Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

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”

Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past two years, a broad consensus emerged that non-congregate shelter—hotel rooms, tiny houses, and other kinds of physically separated spaces—was both healthier and more humane than the typical pre-pandemic congregate shelter setup, in which dozens of people sleep inches apart on cots or on the ground. When people are offered a choice between semi-congregate shelter and more private spaces, they’re far more likely to “accept” a hotel room or tiny house, and once there, they’re more likely to find housing than they would in traditional congregate shelters.

In January, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority issued a request for proposals for almost $5 million to fund new non-congregate shelter spaces. (An RFP is a preliminary step in the process of selecting and funding nonprofit service providers). The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates a dozen tiny house villages in and around Seattle, applied, as did Seattle’s JustCARE program, which offers hotel-based shelter and case management to people with complex behavioral health challenges and criminal justice involvement.

The original schedule called for the KCRHA to award the funding last month. Instead, at the end of January, the authority did something unusual: They extended the RFP by two weeks and expanded its terms to allow for-profit companies, rather than just nonprofits, to apply. The only for-profit firm that builds noncongregate shelters locally is an Everett-based company called Pallet. 

Although the KCRHA wouldn’t say whether Pallet applied for the money, the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, has frequently expressed skepticism about LIHI’s tiny house village model, arguing that people stay in tiny houses too long and that the “proliferation” of villages around King County needs to end.

Pallet might offer an alternative. The company builds “cabins” that serve a similar function to, but look and feel very different than, LIHI’s wooden shelters. If tiny houses look like scaled-down Craftsman homes, complete with sharply peaked roofs and porches, pallet shelters resemble miniature FEMA trailers—identical, white, and utilitarian. According to Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills, that’s by design. The shelters, which are made of prefabricated aluminum and composite panels, are meant to feel temporary, because shelter is supposed to be temporary.

“All our villages have some version of forward momentum” said Bills, who added that the typical stay at a Pallet shelter is between three and six months. “We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”

“We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”—Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills

On a recent sunny afternoon, Catholic Community Services program manager Jennifer Newman showed me around the pallet village at CCS’ Junction Point shelter, an expansion of a modular shelter complex that opened in 2020 as part of the effort to “de-intensify” mass shelters across the city in response to the pandemic.

The cabins, arranged in narrow rows on a barren lot facing busy Elliott Avenue West, are taller and more spacious than they appear from the road, with high windows for ventilation, a fold-out cot, and a few small shelves for personal belongings. Each row of cabins is anchored by a portable toilet, but residents can access restrooms, along with a kitchen, common areas, and showers, at the main shelter building a few yards away.

Newman said guests at the shelter, which began as a “deintensification” site for CCS’ St. Martin de Porres shelter, vastly prefer the individual shelters to cubicles in the nearby modular units.

“The advantage of a Pallet shelter, versus cubicles or congregate shelter, is just the sense of safety, and the dignity of being able to shut and lock a door is a little bit more stabilizing for folks,” Newman said. This stability, in turn, allows CCS to better assess people’s needs. Newman said CCS has “been intentional about trying to move people into the Pallet shelters who are working with case managers” to get into housing, using the shelters as “practice housing, in a way.” The bright, relatively breezy units are an obvious upgrade from the nearby cubicles, which—although more private than a mat or cot at a mass shelter site—are dark, musty, and uninviting.

Pallet shelter units cost more to build than tiny houses—the price starts at about $5,300 a unit, compared to about $4,000 for a tiny house, according to figures provided by Pallet and LIHI, respectively. King County, which owns the land where the Junction Point shelter is located, has bought 74 Pallet units, including the 20 at Junction Point and 46 for a future site on Aurora Ave. N., plus three at a shelter in Bellevue and five at Eagle Village, a group of mostly modular shelters operated by the Chief Seattle Club in SoDo.

Lua Belgarde, the site manager at Eagle Village, said Chief Seattle Club did have to ask for physical changes, which Pallet made “very quickly,” so that people in wheelchairs or on crutches could access the units and get into and out of the built-in bed, which was originally too far off the ground. The shelters also lack air conditioning, making them “hotter inside than it was outside” during last summer’s heat wave, Belgarde said.

Inside a Pallet shelter.
Inside a Pallet shelter.

