Seattle needs to revamp how it combats homelessness, two new reports say, and Mayor Ed Murray says he has a plan to do just that.
Many people entering Seattle’s emergency shelters aren’t actually homeless, certain programs are using taxpayer money inefficiently and people who’ve been homeless for years and years are clogging up the area’s support system.
But Seattle can get everyone who is homeless now indoors within one year by shifting its spending and approach.
Those are some of the highlights from a pair of reports Mayor Ed Murray released Thursday. The reports say Seattle needs to revamp how it combats homelessness, and Murray swears he has a plan to do just that.
Murray and others have long hinted at what the reports would say, but the mayor is betting that their release will bolster what could be a politically controversial plan.
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The reports by homelessness consultants recommend that Seattle and its area partners begin measuring programs strictly by the number of people they move into housing rather than by the number of people they serve.
They say the city and partners like King County should reallocate money from programs that perform poorly to programs that perform well by that measure.
The reports say existing programs are serving too many people who aren’t literally homeless — people whose situations are unstable but who still have shelter, such as those living with relatives or close to eviction.
And they say too many existing programs are inefficient. The area has more than 300 different homeless programs administered by more than 100 organizations.
“Our current system does not adequately respond” to the needs of people experiencing homelessness, Murray said in a statement. “We can no longer wait to take action, so today, we are changing course.”
Timothy Anderson, 53, who’s been homeless for 15 years, said a shake-up is overdue.
“There’s too much money in the city — Seattle shouldn’t have a homeless problem,” Anderson said, talking outside downtown’s Urban Rest Stop, where people living on the street can shower and do laundry.
“People don’t owe people nothing, but if they have pride in their city, we shouldn’t have a homeless problem.”
The reports tell Seattle to rely less on transitional housing and more on programs that give people short-term help to return to regular housing. That help can mean rental subsidies that last for a few months.
Transitional-housing programs — sites run by nonprofit organizations where people can live for a year or so while trying to get back on their feet — are up to three times more expensive than so-called rapid-rehousing programs, according to the reports.
Taxpayers spend $20,000 per single adult and more than $30,000 per family to move people through transitional housing into permanent homes, the reports say.
Not everyone is going to welcome change, Mark Putnam, director of the All Home public-private partnership that manages homelessness across King County, warned during a briefing with reporters Thursday.
Putnam was talking about the nonprofits — many with strong political connections — that have run transitional-housing programs for years and could now see their programs eliminated.
One such organization is the Low Income Housing Institute, and Sharon Lee, its director, crashed the briefing to share her concerns.
“I disagree with the proposal that we should lop off or kill transitional housing, because transitional housing works really, really well for certain families,” Lee said.
People in rapid-rehousing programs often end up homeless again as soon as their short-term rental subsidies run out, she said.
The reports say officials should try to divert more people from shelters by giving them short-term help to stay housed.
They say the city should try to reserve emergency-shelter beds for people who would be living on the street otherwise, as opposed to people on the brink of homelessness.
Only 66 percent of single adults and 64 percent of families entering Seattle’s emergency shelters came from the street, according to the reports.
Back at the Urban Rest Stop, Anderson said he believes resources should be directed primarily toward people without roofs over their heads.
“The people they’ve been giving money to are not in as dire straits as some folks,” he said.
The recommendations conform to what Houston officials say has helped them reduce that city’s unsheltered population by an estimated 75 percent.
One report is by Barbara Poppe, a consultant being paid $102,000 by the city. The other is by Focus Strategies, a firm being paid $75,000 by Seattle, King County, United Way and All Home.
“Homelessness is on the rise in the community and leaders have implemented a number of initiatives that are helping to turn the curve,” the Focus Strategies report says.
“However, our analysis reveals that the pace of change is slow and resources continue to be invested in interventions that have limited results.”
Murray’s Pathways Home plan promises to act on the recommendations.
“Our plan will increase accountability, expand performance-based contracting, shift the focus of city investments to achieve exits from homelessness and … better meet the individualized needs of people who are living unsheltered,” a summary says.
The summary says the plan’s goals include moving 500 unsheltered families indoors by the end of 2017, opening a Navigation Center-style shelter and building a comprehensive list of available housing units.
But programs generally won’t gain or lose funding based on Seattle’s new performance measures until 2018, according to the mayor’s plan.
Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine proclaimed states of emergency in November to address growing homelessness.
In January, the annual One Night Count estimate tallied 4,505 people living on the street and in vehicles across King County, including 2,813 in Seattle. The mayor’s handout says homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color.
Programs moved 7,000 households from homelessness into housing last year, an increase, according to All Home’s Putnam. But more and more people are becoming homeless, partly because rents are so high, he said Thursday.
The reports make some recommendations that are under way. For instance, the county and All Home launched a more streamlined setup for assessing the needs of people without homes and determining what help they should receive.
But Poppe’s report says the setup should prioritize people based on the length of time they’ve been homeless. People who’ve been homeless for years are clogging up Seattle’s system, the consultant said Thursday.
Yet her report also says the city’s shelters aren’t operating at full capacity.
Joey Galbreath, 45, who’s been on the street for just a few days but who’s been homeless before, doesn’t think length of homelessness is the best measure.
“If you’re homeless, you’re homeless,” he said outside the Urban Rest Stop. “It doesn’t matter if it’s been 10 days or 10 years.”
The Focus Strategies report says more people who have improved their circumstances and no longer need subsidized housing with counseling and other care on site should be moving on to make way for people trying to escape the street.
Greg Jensen, an administrator at the Downtown Emergency Services Center, hailed the new emphasis on housing Thursday but said he was still sorting through the specifics of the reports.
“We’re eager to move people out of the shelter system as quickly as we can, but we can’t do it if there’s no housing,” Jensen said.
Many of the people his organization serves have disabilities and struggle to stay in regular housing, even with short-term rental subsidies, he said.