Tag: hotel shelters

Fizz: Burgess Previews Encampment Initiative, Nguyen Mulls Bid for County Exec, and “Opening the Door” to Hotel Shelter

1. At a meeting of the Queen Anne Initiative on Community Engagement last week, former city council member Tim Burgess outlined the contours of an initiative that will be filed in the coming weeks that would fund new homeless services with existing city dollars and effectively reinstate the city’s Navigation Team, which removed encampments from public spaces until the city council dismantled it as part of the budget process last year.

PublICola reported on a poll about the potential initiative in February.

Sounding very much like a man in campaign mode, Burgess told the group, “The tent encampments that we see in our public spaces have essentially become permanent because the city government has no specific plan to help the people in those encampments or to make certain that our parks and public spaces remain open and available to everyone.” (In fact, one large and obvious reason encampments have become “permanent” is that a global pandemic made it impractical and unsafe for the city to dislocate people living unsheltered, and the city has consistently failed to provide adequate shelter or housing for the thousands of people living outdoors).

“What we need,” Burgess continued, “is a plan —a specific plan that focuses on what I believe is the primary presenting issue for most of the individuals in these encampments, and that is their medical condition,” including addiction and mental health challenges. Those issues are difficult to address while a person is living unsheltered, Burgess said, so the solution is to provide them with shelter or housing and address their health conditions at the same time.

So far, so good: Burgess clearly understands that it’s next to impossible to get healthy, or sober, while living on the street: Housing, or shelter at an absolute minimum, is essential to any kind of recovery from physical or behavioral health conditions. But the next leap he takes is troubling: If shelter is available but a person refuses to take it, he said, the city should have the authority to permanently remove them from a public space in order to make it available to the rest of the public. “We’re governed by the court decision”—Martin v. Boise—”that says we can’t force people… to leave unless we offer accommodation where they can go.”

It’s unclear how the initiative to reinstate sweeps and pay for housing and health cafe would be funded, or how it will get around the requirements imposed by Boise.

2. After PubliCola’s relentless coverage of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision not to seek FEMA reimbursement for hotel-based shelters, city council president (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González issued a statement about her recent conversation with FEMA administrators, which she said affirmed for her that even if federal funding isn’t “guaranteed” (which it never is in advance), “we can be confident that non-congregate shelter is FEMA reimbursable in eligible circumstances.”

In other cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, FEMA has paid for hotel-based shelter for people living unsheltered who suffer from conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID—a standard that covers most chronically homeless people.

Durkan has insisted that FEMA will not reimburse the city for any services at hotel-based shelters, and has objected to the federal agency’s “onerous” application requirements. Continue reading “Fizz: Burgess Previews Encampment Initiative, Nguyen Mulls Bid for County Exec, and “Opening the Door” to Hotel Shelter”

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”