Still, as at Junction Point, people at Eagle Village tend to prefer living in their own space to sleeping in a trailer in close proximity to other people, Belgarde said. Two young men who have been in Pallet units at Eagle Village for close to a year “really like the option—they say that in the trailers, the rooms are too close together, they can hear people talking, so having the tiny house option with space in between” is appealing, she said.

Pallet shelters have their critics—among them LIHI director Sharon Lee, who spent much of the pandemic seeking funds from the city to build more tiny house villages. Lee says the same “homey” qualities that Bills said can turn tiny house villages into “forever homes” are what make them one of the most popular shelter options. “Most people like to have a sense of identity with where they’re living—they can decorate it and it’s attractive,” Lee said. “We’ve also heard feedback from people, especially neighbors and community residents, that they like that they’re colorful… and of course because they look like a tiny house.” In contrast, Lee said, Pallet shelters appear “sterile-looking” and “flimsy.”

“I understand why some cities are buying pallet shelters, because they’re quick to put up, but I think it’s much better to have a higher quality of materials and living environment,” Lee said. Continue reading “Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding”

Cold-Weather Shelter Plan Illustrates Challenges With Proposals to Eliminate Encampments Downtown

By Erica C. Barnett

As temperatures dipped below freezing Tuesday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced the opening of a single, nighttime-only shelter for up to 96 single adults at City Hall. The shelter will open at 7pm and close at 6:30 in the morning. Two additional shelters are opening for young adults and unaccompanied youth—one in Rainier Beach, and one at the Orion Center near downtown. (Details and updates, including information about shelters outside Seattle, are available on the KCRHA website.)

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the authority has “a couple conversations still in motion based on provider capacity” for opening day centers on short notice, but for now, they’re encouraging people to warm up in shopping malls and public libraries.

One reason short-term winter shelters are often underutilized, service providers say, is that people don’t want to abandon their encampments to go to a place they’ll have to leave first thing in the morning. Day centers can help alleviate this issue, but they work best when they’re co-located with shelter, so that people don’t have to pack up and walk to a different place during the day before returning to shelter at night.

“I’m glad that people’s consciences are pricked when the temperature dips, as they should be, but let’s not kid ourselves—leaving people outside in 34-degree weather is equally bad for their health.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

This is the KCRHA’s first time coordinating winter weather shelter since taking over responsibility for homeless services from the city, which eventually opened shelters in three locations—two in Seattle Center, and one at City Hall—plus several daytime warming centers during the last winter weather emergency in December.

For now, the authority plans to keep the shelters open through Saturday, when temperatures are expected to rise above freezing. To Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, freezing-weather shelters are a wholly inadequate response to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness.

“I’m glad that people’s consciences are pricked when the temperature dips, as they should be, but let’s not kid ourselves—leaving people outside in 34-degree weather is equally bad for their health,” Eisinger said. In January alone, at least 21 men died while living unsheltered in Seattle.

The location of the authority’s single overnight shelter in downtown Seattle also highlights an obvious challenge for plans, announced last week, to reduce the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero”: Downtown Seattle is the region’s nexus for homeless services. Whether the goal is to provide meaningful shelter and housing or simply to move unsheltered people to sanctioned encampments elsewhere, placing services downtown means that people will come downtown to access services.

Speaking about the authority’s “Pathway to Zero” plan last week, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said that they believe it will be possible to reach “functional zero” homelessness downtown by first figuring out how many people come into downtown through “inflow” points like the King County Jail, Harborview, and other sources, then immediately working to connect them with resources elsewhere.

“The things that are going to contribute to inflow into the downtown core are going nowhere any time soon. I don’t control them,” Dones said. “My goal in the design of this work… was to say, ‘How can we build that sustainable ecosystem that is able to quite literally meet new folks as they show up and begin to immediately triage and work to say, Where are we going? What do you need? How can we make sure that you are able to get there?'”

Eisinger said that neither “putting people into fenced areas” nor the authority’s “Pathway to Zero” proposal constitutes a meaningful plan to address homelessness in downtown Seattle.

