By Erica C. Barnett
Contractors with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened at the city’s Emergency Operations Center last week to begin setting up a formal “housing command center” for addressing homelessness in downtown Seattle, PubliCola has learned. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority requested HUD’s help setting up the command center, which agency CEO Marc Dones touted during the announcement of a public-private partnership called “Partnership for Zero” earlier this year.
HUD, which funds housing through housing vouchers and other programs, has been meeting quietly with officials from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, and officials from the city’s Human Services Department over the past two weeks. The goal, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, is to set up a “incident response system” plan for homelessness, treating it like an emergent crisis rather than a perpetual, unchanging problem.
“We’ve heard from our neighbors that we need to treat this emergency like an emergency, so that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Martens said.
The difference isn’t just semantic. “An incident command system is a management structure that can really be used to organize any big event,” from planning a wedding to planning for emergency shelter during heat and smoke, Curry Mayer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, explained. In practice, this means setting up several teams to deal with operations, logistics, planning, and administration, all reporting to a command team that runs the show and gets information out to the public and press.
“We are taking best practices learned from years of emergency housing response during disasters like hurricanes and other major displacements, and applying those proven practices to help people experiencing homelessness move inside,” Martens said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office said that although the technical assistance does not come with any new funding for housing or services, it “helps communities apply the lessons learned from other communities, including those that used a similar structure to assist people experiencing homelessness following major disasters. The duration of the technical assistance will depend on the circumstances on the ground, but it will likely last a few months.”
The team is already meeting daily to share updates on each team’s progress and challenges, the same way local agencies meet daily during short-term emergencies, like the snowstorm that shut down transportation around the city last year and left thousands of unsheltered people out in subfreezing temperatures for days.
This approach is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to homelessness, which is divided into silos such as encampment removals, emergency response, shelters, and housing. The logistics team, for example, might be in charge of figuring out ways to make permanent housing accessible more quickly, such as waiving eligibility requirements (HUD rules currently require a person to be homeless for at least a year before they’re eligible for a voucher, for example) or offering incentives to landlords to move people into apartments quickly.
“This effort will further improve coordination and speed up action, with permanent housing as the top priority,” Martens said.
Although the command center doesn’t come with additional funds for housing, multiple people familiar with the effort expressed hope that it could open the door to additional HUD funds in the future. In 2020, a McKinsey report estimated that it would cost as much as $1 billion a year to fully address homelessness in King County—more than eight times the KCRHA’s current annual budget. Mayor Bruce Harrell—whose office directed questions to the KCRHA—has indicated that he has little interest in contributing tens of millions more to the KCRHA’s budget, as the authority has requested.
The Office of Emergency Management won’t be directly participating in the command center’s operations, but they will provide meeting space and a press room for regular briefings. Because the EOC’s operations are sensitive, the question of access has been the subject of some internal debate. The building where the KCRHA is located, a former jail that also houses the county’s sobering center, and the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, were both reportedly considered but rejected in favor of the high-tech, visually appealing emergency hub.