Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers

By Erica C. Barnett

Next week, the governing board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will vote on a proposed budget that would nearly double the amount of money the authority is requesting from Seattle and King County, which fund the authority.

Overall, the proposed $209 “base budget,” not counting $12 million in one-time COVID relief funds, would require the county and city, collectively, to contribute an additional $90 million to the regional authority, on top of this year’s total contribution of $119 million. The majority of the KCRHA’s existing funding—about $70 million—comes from the city through its annual budget process; the rest comes from the county.

Nearly 40 suburban cities, organized as the Sound Cities Association, receive services funded through the KCRHA and have seats on its governing board, but do not contribute any funding to the authority.

The KCRHA has not presented a detailed breakdown of its budget requests to each of its two funders yet, but if the money was divided up along similar lines as this year’s contributions, it would amount to about $54 million in additional funding from the city, for a total of more than $122 million.

At a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board, agency CEO Marc Dones said, “I agree that this is a hefty ask,” but added that even doubling the authority’s budget won’t fundamentally transform the homelessness system, given the scale of the need in King County. “We went into this saying, and maintain, this is not the transformational budget for us,” Dones said.

PubliCola asked the spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, county council budget chair Joe McDermott, and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, how realistic they considered the KCRHA’s request, given the likelihood of significant budget gaps this year. The city, for example, currently estimates next year’s budget shortfall at around $34 million, and has asked departments to come up with potential cuts of 3 to 6 percent.

The budget proposal includes tens of millions for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve a total of 130 vehicles at a time.

Harrell’s spokesman said the mayor’s office “is still in the early stages of evaluating this preliminary budget proposal. We look forward to working with the KCRHA and CEO Dones, as well as our partners at King County, to help develop a budget through a collaborative and iterative process. We will at the same time be considering our own budget needs, addressing a significant financial gap, and working to determine what investments will most effectively address the homelessness crisis.”

A spokesman for Constantine said the county executive’s office is “reviewing the draft budget and are in communication with KCRHA and our partners at the City of Seattle to discuss needs and realistic budget expectations, as well as potential opportunities for funding.”

Mosqueda said she had not seen the budget proposal yet, “but with Seattle currently funding 68 percent of the budget, it underscores that regional funders are necessary.”

McDermott did not respond to our request for comment.

Lewis, the council’s homelessness committee chair, said the size of the request demonstrates the scope of the need. “I don’t think, in and of itself, that the total number is an unreasonable amount of money to be asking for some of the stuff that they want to do,” he said. “But we’re already paying 70 percent of [the agency’s budget], and Seattle taxpayers are actually paying more, because we pay into the county’s contribution too.”

On Thursday, Dones told PubliCola that even if the authority factored in all the money suburban cities are spending on homelessness, there would still be a “substantial” need for more funding. Under its charter, the authority has no ability to raise taxes or require suburban cities to help fund it: “The limit of what we can do is, this is what is necessary. This is the price tag,” Dones said. The governing board, made up largely of elected officials, could, however, advocate for a new local or county tax to fund homelessness. “They can’t effectuate it, but they are the ones politically situated to call that question and to be the appropriate envoys of the discussion.”

The budget proposal includes tens of millions of dollars for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing for 345 people; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve up to 130 vehicles at a time.

Last year, the city council declined to fund the KCRHA’s request for the high-acuity shelter, citing a revenue shortfall and concerns that the authority had not coordinated their request with the city. Subsequently, King County expanded its shelter complex in the SoDo neighborhood, built with federal COVID relief funds, to include shelter for people with physical and behavioral health care needs. A  spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the $20 million would be for “new capacity, locations [to be determined].”

The 400 proposed new shelter and emergency housing beds represent just 20 percent of the 2,000 new shelter or housing beds Harrell vowed to add this year in the city of Seattle alone. Harrell’s office did not respond directly to a question about this discrepancy between the KCRHA’s proposal and his campaign promise.

Dones has advocated for emergency or “bridge” housing, which they recently described as “non-time limited housing-style options for people” moving from homelessness into permanent housing. The city began moving away from traditional transitional housing in the last decade, after a 2016 report by consultant Barb Poppe called the model “extraordinarily expensive” and the average time people stayed in transitional housing units “shockingly long.”

The agency’s analysis, in contrast, concluded that transitional housing had the lowest “cost per exit” of any shelter or emergency housing type KCRHA funds, and that tiny house villages—a type of shelter Dones has frequently criticized in the past—are the most expensive and have the longest average stay of any shelter type, with a 45 percent rate of exits to permanent housing.

The proposed budget increase would fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).

It’s unclear how the authority derived the “cost per exit” metric, which differs from more frequently uses measures such as average cost per client per year. (Asked for more details about the math the agency used and for the data underlying the numbers, the KCRHA spokeswoman said the number came from “Performance data from HMIS, funding data from our contracts database” and did not provide the data itself.)

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates tiny house villages throughout King County, disputes the authority’s metrics, saying their own analysis shows about 50 percent of tiny house residents exit to permanent housing, and that the cost of sheltering one person in a tiny house for one year comes out to just over $9,000. Continue reading “Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers”

The County’s Annual Homeless Estimate Won’t Include A Physical Count This Year. Here’s How It Will Work.

Slide from a recent presentation on how the homelessness authority will use interviews and statistical analysis to estimate and characterize King County’s homeless population.

