When people think about public spending on homelessness, they often think of homeless shelters.
But that’s not the most costly part of King County’s response to homelessness. It’s permanent supportive housing, which provides wraparound social services and often serves people with disabilities or serious mental illness. It’s the most expensive way to house someone, but it’s also very effective, according to data from King County, yet it’s received less attention from donors.
That could change soon: On Wednesday, three major health-care companies headquartered in Seattle announced a combined $15 million gift to nonprofit Plymouth Housing, the city’s largest permanent supportive housing provider.
Plymouth plans to use that gift and proceeds from other fundraising to build three complexes comprising more than 300 supportive housing units in the International District, Lower Queen Anne and on First Hill. The First Hill site will be the largest, with 112 studios for seniors and veterans, and will be Seattle’s “first affordable high-rise in 50 years,” according to Paul Lambros, Plymouth’s executive director.
Lambros hopes other philanthropists will see investing in permanent supportive housing as a way to lower the region’s street homelessness.
“People care about the issue for different reasons,” Lambros said. “To others, it’s the tents — they don’t want to see people sleeping outside. So help us bring them in.”
Swedish Health Services, Premera Blue Cross and Providence St. Joseph Health each committed $5 million, an unprecedented amount for Plymouth and an uncommon direction for donor dollars.
Organizations that serve homeless families have received much larger donations, including $30 million from the late Paul Allen’s foundation, since Seattle and King County declared states of emergency on homelessness. Meanwhile, organizations that work with single, chronically homeless people often struggle to get such large donations.
“Family homelessness is a much easier draw for philanthropy than the single adult male who’s 45 to 64, who has many more issues,” said Iain DeJong, a homelessness expert who consults with municipalities on housing and homelessness. “And they’re often put up as if they’re in competition with each other, but really they’re completely different types of interventions for completely different types of people.”
Premera, Swedish and Providence have a vested interest in housing chronically homeless adults. Studies show that population often uses emergency rooms. A recent study of Western Washington hospitals found that 200 homeless people spent an average of 82 days in the hospital after they no longer needed acute care, typically because of lack of housing options.
“We can provide housing through Plymouth (for a year) that is the cost of three days’ stay at Harborview,” said Jeff Roe, CEO and president of Premera Blue Cross.
Because supportive housing usually includes social services and medical care, housing someone for a year at a Plymouth facility costs an average of $18,000 for all services. Often, $2,000 or $3,000 of that is covered by an individual’s disability check, Lambros said. Making up the rest requires money from the city, state, federal governments, and philanthropy.
More than half the total spending on homelessness in King County in 2017 was on permanent supportive housing — almost $100 million — and that’s just for operational costs, not including the cost of construction.
Permanent supportive housing has only been funded at the federal level since the 1990s, when officials realized many homeless people were stuck in shelters because of their disabilities and serious mental illness. There were an estimated 200,000 chronically homeless people in the United States then; now, there are less than 90,000, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
But as the cost of land and construction has gone up in Seattle, permanent, supportive housing has gotten harder and harder to site. While King County has the third-highest chronically homeless population in the country, it has the eighth-highest number of units (5,767) of permanent, supportive housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“One of the challenges with permanent supportive housing has always been, we started with almost none,” said Roman.
The units Plymouth will build won’t be off-limits to people with ongoing drug use issues or alcoholism, and Plymouth will operate a clean needle exchange out of at least two of the buildings.