Seattle is pushing forward with plans to expand the city’s supply of tiny house villages. But for residents at one of those villages, the much-needed case management often required to get into permanent housing wasn’t available for more than three months.
The message had a hopeful tone: After months of delay, Nickelsville Ballard — one of Seattle’s half-dozen sanctioned homeless encampments — would finally move into its new location in the Wallingford neighborhood.
“The new village will provide a safer place to live for up to 40 people and includes hygiene services, housing case management and 24-hour security with controlled access,” said the Feb. 23 email from the city.
The tone belied reality. For more than three months, there would be no case management at the Wallingford site, off North Northlake Way, even though the city’s contract with the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) required it. The promised hygiene truck wouldn’t show up until June, either. It took weeks for the camp to get electricity.
City of Seattle officials say these issues are growing pains that have come over the last three years with the setup of an untested kind of housing for the homeless.
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But what happened at the Northlake encampment raises questions about the city’s and LIHI’s ability to provide the needed oversight for these villages to be successful. Consistent case management is considered essential, connecting homeless people to services, including housing.
Of the 439 people who left the villages between last July and this March, only 98 of them — roughly 22 percent — left for housing that was considered permanent.
The Northlake village, before its move from Ballard in March, struggled in particular. Among the city’s six villages operating at the time, it had the lowest success rate at a key metric — just seven people left for some kind of permanent housing in that July-to-March time period.
That’s the same number of Ballard camp residents who returned to homelessness during those months. Meanwhile, 35 people left that village for unknown destinations and reasons.
It is unclear if that trend continued after the encampment moved to Wallingford, because Seattle has not released that data.
But internal city emails and memos obtained by The Seattle Times through public-disclosure requests reveal longstanding concerns about case management and other issues at the villages.
The problems at the Northlake camp also may underscore unease, particularly at the federal level, with Seattle’s strong embrace of tiny-house villages in response to the city’s nearly 3-year-old declared state of emergency on homelessness.
Tiny houses are controversial partly because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t even technically consider them shelter, but Seattle — along with an increasing number of cities across the country — is turning to them as a cost-effective strategy to connect homeless people with services and get them off the streets.
Seattle is pushing ahead with more such encampments, and could have nine by year’s end. The new sanctioned villages make up 20 percent of the 500 shelter spaces Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan proposes to create this year.
Not every resident requires case management to get into housing, said Tiffany Washington, the city of Seattle’s homeless strategy and investment division director. Case-management positions can also be hard to fill, because of the low pay and hard work.
But other city staff, in emails, emphasized the importance of it nonetheless.
“It’s the case management, not necessarily the structures,” wrote Human Services Department spokesperson Meg Olberding in a Jan. 12 email before the mayor’s impending announcement of a new housing push that would include more tiny houses.
“Other than anecdotal evidence, there is no data that shows there is a correlation between tiny houses and exits to permanent housing.”
Good option, or not?
In May, just as the city began to finalize plans to open its seventh tiny-house village, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness issued a memo cautioning cities against them. It argued encampments “have little impact on reducing homelessness,” can still be costly and difficult to manage and can prove difficult to close, though they are billed as temporary.
In 2015, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to allow people to live in what were effectively outdoor homeless camps on public land.
The city’s embrace of the sanctioned-encampment model has been with the enthusiastic endorsement of LIHI’s executive director, Sharon Lee, an evangelist for tiny houses here and across the country.
“When tiny houses are successful they actually move a whole lot of people into housing,” Lee said. “You have to wait somewhere for housing, and a tiny house is a great place to wait for housing.”
Seattle is paying LIHI $1.7 million in 2018 to operate and provide case management in six villages. LIHI partners with Nickelsville and SHARE — nonprofits made up of currently and formerly homeless individuals — for day-to-day management of most existing camps.
The villages tend to appeal to people who have lived unsheltered for a long period of time, city officials say. The homes — often colorful structures of 120 square feet or less — are seen as safer than living outside, and they can give residents a sense of dignity and security. They bring the community together, because volunteers build the homes.
“Villages allow that transitional time,” said Lily Rehrmann, strategic adviser for the city’s Human Services Department.
