The city of Seattle’s latest approach to move homeless people off the street, the “enhanced” emergency shelter model that combines social services with 24-hour shelter, had some promising results last year.
But a recent update from the city’s Human Services Department showed problems remain with the city’s costly web of homeless services.
Accountability measures implemented two years ago are failing to work as promised. The city is responding by weakening them, lowering penalties for service providers that don’t meet city performance standards. They will receive 92 percent of their pay regardless of performance this year, up from 88 percent in 2012.
New data shows 15 of the 25 enhanced shelters, run by private nonprofits getting incentive pay to move people into permanent housing, failed to meet their goals in 2018. City employees are working with those shelters to give them the technical help and advice they need, which is good. Adjusting performance targets based on learning during the rollout of this new approach is also reasonable. But the city must maintain standards and hold vendors accountable to ensure progress.
Lower penalties come as the city gives raises to human services providers, increasing pay above what they sought when contracts were rebid in 2017, despite a majority failing to meet goals. They’ll receive 2 % raises in 2019 and 2020 under the new city budget.
These nonprofits are appreciated for providing critical services in difficult conditions. Like most employers in Seattle, they struggle with high costs. But support and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Inefficiencies and weak city oversight have wasted dollars that could be spent helping more people.
Seattle says 3,559 households received permanent housing and 704 were prevented from becoming homeless in 2018 with city-funded homeless services. That’s a combined 17 percent increase over the previous year. Those are decent numbers, but the city and its funded homeless shelters should do better in 2019.
This is more precise than a somewhat misleading statistic Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration touted earlier, that city services achieved 7,400 exits to permanent housing in 2018. That implied 7,400 households were housed, but it actually referred to how many programs were used by households before they were housed and how many maintained permanent supportive housing, as reported by the Times’ Project Homeless.
Enhanced shelters are more successful at moving people from homelessness to permanent housing than the basic shelters Seattle has traditionally funded. Both continue to receive funding, but the majority of shelter beds are now enhanced with case management services. Although this performance measure shows progress, other data from the city shows the homeless problem overall is getting worse.
Seattle must continue to improve data informing its work on homelessness, ensure rigor in its contracts with providers and enforce its standards. The city spent about $90 million on homeless services in 2018. The well will run dry at some point, especially if Seattle doesn’t make more progress getting people into permanent housing.