The Seattle Times is launching Project Homeless, a community-funded initiative to explore the causes of homelessness, explain what the region is doing about the crisis and spotlight potential solutions. Today, we examine one of the obstacles to moving people into stable housing.
As a young man, David McAleese studied chemistry. He earned a doctorate in the field from the University of South Carolina in 1983 and then joined the lucrative pharmaceutical industry.
National scientific journals published his research papers. He married, had three children and lived what he says was a comfortable life.
Then things began to fall apart. He began having trouble with alcohol. His marriage and finances collapsed. Once a lauded research scientist, he became fixated on unlocking the secrets of what he’s certain is the pending apocalypse.
Today, home for McAleese is a bunk inside a homeless shelter on Seattle’s First Hill. Clean-shaven with drowsy eyes and graying hair, the 61-year-old moved into the facility’s refurbished main room, after spending three years sleeping on a floor mattress in an older shelter intended just as a place for people to survive the night.
McAleese has been stuck in place, drifting through Seattle’s overtaxed homeless-response system.
Seattle and King County declared a state of emergency over homelessness two years ago, promising to inject more resources into a problem that has worsened even as the region boomed in wealth.
But while much of the public debate has focused on people living on the streets and whether they should be allowed to camp on public property, McAleese’s story indicates a different problem for the city.
He’s what some call a “long-term stayer” — someone who spends months or years in emergency shelter beds intended to be a temporary refuge.
These long-term stayers help create a bottleneck in shelters, leaving fewer beds for people living on the streets. A single shelter bed should be available to about six people a year.
Many in the human-services field agree that a critical step to easing the homeless crisis is getting people like McAleese into stable housing. That would free up shelter space to bring in more people off the streets and, eventually, into permanent housing.
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There were 1,075 people who used King County shelters for at least six months in 2016. Other ways of counting stays that stretched beyond a year yield more alarming numbers — as high as 3,000 people a year.
A Seattle Times analysis found about 9 percent of people in emergency shelters countywide used nearly half the available bed nights.
“If you look at people who are in shelter (long-term) … you can do the math and see how many people are not being served,” said Jason Johnson, Seattle’s deputy director of human services.
Clearing that choke point is a key component in a comprehensive set of reforms endorsed by Seattle, King County and United Way of King County to make the entire homeless-response system more effective.
Seattle’s part of that reform strategy, titled Pathways Home, calls for using shelters as a springboard to lift people from the streets into stable housing, and not just a way to keep people alive.
McAleese’s story, however, illustrates the enormous challenge of making that happen, and the difficulties facing the larger reform strategy. At a time when affordable housing resources are limited, it calls for finding homes for people with a wide range of problems — including substance abuse, mental illness, lack of ordinary documents like birth certificates and sometimes complacency — in one of the most expensive and competitive housing markets in the country.
More beds, more homeless
An annual Point In Time snapshot conducted one night in January found 11,600 people in King County in various states of homelessness, a 15 percent increase in just two years. The increase is partly due to improvements in how homeless people are counted, but numbers indicate a worsening, and more visible, crisis on the streets and in tent camps.
Countywide, there were more than 1,924 shelter beds for single adults in 2015. An additional 223 beds were added in 2016 as the population of people living on the streets, in tent camps and in vehicles rose.
Overall, just 8 percent of single adults who stayed in emergency shelters over the past year left for permanent housing, according to data from All Home, which coordinates Seattle and King County’s response to homelessness.
That trend has led to widespread belief that Seattle’s previous approach to connecting the longtime homeless to stable housing wasn’t working, especially for those like McAleese.
Two consultant reports, along with the city’s own internal analysis, determined the same, and Seattle has begun to shift away from bare-bones, mats-on-the-floor shelters in favor of “enhanced” shelters — facilities, like the one where McAleese is currently staying, where clients can store their belongings, come and go and get connected to housing-placement and other supportive services.
The city has helped open two enhanced shelters with around 175 beds this year, and is planning on more. But the process is expensive, and places to build them are hard to come by.
It costs about $18,000 per bed, including administrative costs, to operate an enhanced shelter, nearly triple the per-bed cost of traditional shelter. Both King County and Seattle have earmarked funding to develop additional beds.
The moves underscore findings in one consultant report, which suggest that by adopting a mix of strategies, including holding providers to performance benchmarks and eliminating funding for inefficient programs, Seattle and King County can house everyone living on the streets using existing beds.