By Erica C. Barnett

Later this week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is expected to announce the results of the process iabot’s using this year in lieu of the traditional point in time count of the region’s unsheltered homeless population—historically, an in-person count in January whose results have always been considered an undercount, combined with interviews at homeless service providers and shelters to gather “qualitative” data about people’s day-to-day experience of homelessness.

Over the years, the count has incorporated various methods to estimate the unsheltered population (such as assumptions about the number of people occupying tents and cars) and has used statistical methods to extrapolate demographic and other information from interviews with 1,000 or more individuals.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires agencies like KCRHA to conduct a “point in time count” of their unsheltered populations every two years. The KCRHA initially planned to opt out of the mandatory count this year, but announced in mid-December that HUD had given them an exemption from its usual requirements, allowing the authority to replace an in-person count with a statistical extrapolation from interviews with unsheltered King County residents conducted over several weeks. As a result, the final “point in time count” number won’t come from a point in time, nor will it represent an actual count.

The process the KCRHA selected, called Respondent Driven Sampling, had two stages. First, volunteers and outreach workers went out to places where people are living unsheltered, such as encampments, to interview people and recruit them to distribute coupons to people in their networks. People who completed an interview received a prepaid $25 debit card and their own set of coupons, each redeemable for a $25 debit card for each recruit who participated in an interview. Those recruits, in turn, would get more coupons to distribute. Through successive waves of recruitment, the system is designed to reach people with no obvious connection to the initial group of recruits.

A spokeswoman for the authority said new approach enabled KCRHA to “capture people’s stories the way they want them to be told. This is not a knock on previous methods; but it is a different approach that allows for rich data collection, honors people’s experiences, and builds relationship with community.”

“Because interviewees identified the next set of interviewees, this helped us interview people we might not otherwise have been able to engage with, including people who are less service-connected,” KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said. The approach, developed in the 1990s, has been used to reach people in “hidden” populations, such as male drug users who have sex with men, in sociological studies ever since.

The benefit of respondent driven sampling, according to University of Washington assistant sociology professor Zack Almquist, who recommended RDS to the authority and helped develop its approach, is that it captures groups that don’t show up with traditional sampling methods, such as random-digit dialing. 

The KCRHA’s researchers started with a large group of “seeds,” Almquist said—the original group of recruits who went out and recruited people in their social networks—with the goal of reaching a broad sample of unsheltered people. Then they sat down with them for in-person interviews at nine designated “hubs” around the county, asking them how they first became homeless, where they currently sleep, and other probing questions about their personal and family history and experience being homeless. Two of the hubs were in Seattle—one in Georgetown and the other on Aurora Avenue N—and the other seven were scattered across South and East King County; the furthest east was in North Bend and the furthest south was in Auburn.

The questions are similar to, but far more detailed than, the VI-SPDAT—a staccato, yes/no list of questions that homelessness agencies across the country are phasing out because it leads to racially biased results. Earlier this year, the KCRHA began using COVID vulnerability criteria (a list of conditions the agency can verify without talking to a person directly, such as age, race, and pregnancy status) in lieu of the VI-SPDAT—in part, the agency said, because the VI-SPDAT’s questions were potentially retraumatizing and invasive.

Martens said the combination of RDS and in-depth interviews enabled KCRHA to “capture people’s stories the way they want them to be told. This is not a knock on previous methods; but it is a different approach that allows for rich data collection, honors people’s experiences, and builds relationship with community.”

Some members of the KCRHA’s governing board have raised concerns about the authority’s methods and called the process rushed and mysterious. Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, who sits on the KCRHA’s governing board, recently said the KCRHA had given her “no clue what was going on” with the interviews, and Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, also on the board, questioned the authority’s choice of “hub” locations and the decision to limit interviews to business hours.

The method has its critics, who question whether statistical extrapolation, based on interviews with a small subset of the homeless population, can produce an accurate estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in an area or characterize the conditions under which they live.

“In the past, the reason we did the point in time count the way we did is that we went to people where they were—we didn’t expect them to have to travel or get transported or find a location,” Birney said during a March board meeting, when the KCRHA was in the middle of doing interviews. “I’m a little curious about bringing people to a hub, what kind of disruption that creates.”

Respondent-driven sampling has its critics, who question whether this kind of statistical extrapolation, based on interviews with a small subset of the homeless population, can produce an accurate estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in an area or the characterize the conditions under which they live.

Academic critiques of the approach have focused on the fact that people experiencing homelessness often have loose and transitory social ties, making their social networks unreliable; the likelihood that “coupons” redeemable for money or goods (like the $25 debit cards) end up being used as a form of currency or in violation of the rules set for recruitment; and that “hub” sites aren’t equally accessible for everyone, both because of physical distance and because more marginalized or vulnerable people are less likely to go to an official government interview site.

The list of questions the interviewers asked are extensive, and not everyone answered all of them; some people responded to most of the questions, but wouldn’t answer questions about their social network and were excluded from the data, according to Almquist. The result is that although the authority initially said it would base its count on around 1,000 initial interviews, they ended up with a usable sample of between 550 and 574 people. “People had to answer questions about their social network, because respondent driven sampling relies on us knowing about” the people survey respondents interact with and “weighting the population based on their network properties,” Almquist said—factors like the number of people a person says they know and how well they know them.

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee earlier this month, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said the authority was planning to do a “Phase 2” of the surveys, which would add to the qualitative data portion of the count—the kind of information the county used to gather by going to homeless service providers and talking to people who showed up to access services. Continue reading “The County’s Annual Homeless Estimate Won’t Include A Physical Count This Year. Here’s How It Will Work.”

