Seattle’s spending on homeless-related services would top a record $100 million under Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget, with money set aside for items like creation of a new regional homeless authority, the relocation of two existing tiny-house villages and a new program to allocate nurses to shelters and housing projects with frequent 911 calls.
The mayor’s plan, unveiled last month and now under review by the City Council, would boost homelessness spending from $96 million this year to nearly $104 million in 2020.
That’s about double what Seattle invested to address the homelessness crisis just three years ago but still a relatively small portion of the city’s overall budget, which would total $6.5 billion next year. For instance, the police department is slated to spend nearly $410 million.
At a council budget committee briefing on Wednesday, Council Chair Sally Bagshaw said she and her colleagues wanted to find out from Human Services Department (HSD) representatives “whether the juice is worth the squeeze” in homelessness spending — or, whether the investments were worth the outcomes.
They focused in particular on the city’s current spending on its Navigation Team, the interdisciplinary group tasked with moving people off the streets and into shelter, and the $1.26 million slated for the relocation of the two tiny-house villages.
For the second year in a row, under the mayor’s plan, the city wouldn’t add any homeless shelter capacity on its own. It would, however, spend about $2.4 million to help King County open a new downtown shelter in an unused wing of the county jail with up to 60 beds and behavioral-health services.
Emergency services, which include shelter, would still make up the bulk of Seattle’s 2020 homelessness spending, at more than $51 million.
The city added 500 shelter and tiny-house beds in 2018. The mayor now wants to focus on moving people through shelters quicker and bolster other aspects of the city’s response, a spokeswoman said.
Seattle has come to rely increasingly on what are called enhanced shelters, which are open 24/7 and provide more services than traditional shelters. “Our investments in enhanced shelters (and other programs) are moving more people” to housing, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding said.
The Durkan administration intends to allocate up to $25 million, above the $104 million for services, to help build permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people.
Daniel Malone, Downtown Emergency Service Center executive director, said he wasn’t totally surprised to see minimal shelter increases proposed for 2020 because the city added a significant number of beds in 2018.
The debate over whether to spend on temporary strategies such as shelter or on more permanent solutions such as housing is constant, said Malone, whose nonprofit operates more than 500 shelter beds.
“There’s always been some kind of compromise where we do both, but we don’t do either one at the level that is needed,” he said, noting a Capitol Hill shelter for young adults is slated to close soon for financial reasons.
Malone doesn’t believe money should be spent on shelter at the expense of housing, but he’s not opposed to more shelter, “because people need it.”
“Shelter doesn’t solve homelessness. It alleviates suffering, and that’s extremely important,” he said.
Money for nurses, vehicle cleanup and safe lots
The increase in homeless spending in Durkan’s plan would be partly driven by a onetime allocation of about $2 million to help Seattle and King County launch a regional homelessness authority. Discussions about the authority among local government leaders are ongoing.
Under the mayor’s budget, next year’s homelessness investments would include about $90 million from HSD, with smaller amounts coming from a range of other city departments, including the Police Department, Finance and Administrative Services, the Office of Housing and Seattle Public Utilities.
The mayor’s budget would add $650,000 to equip homeless shelters and housing projects with dedicated nurses, because those locations generate a high volume of calls to 911. That program, coupled with a $40,000 nurse phone line for other shelters and housing projects, would continue past 2020.
Durkan has proposed dramatically increasing the size of the city’s RV remediation program, in which the city does cleanups around clusters of vehicles, particularly RVs, occupied by homeless people. The additional funds, if approved, would allow the city to double the number of monthly cleanups from seven to 14. In a continuing trend, the city has also proposed spending more money to dispose of RVs that are considered health and safety hazards.
Some existing programs would be enlarged under the mayor’s plan. For instance, her budget would increase by $125,000 a program that seeks to provide safe parking spots for people living in vehicles. The program at the moment accommodates only passenger vehicles, as opposed to recreational vehicles.
Homeless encampment cleanups
The city has proposed spending about $326,000 to sustain this year’s expansion of its Navigation Team, which reaches out to people living in unauthorized homeless encampments and removes encampments.
At Wednesday’s budget briefing, some council members expressed concern over total spending for the Navigation Team — $8.4 million is slated for 2020 — and ongoing confusion about its outcomes.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda asked whether that money could be better spent on rental assistance or put toward the regional authority with King County.
Council members also echoed previous requests for more information about what happens to people contacted by the Navigation Team and referred to shelter.
“If we’re simply chasing people around from one side to another, we don’t think that’s a good use of funds,” Bagshaw told HSD officials Wednesday.
City officials have said in the past that the Navigation Team cannot track whether people they’ve referred to homeless shelters actually make it there and get off the street. However, HSD Interim Director Jason Johnson said Wednesday the department now has that ability — a surprise to many council members.
“I’m very, very confused because I’ve been told over and over again it’s not possible to get that information,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold said.
Asked about the data, Navigation Team spokesperson Will Lemke told The Seattle Times he did not “have anything to share currently, but will be sure to include you if/when we do.”
The mayor’s budget also would add $1.26 million above baseline spending to close two tiny-house villages and open replacement options elsewhere.
Councilmembers Bagshaw and Kshama Sawant questioned Wednesday whether it would be possible to instead use those funds to build more tiny houses and to keep the current tiny-house villages in place. Current land-use code limits that option, though Sawant’s office has proposed changing the ordinance to allow more villages to open.
Durkan’s plan also includes about $913,700 to raise wages 2.6% for contracted human-services workers.
The budget is set for a final council vote on Nov. 25.
Project Homeless Interim Editor Vianna Davila contributed to this story.