The idea was to do something different. At an Eighth Avenue South and South King Street encampment in a parking lot under an Interstate 5 overpass, four organizations teamed up last year under the banner of a coalition called JustCare to show that hotel-based shelters could be used to remove homeless encampments and get the people who lived in them into stable housing.
Fifty-seven people came inside and the encampment dissolved. But 10 months later, 20 people have left the program and it’s unknown where they are. JustCare could not immediately provide data on another 16 people who were part of the original encampment.
City and county politicians who have secured money for the effort say those numbers are in line with what they would expect from a program with uncertain funding and inconsistent access to housing resources over the last year. But the data also raises questions about what will happen to the more than 200 encampment residents JustCare has brought off the streets during the pandemic: whether the program will prove to be a meaningful intervention in their lives or yet another shelter program that cycles people through the system without landing them in permanent housing.
JustCare, originally a collaboration among the nonprofit programs Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Chief Seattle Club and REACH, pitched itself as an innovative way to address growing encampments of people who had been left to survive outside while the shelter system scrambled and reorganized during the pandemic.
Since 2020, the city and county together have allocated more than $43 million to JustCare as well as the Public Defender Association’s Co-LEAD and legal diversion program LEAD from a combination of both local and federal funds. The program has been touted by officials across Seattle and King County as an alternative to the mayor’s current approach to encampment removals and outreach.
In the politically charged aftermath of the city council’s decision to cut funding for the Navigation Team, the controversial group of police and city staff who removed encampments and made shelter referrals, JustCare leaders characterized their method as a compassionate and effective way to address encampments, with care geared to Seattle’s cultural demographics and individual hotel rooms.
A University of Washington report on the program published this past June praised the effort, citing a relatively low 13% unsuccessful exit rate based on numbers reported earlier in the year.
And the initial results were striking. With before and after photos of the King Street encampment, JustCare showed that an encampment causing frustration among neighbors could quietly disappear without the usual trauma, chaos and displacement that can accompany the city’s encampment removals.
But nearly a year later, it’s also clear that a significant number of people who came in off the streets are likely homeless again. Among the 36 encampment residents who participated in Co-LEAD’s portion of the JustCare program, 20 had unsuccessful exits — meaning they left voluntarily, were kicked out after posing threats or breaking the rules, or weren’t engaging with social workers.
Five people have been permanently housed through Co-LEAD.
JustCare said it could not provide immediate data on all of the 17 program participants who went to hotel rooms managed by the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, but said one person from that cohort was permanently housed. Another four people went to hotel rooms managed by Chief Seattle Club, which left the partnership because of lack of funding. All four people were transferred to another shelter program run by the nonprofit, at the King’s Inn, where they remain today.
It’s unclear what outcomes the remaining people still inside the JustCare hotels will face. One of the King Street encampment residents who came inside through Co-LEAD said she was told she would have to leave the Civic Hotel in South Lake Union at the nine-month mark of her stay.
“When we first got in here they said we’d be inside indefinitely until they got us into permanent housing, that we weren’t going to be back on the streets again,” Megan Besgrove, 30, said. “Then, when six months hit, (they said) it’s a six- to nine-month program and if you aren’t doing anything to better yourself we have to kick you out.”
Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, the organization that runs the LEAD and Co-LEAD programs and manages the JustCare partnership, disputes the idea that program participants were told they could stay indefinitely.
“The JustCARE field team would never promise indefinite hotel stays,” Daugaard said by email. “Then and now, we don’t have access to hotels indefinitely, and these are not meant to be permanent accommodations.”
Program participants also sign a lodging agreement that says the hotel stay is temporary, Daugaard said.
But Besgrove’s case in some ways underlines the problems JustCare shares with other shelter programs.
She completed a housing screening back in March, and was told by her case manager she should try a different shelter program, which Besgrove did not explore. She also missed nine appointments with case managers over the summer. Giving Besgrove a date to leave, Daugaard said, was a tool to get her to work with them.
Daugaard added: “If our program is stable (that is, we ourselves are not shutting down), we will not exit participants to the street if they are making efforts to collaborate on a transition plan, but sometimes, an exit date is a necessary tool to achieve that engagement.”
Among the 20 people from Besgrove’s encampment who got hotel rooms through Co-LEAD but left without permanent housing, three posed safety issues or were responsible for illegal activity, four chronically violated the lodging agreement, six left voluntarily, five had one of these issues and wouldn’t work with case managers and two wouldn’t work with case management, Daugaard said.
Co-LEAD’s overall retention and hotel shelter program numbers are better than the King Street encampment example: Of 183 people Co-LEAD has placed in hotels, 34, or nearly 19%, have been permanently housed. Still, 84, or nearly 46%, have left the program unsuccessfully.
The low rate of moving people into permanent housing could be more indicative of struggles within the shelter model and a lack of housing than with JustCare.
Housing five people out of the 36 that Co-LEAD took in from the King Street encampment “might actually be high-level success for the highest needs people,” said Derrick Belgarde, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club.
At the King’s Inn, a city-funded program operated by Chief Seattle Club that also takes people in directly from outside, Belgarde said that there’s quite a bit of turnover – often, people leave and don’t come back, and there are some people who pose real safety risks.
In Belgarde’s program, 111 people have come through the hotel, but just two, or less than 2%, have exited to permanent housing. Twenty-six people, or 23%, have left King’s Inn because they decided to, safety issues, or issues with the rules. At the Executive Hotel Pacific, another city-funded hotel shelter run by the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute, 209 people have participated in the program, 11% have been housed, and 16% have left because of safety reasons, transferred to other shelters or abandoned their spot.
Co-LEAD’s permanent housing rate is higher than both of these programs, but so is its 46% exit rate to the streets or unknown locations.
Belgarde said he could see Daugaard’s point about using an exit date to get someone to work on goals, but added that “exiting should be the last approach for any organization.”
Seattle City Council member Andrew Lewis, a champion of JustCare and Co-LEAD’s approach, defended the metrics Daugaard provided. At the time JustCare worked with residents of the King Street encampment, the program didn’t have access to rental vouchers or even a steady funding source, Lewis said.
This month, Lewis said, that’s changed. The city has now committed to connecting JustCare participants with vouchers that would subsidize rent for up to 12 months, Lewis said, and the program also just recently secured a yearlong $15 million contract from the city and county focusing on shelter and outreach in downtown Seattle. Uncertainty about the program’s funding and future, he said, resulted in some people leaving the program.
“The bottom line is JustCARE has done an excellent job providing immediate street-to-shelter resources at a time when no other program is providing that service,” Lewis said.
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, another supporter of the program, said that she is willing to wait longer to see how successful the program will be, considering it focuses on people with overlapping barriers to getting into and staying in housing, such as mental health or substance use disorders.
“At first look, these early numbers are disappointing but not surprising,” Kohl-Welles said in an emailed statement. “Understandably, engaging folks with these lived experiences will take continued, concerted efforts.”
Despite the program’s mixed results, the city recently tapped JustCare to work with residents of the contentious City Hall Park encampment outside of the King County Superior Court.
But Besgrove, whose deadline to leave the hotel was recently extended into September, believes the program has left her worse off than before because she no longer has a tent.
“They basically postponed our homelessness,” she said.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the organizer of JustCare, the collaboration among organizations working to move people inside from encampments. The organization managing the partnership is the Public Defender Association.