City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps

Tents and other items on the ground during a recent encampment sweep at City Hall
The city put up signs announcing this encampment across from city hall would be removed at 6am, giving residents less than two hours’ notice.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s Human Services Department has asked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to modify its contracts with  outreach providers (including the city’s largest outreach provider, REACH) to require them to show up and offer services to unsheltered people up to the day their encampments are swept.

REACH does not have a strict policy against showing up before encampment sweeps; instead, they make decisions on a case by case basis, REACH director Chloe Gale said. In 2019, the group decided to withdraw from the Navigation Team, a group of police and city outreach workers that used to be in charge of encampment removals, because of concerns about their ability to build trust with clients while appearing to participate in sweeps.

UPDATE: On Friday, a spokeswoman for the KCHRA told PubliCola the authority “confirmed with the City that we are not making any contract modifications.”

In a message to council members, the department said that its HOPE Team—a group of city staffers that connects people whose encampments are about to be swept to beds in shelters to which the HOPE Team has exclusive access—is “often the only entity on site that’s willing to make shelter offers and connections during the posting period (i.e., the time between a site being posted and the time of the removal).”

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor “support[s] providers offering outreach and service connections to encampments before the day of removal.”

UPDATE: On Friday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said in an email to homeless service providers that “despite what you might have seen in [PubliCola’s] recent article” (the one you are currently reading), “KCRHA has not received any requests from the City of Seattle that would change our shared approach to outreach responsibilities.” The Human Services Department confirmed its request for contract changes, provided the request to PubliCola in full, and explained the intent of the request in more detail in an email, and PubliCola stands by our reporting.

REACH and other outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

In recent years, the city has largely abandoned the previous practice of providing 72 hours’ notice before it removes an encampment, a timeline that gave encampment residents time to move into shelter or relocate their tents. Instead, the city designates encampments as “obstructions,” a broad term that can be applied to any tent in any public space, and removes them with little or no advance notice.

This is not the first time the city has attempted to include a requirement to participate in sweeps in its contracts with outreach providers; former mayor Jenny Durkan made a similar attempt last year, but ultimately backed down after some nonprofits said they would refuse to sign contracts that included this stipulation.

Outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “While the funding for these contracts continues to come from the City of Seattle, the oversight of contracts, and the ability to modify those contracts, now live with KCRHA. We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

Responding to questions about the city’s request during the council’s homelessness committee meeting Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the authority had not “entered into any conversations at this point around modifying contracts with providers. What we are discussing at this point is working to support humane responses to folks that are at our prioritized encampments”—that is, encampments the city prioritizes for removal.

HSD spokeswoman Stasha Espinoza said HSD “has yet to request RHA’s assistance with making outreach available on the day of a removal, and that in for now, “HSD has asked their System Navigators”—the HOPE Team’s outreach workers—”to make offers of shelter prior to and during a removal. This includes transportation to a shelter if such services are requested.” Continue reading “City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps”

Homelessness Authority Budget Debate Raises Old Questions About Power of Elected Officials

Chart of King County Regional Homelessness Authority budget scheduleBy Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority agreed earlier this month to a last-minute schedule change that will give its governing board, which includes elected officials from across the county, 12 days to look at its proposed 2023 budget before it moves forward to Seattle and King County budget writers next month. The changes came after several governing board members raised questions about a proposed timeline that gave the governing board no direct say in the budget process.

Originally, the authority planned to have its implementation board approve the budget, and transmit it to the city of Seattle and King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—in mid-April. This board, which includes members of the Lived Experience Coalition and homeless advocates, is authorized to consider the proposed annual budget and raise questions or ask for changes.

The authority later pushed that timeline up to mid-May, with approval by the governing board in June. Under either schedule, the implementation board would have a very short period to debate or “develop and recommend” the budget—one of its main duties under the agreement that established the KCRHA—and the governing board would have had to approve (essentially rubber-stamp) the budget after it went to the city and county, the two entities that actually fund the authority.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, both on the governing board, raised concerns about the schedule; because neither city contributes to the KCHRA’s funding, the governing board meeting will be their only formal opportunity to weigh in the budget. Approving or amending the budget is “the only job that we have,” Backus said at a recent governing board meeting, “and so allowing us time to provide adequate attention to the documentation that we receive is critical.”

Elected leaders at the county and suburban cities pushed for more power and won that battle. Now many of those same leaders, sitting the governing board itself, want to exercise their authority—as do Seattle officials who were initially on the opposite side of this debate.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold also argued the governing board should get more time to review the budget before forwarding it to the city and county for approval. “It seems like we should get the recommended budget earlier, so that we have some time to have a real discussion … and have the chance to ask questions and understand the strategies and outcomes that the budget will be supporting so that we can best champion the budget request when it comes time” to fund the authority through the city’s budget process in the fall, Herbold said.

The council, which approved joining the authority on an 8-1 vote in 2019, originally wanted to give the governing board significantly less power than it now has—preferring an earlier proposal for structuring the authority, drafted largely by current KCRHA director Marc Dones in their role as director of a consulting firm called the National Innovation Service, that would have essentially required the governing board  to rubber-stamp decisions made by a separate “steering committee” made up of experts on homelessness. The idea behind the original proposed structure was to “insulate” the authority from political influence by elected officials.

Elected leaders at the county and suburban cities pushed for more power and won that battle. Now many of those same leaders, sitting the governing board itself, want to exercise their authority—as do Seattle officials who were initially on the opposite side of this debate.

