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