But the city is clear that it expects the sanctioned encampments to move people to housing. A June 2017 internal city evaluation of the encampments found they were more successful at getting people into permanent housing than other enhanced shelters in the city.
In that same review, the city acknowledged the need for stronger case management at the villages.
Since the villages have opened, city employees have expressed concerns about conditions in the camps: In a February email last year, for example, Adrienne Easter, a city contracts manager, cited the potential for fires after she learned that heaters were installed in some tiny homes.
“Those houses are kindling,” she wrote.
This spring, there were reports of bedbugs in the men’s dorm at another village. Food was being left out at the Northlake kitchen. LIHI did not have enough money to cover the $10,000 expanded rodent-control service at the camps, emails show.
Case management was a particularly critical concern of city staff.
“My plan with LIHI is to let them put whatever they want in the budget, but to understand that we expect case management, and moves to permanent housing,” wrote human-services employee Jen Chwalibog in an email last year.
“My worry is that they will not fund case management and will instead say ‘oh we didn’t have enough money for it.’ ”
Chronically homeless people in particular need case management to get into housing, said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which, like the federal interagency council, does not believe sanctioned encampments are the right strategy to solve homelessness.
Most of LIHI’s clients in the village struggle with mental illness or trauma, or simply don’t know how to live inside anymore, said Sherry Sternhagen, LIHI’s case manager at one of its new tiny house villages, Whittier Heights. That makes case management important, although no one is required to accept it.
LIHI’s Licton Springs village, which had one-and-a-half case-manager positions, had the highest rate of people leaving for permanent housing among the six villages, although that village is designed for people with serious substance-abuse issues.
Sometimes, however, Nickelsville or SHARE/WHEEL, who manage five of the six villages, could undermine LIHI’s case-management work in those villages, Sternhagen acknowledged.
A personnel shift resulted in no case management when Nickelsville, one of LIHI’s subcontractors, moved the Ballard camp to Northlake.
There was “no case manager (at Northlake), and they seem to not want one,” a city employee emailed in April to LIHI and city staff after visiting the new site.
“It appears some of the operational/management issues that we saw at Ballard have unfortunately not gotten better since the move.”
Nickelsville declined to let The Seattle Times into the Northlake village.
Lee blames a lack of case management on inadequate funding from the city, which she says covers only some of the village operations. LIHI fundraises for the rest.
“We have to pay the bills, we have to pay the insurance, water, sewer, garbage, or the villages can’t function, so that’s the priority,” Lee said. “We would love to have two case managers per site but that’s not necessarily realistic given the city budget.”
More city funding
The lack of a case manager at Northlake for so many months was a problem, acknowledged Rehrmann, the Human Services strategic adviser. The city expected LIHI to fulfill its contractual obligations to connect people to housing.
But the city also said it agrees with Lee’s assessment. “We definitely have been underfunding LIHI,” Easter said.
Seattle recently awarded LIHI $175,000 — on top of the existing village contracts — for case management and services at Northlake, Interbay and Licton Springs and for security at Licton Springs.
In addition, the city is funding LIHI to operate three new encampments that are open or planned in South Lake Union, north Ballard and the Central District.
Each will have one case manager, a sign of the city’s evolving approach to the encampments, city officials said. Additionally, a behavioral-health specialist will work part time at the South Lake Union village. The new sites will have more services than the original encampments, although the city says it’s now looking for a contractor other than LIHI to do case management at two of the villages.
That does not reflect a lack of confidence in LIHI, Rehrmann said. “We’re always interested in bringing new agencies in,” she said.
But Seattle does not plan to contract with Nickelsville or SHARE when it opens the three new villages.
There is no indication LIHI will face consequences from the city for not providing the case management at Northlake.
“It is not helpful, if the end goal is to try and impact and improve services on the ground, to just go out and be punitive with our agencies,” Easter said.
Seattle is also not requiring LIHI to meet new performance targets that other homeless camps are now subject to, or risk losing some city funding. Those targets are a critical part of the city’s push to double the number of people leaving homelessness for permanent housing to 7,400 by year’s end.
Rehrmann said the city has not yet determined if the villages will be subject to performance-pay metrics in the future.
In the meantime, a case manager was finally hired at Northlake. She started the job in late June, three months after the camp moved to its new site.