By Erica C. Barnett
An outreach worker from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority—one of dozens of “systems advocates” working to shelter or house people experiencing homelessness in downtown Seattle—showed up at the Low Income Housing Institute’s Interbay tiny house village last month with an unusual offer: Get up tomorrow morning and come down to a street corner in Belltown, and the KCRHA can get you in housing right away, no waiting required.
The only catch, according to multiple people familiar with the offer, was that they would have to “exit” the tiny house program, giving up their shelter in exchange for the keys to a new apartment. The reason for this, the system advocate reportedly told the village residents, is that the housing was only available to people who were living on the streets, not those in shelter.
The KCRHA’s systems advocates are part of a public-private partnership between the KCRHA and corporate and philanthropic funders called Partnership for Zero, whose goal is to eliminate visible homelessness in downtown Seattle by sheltering or housing everyone living unsheltered between SoDo and South Lake Union. Partnership for Zero resources are supposed to go exclusively to people living unsheltered downtown.
Four people took the systems advocate up on his offer, LIHI director Sharon Lee confirmed.
“People actually got up early, showered, and got ready. They were highly motivated to go downtown,” Lee said. Later that day, “they came back really disappointed. They felt like they were bring tricked.” LIHI did not exit anyone from the tiny houses. If they had, they would have had to change the former residents’ status in the official Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) used by government agencies and nonprofits around the county, and made the beds they had occupied available to other homeless people seeking shelter.
KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens confirmed that the system advocate (whom PubliCola is not naming) told the tiny house village residents to come downtown. “System Advocate leadership was alerted to the issue of some people from Interbay being mistakenly invited into downtown, and immediately intervened” to stop it, she said.
“My understanding is that the [System Advocate] Team has ensured that people enrolled at the Interbay village would remain enrolled there,” Martens continued. Martens said “disciplinary action has been taken” against the employee.
“I think people got really unsettled and felt like they were tricked [by] someone who offered to give them housing and didn’t deliver.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee
Lee, from LIHI, said the Interbay village residents who went down to Belltown expecting to be housed weren’t just inconvenienced; the experience added to their disillusionment with the homelessness and housing system. “I think people got really unsettled and felt like they were tricked [by] someone who offered to give them housing and didn’t deliver,” Lee said. LIHI did not make any of the people who went downtown at the urging of KCRHA’s systems advocate available for an interview.
The systems advocacy program, originally designed as a “peer navigation” program in which people with lived experience of homelessness would guide unsheltered people through every step of the housing process, has changed substantially since its inception. The original, “longitudinal” style of case management is gone, replaced by a more conventional model in which system advocates specialize in individual parts of the housing process for each client.
Additionally, the downtown area is now divided into five “zones” spanning the area from South Lake Union to the Chinatown-International District, and will be working with people in one zone at a time instead of addressing all of downtown simultaneously. This may have contributed to the system advocate’s impression that people needed to go to a specific area—in this case, Belltown—to access housing. According to Martens, the agency made the change “to address a more diffuse and more mobile unhoused population than the large concentrated encampments that Partnership for Zero has previously resolved.”
Under Mayor Bruce Harrell, the city has conducted many encampment sweeps in the area Partnership for Zero covers; anecdotal evidence suggests that as a result, unsheltered people are more mobile and often sleep out in the open, rather than in groups of tents.
When Partnership for Zero was first announced in February 2022, KCRHA and We Are In, the philanthropic group in charge of meting out the private funding, predicted moving the last stragglers out of downtown by as early as February of this year. Once this “draw down,” period was complete, the agency would begin a “hold steady” phase in which the system advocates could quickly divert new people arriving in downtown Seattle to shelter or housing.
This optimistic schedule did not pan out. Currently, according to Martens, the system advocates have 103 people on their outreach caseload, “which is the maximum that they can carry,” and have housed 212 people as of Friday.