The vast local network of organizations aimed at sheltering homeless people in Seattle and King County is in the midst of a historic shift, and many programs aren’t meeting their performance goals.
As guests trickle into the ROOTS homeless shelter in Seattle’s University District, director Kristine Scott worries about its long-term future.
Inside the spare, cavernous basement of the University Temple United Methodist Church, Scott’s staff prepares a dinner of shepherd’s pie, soup and salad for a few dozen young adults. They set up rows of blue mattresses on the linoleum floor. They help dispense donated clothing, give advice to first-timers and provide access to the computer lab.
All of these services are paid for with a mix of public and private money. But Scott knows that without changes the shelter’s operating budget stands to take a significant hit.
How do homeless programs measure up?
See how programs in Seattle and King County are doing, according to the latest All Home analysis.
ROOTS did not meet the minimum performance requirements set last year by the consortium of nonprofits and municipalities that provide funding for housing and sheltering homeless people, according to recent data.
If it continues to miss its targets, the shelter stands to lose about a quarter of its operating budget, Scott said. ROOTS has received roughly $585,000 in public funding from Seattle and King County since 2015.
“The clock is ticking,” Scott said. “The message is that we have around 18 months to prove that we’re fundable.”
Scott isn’t alone in her anxiety. Forty-three other programs also failed to meet the new minimum requirements last year, according to the data.
To Seattle and King County authorities, the entire system is a work in progress. The vast local network of organizations aimed at sheltering homeless people is in the midst of a historic shift as funders switch focus from emergency shelters like ROOTS to prioritizing permanent housing.
While there’s still daylight between where some programs are and where they will soon need to be, authorities say efforts to get them there already are showing progress.
“We have some organizations that are achieving at a very high level, and we have some that are not,” said Adrienne Quinn, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, the office that manages the county’s funding of local homeless-service programs. “Our goal right now is to give them training they need to re-prioritize and build capacity so that they can succeed.”
Both county and city officials point to a 52 percent increase since 2013 in the number of homeless people who have found permanent housing as a sign that the new strategies are working.
But the shift also offers a look into how some local providers are grappling with the new expectations. What’s more, it raises broader questions about how their success is measured and whether the political will exists to deny funding to those that underachieve.
Who is getting the money?
The question has lingered since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray proposed, and later scrapped, a $275 million property tax to fund efforts to reduce homelessness:
Are the millions in public dollars already being spent by Seattle and King County to house and shelter homeless people going to programs that work?
The answer is complicated. But follow the numbers and it begins to take shape.
In February, All Home, the committee coordinating countywide efforts to reduce homelessness, released figures documenting how 352 shelter and housing programs performed in 2016.
That move came about five months after members of the committee — Seattle, King County and the United Way — agreed on a three-year schedule for implementing several revisions to its system for measuring success.
The figures show that 308 programs met the initial requirement — reaching a minimum benchmark in at least one of five performance categories. Those are: the rate at which each housing or shelter program uses its available beds, how many of the people each serves were living outdoors or were otherwise without shelter before coming into a housing program, the length of each client’s stay, how many leave those programs for permanent housing, and the number of clients who fall back into homelessness after receiving services.
Tracking how much local funding went to each of the 44 programs that didn’t meet the minimum requirement is difficult. Some may have received federal or state grants but not city or county money.
Figures obtained by The Seattle Times show that the city’s Human Services Department awarded several programs in that group just over $1.8 million in 2016. For 2017, programs in that group received $2.4 million.
Since 2015, King County has awarded programs in the group of 44 around $2 million.
The totals grow larger when adding in the block awards provided to organizations like Share/Wheel, which operates several emergency-shelter programs, four of which did not meet the minimum performance requirement in 2016. King County and the Seattle Human Services Department have provided SHARE/WHEEL with just over $1.1 million since 2016, records show.
Demanding better results
As funding has increased, so have performance expectations. Per the 2016 agreement, providers applying for aid from All Home funders will soon be required to meet at least one more robust systemwide performance goal. According to the most recent data available, 85 programs failed to do so in 2016.