One thing that has changed since 2019 that could be contributing to that impulse is that the KCRHA’s first budget did not go smoothly. Last year, some council members felt blindsided by the KCRHA’s request for $26 million in additional funding to build a new downtown shelter for high-acuity clients and hire 69 specialized case managers called peer navigators. Although Seattle increased its contribution to the KCRHA substantially—to around $100 million—the council declined to fully fund the new requests, asking the authority to come back with a more detailed plan for them to consider. Instead, the KCRHA got funding from private companies for the peer navigators, and the county announced it was funding a high-acuity shelter in SoDo earlier this year.

Homelessness Authority Plans to Use COVID Relief Dollars to Make Up $2 Million Earmarked for Tiny Houses

Image via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

Officials at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority say the agency will pay for three contracts at the center of a recent funding controversy using $2 million in unspent Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG-CV) COVID relief dollars from the city of Seattle. The city’s Human Services Department, which oversaw the money until the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system this year, has not yet responded to questions sent Friday morning about the specific source of the funding.

One potential source is leftover funding former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration planned to spend on rapid rehousing at the two shelter-based hotels the city opened (and closed) last year. The mayor’s office claimed the hotels would serve as short-term stops for people to move rapidly from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate apartments using short-term rent subsidies; in reality, most people stayed at the hotels long-term, leaving most of the rapid rehousing dollars unspent when the hotels closed earlier this year.

The city council passed legislation allocating the $2 million, which last year’s state budget earmarked for “tiny home villages,” to two LIHI tiny house villages last year. However, then-mayor Jenny Durkan never spent the money, transferring authority of the state funds to the KCRHA at the beginning of this year. The KCRHA, in turn, created a new, open bidding process for the money, ultimately rejecting both of LIHI’s proposals in favor of three different projects, including one from the Chief Seattle Club that involved (but was not led by) LIHI.

In response, State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43) said the state dollars were never the KCRHA’s to give, and earmarked the money for LIHI in this year’s state budget, leaving the agency with $2 million in unfunded commitments.

“Neither I, or the agency, has an ax to grind with tiny houses as a shelter type. If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on day 3. They’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. The question was, should we rapidly open 10 to 15 tiny house villages, and I said the data does not support expansion of that scale.”—KCRHA director Marc Dones

During a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board on Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones—a vocal critic of the city council’s plans to expand tiny house villages around the city—sounded frustrated as they addressed the controversy.

“Neither I, or the agency, has an ax to grind with tiny houses as a shelter type,” Dones said. “If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on day 3. They’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. What I have said repeatedly [is that] radical expansion, which was what was being put forward to me last year—the question was, should we rapidly open 10 to 15 tiny house villages, and I said the data does not support expansion of that scale.”

“There is, and I cannot stress this enough, zero credible or factual assertion in any statement made by anyone that this agency, or I specifically, am trying to unwind all of the tiny houses tomorrow, and, frankly, that we have not made new investments into tiny shelter types,” Dones said, pointing to existing contracts with LIHI that transferred to the authority from the city of Seattle and to two of the projects the RHA attempted to fund through the bidding process—the Chief Seattle Club/LIHI village and an expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet shelter project.

Dones noted that LIHI did not file a formal grievance over the authority’s decision not to fund its proposed tiny house villages in South Seattle and South Lake Union (which, thanks to Chopp, were both ultimately funded by the state). “We are done,” they said. Lee, from LIHI, said she chose not to file a grievance because she didn’t believe LIHI would get a fair shake from the same panel that rejected its applications, which included both Dones and his executive assistant.

Dr. Simha Reddy, a member of the implementation board, said he and other board members met with Dones last week to figure out what happened with the $2 million, and came to the conclusion that the agency legitimately believed it had the authority to distribute the $2 million in state funding through its own grant process. “Fundamentally, an error happened. I don’t think there’s a particular villain here,” Reddy said. “Stepping back, this looks like this is a situation where good people trying their hardest could have come to different conclusions.”

Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate

1. Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation (HB 2075) that would have required the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to meet minimum service requirements by keeping their physical offices open, come up with a plan to achieve phone wait times of 30 minutes or less, and generally ensure “that clients may apply for and receive services in a reasonable and accessible manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, including but not limited to, technology, language, and ability,” according to a staff summary of the legislation. The bill passed both houses with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, adding to its sponsor, Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21) surprise at Inslee’s veto.

“I had zero idea that this [veto] was even being considered, so getting over the initial shock and confusion took at least half a day,” Peterson said.

The legislation was aimed at addressing a persistent problem at DSHS, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps: Because DSHS, unlike most other government agencies, had never reopened its physical offices, clients—many of them homeless—could only access the agency by phone, and wait times were often several hours.

DSHS secretary Jilma Meneses agreed to reopen most of the agency’s 181 physical offices in March, which eliminated much of the cost associated with the legislation; eliminating a 30-minute wait time mandate and replacing it with language saying DSHS should “strive for” 30-minute wait times made that issue a debate for a later time and reduced the bill’s short-term cost to nothing. 

“We all know a significant investment needs to be made into upgrading the systems that they use—the phone system, the ability for people to access [DSHS] online, and the in-person service, which was the crux of the bill,” Peterson said. He said he trusts that Menenses will keep her word and keep the offices open, but added that the legislation provided a guarantee that would have lasted beyond the tenure of a single DSHS secretary.

