By Erica C. Barnett
A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.
At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.
The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.
The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.
How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.
This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.
“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”
The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.
Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.
“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.
Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.
In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.
“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”
The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”