“Personally, having worked in Pioneer Square for 15 years, I am sick and tired of public officials abdicating their responsibility for genuine health, safety, and wellbeing for Seattle residents, including those who don’t have homes, privacy, security, bathrooms, or garbage removal, and then coming up with half-considered, at best, proposals that they think will make downtown business interests happy,” Eisinger said. “You know what makes a plan? Specific, well-considered, funded additional resources that meet the needs of people who have been abandoned by this city for years, including for the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Private Donations Will Fund “Peer Navigators,” Launch Plan to “Dramatically Reduce” Downtown Homelessness

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private "Partnership for Zero" Thursday
Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private “Partnership for Zero” Thursday

By Erica C. Barnett

King County and the city of Seattle announced today that they will use $10 million in one-time private funding to launch a new “Partnership for Zero” campaign focused on downtown Seattle in which “peer navigators”—case managers with lived experience of homelessness—will work to “navigate” people experiencing homelessness downtown into shelter and housing. Each peer navigator will work directly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and have a relatively small caseload of clients experiencing homelessness downtown.

At a press conference Thursday morning, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the public-private partnership would fund a new approach that, unlike existing outreach and case management efforts downtown and elsewhere, will provide “longitudinal” case managers who will work with clients to find services and housing and then keep working with them after they become housed.

Currently, Dones said, “So many of the things that we provide are these leaky hallways where, yes, we put people on a path, but …we see people drop out constantly. It’s the relational architecture that we see in communities that have implemented this well that actually drives success.”

PubliCola reported exclusively on the peer navigator proposal last week.

Today’s announcement adds new details about how the homelessness authority plans to deploy these new workers and its five-phase plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness,” starting with the downtown business district.

In addition to 30 peer navigators—a number Dones said could ultimately grow to 70 or more—the one-time contribution will fund 15 “incident responders,” who will “focused on immediate crisis response for deescalation,” according to King County Regional Homelessness Authority spokeswoman Anne Martens. These responders would supplement, not replace, Health One and Triage One, two specialized units within the Seattle Fire Department that respond to crisis calls that do not require an ambulance or police response, Dones said Thursday.

The announcement includes more details about a consolidated “unified command center” to which Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell alluded in his state of the city speech last week—part of the first phase of the “Partnership for Zero” five-phase plan the KCRHA says it will use in neighborhoods across the city, starting downtown.

The center will include a Joint Information Center (similar to the JIC at the city’s existing Emergency Operations Center) and a “multi-agency coordinating body” that will include representatives from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. This coordinating body will be “empowered to prioritize and allocate private resources such as funding, property, or personnel,” according to the announcement.

The announcement does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time spending for the 45 new employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out.

Subsequent phases of the plan will include the creation of a “by-name list” of people experiencing homelessness downtown; a “draw down” period in which peer navigators, having “establish[ed] the trust needed to help people move from homeless to housed,” relocate the entire downtown homeless population to shelter and services; and a “hold steady” period, in which the authority responds quickly to address any “new individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the target areas.”

The announcement—perhaps aiming to avoid the fate that befell the region’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness by 2015—does not include a date to reach its goal of zero homelessness. But Dones told PubliCola they “feel confident that we can execute on placements for the folks who are currently living downtown, with what the system is slated to generate this year and already has available through natural turnover,” within a year. Those placements, Dones said, will include spots in new permanent supportive housing projects as well as Emergency Housing Vouchers from the federal government.

After that, Dones continued, the homelessness authority will need more resources to keep the momentum going. “Revenue generation is not a power we have, so my role on that is limited to advocacy,” Dones said.

Last year, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association, whose membership includes most of the operations that chipped in for the $10 million gift, sued the city unsuccessfully to overturn a payroll tax on large corporations that will fund housing, equitable development, and jobs programs in Seattle.

Downtown Seattle has always been the epicenter of homelessness in Seattle; it’s where most homeless services are located, and it’s where people end up when they leave the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center or the King County Jail. Setting up a system in which people who happen to be homeless downtown have more access to resources, such as peer navigators and potentially shelter and housing, will almost certainly attract some number of additional unsheltered people into the area, Dones acknowledged. “It’s unrealistic to say that there won’t be some people who see this as an opportunity to get support and make a decision to try to engage with that support through what we are providing,” they said.