In a statement, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said, “We wish we had not had to advocate so forcefully to get the CSOs to reopen, and that the governor had not vetoed this commonsense bill. Together with our service and advocacy partners across Washington, we look forward to working with the governor, DSHS Secretary Meneses, and the legislature in 2023 to guarantee that never again will the state lock its doors on people in need of services, especially in an emergency.”

Inslee’s veto message shed little light on the reasons for his veto. “The executive branch always strives to manage state programs in the best manner possible, within the authorization and resources provided by the legislative branch,” Inslee wrote. “Identifying specific performance metrics, in particular without the necessary resources, is an overreach in our respective roles.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said the “performance metrics” Inslee referred to in his veto letter include “not only having offices open but also tracking call wait times and dropped calls with the aspirational goal of keeping that response time to 30 minutes or less. Costing that out is very difficult. … Secretary Meneses has her team working on outreach to advocates and those who access our systems to determine what the buildout should look like.”

2. Back in February, as state legislators were working on a capital budget that would include hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) proposed—and Rep. Noel Frame’s (D-36) office set up—a meeting between King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones and the 45 members of King County’s legislative delegation (not all of whom were expected to attend). Until that point, legislators had not met formally with Dones, and the KCRHA had not provided a list of legislative priorities for the 60-day session.

The meeting was set for 12:30 on February 17. At 9:40 that morning, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig sent an email to the 45-member delegation to cancel.

“As you may have read in the Seattle Times this morning, the KCRHA will be making an announcement about our plans to address unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle,” Herbig wrote. As we reported, the announcement was about private donations totaling $10 million to fund, among other things, 30 “peer navigators” in downtown Seattle.

“Because of this announcement, and how busy you all are right now with session, we are canceling today’s 12:30 meeting,” Herbig continued. “We appreciate your understanding, and look forward to opportunities to introduce ourselves and answer any questions you have about us or our work after Sine Die,” the end of the legislative session.

“I am inferring from your cancellation [that] KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”—State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in an email to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Macri, who works for the Downtown Emergency Service Coalition when the legislature isn’t in session, called the cancelation “a slap in the face” in an email response to Herbig. “Tell me why I should not read it as this—’Sorry, elected officials, we have no time for you because some billionaires are giving us a small shiny thing, which they can only do it on the one day we have a meeting with the group who collectively represents the interests of 2.3 million people from our region,'” Macri wrote.

“I am inferring from your cancellation,” Macri continued, that “KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”

In a followup email, State Sen. David Frockt (D-46) added, “Our proposed Senate capital budget has over 470m for housing and stabilization investments, so I concur with Rep. Macri it would be good to connect since I presume KCRHA and key agency partners will be seeking some of this money at some point. … [P]artnership with the key budget writers and the former speaker,” Frank Chopp (D-43), “would be helpful and will help me relate to all of my more conservative colleagues in the Senate why these investments toward King County are worthwhile.” Continue reading “Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate”

Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee at an event promoting a proposed tiny-house village in South Lake Union last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle Times published a story about state Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43) decision to allocate $2 million in state funding to the Low-Income Housing Institute to build tiny house villages. Both Chopp and LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, took issue with the piece, which suggested that Chopp (who co-founded LIHI 31 years ago, but has no financial interest in the nonprofit) had improperly used his power to take the money away from three other projects that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority had chosen through a competitive bidding process.

The story of the $2 million is both more complicated and simpler than the Times’ coverage suggested. More complicated, because the state allocated the funds for tiny house villages almost a year ago; the money was never spent because of decisions made by Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose administration gave a series of excuses for not releasing the funds before her term ended last year. And simpler, because the money is ultimately controlled by the state, which can do what they want with it—including funding LIHI directly without going through any bidding process.

Chopp says he first agreed to find $2 million to fund tiny house villages after City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, asked Chopp to help fund his “It Takes A Village” strategy—a plan to build 12 tiny house villages across the city. The 2021 state capital budget, adopted last April, dedicated the $2 million explicitly to “tiny homes (Seattle).” Last June, the council adopted—and Durkan signed—the Seattle Rescue Plan, which, among other things, allocated another $400,000 in operations funds to supplement the $2 million from the state (on top of $2.8 million from the 2021 budget that had gone unspent) to build new tiny house villages. The Durkan Administration, however, never spent the money.

“They never had the money. It was not theirs to begin with.”—State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43)

At the time, Durkan’s staff gave several reasons for declining to take action on the funding, including the fact that the city hadn’t allocated long-term funding to keep the villages for years in the future (as council members pointed out at the time, the city only budgets in one-year increments); a lack of staffing as the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division emptied out in the runup to the KCRHA taking over; and a desire to let the KCRHA’s new director, Marc Dones, implement their own shelter strategy.

Dones has made no secret of their desire to overhaul the region’s shelter system. On several occasions, Dones expressed skepticism about the tiny-house village model, suggesting that group houses or a more direct route from the street to permanent housing might be a better option. This created a sense of urgency for tiny-house proponents to get the new villages up and running by the end of 2021, before the authority took over, as well as a mistrust between LIHI and the new authority that persists to this day.

Advocates for tiny house villages were still asking the city to spend the $2 million as late as September, but gained no traction. “We were all frustrated that that money sat there for a whole year, and we kept asking the mayor’s’ office and [the Human Services Department, why aren’t you putting out a [request for proposals?]” LIHI director Sharon Lee recalled.

