Seattle’s confusing, grueling budget season, with a lame-duck mayor, a council president running a failed campaign to replace her and a budget chair in the midst of her own reelection campaign, ended Thursday and left few in city leadership completely happy.
“This was a difficult budget year and I did not get everything I wanted in this budget, as others have said as well,” Dan Strauss, Ballard’s representative on the council, said Nov. 22, the day he and seven other City Council members voted to pass a budget.
But while back-and-forth over the police budget hit headlines almost daily, less attention was paid to the city’s homelessness spending. There were some wins for advocates: new money for people living in vehicles and better pay for nonprofit shelter workers.
But the City Council and the mayor frustrated the aspirations of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, whose CEO Marc Dones had asked them to fund a multimillion-dollar plan to alleviate homelessness downtown first, before moving to other neighborhoods.
City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, the council’s budget chair, said the city shouldn’t be expected to provide bottomless pockets for homelessness response. This budget included record-high investments in affordable housing and homelessness, and Seattle already is the biggest funder of the Regional Homelessness Authority.
“It is a regional authority, and my hope is more of the Sound cities step up,” Mosqueda said. “More people are coming here because the regional cities are not providing support.”
Data from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has shown many people enrolled in Seattle shelters became homeless in other parts of the county, especially South King County.
Seattle in the last few years has massively expanded how much public money the city spends on homelessness programs, from $50 million in 2015 to a planned $156 million in 2022. But the city has been unable to make a dent in the problem and its financial management practices didn’t expand proportionally; the issue has only gotten worse, and more than $800,000 was lost to an alleged fraudster posing as a homelessness nonprofit last year.
That and the fact that surrounding cities haven’t funded homelessness commensurately led to the creation of a King County Regional Homelessness Authority last year, which is supposed to take all funding from Seattle and the county and use it to address the problem regionally.
This authority is supposed to help remake a Byzantine, fractured system with dozens of nonprofits and providers; scores of federal, state and local contracts; and a tsunami of complicated paperwork that deeply complicates things as small as getting a federal rent voucher. And many hoped that it would get much of the politics out of homelessness work, so nonprofits will get money based on the quality of their work and not who their leaders know.
But several budget asks from the authority were almost ignored or greatly downsized by the City Council, which instead poured millions into setting up an RV program that could be hard for the fledgling authority to properly manage, and threw smaller amounts in piecemeal fashion at existing programs.
“If we’re going to set up this authority and hire somebody and say that they are in charge of this and not fund them, how are we really supposed to move forward?” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area. “But this seems to be a city thing where we like an idea but then we don’t scale it to size to actually work.”
In October, the homelessness authority presented the council with a plan to focus on the downtown area to win a popular victory in what could turn out to be a long battle: Dones asked for tens of millions to design a system for outreach that relies on workers who have been homeless and navigated social services before, and a super-staffed shelter for homeless people in the throes of serious, debilitating mental illness.
The plan had the vocal support of business groups who have clamored for more resources to address growing visible homelessness in the area.
Instead of funding those, the council passed a statement of legislative intent to fund the proposed peer navigation outreach system in the future and put $5 million — less than a third of what Dones asked for — toward the high-acuity shelter.
“The metric’s always been, ‘Well, we’re spending more money,'” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association and a supporter of the authority’s plan. “And then you walk down the street and you don’t see a difference.”
This $5 million won’t be able to make a big dent in downtown like Dones had hoped.
“We’re going to have to redo the plan,” Dones said. ”What this town does not need is another snake oil salesman who comes in and says, ‘Here’s my plan to fix this thing, and I can do it on bubble gum and tape.’”
Dones had hoped to renovate an undisclosed nursing facility into the shelter, but now they will likely have to pool this $5 million with money from King County for a mental health crisis center possibly located on a Sodo plot that used to be a Tesla warehouse — but that plan is far from realization.
It’s important to Dones that the plan has adequate funding not just to provide beds, but to competitively pay staffers who are trained to deal with people in psychosis.
The budget does give the authority more money for administrative costs and millions to raise wages for human services workers at shelters and homeless housing, a long-standing issue that has become more pronounced as the city and county struggle to hire staff for new shelters.
Harold Odom, co-chair of the authority’s Implementation Board of experts, has advocated for the city to improve tiny house villages, where he has lived for years. While the council included some money for operating and improving tiny house villages, Odom still thinks, overall, the City Council looks for immediate fixes rather than long-term solutions.
“I don’t think (City Council members) look at things in a way that’s not vote-counting,” Odom said. “That’s how they survive, but that’s not helping people who are homeless.”
Council also gave the authority a project the city’s human services department was loath to execute: a million more dollars for a lot where RV or vehicle campers can park safely. This is on top of funding the city allocated last year for about 25 RVs that was never used because the mayor’s staffers said they couldn’t create a successful program, according to emails shared with The Seattle Times.
The last time the city tried RV “safe lots,” as they’re called, it was widely regarded as a failure and, in the few that remained by 2018, people were dying in the lots faster than they were finding housing.
Dones seemed undaunted by previous failures and a lack of successful models elsewhere in the country but also said they wished the council had funded the other asks.
“The answer is both,” Dones said. “There is simply no immediate future where we are saying ‘this or that?’ It is going to be both for a while.”
The Seattle Human Services Coalition and Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell both praised the homelessness budget.
“I strongly support the necessary investments made in this budget to increase services, supportive housing, targeted support for those living in vehicles, and affordable housing development,” Harrell said in a news release.
Harrell decisively won the mayoral election on a platform that criticized how the mayor and council dealt with homelessness. He added that he wants more investments to clean up litter and restore parks and green spaces.