To move homeless people off the street more quickly, Seattle has turned to an “enhanced” emergency-shelter model, which offers a suite of social services and is open round the clock. The city has shifted millions of dollars to expand the number of enhanced beds, and tied some of the shelters’ pay to how many people they help lift out of homelessness.
Seattle officials now say they’re pleased with signs that the city’s enhanced shelters are successfully connecting more people to stable housing.
However, a deeper look at last year’s data reveals that some enhanced shelters are consistently falling short of the city’s own minimum performance standards, which measure how many homeless people are moved into permanent housing and which are tied to funding in their city contracts.
Fifteen of the 25 enhanced shelters contracted by Seattle ended 2018 short of their performance goals, including shelters operated by longtime providers like Mary’s Place, Catholic Community Services and Compass Housing Alliance, according to a Seattle Times review of agency data. Several of them missed their goals each quarter of 2018.
Now, in an effort to increase the number of providers meeting minimum performance goals, Seattle is planning to reduce financial penalties for missing them.
Nevertheless, Seattle officials say the new model of shelters is more effective than the basic shelters that the city traditionally supported. Among the city-funded enhanced-shelter programs, the rate of exits to permanent housing — the number of households that used a homeless-service program before obtaining housing — rose from 13 to 21 percent in 2018.
The mixed results and shifting of goal posts highlight the uneven progress in Seattle’s fight to curb homelessness, the city’s sometimes-rocky shift toward a controversial pay-for-performance model, and the difficulty of defining success in the face of a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Interim Human Services Director Jason Johnson, who appeared before City Council on Tuesday, said he’s broadly encouraged by last year’s numbers.
“We are making progress,” he said, pointing toward a rise in the overall number of exits to permanent housing, along with gains in connecting Native Americans, Alaska Natives and African American clients to permanent housing.
But if it appears that the problem is getting worse, it is because more people are becoming homeless, he added. “There are more people experiencing homelessness than the system can keep up with.”
Overall, Seattle spent about $90 million on homeless services in 2018, a number that has risen alongside increases in the number of people in the city living on the streets.
Last year, 12 percent of each shelter’s funding — divvied up over the four quarters of the year — was tied to performance. A shelter provider that failed to meet minimum standards still got its quarterly funding if it went through a performance-improvement review; 11 enhanced-shelter programs underwent performance-improvement reviews in 2018.
Mary’s Place Family Shelter in North Seattle, which received about $1 million annually in city funding in 2018, was one of them. It failed to meet the minimum standard for family shelters, which calls for 65 percent of households that left shelter to do so for permanent housing every quarter.
Mary’s Place Executive Director Marty Hartman also said the city’s exit numbers “don’t tell the whole story” because they don’t include how many families Mary’s Place helps divert from shelter by providing one-time financial help, or through transitional housing, which the city does not consider a permanent home.
“We totally agree with agencies being held accountable,” Hartman said. “Sixty-five percent is, in our minds, high, too high, when you can’t include your transitional housing or other stable housing situation outcomes.”
The performance standards have become a constant source of conflict between Seattle and its nonprofit contractors. Several agencies complained about a top-down approach that fails to account for differences in each program or Seattle’s lack of affordable housing. Meanwhile, other critics have implored the city to take a hard-line approach to make the homeless-services system more efficient.
Human-services officials say the city is committed to working with low-performing programs to help them improve, through technical assistance and monthly monitoring.
“We are in partnership with the agencies we work with,” said Lily Rehrmann, spokeswoman for the Human Services Department. “So we wouldn’t want to impose … such a punitive penalty that would prevent them from providing this really necessary survival services and the connection to housing.”
Seattle is now changing its approach. In 2019, the city will instead pay agencies a percentage of their performance pay, depending on how close they come to meeting the minimum standard each quarter. Only eight percent of the contract pay will be tied to meeting them, instead of 12 percent.
Consultant Barbara Poppe, whose 2016 analysis helped to overhaul Seattle’s homelessness strategy, said she’s not surprised that some shelters did not reached the performance goals after a year.
“It was a huge shift for the providers to really change their program models that quickly and get results,” Poppe said.
Her bigger question is whether King County’s coordinated entry system, which screens and prioritizes homeless people for housing services, is doing enough to get people from shelter into housing.
“We can’t say it’s just the shelters’ job alone to find these housing placements,” said Poppe, who continues to consult on homeless-related issues in Seattle but is currently not receiving city or county funding.
Despite the rocky first year of the pay-for-performance system, Seattle has touted achieving its goal of 7,400 exits to permanent housing in 2018, which it set when it rolled out the reforms. But as the city now explains, that number reflects a confusing metric: It is how many homeless-services programs were utilized by households before they got permanent housing, and how many maintained permanent supportive housing — not how many households actually got a home.
Responding to the criticism that it was not being transparent, Seattle now says that 3,559 households received permanent housing and 704 were prevented from becoming homeless in 2018 with city-funded homeless services — a combined 17 percent increase over the previous year.
Nearly 1,900 more households maintained their permanent supportive housing or else moved on to other living situations from that permanent supportive housing. Supportive housing comes with intensive services and is usually designated for people who struggle to live without on-site care or assistance. Those numbers represent a 48 percent increase over 2017, the city said.