But DSA director Jon Scholes told PubliCola that he believes downtown will look substantially different, with “fewer people on the streets,” within a year. The new peer navigator approach “means that if you end up homeless on the streets, or in an alley, or in a park, that there’s somebody there that’s gonna engage with you immediately,” Scholes said. “And over time, that population is not going to be as large.”

The partnership does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time funding for the 45 new KCRHA employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out. “Our system doesn’t have enough money,” Dones said Thursday, particularly for “spaces for people to be.” A key question raised by skeptics of the homelessness authority’s emphasis on peer navigators is where the agency plans to navigate people to.

King County has been slowly adding hotel-based housing and shelter units across the region through its sales tax-funded Health Through Housing program. The hotels have, at times, been controversial (nearby residents have vociferously opposed plans to open one Health Through Housing hotel in Kirkland, for example). And they aren’t a permanent housing solution for everyone: The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Mary Pilgrim Inn in North Seattle, which serves chronically homeless people, including active drug users, has had to kick out a number of guests for disruptive behavior.

Because the donation is one-time, today’s announcement creates a fiscal cliff after the first year of operations that the city of Seattle or King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—will have to fill. Authority CEO Marc Dones has said they believe the agency will be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for the program’s operation costs after the first year, although the council expressed skepticism about this plan last year when it declined to immediately fund the program. Continue reading “Private Donations Will Fund “Peer Navigators,” Launch Plan to “Dramatically Reduce” Downtown Homelessness”

Homelessness Authority To Announce One-Time Philanthropic Funding for “Peer Navigators” Downtown

Tents across the street from City Hall.
Tents across the street from City Hall.

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority will announce a large, one-time philanthropic contribution next week that will fund startup costs for a “peer navigator” program at the authority, PubliCola has learned. The money to stand up the program will come from a combination of major corporate donors and foundation grants. It’s unclear whether next week’s announcement will also include funding for new shelter, such as the high-acuity medical shelter that the city council partially funded last year.

Peer navigators are case managers with lived experience who help “navigate” people experiencing homelessness into services, shelter, and housing. Last year, the KCRHA asked the Seattle City Council for $7.6 million to hire 69 navigators who would each work with about 15 clients in downtown Seattle. The council declined to immediately fund the program, and asked the authority to come back with a “system-wide needs assessment” that would look at other organizations doing similar or redundant work and include a plan for sustainable long-term funding.

The KCRHA declined to respond to questions about next week’s announcement, which will reportedly involve funding from Challenge Seattle (former governor Chris Gregoire’s CEO roundtable, which weighed in recently on chronic homelessness) and We Are In, a homelessness “education and awareness project” backed by the Gates Foundation, Vulcan, the Ballmer Group, the Seattle Chamber, and the United Way, among others. (Neither Challenge Seattle nor We Are In responded to PubliCola’s requests for comment.)

The question of “navigation to where?” is as relevant now as it was last year, when the city council first debated whether to fund the program

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell, who will be participating in the announcement, also declined to comment until next week.

The KCRHA has already advertised two peer navigator program co-director positions whose $100,000 to $130,000 salaries will be funded by We Are In. According to the job description, “The role of a peer navigator is to accompany and advocate for people across systems. The peer navigator will be a consistent presence, from initial engagement through permanent housing.”

When KCRHA director Marc Dones sought one-time city funding to set up the peer navigator program last year, they said the agency planned to use one-time funds to get the program up and running and seek reimbursement from Medicaid to pay for the program’s ongoing operation costs after the first year. If the plan is still to fund the program through Medicaid after its first year, the concerns council members raised last year about the program’s sustainability remain relevant.

Council members who supported the peer navigation idea in concept noted last year that Medicaid is notoriously picky about what sort of services it will pay for. “I understand that Medicaid reimburses, for example, for 15-minute allotments only, and what I understand from some of our community partners who provide similar peer support systems, outreach and engagement systems, [is that meeting with clients] often takes two to three hours,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said at the time.

A two-tiered system in which the KCRHA pays much higher wages than nonprofits can offer for similar positions could worsen the staffing crisis at existing agencies, nonprofit service providers noted.

