Mayor’s reports: Seattle homeless funding should shift from transitional to permanent housing

Amid the hundreds of pages of data heavy, jargon-laden new reports on Seattle’s homeless crisis, there is a consensus that the city needs to dramatically shift how it spends some $50 million in annual homeless prevention funding to a so-called “housing first” strategy.

Mayor Ed Murray embraced the findings of the two consultant reports released Thursday in a plan that he says will set a new course for how the city approaches homelessness (all three documents are posted here).

“We can no longer wait to take action, so today, we are changing course,” he said. “These reports represent both a dramatic challenge to our City, and an urgent call to action.”

In addition to bolstering programs that focus on housing people before providing additional services, Murray’s plan, called Pathways Home, calls for the city to prioritize services towards those who have been homeless the longest, improve rapid re-housing programs to get recently homeless people into available market-rate housing, and require service providers to use a common database to better connect people to housing.

Murray’s plan also calls for the city’s Human Services Department to take on a new role by working directly with homeless people to find housing. HSD’s primary function is to contract with service providers. According to the report, there are currently over 500 families living unsheltered as they wait for housing — a group that Murray’s reforms are aimed at housing first.

The plan is based of two comprehensive consultant reports released Thursday. Barbra Poppe was hired by Murray earlier this year to asses the city’s homeless crisis and recommend changes. Her report largely builds off her work as the former head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. She recommends the city divest in certain transitional housing programs in favor of housing first programs while required service providers to take a more data driven, accountability-focused approach to moving people into housing.

The second report from California-based firm Focus Strategies dove into the state of Seattle’s current homeless services and how effectively it spends resources. Here are some of the report’s key recommendations and datapoints:

Recommendations

  • “Urgent and bold action are required”
  • The city should “shift to become more funder-driven and person-centered.”
  • A significant number of people entering homeless programs in King County were not “literally homeless” – meaning they were not living outdoors, in vehicles, or in an emergency shelter. The city should focus on those people first.
  • Shelter diversion should be attempted for all households seeking shelter
  • Shelters need to be required to meet performance targets and re-orient their work to focus on helping people exit to permanent housing as quickly as possible.
  • Invest in interventions that are high performing and dis-invest in those that are less effective. “This includes bringing rapid re-housing to scale and cutting back investment in lower performing transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and other permanent housing .”
  • Researchers said all unsheltered families and single adults could be sheltered by the end of 2017 if the city made “more strategic use” of current permanent affordable housing.

Data

  • The most pressing data quality issue identified is the degree of “unknown” exit destinations for those who exit.data
  • Nearly half of the city’s homeless services budget and programs are geared towards transitional housing and emergency shelters.

program costs

  • Transitional housing is extraordinarily expensive at more than $20,000 for each single adult exit and $32,627 for each family. By contrast, rapid re-housing, despite exit rates being less than ideal, only costs $11,507 per household, about a third the cost of transitional housing.
  • Families in transitional housing stay an average of 527 days.

avg len stay

  • Men, people with disabilities, African-Americans, and Native Americans are disproportionately represented in the shelter population compared to the broader population. White, Asian, and Hispanic people are under-represented in the shelter population.

On Thursday, Poppe and the Focus Strategies group presented some of their findings to the City Council’s human services committee. Council members appeared to be left with more questions than answers after the presentation.

Council member Lisa Herbold questioned the idea that there is enough capacity to house all homeless people as it assumes people would use the housing options currently available.

According to Poppe, the city should primarily focus on housing families with young children as they are the most vulnerable population. But that’s not so cut and dry, according to City Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who said a young homeless woman who has been a victim of sexual assault may be equally as vulnerable.

While Poppe has been an outspoken critic of Seattle’s encampments, the reports did not delve into the issue. One Wednesday, the council voted to consider a proposal that would put structure around how the city removes homeless encampments and forcing officials to provide alternatives to people displaced by the sweeps.

Seattle’s heightened focus on homelessness began in November, when Murray unlocked $7.3 million in one-time homeless services spending as part of his declaration of a homeless state of emergency.

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8 thoughts on “Mayor’s reports: Seattle homeless funding should shift from transitional to permanent housing

  1. In theory, the “housing-first” model seems like a good approach. However, I am concerned that many whose rent is paid for a few months will return to homelessness once the subsidy ends….which is likely for those with drug/alcohol addictions. They need intensive treatment as well as housing, if the effort to help them is to be successful.

    Am I the only one who is surprised that many of those in shelters are not actually homeless?

    • There’s also some interesting statistics out there that show there’s quite the contingent who don’t want housing. Some don’t want the rules, some don’t want to abide by social norms, some have mental problems, and others just want a free ride.

    • There’s been talk of providing housing for drug addicts based on the 1811 Eastlake model, where alcoholics are allowed to drink in their rooms. It’s a lot easier and cheaper than holding them in the drunk tank or a night in ER. And some of them are now recovering alcoholics.

      It’s also much easier to connect with jobs and services when you have a stable living situation. If you live in the Jungle, the recent clean-up was probably the first contact you’ve had with a social worker.

      Yea, there are some with a deep distrust or who don’t want to give up their “freedom.” But a housing first initiative in Salt Lake City dropped the homeless rolls by 91%, and they’re still working on that last 9%. I’d say that’s a pretty successful standard to shoot for.

    • I agree that the 1811 Eastlake building is a great program, and a pragmatic approach to those with alcohol addiction. However, it must be very expensive….first, to construct the building, then to maintain it and provide social services….so I’m not sure it’s affordable for the City to expand that model. Yes, the Salt Lake City program has been very successful….but they have far fewer homeless people there compared to Seattle.

    • Holding people in jail or the ER has a much higher cost in the long run. And at the outset of the program in SLC, there was an estimated homeless population of about 1900 in a city of 180K-190K. Seattle and SLC face many different challenges, but the scale makes me think it might be achievable.

  2. I listened to a report on NPR last night that cautioned against anecdotal evidence for making decisions on how to deal with homelessness. I, for one, am glad they took the time to gather data, and called in “experts” to render an informed opinion. There may be data about those who don’t want a home, but from what I was hearing last night, it’s not the majority. The majority who are “rapidly housed” never return to homelessness.

  3. So, this is the second report in a couple of years that basically says, in big bold letters, that permanent housing is the best/only long term way to get people off the streets, and that temporary sheltering and in-situ options are nearly useless. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the Council’s response, but I get the feeling that they keep pushing back against this very logical idea. I realize it’s an expensive option, but I still find their hesitation very strange.

  4. Many /over 50 0/0 are already on a waiting list to get housing at 5 0/0 to 10 0/0 of rent that is asked for a given rental.the prob is that it take between 1yr and 3.5 yes to get a place and in the mean time the person waiting has to check in once a month and in some cases once a week and if they miss a check-in they go back to the bottom of the waiting list. If they g9 to jail or are in the hospital or prison or mental hospital or mental observation or are home vomiting and miss the check in. They to bottom of list. Or if a person has them under there thumb for crime and don’t let them go like white slavery is another situation were they go to bottom of waiting list.