies as they are on services at the hotels.

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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.

Council members asked for a progress update on tiny house villages. Sixkiller said the city added 95 tiny house units last year, and hopes to add another 120 this year, although only one site, on Sound Transit-owned land in the University District, has been identified. (Sixkiller said the mayor’s office was “doing a deep analysis” of two additional sites “that I’m not prepared to talk about right now.”) When Durkan’s became mayor, she vowed to build 1,000 new tiny houses in her first year. More than three years later, there are fewer than 300.

Andrew Lewis, the chair of the homelessness committee, rolled out a plan this week, which he’s calling “It Takes A Village,” to create up to 12 new tiny house villages citywide, using a combination of funding the council allocated for tiny houses last year (about $4 million) and another $7.2 million in private funding, some of which the city has already secured. The private dollars would pay for one-time capital costs to set up the new villages; the rest of the money, and additional ongoing funds from the city budget, would pay for operations.

Image via LIHI.

Tiny house villages provide temporary, non-congregate shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and are one of the most sought-after forms of shelter, in large part because they provide more privacy than dormitory-style shelters.

Lewis told PubliCola he hopes to use the villages to fill a gap or serve a “niche” that isn’t captured by the hotel-based shelters or enhanced shelters the city hopes to add this year. “I don’t know if I’d be leaning into them quite this hard if the situation wasn’t as bad as it is,” Lewis said. “What it really comes down to for me is, it is going to be years—it is going to be years!— until we have the types of housing options at the scale required to have a measurable impact on what we’re seeing on the street, and in the meantime we need to do something” about encampments.

Right now, just two of LIHI’s tiny house villages operate on a “harm reduction” model that allows residents who are in active addiction, but “we know that HSD wants the next few villages to be for adults and couples (no minors) operated with a harm reduction model,” Lee, from LIHI, said said. The median length of time a client stays at a LIHI village is seven and a half months, according to Lee, which is more than twice as long as the 90-day “performance minimum” the city sets for authorized encampments.

City’s Hotel-Based “Shelter Surge” in Jeopardy Over Financial, Logistical Concerns

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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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.

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.

Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

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City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”