According to Chopp, as 2021 wound down, he called Lewis and the interim director of the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, Robin Koskey, and said “‘Time’s up. A year ago, you promised it was all ready to go, and you promised the money would be spent by the first quarter of this year,'” which ended on March 31. At that point, Chopp said, he decided to take action by writing a local community project request—a way of earmarking capital funds for specific projects—to fund the three LIHI villages. Chopp said he told Nigel Herbig, the KCRHA’s intergovernmental relations director, “Nigel, you don’t have the money” in the third week of January.

The Times reported that Chopp withdrew money that the KCRHA had in hand, a contention Chopp called “ridiculous. They never had the money,” he said. “It was not theirs to begin with.”

A KCRHA spokeswoman, Anne Martens, did not respond to detailed questions about Chopp’s conversation with Herbig, subsequent conversations between Chopp and the KCRHA, or why the authority moved forward to seek bids for the $2 million even after being told the money was going to LIHI. “[A]s you know, the RFP as awarded does fund tiny house villages,” Martens said in an email—a reference to a 25-unit project the Chief Seattle Club proposed in partnership with LIHI and a separate expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet Shelter on 15th Ave. W.

Despite Chopp’s action to earmark the $2 million for LIHI, the agency still applied for funding through the KCRHA’s process; as we reported, the authority rejected both of their applications to build and operate their own tiny house villages, saying that their proposal to build a village on City Light-owned property in South Lake Union, which Lewis supported, would require people to live in “inhumane living conditions.”

Martens said she would have to look into our question about what specific conditions were “inhumane” when we asked about this last Tuesday, and had not followed up by press time. In a previous conversation, Martens said the awards prioritized “equity” and “lived experience.” The authority, Martens said, used “competitive bidding in order to be more equitable… and that is reflective of our commitment to centering lived experience.”

Asked why she applied for KCRHA funding if she knew Chopp had already earmarked the $2 million for LIHI, Lee said she “assumed that KCRHA had chosen to backfill (add) the $2 million from other sources,” such as leftover rapid rehousing funds from the Durkan Administration’s unsuccessful effort to cycle unsheltered quickly through hotels into permanent, often market-rate, apartments.  “Why would the RHA take this information and then proceed to award the funds if they were told that the funds were not available?” Lee said. “Why wouldn’t they make another plan or find additional funding?”

“We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

KCRHA has not said how they plan to pay for the projects that won funding through its bidding process. One possibility, Martens said, is to go to the city of Seattle, which provides about 70 percent of the authority’s funding, for the money. “We are talking to the City about this whole snafu to figure out what the next steps are,” she said.

Barring a dramatic turnaround in its budget forecast, the city seems unlikely to provide the authority with additional money this year. “We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for,” city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said. “Marc and the RHA are receiving 68 percent of their funding from the city of Seattle. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”

Mosqueda called Chopp’s action to allocate the $2 million to LIHI “appropriate,” adding, “We have to be good partners with the state legislature when they trying to help with the most pressing issue in our city. You either use funding or you lose funding, and I’m glad that the  funding is being deployed so that people can continue to get access to tiny house villages, regardless of whether through RHA or directly from the state legislature.” Continue reading “Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System”

New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences

By Erica C. Barnett

In October 2020, a little more than six months into the pandemic, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority quietly changed the criteria it uses to place people in the so-called “priority pool” for housing—sometimes known as the “top 40 list.”

Instead of relying on an interviewing tool that has been widely criticized for producing racially biased outcomes, the KCRHA will use a simpler list of criteria developed in response to COVID-19 that prioritizes older people, people of color, and people with specific physical conditions, such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, that make them susceptible to COVID. The new system relies on data from local medical providers and information people self-report through the Homeless Management Information System used by most homeless service providers. Unlike other tools, it does not include factors such as mental illness or substance use disorders, which are common barriers to housing and part of the standard definition of “chronic homelessness.”

The need for a quasi-objective tool to decide who gets housing is a product of scarcity: For decades, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has far outpaced the amount of available housing for people with little or no income or who need extra support to stay housed. Today, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority estimates there are as many as 45,000 homeless people in the region. Because there isn’t enough affordable housing for all those people, the homeless system has to triage—picking and choosing who gets access to housing based on their level of “vulnerability,” a term with a shifting definition. The calculus is brutal: Without enough housing, most people will always be left out in the cold; the only question is who makes the cut.

“Only a very small slice of people who are homeless are getting help,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Not many people qualify and there’s not a lot of funding in the system for people experiencing homelessness.”

“When we do have enough housing, prioritization as we’ve known it is something that that will no longer be necessary,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said.
“But as long as there’s that scarcity, then we have to be able to identify a group of folks” to prioritize.

King County has used a number of different tools over the years to assess people’s vulnerability and prioritize them for housing—most recently (between 2016 and 2019) an interview-based assessment called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT for (sort of) short. For years, critics argued that the VI-SPDAT led to racially biased outcomes—Black people, in particular, were underrepresented compared to white people—and King County adopted new criteria that de-prioritized the VI-SPDAT, but didn’t discard it, in early 2019.

Later that same year, a study from a group called C4 Innovations confirmed that the VI-SPDAT gave white people a better shot at housing and services than Black people and other people of color, and suggested some possible reasons why: The tool asks a number of extremely personal questions about things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex work, that white people may feel more comfortable answering in the affirmative, especially if the interviewer is also white. The study also found that the VI-SPDAT asked questions about vulnerabilities that white people were more likely to have than people of color.

