Days before funding was set to expire on a politically popular homelessness program, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and the city of Seattle finalized a deal to continue the work of JustCare, a pandemic-born outreach and shelter program, and to prevent around 60 homeless clients from losing their shelter.

Had the authority or city not intervened, Friday would have been the first day without funding for the program, as the last wave of government dollars expired June 30.

Only the Regional Homelessness Authority will fund work that looks similar to JustCare’s intensive outreach model, which became well-known during the pandemic for assisting chronically homeless people whose needs have historically been harder to serve in the shelter system. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s financial support will go to a more enforcement-focused diversion program that provides shelter.

An experiment that cost taxpayers a lot, JustCare’s annual reported cost per shelter bed in 2021 was $127,376, according to city documents obtained by The Seattle Times. That’s more than double what the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a shelter operator that also focuses on people with complex needs, charged per bed at its Red Lion hotel shelter program.

But it’s an expensive experiment that some homelessness leaders, including Marc Dones, head of the Regional Homelessness Authority, think is worth continuing. City Council members and King County have also rallied around the program in past years when funding was in jeopardy.

This new wave of support will allow about 60 people currently living in JustCare’s four hotel shelters to stay, as well as pay for shelter staff.

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But some of its best-known features — like focusing on large encampments in downtown Seattle and Pioneer Square — could go away for good, according to Lisa Daugaard, who has overseen JustCare through the Public Defender Association, a nonprofit she co-leads.

The original design of JustCare — a coalition of the Public Defender Association, REACH, We Deliver Care and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle — was launched in the fall of 2020, using one-time federal CARES Act money, to test the idea that by offering people living unsheltered, especially those who need intensive support, attractive alternatives to sleeping outside, folks would voluntarily leave encampments.

So far, JustCARE has moved 404 people living in 14 encampments in downtown Seattle, Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District into its hotel shelter program with the goal of connecting them to services and legal assistance before eventually moving into permanent housing.

But from the start, funding has been fraught for the new program, which began with $4 million in federal funds that ran from September to December 2020. And its outcomes, at times, have been murky. 

A Seattle Times investigation in August 2021 found that 10 months after JustCare helped 57 people living at an encampment under Interstate 5 move into hotel rooms, more than one-third of them were out of the program and likely living back on the streets.

But in 2022, exit outcomes have been improving.

Since JustCare’s last wave of clients entered its shelter program from March 1 to June 1, 65 of 169 people (38%) enrolled in the program moved into permanent housing, according to Daugaard, and 64 more are either waiting to move into housing, have a housing voucher and are looking for a match, or are waiting for their housing application to be approved. 

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According to data provided by JustCare, the remaining 40 people, around 24% of JustCare’s clients from March to June, either left the program voluntarily or were kicked out of the program due to staff’s safety concerns or because they were involuntarily committed. The organization provided only this most recent range of outcomes.

JustCare also reported an average stay of about seven months for clients who then move into permanent housing.

This improvement in exit outcomes and the shorter durations of shelter stay have given the Regional Homelessness Authority confidence to move forward in continuing the program, Dones said. Dones also said it’s not uncommon for shelters they oversee to report anywhere from one- to two-year shelter stays.

In this new iteration of JustCare, the Authority will use new state funding that was allocated to five Washington counties, including King, during the 2022 legislative session to clear homeless encampments located along state highway rights of way and to provide shelter and wraparound services to the people living there. 

This means that JustCare’s outreach and caseworker team will remain in place, shifting its focus from a few key neighborhoods in Seattle to span the county. They will still target their resources to help people move into shelter before their encampment is cleared.

Already, JustCare helped move people living along Highway 520 into shelter so work to stabilize a hillside could begin.  

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For Dones, JustCare’s creation and original model is an example of how a surge of federal dollars during the pandemic allowed people to respond to homelessness differently and to try things from a place of plenty rather than scarcity. 

“​​The Authority’s position on JustCare from day one has been ‘This is great work. We’re not super-sure how we can afford it,’” said Dones.

Dones said the Authority is in the process of inking an initial contract with the state Department of Commerce, which is overseeing the distribution of the funds, to receive about $13.8 million upfront. That’s enough to pay for the program for one year, according to Dones, and will cover the cost of slightly more than 80 hotel rooms currently leased by JustCare. That will also pay for support staff as well as field coordinators, outreach workers and possibly additional staff at the authority to oversee the work. 

“We saw a strategic opportunity to move quickly to access that funding, use it to take JustCARE off the cliff that it was on, to broaden the approach, to really again take those lessons and integrate them into a more systemwide orientation,” Dones said. 

Separately, the city of Seattle has promised up to an additional $4.4 million through its Human Services Department general fund to support 80 beds of hotel shelter previously used by JustCare for a legal diversion program through the end of 2022 that will coordinate with the legal system to provide hotel shelter space. If funding continues, Daugaard said, the program is estimated to cost about $9 million per year.

This second branch will be overseen by Mayor Bruce Harrell’s public safety team, and will prioritize people living outside who have been repeatedly arrested or cited for low-level crimes or who are likely to continue to repeat risky behavior without housing stabilization. They will be placed in shelters and entered into the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is managed by the Public Defender Association and precedes JustCare.  

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Often, Daugaard said, people are recommended to LEAD for low-level crimes, but what they really need first is somewhere to live.

“This is an opportunity to apply lessons learned through an integrated and thoughtful approach to the nuanced intersection of homelessness and the criminal legal system,” said Jamie Housen, spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office. 

For Daugaard, who worked to create the JustCare program, this shift in control ultimately is a good thing. 

“We’re very much wanting to continue the work, but also really welcome it being built into a more permanent system of response, rather than this kind of emergency, month-to-month situation,” she said. “That’s been so very challenging.

One of the biggest challenges JustCare originally faced, Daugaard said, was getting shelter residents paced into permanent housing through King County’s coordinated entry system, which prioritizes homeless people for open spaces. They also unsuccessfully tried to use dollars reserved for quickly moving people into permanent housing who need only short-term help through Seattle.

Initially, JustCare’s only tools for housing people, sometimes with very severe needs, were through their Supplemental Security Income, through Washington’s Housing and Essential Needs program, or by finding a job. They placed 34 people into housing that way, Daugaard said. 

It wasn’t until April of this year, around a year and a half since the program launched, that JustCare began working with the Regional Homelessness Authority’s Coordinated Entry team to get its clients prioritized for more housing options.