Six months ago, two consultants told the city of Seattle it could shelter most of the homeless without any additional money. So why are we being asked to pony up $275 million?
Last fall, two consultants appeared before the Seattle City Council with a surprising message: After nearly a year of study, they had concluded Seattle could make a serious dent in the homelessness problem without spending any additional money.
“We believe homelessness in King County can be dramatically reduced using existing resources,” said a key finding from Focus Strategies, a Sacramento firm paid $75,000 to audit local homelessness programs.
The other consultant, Ohio-based Barbara Poppe, said the big issue wasn’t money so much as the well-meaning but wasteful ways it’s being spent.
“The current level of public funding investment is strong,” she wrote in a $102,000 report to the council. “Homelessness has been increasing despite increasing investment in programs. This trend is expected to continue unless a new approach is adopted.”
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Cut to six months later. Seattle, to its credit, has begun revamping its homelessness services as advised by the reports — but it has by no means ventured very far. Yet the city is asking voters for more money already anyway, in the form of a $275 million property-tax levy that would double what the city spends each year.
What happened to using existing resources?
The short answer is that gazillionaire Nick Hanauer decided to “throw down” a tax-levy initiative, and the city is running with it.
The longer answer is city officials believe they can do two tricky things — change and expand — at the same time.
“I do think it would be better timing to put in more changes first and then ask for additional funding,” says City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “But I think even those consultants now agree that the emergency is greater than they thought when they did those reports.”
I asked Poppe what she thought. Do we need more money?
As with all things involving homelessness, her answer was complicated.
“My reaction is that the programs called out in the tax proposal are in alignment with the approach we were suggesting, so that’s very encouraging,” she said. “But whether the city can shift how it’s spending its existing resources, as we recommended … that’s where your politics come into play.
“You have these long Seattle processes that go on and on,” she said.
Last fall’s reports said that by reorienting whom the shelters serve and shifting money to more permanent housing, the city could free up enough capacity in the existing shelter system to get almost everyone off the streets.
“Your shelter capacity is sufficient to shelter all unsheltered adults and families within a year’s time,” one of the consultants, Megan Kurteff Schatz, told the council.
That obviously isn’t going to happen. Perhaps it was too bold a claim. Poppe did edge away from some of the more sweeping statements in her report, saying it was based on 2014 data, when homelessness numbers were lower, so “it’s plausible to me that you might need some additional dollars now.”
But she said the true political challenge remains: how to shift money away from some groups that have been getting it for decades. Of 205 shelters and low-income housing projects reviewed countywide by Focus Strategies, 51 were judged to be “low-performing” for return on taxpayer dollar. To get better results, politicians may have to lop off some social-service providers, who have huge hearts but aren’t cutting it.
“Every big city that has made progress on homelessness has been able to do this,” Poppe said.
Seattle isn’t just any big city. My guess is our City Hall will struggle mightily at saying “no.” Especially as voters are likely to send them $275 million first, removing any urgency from the task.
This has been the shakiest rollout of a tax levy I can recall. The spending level was announced before there was a plan for how to spend it. And then prime sponsor Hanauer, who doesn’t live in the city, taunted the citizens in a medieval interview, telling us his idea was unstoppable and to “get on or get run over.”
Would it be too much to ask, Mr. Hanauer, for some gruel … I mean, for the city to demonstrate it can follow the hard-nosed advice of its own consultants first?
Probably, but here’s asking it anyway.