Responding to questions at the same meeting from Councilmember Tammy Morales, council central staffer Jeff Simms said, “there’s a lot of questions regarding that potential.” If Medicaid doesn’t agree to fund the program, Simms continued, “in the long term, we’d be looking at needing to find a different way to pay for this type of approach.” The KCRHA receives most of its funding from the city of Seattle, with the balance coming from King County.

Asked about Medicaid reimbursement for peer navigators, in general, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens  pointed us to a Medicaid waiver program that could potentially “reimburse accreditation of peers as well as reimburse for their time.” Some local homeless service providers, including Catholic Community Services, receive funding to help high-risk clients, including those experiencing chronic homelessness, through a  program called  Foundational Community Supports. Nonetheless, this remains an area of uncertainty for the future of a program funded with one-time philanthropic donations.

Another significant outstanding question is whether peer navigators are the best use of limited philanthropic and government resources for homelessness. The question of “navigation to where?” is as relevant now as it was last year, when the city council first debated whether to fund the program. During the four years of the Durkan administration, Seattle added just 350 new permanent shelter beds as the total number of people experiencing homelessness surged. If peer navigators are just another kind of case manager for people living outdoors, their effectiveness will be constrained by the lack of off-ramps leading people out of homelessness in Seattle—off-ramps such as non-congregate shelter, long-term rent assistance, and permanent supportive housing. Continue reading “Homelessness Authority To Announce One-Time Philanthropic Funding for “Peer Navigators” Downtown”

Parking Officer Falsified Tickets, Canceled Homeless Count Un-Canceled, City Pays to Clean Up Mess at Police Firing Range, and More

1. Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released its first investigation into misconduct by a parking enforcement officer since the city’s parking enforcement unit moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year. OPA investigators found that the officer had falsified more than 100 parking citations and warnings to appear more productive.

The officer’s supervisor complained to the OPA after a review of the officer’s work turned up more than a dozen warnings and citations issued to the same car in a short time span—supervisors later learned that the car belonged to the mother of the officer’s children. Looking deeper into the officer’s work log, supervisors discovered that his GPS location often didn’t match the location of cars he cited. The officer later confessed to the OPA that he pretended to be productive by creating warnings or citations for nearby vehicles and listing an inaccurate location for the non-existent parking violation. The OPA determined that the officer had committed perjury and fraud, leaving SDOT leadership to decide how to discipline him.

The OPA’s investigation began while the parking enforcement unit was still housed within SPD, but it concluded after the unit moved to SDOT in the summer of 2021. The OPA is still technically a part of SPD, but the city’s ongoing efforts to move some law enforcement functions out of the police department has expanded the OPA’s footprint; the parking enforcement officer’s case, the first OPA has referred to SDOT for discipline, is a prime example. The OPA also has jurisdiction over the city’s 911 dispatchers, who moved out of SPD last year into the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center.

2. In a reversal of a decision announced late last year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will perform an in-person manual count of the region’s homeless population in March. According to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, the March count will serve as the official Point In Time (PIT) Count for King County. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires homelessness agencies, including the KCRHA, to physically count the unsheltered homeless population in the area they oversee every two years, although King County has historically done an annual count.

The last scheduled count, in 2021, was scuttled by COVID. In announcing their initial decision to skip this year’s count, the agency argued that because the count is only required in odd-numbered years, “2022 is not a required year.” HUD disagreed and said that KCRHA could be penalized in future requests for federal funding, but Martens told PubliCola in December that HUD had agreed to waive the requirement after the agency announced a new tally based on data obtained from homeless service providers, among other sources.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee earlier this month, authority CEO Marc Dones characterized the March head count as “a rough count” and noted that the authority is basing its planning on the data-based estimate of 45,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County in 2019. That number dropped to around 40,000 in 2020, largely because fewer people were accessing the homeless services on which that estimate is based.

Martens said the March head count “will be deemed a PIT Count for HUD purposes.” The agency will also be doing qualitative research to determine “the ‘why’ and the context around homelessness… to help us build our system in a way that centers people with lived experience,” Martens said.

3. The city of Seattle has paid more than $140,000 to clean up a wetland in Tukwila after the Seattle Police Athletic Association (SPAA), a 70-year-old nonprofit that runs a clubhouse and firing range for Seattle police officers, dumped truckloads of dirt, tires, concrete and other debris onto the marshy banks of the Duwamish River last year.

