Tag: peer navigators

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”