The approach remains controversial. Some shelter operators argue the performance benchmarks are unreasonable, saying housing vacancy rates are out of their control. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien disputes some of the consultants’ findings and proposes a major new injection of money to build more housing by taxing high-grossing Seattle businesses.
Still, if changes aren’t made, some say more people could end up like McAleese.
“Those who are entering shelter for the first or second time will become long-term shelter stayers if their housing needs are not also addressed,” said Tracy Bennett of Focus Strategies, one of the consultants hired by Seattle, King County and the United Way to analyze the local homeless-response system and recommend changes.
Finding housing for long-term shelter stayers is tricky, and every case is different. Many are physically disabled or have severe mental-health or substance-abuse issues. Others have poor credit history, have previous evictions, and earn little income, effectively excluding them from the rental market. Yet those obstacles often aren’t severe enough to place them at the top of housing waiting lists.
Such issues make another element of Seattle’s reform plan even more challenging. Seattle has earmarked $8 million to expand rapid-rehousing programs, which provide short-term rental subsidies. The plan’s success hinges on finding landlords willing to accept tenants like McAleese who may have spotty rental histories.
Earlier this year, the city asked for bids for a contractor to connect homeless people with landlords willing to accept rapid-rehousing vouchers and other rent subsidies.
One social-service agency submitted a bid, but the city rejected it, hoping to find an operator with private-sector know-how to attract landlords. It has since pushed the opening of the “housing resource center” to next year.
David “had it all”
Thirty years ago, McAleese had a newly minted doctoral degree in chemistry, with author credits on research papers with titles like “Elimination of moisture and oxygen quenching in room-temperature phosphorescence.”
By his account, McAleese went on to work for Novartis and other giants of the pharmaceutical industry. He and his wife had a sizable home near Miami, with multiple cars and boats.
He says his problems with alcohol began to take a toll, and in 2005 he declared bankruptcy. His divorce was finalized later that same year in Colorado, according to court records.
As with many people who have been homeless for long periods, verifying the details of McAleese’s life is difficult. But a former colleague, a family member and public records helped fill in some of the blanks.
“The man in his prime had it all,” said his brother, George McAleese, who like many in his family hasn’t spoken to David in nearly a decade. “But I think when he lost those things he just went into a different state of mind.”
Retired professor Robert Dunlap, David McAleese’s doctoral adviser, said McAleese was a dedicated and effective researcher. They were last in touch around 2006, in a series of email exchanges Dunlap describes as “bizarre.”
“He made some important discoveries that pushed the science forward,” Dunlap said. “But what I saw in those emails was an incredible departure from the David that I knew.”
McAleese moved to the Puget Sound area in 2007 to partner in what he says was an unsuccessful business deal to construct a pharmaceutical plant in Africa. He lived off his savings and slept at the homes of friends, until that fell through, too.
In 2014, he landed at Operation Nightwatch, a nighttime-only emergency shelter that’s operated out of various facilities in Seattle. For the next three years, McAleese joined dozens of other men sleeping on mattresses wrapped in vinyl, laid out in rows on the shelter floor.
On a typical day, McAleese eats breakfast at the senior center at Pike Place Market. He then heads to the Seattle Central Library and plants himself at a computer terminal. He takes a worn bible out of a handbag, checks his Twitter account and begins scanning the internet to research what he calls “God signs” — a tangle of real-world events and scriptural interpretations that he says detail how and when the apocalypse will unfold.
In McAleese’s vision, it’s scheduled to arrive in October 2019. When it does, the financial markets will be upended and the “moneylenders,” judges and bureaucrats he says worked to break his family apart will be punished, he said.
His brother, George, said he doesn’t know if David has received mental-health treatment; David says he hasn’t.
Operation Nightwatch, as a bare-bones shelter, is not equipped to provide its clients with counseling on how to move on to permanent homes, and McAleese says he never pursued it.
McAleese said he would have liked to get his own home but believed the waiting lists for public housing were “hopeless.” And besides, he said, his most basic needs — like food and shelter — were being met.
This is the type of approach to shelter Seattle has funded for years, and is now distancing itself from through the Pathways Home plan. Interim Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess, told about McAleese’s story, said it illustrates how enhanced shelter would have been more effective. If the system had been functional, someone like McAleese would have received a needs assessment right away, not three years later, Burgess said.
“That’s a failure that points to all of us, and what we’re asking from our system,” he said.
David, focused on unlocking the meaning behind his visions, has not been in a hurry to find housing. “I figured that God would steer me in the place that he wanted me to go,” he said.