SPAA is currently not paying for any part of the restoration effort; instead, that burden falls to Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), which owns part of property occupied by the gun range. FAS spokesperson Melissa Mixon told PubliCola that her department can’t comment on whether SPAA will contribute to the restoration costs because of pending litigation.

As PubliCola reported last year, the association used the dirt and debris, which came from an unknown construction site in the Seattle area, to build a backstop for the association’s firing range. Tukwila’s code enforcement office issued a stop-work order in May. According to Mixon, the city is still working to restore the site and is “staying on target with deadlines discussed with Tukwila.”

4. Seattle Public Library employees who staffed library branches during the recent winter weather emergency will receive retroactive payments of $150 for every shift they worked between December 24 and January 3. Former mayor Jenny Durkan issued an executive order providing incentive pay to all “frontline” executive-branch employees on December 24, but because the library is not an executive department, the offer did not extend to library staffers. According to an SPL spokeswoman, the payments will go out to all eligible employees, including library associates, librarians, security officers, and custodial workers, once it’s approved by the library union.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett


County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

Support PubliCola

Hey! Did you know PubliCola runs entirely on contributions from readers like you?

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’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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 of any amount, 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.

Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

“It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice, and freezing temperatures closed in on Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in the downtown Seattle area, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The emphasis on the center city reflected an implicit assumption that most people living unsheltered in Seattle either live near the center city or could get there easily on public transit, using transit passes or the free bus tickets the city’s outreach teams distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, over in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. Since 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has run an occasional, informal shelter out of the American Legion hall on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of local unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. Initially, Hughes opened the building, which is owned by the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for unsheltered people “to get dry and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six people” would often sit under an overhang in front of the building to get out of the rain. Later, when the temperature dipped into the 20s, “I couldn’t get myself to throw them back out of the building,” so he started keeping the building open on the coldest night of the  year.

“I started it because it needed to be,” Hughes, who is 74, said. “The hall is there, not getting used, 95 percent of the time, so I decided it needed to get used.”

Ordinarily, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests a night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year was shaping up to be much the same as previous winters—until the county, city, and Seattle Times included the shelter on their official, public lists of available shelters just after Christmas.

“I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”—Keith Hughes, volunteer operator, West Seattle Veterans Center shelter

The result, Hughes said, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and suddenly I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, and SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health clinic, and Navos Mental Health [in Burien], asking if I had space in my shelter. I’m not a professional. I’m not a mental health counselor. I’m not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “being run by three people with no training, zero support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so that people would” volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances when shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations they were underqualified to deal with, including “at least one person in mental distress that was sent from another shelter” and a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who involuntarily “crapped all over the place” and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.

“Somebody brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from an abusive family—they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and a pair of pants, so they brought her in,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every single phone number I could get my hands on for, like, a women’s shelter— I only have so much knowledge about this—and nobody ever called me back.”

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically, all the city did was add me to the list of shelters out there and made my address public, which doubled the number of people that showed up,” Hughes said. “On really cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of which were being sent to me directly from mental health facilities. I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”

It’s unclear who, exactly, made the decision to list the West Seattle site on both the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s list of available shelters. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD staffer who now works as a senior advisor to the KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside downtown Seattle, and initially advocating against making the shelter location public.

“The facility didn’t report being above capacity, and was only at capacity on one night according to the census counts provided. Keeping open capacity hidden from the community seems counter to the point of opening emergency severe weather shelter.”—Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city listed the shelter after it became a “funder,” which it did by agreeing to pay Hughes’ higher-than-average utility bills during the official winter emergency—the only reimbursement the city has offered. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, which (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional staff, services, and supplies associated with the winter shelters they operated. Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the city “had to list” the shelter once it became a funder, which was inaccurate. PubliCola regrets the error.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly advertise that the shelter was open. “The shelter was listed in the broader news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) prior to HSD listing it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on 12/25, prior to HSD sharing it as well.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city wasn’t primarily responsible for making Seattle residents aware of what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, the city’s public information officers, including Franklin, directed the media to use and link to the HSD website in stories about available shelter; the KCRHA’s winter shelter blog post also directed visitors back to the city’s website. Continue reading ““It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter”