The city of Seattle must hold its homeless-service providers accountable and prove that its contracting reforms are working.
To maintain public support for its extensive spending on homelessness, Seattle must hold service-providers accountable.
City officials promised over the last three years to improve contracts with service-providers after internal and external reviews found shortcomings. In some cases the city wasn’t holding vendors accountable when they failed to perform or meet standards, wasting resources and weakening the city’s response.
The centerpiece of this overhaul was a new contracting process concluded in late 2017. The city rebid contracts with homeless-service providers, including what were supposed to be strict performance standards. It also increased its homelessness budget to $63 million.
But despite these changes, a large and influential service provider that failed to fulfill a key obligation of its contract will face no penalties, according to a recent report by Times Project Homeless reporter Vianna Davila.
For more than three months, the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) did not provide the required case management at a new sanctioned homeless encampment in Wallingford that opened in March. A hygiene truck didn’t show up until June, Davila reported.
Case managers are essential to connect occupants to services, including longer-term housing. Despite pledges to be firm with vendors, city officials didn’t link LIHI’s pay to performance on this project.
The city also endorsed LIHI’s excuse that it’s not getting enough funding. Both sides should have worked that out before signing a contract agreeing to provide a list of services for a certain price.
Imagine if this were a contractor who promised to remodel a bathroom for $10,000 by March. If they failed to install the sink until July, then said $10,000 wasn’t enough because plumbers are scarce and expensive, there would be consequences.
Seattle’s inability to stick with budgets is a longstanding problem. But the public, which is taxed heavily by the city, expects the city to write strong contracts and hold vendors accountable when they don’t fulfill their contractual obligations.
“It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary,” said Jon Fine, president and CEO of United Way of King County, which has worked with the city on improving its homelessness response.
Seattle’s interim human-services director, Jason Johnson, said the city has improved contracting and is holding LIHI accountable, but not financially. He said the city was OK with opening the encampment before services were available on site.
Helping people in crisis as quickly as possible is important and the ultimate goal is to shelter and house those in need and end the epidemic of homelessness. There are enormous societal and economic challenges that make this difficult.
Even so, those can’t be excuses for low performance by municipalities and their vendors. Because there are limits on how much cities can spend on this subset of their populations, they must be as efficient and effective as possible. That is accomplished by making good contracts with service providers and sticking to them after they’re signed.
Seattle residents and businesses are generous in funding these programs, but their support will diminish if the city doesn’t fulfill its promise to hold vendors accountable. The onus is now on the city to prove that its contracting reforms are working as promised.