The new criteria do away with that by only looking at race, age, and physical health (including pregnancy)—and by foregoing in-person interviews altogether. “What is fundamentally different [with the COVID-19 criteria] is that instead of asking folks a lot of invasive, retraumatizing questions,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said, is that “the tool is based on data… so that litany of really invasive, not trauma-informed questions doesn’t have to happen.” The KCRHA gets its information from both “administrative data” taken from the Health Care for the Homeless Network and Medicaid, and from the Homeless Management Information System, a giant database used by most homeless providers that is based on self-reporting.

In the year and a half the new system has been in place, the percentage of Black heads of household prioritized for housing increased from 27 percent to 49 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 32 to 11 percent. (The percentage of Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native households that were prioritized for housing also increased slightly, while the number of Asian and multiracial households declined). The change was also striking among families with children, where the percentage of Black households increased from 33 percent to 52 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 27 to 6 percent.

But the biggest change since the KCRHA started prioritizing people for housing based on COVID vulnerability has been in the age of single adults who receive priority for housing placement. Because the COVID criteria put a premium on age—seven of eight “tiers” count age as one of a small handful of potential qualifiers, with a lower cutoff of 65—the average age of single adults who were prioritized for housing skyrocketed, from 41 to 61 years old. For a typical middle-aged person without any physical ailments that make them specifically vulnerable to COVID, the odds of getting bumped up the queue for housing are slimmer than ever.

Looked at one way, this makes perfect sense: By the time a homeless adult is 60, they are usually much “older,” biologically, because living outdoors is terrible for a person’s health. “The population of older adults who are homeless is expected to double by 2025 and triple by 2030,” Roman said, and “few are going to make it past 60. [By the time] they’re 55, they present as older and they have the problems of older people, but they’re not eligible for federal assistance to older people because they’re not old enough.”

Still, the exclusion of behavioral health conditions from the criteria is a significant shift—one that could mean some people with substance use disorders or disabling mental health conditions have to wait longer for housing. Ebrahimi, from KCRHA, says the authority may take behavioral health into consideration in the future, but notes that this information isn’t readily available through data; people have to disclose it voluntarily through the kind of interview process that the VI-SPDAT, with its biased outcomes, was based on. Continue reading “New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences”

City to Sweep Sites of Recent Shootings; Unclear When In-Person Council Meetings Will Resume; Homelessness Authority Frustrated by Chopp Money Grab

1. The city plans to remove two encampments on Friday, including one in a vacant hillside lot along 10th Ave. S between S. Weller St. and Dearborn Ave. S where a 43-year-old homeless man, Arkan Al-Aboudy, was shot to death on March 17. Currently, there are about 50 tents at the 10th Ave. site, which spills out into 10th Avenue itself and down the hill to Dearborn. The area has been the site of encampments for many years, and marks the northern boundary of an infamous encampment known as the Jungle that the city removed in 2016.

The vacant land where the encampment is located has been owned since the late 1990s by Christopher Koh, a developer and landlord whose company, Coho Real Estate, also owns and operates a number of apartment buildings in the University District and the International District. A small city park called Beacon Place is located in the middle of the property.

According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the city can’t require fencing around private property, and the property owner has no plans “in the short term” to fence in or otherwise secure the site.

Contacted by phone, Koh said he supports the encampment removal and has no plans “in the short term” to fence in or otherwise secure the site, which is adjacent to a Seattle Housing Authority apartment building and the Seattle Indian Health Board clinic.

“At one time, there was a discussion with the city about placing a fence” around the property, Koh said, but the city decided not to do so because it could impede emergency response to the area. “I recall [the Seattle Police Department] saying it can be dangerous for the police to go into an area where it’s completely fenced off like that—where there isn’t visibility,” Koh said. SPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city often prevents new encampments from cropping up on land it owns by erecting fences around the area; you can see them all over the city, from underneath the Ballard Bridge to City Hall Park in downtown Seattle. According to a spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the city can’t require fencing around private property, and the city’s Vacant Building Monitoring program only applies to properties with buildings, not vacant lots.

The city will also remove a small encampment at I-5 and 45th Ave. NE where Santo Zepeda-Campos, 38, was fatally shot on Sunday, March 20.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said both encampments “are being removed to address immediate public safety issues” in response to the shootings. REACH, the city’s outreach contractor, has been doing outreach at the site, and “will decide based on [the] situation whether they come in Friday,” according to REACH director Chloe Gale.

The encampment is located a block away from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Navigation Center shelter, which is one of the receiving sites for HOPE team referrals.

UPDATE Friday, March 25: Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Friday that about 20 people living at the 10th Avenue encampment received referrals to shelter from the city’s HOPE team before parks department workers removed the encampment Friday morning.

Housen said encampment residents received referrals to Jan and Peter’s Place (a women’s shelter), Otto’s Place (a men’s shelter run by the same organization, Compass Housing Alliance), the Navigation Center, the Roy Street men’s shelter, and the True Hope tiny house village in the Central District. All four shelters are are congregate emergency shelters, meaning that people sleep in common sleeping areas; only the Navigation Center allows all genders, although people sleep in gender-segregated areas.

As we’ve reported, most of the city’s shelter “referrals” do not result in a person actually checking in at a shelter and sleeping there. People decide not to enter emergency shelter after receiving a referral for a variety of reasons, including the desire to stay with a partner or pet, not wanting to relinquish bulky possessions, or other barriers imposed by a shelter, such as strict rules against using drugs or alcohol.

