A long-overdue plan presents an alternate future to make the homeless-shelter system more cost effective. Will Seattle have the will to follow it?
For the past year or more, Seattle’s fractious politics around homelessness have focused on the rapidly expanding number of tent encampments. Allow them? Sweep them? Send in port-a-potties or cops?
Missing from the debate has been a big-picture plan to fix this wealthy region’s clearly broken response to homelessness.
Well, the city now has a plan. It may need some tweaks, but city, county, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders need to galvanize political will and put it in action.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, showing good leadership, hired a former Obama administration homeless coordinator to critique the city’s homeless spending. The official, Barbara Poppe, shakes her head at Seattle’s uneasy tolerance of tent camps and recommends a wholesale shake up of how the city spends its homeless dollars.
“You can do what has worked in other communities, or you can do what you’ve been doing,” she told The Seattle Times editorial board. “What do you have to lose by trying this?”
Her recommendations are backed by reams of data from another consultant showing the sketchy returns for the $85 million a year spent (in federal, state, county, city and philanthropic dollars) in King County fighting homelessness. It pays for a dizzying array of 16,902 beds in shelters, transitional and permanent supportive housing. They are, with few exceptions, routinely full.
But the best measure of how well this system is working, according to the experts and common sense, is whether people leave these beds for permanent housing.
By that metric, it’s not working, despite all that spending. The returns are especially bad in emergency shelters. Just 17 percent of single adults and 31 percent of families leave emergency shelter for permanent housing. A core group of single adults drifts through the system, returning again and again.
The analysis, written by a Sacramento-based group called Focus Strategies, puts a dollar figure on inefficiency. In transitional housing programs — which are about a quarter of total spending — the average cost to get a person into permanent housing is a whopping $20,000.
The data analysis presents an alternate future. Simply put: Shift money away from programs that don’t get people into permanent housing. Spend some upfront on training and data collection. Long term, spend much more on “rapid rehousing,” a diversion model that relies on rent subsidies.
And — presto! — the existing capacity of the King County homeless system is big enough to get everyone inside, and out of the tents, the analysis suggests.
It won’t be that easy, of course. People are not just data points. Some of the plan’s assumptions seem unrealistic. This alternate future, for example, leaves aside the tragic consequences of the regional heroin epidemic. It also assumes better cooperation from a private rental market seized by rent prices escalating faster than the Space Needle elevator.
But at last the city has a plan. Now it needs to be put into action. All Home King County, the umbrella agency coordinating homelessness response, has refocused since the failed Ten Year Plan to End Homeless expired in 2015 and should be a solid partner.
The biggest obstacle might be the Seattle City Council. It must move beyond the noisy focus on tents and actually cut well-meaning but inefficient programs so the money can be diverted to more cost-effective interventions.
The plan also assumes a $10 million upfront investment. Murray, displaying one of his faults as a mayor, floated the idea that taxpayers might need to “step up.” If it were so urgent, why didn’t the recently approved housing levy include that money, Mr. Mayor? Better yet, other cities must step up. Seattle already pays for more than half of the countywide system.
The urgency for this shake-up is in people’s faces daily in Seattle. A compassionate, affluent city must not tolerate circumstances that, just last week, left a 19-year-old homeless man to camp at the Interstate 5 offramp to the University District — only to be run over by a reckless driver. What kind a city tolerates that?