The ROOTS shelter was among them. But Scott said its stats don’t reflect the work and services it provides.
She said the new system favors larger organizations that have the resources to provide the case-management services thought to help people better transition from the streets to permanent housing.
A $130,000 grant from Seattle helped hire a case manager to help the shelter’s clients navigate the complicated service system, Scott said. But that’s not enough to serve the hundreds of people who frequent ROOTS each year, she said. About 560 different people sheltered at ROOTS at least once in 2016.
“The funders have not articulated a vision for what happens to programs like ours,” she said. “There’s a lot that’s happening because of the new model that’s great, but while you’re sand-boxing with the numbers is not the time to talk about taking away funding.”
All Home director Mark Putnam agreed that for the funders, overnight shelters are not as high a priority. But he stressed that the All Home funders hope to address each provider’s concerns.
“We’re taking this as an opportunity to have the conversation with programs to see what they need to improve,” Putnam said. For some, changes might include allowing clients to stay for longer periods of time, he said.
Consultant Barbara Poppe, whose 2016 analysis of the county’s aid network formed the basis for Murray’s new strategy for reducing homelessness, said she’s confident most programs should be able to meet the new performance expectations within the three-year period set by the All Home funders.
“But it’s also not uncommon in these transitional phases for some programs, for one reason or another, to drop out of the system,” she said.
Starting from scratch
King County has an established protocol for basing funding decisions on performance. Seattle is basically starting from scratch.
This year, Seattle will rebid its service-provider contracts for the first time in more than a decade. The revised performance standards will be included in the city’s contracts moving forward, officials say. But Seattle for the time being won’t tie them to funding; that won’t happen until a second round of competitive bidding, said Dusty Olson, strategic adviser with the Seattle Human Services Department.
Meanwhile, the city is to work through plans to increase the number of housing options available to homeless people, said Catherine Lester, Seattle Human Services director. “We’re learning so we can invest in the capacity, in performance, in understanding what’s working and what’s not,” she said.
Discussions over the use of metrics and benchmarks to evaluate performance have been going on for at least five years, officials said. In 2014, the committee agreed to three performance categories, which were included in new and continuing contracts that year.
But in Seattle’s case, the provisions around performance had no bite. They were never used for decision-making or funding purposes, said Olson.
“There was never really the time to get it done,” Olson said. “When you’re in the kind of crisis state that we were with homelessness in our city, it sucks up all of the time and energy to respond to it daily.”
Homelessness across the region has worsened in the years since. Between 2015 and 2016, the estimated number of people living outdoors in King County climbed by 19 percent. Results from All Home’s February overnight count are set for release in May, and the totals are expected to increase.
Meanwhile, spending to reduce homelessness has trended upward. In 2017, the city budgeted $57 million to fight homelessness, a $10 million increase over last year. King County will spend $51 million this year to help house the homeless.
Before the scheduled competitive bidding round later this year, the city is putting a new plan into place, Olson said. Contract monitors will assess each program’s performance monthly. In addition, the City Council has added $300,000 to the department’s budget for technical assistance and training for low-performing service providers.
But questions remain as to whether the City Council, which has final approval of the budget, will buy into the strategy.
Last year, amid pleas from local providers, the council rearranged the 2017 city budget to provide operating funds for several providers whose programs were left out of a coordinated bid for federal grant dollars.
The move highlighted tension over which type of shelter programs funded by the city — permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, emergency shelters and rapid rehousing — are considered priorities.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who supported the effort to find the funding, said she agrees money should go to providers that get good results. “I don’t believe funds should be shifted until we are certain about those programs’ outcomes though, so I will support a ‘go slow’ approach while specifically urging caution,” she said in an email.
Councilmember Tim Burgess said the council has a history of “backfilling” operating dollars for local service programs.
“There have been times in the past where we haven’t been able to prove that the Human Services Department made a mistake in not funding a program, and then voted to fund it anyway,” he said. “That has to stop.”