2. Although employees in most city departments began returning to their physical offices on March 16, the mayor’s return-to-work directive doesn’t apply to the legislative branch, which is returning to the office more slowly and won’t resume in-person council meetings any time soon.

In an email sent Friday, March 18, City Council President Debora Juarez told city council staffers that they would need to return to the office or work out alternative work schedules by April 27, six weeks after the rest of the city. (Bargaining with unions representing two sets of legislative staffers was one of the reasons for the slower timeline.) Juarez has reportedly been reluctant to return to in-person council meetings, and her email suggests that future council meetings might happen either “onsite in Council Chambers or in a hybrid remote meeting style.”

According to council staff, the department hasn’t figured out the logistics of conducting hybrid meetings, and it’s unclear whether “hybrid remote” refers to meetings that would continue to be entirely remote, or whether some council members would return to council chambers while others tapped in from home or their offices. Juarez did not respond to a request for clarification, and a staffer said any decision about whether to return to in-person meetings was not part of the overall return-to-work announcement.

In her email, Juarez encourages legislative staffers who do return to the office to wear a red, yellow, or green wristband “to communicate your level of comfort with respect to close contacts.” According to Juarez, the idea came from a staffer in Councilmember Alex Pedersen’s office. “I also feel the wrist bands are an excellent way to say ‘Welcome Back’ to the workplace,” Juarez wrote. “Having a sense of personal safety is important to all of us.” The mayor’s office has distributed similar wristbands, but the trend hasn’t trickled down yet to departmental employees, who make up the majority of city staff.

3. The Seattle Times reported today that State Rep. Frank Chopp, who co-founded the Low Income Housing Institute, intervened to apportion $2 million from the state budget to LIHI tiny house villages that did not make the cut for funding in a competitive bidding process conducted by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

As we reported earlier this week, the regional authority allocated about $4 million in federal and local dollars (including federal Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery dollars allocated through the state budget) to three non-congregate shelter projects. Chopp’s unusual intervention reversed funding for two of those projects—an expansion of Catholic Community Services’ Pallet shelter on 15th Ave. W and a new tiny house village operated by Chief Seattle Club in collaboration with LIHI—to fund LIHI projects elsewhere. Continue reading “City to Sweep Sites of Recent Shootings; Unclear When In-Person Council Meetings Will Resume; Homelessness Authority Frustrated by Chopp Money Grab”

Homeless Authority Funds Pallet Shelter, JustCARE, and Just One of Three Proposed Tiny House Villages

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority will fund 50 new tiny house and Pallet shelter units and partially extend the JustCARE hotel-based shelter program, using federal and city of Seattle funds. The awards, announced last week, will go to three projects: A new 25-unit tiny house village operated by Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute; a 25-unit expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet shelter village on Elliott Ave. W, and partial funding for Public Defender Association-led JustCARE hotel-based shelter program, which will receive ongoing operating funds for its 90-room Equity JustCARE program.

The authority rejected three applications, including two for new LIHI tiny house villages—one at a Seattle City Light-owned property in South Lake Union (where Therapeutic Health Services had committed to provide on-site behavioral health care), and one just north of Rainier Beach, where the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) planned to provide case management

Last year, advocates for tiny house villages pushed the mayor’s office to move quickly to use $2.4 million in existing city dollars to fund three new villages before the authority—whose director, Marc Dones, has been critical of the tiny-house model—took control of the regional homelessness system. When that didn’t happen, the money moved over to the authority, which issued an open request for proposals for the money, along with funds from the federal government totaling another $2.4 million.

“We wanted to be kind of the opposite of NIMBY. We said, ‘We’ll give you the money if you put the [village] next to us.'”—John Pehrson, Mirabella Civic Engagement Project

In a meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board last week, KCRHA chief programming officer Peter Lynn said the authority picked the three projects “in rank order,” adding that three proposals “did not receive funding based on running out of funds, as happens.” The RFP itself, which was extended and amended to allow Pallet (a for-profit company) to apply for funds, includes the criteria the authority used to evaluate the applications.

The three programs the KCRHA will fund, however, did not use up all the funding that was available; according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, the Public Defender Association “did not request development funding, so there is a total of $919,812 of unallocated funding ($696,515 of [Department of Commerce capital] funds, and $223,297 of HSD services & operations funds). The raters did not want to partially fund an organization and suggested allocating additional funds during contract negotiations.”

PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard said her organization expects to work with the KCRHA to come up with a site or sites to replace the downtown Seattle hotel where Equity JustCARE has been providing shelter and services to clients with high-acuity behavioral health needs since last year. “We don’t have a site, and understand RHA will be matching the team to a site that is appropriate for participants with complex behavioral health needs,” Daugaard said.

The PDA is still working with the city to come up with a plan for another 150 JustCARE clients currently living in five different hotels; without additional funding, the PDA will have to find other placements for those clients or discharge them back onto the street at the end of June.

Among the proposals the KCRHA’s raters rejected was a tiny house village in South Lake Union that had support, and funding, from the residents of the Mirabella apartments, a retirement community near the proposed village site. John Pehrson, a leader of the Mirabella Civic Engagement Project, said “it was very disappointing to us” that the KCRHA rejected the proposal, for which Mirabella residents and the Mirabella Seattle Foundation raised about $143,000. Continue reading “Homeless Authority Funds Pallet Shelter, JustCARE, and Just One of Three Proposed Tiny House Villages”