In September, after three years of homelessness, McAleese moved into one the city’s new “enhanced” shelters on First Hill. It was there that he had his first meeting with a case manager to help him find housing.
Squeaky wheels, silent stayers
Each week, a small group of shelter operators and Seattle and King County officials works through a rolling list of long-term shelter stayers to pool resources and develop detailed plans to help them find permanent housing. The results are mixed.
In its earliest days, the group found that an implicit bias in the system made the problem worse, said Nicole Macri, deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center and a state representative from Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
“It was the squeaky wheels that would get services,” said Macri. The people who didn’t — or couldn’t — speak up, went without, she said.
Efforts to clear the bottleneck have been sporadic. Between 2013 and 2015, the group in one focused burst helped 287 long-term stayers out of shelter.
Among them is Rick, 63, who shared his story on condition that his last name not be used. Seated at a table in his one-bedroom apartment in North Seattle, he recalled his first night at the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s huge shelter in downtown Seattle on Third Avenue.
The common rooms were crowded with people, and mold lined the bathroom stalls, he said. That night, after he settled into his bunk, someone assigned to a nearby bed died of an overdose, he said.
Rick spent much of life on fishing boats, working the frigid waters off Alaska and Russia. But jobs became scarce and he lost his West Seattle home in foreclosure. Soon, he found himself cycling through hotels and emergency shelters.
He planned to stay at the shelter only until he found another job, but one night turned into 27 months. Along the way he was diagnosed with lung cancer. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to die in here,’” he said.
Due in part to the diagnosis, staffers approached him about a new federally funded program that provides rent subsidies for frequent shelter users.
Around 172 people have been housed by DESC’s Keys to Home since 2016, and the long-term rent-subsidy program is seen as a bright spot. But the number of people living in shelter for at least six months has only risen since it started, as skyrocketing Seattle-area rents and a lack of vacancies squeezed access to low-cost housing.
It’s not just Seattle that’s struggling with how to help people get out of the shelter system. Nationwide, an estimated 65,954 people spent close to a year in emergency shelters, according to a recent federal report.
Minnesota’s Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, years ago realized that just 51 people used 47,294 days in shelter, or 8 percent of total shelter capacity, according to an analysis.
As in King County, officials in Minneapolis began working with services providers in 2012 to move them into permanent housing.
“One thing we learned is that this requires sustained effort,” said Lisa Thornquist, an analyst with the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness. Hennepin County hasn’t solved this problem. At the start of the Top 51 program, roughly 360 people had spent as much as a year sleeping in shelter. There are still around 300 long-term stayers in the shelter system on any given night, said Thornquist.
Still, the program has shown enough promise that the county is planning to expand its efforts.
A plan for David
On a recent morning, as the First Hill homeless shelter stirred to life, Elizabeth Berry, a case manager who recently graduated from the University of Washington, sat at a folding table in a spare room with McAleese, trying to figure out his options.
Do you have income? Can family or friends help with housing? She asked if he’d been diagnosed with mental illness or had any issues with drug use. McAleese answered “no” to all.
Midway through the interview, she asked, “What are your goals?” McAleese launched into his explanation of the timeline of the apocalypse, and how he will need shelter for only just a bit longer. “But in the meantime, it would be nice to have a place of my own with a little privacy,” he said.
Whatever his other needs, Berry’s first priority is to help McAleese navigate bureaucratic hurdles and find a path to stable housing. Without identification, he can’t apply for state benefits. Without a job, his best prospect for a regular income is Social Security. But he isn’t eligible until 2018, when he turns 62.
“The challenge with David is he’s reluctant to do anything that doesn’t align with his beliefs,” Berry said. “This is all temporary for him. He says everything is going to fall in place in two years, but the reality is he can’t stay in the shelter for that long.”
At a second meeting a week later, Berry thought she had a breakthrough. McAleese mentioned an old friend he’d stayed with in Everett. McAleese said the friend had suggested he could return if he could contribute $400 to the monthly food bill.
“It’s the kind of thing that when you hear it you seize on it,” Berry said later. The next steps for McAleese, she said, would be to apply for supplemental food benefits, a new photo identification card and reach out to the ex-housemate about his offer.
But it would not be as hopeful as it seemed at first. After the meeting with Berry, McAleese told a reporter he actually hasn’t spoken to the friend since leaving Everett years before. He said he’ll reach out to him as soon as he gets a phone.
Last week, McAleese — along with several of Berry’s other shelter clients — submitted an application to a local subsidized-housing program that works with the homeless. There was one unit available.