Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Tackling tough issues of homelessness and affordable housing were the focus at the monthly meeting of the Southwest District Council, held at the Senior Center of West Seattle on Wednesday night.
Special guests at the meeting were Tess Colby, senior adviser on homelessness from Mayor Durkan’s office, and Dusty Olson, strategic adviser from the Homeless Strategy and Investment Division of the city Human Services Department. (for more information, see the city’s Addressing Homelessness and Homelessness Response pages, and the county’s All Home page)
Olson gave an overview of the city’s activities as it relates to issues of homelessness, as part of this slide presentation (PDF):
Olson said that her group’s primary goal is recent years has shifted to “moving people off the street and into housing,” noting that much progress had been made in King County but that the sheer numbers of homeless individuals are “an increasing problem.” Some statistics from her presentation:
- The King County “one night count,” a dedicated annual effort each winter to assess the number of homeless people, increased county-wide from 7,839 in 2007 to 12,122 in 2018, with 4,488 of them living unsheltered (outside) in Seattle.
- Data shows that more than 20,000 households (representing 30,000 individuals) experience homelessness over the course of the year.
- Nearly one-third of people living unsheltered are under the age of 30. Olson noted that this is changing across the country, though, as the overall age of homeless population trends upward.
- 70% of survey respondents came to Seattle to pursue job opportunities or to join a personal network of friends and family, while only 15% came to access homeless services. “People don’t migrate to Seattle because we have amazing homeless services,” Olson said.
- 38% have lived here for 10 years or longer, which is a percentage that Olson said many people are surprised to hear is so high.
- Homelessness affects people of color in an extremely disproportionate way:
Olson said the city’s efforts to improve its response to homelessness is based on “investments, systems and results” and began in earnest in 2014 under then-Mayor Ed Murray when it became obvious to stakeholders that “we couldn’t continue with the status quo. Considerable efforts were made with regard to HALA and affordable housing. In 2015, the city and county declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness, which Olson said had a twofold purpose of attempting to secure more state and federal funds (“that didn’t work,” Olson said) and allowing the mayor’s office and city council to expedite processes for zoning and planning.
Olson said that in her department, deep analysis of investment data showed that various efforts “weren’t very connected” and as a result two national consultancy groups were brought in to help. The city took that recommendations and made the “Pathways Home Report” strategic plan. Then, with a change in leadership (“Mayor Durkan came into office the day after we made award announcements,” Olson said) came a renewed focus on helping the homeless to move into effective housing. More recently, the city signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the county to further align efforts, and adopted a number of recommendations regarding shared governance.
Olson said the city’s priority actions include:
- Commitment to unsheltered families
- Connect people with services
- Expand enhanced shelter
- Actively problem-solve the waitlist
- Make housing available
- Good governance
And there are 3 key tenets in which investments are being made:
- Prevention: keeping people who currently have housing out of homelessness, focusing on “at risk” and “on the bubble” households who are close to losing their housing (usually for financial reasons)
- Diversion: moving people who are homeless or in shelters into housing as quickly as reasonably possible, so they don’t “get stuck” in that situation
- Outreach and engagement: per Olson, this is an area of “maintained investment but with a different focus in the past couple of years,” shifting from “just checking on unsheltered people too see if they’re OK” and giving them things they need like food or socks or a blanket, more toward encouraging people “can you come inside?” and taking that next step to get them into safe housing.
Olson added that their outreach and case management seeks to bridge that relationship between prevention (keeping people in their homes), emergency systems (shelters, permitted villages, transitional housing) and housing programs (subsidized and affordable housing). She pointed out that a “full spectrum” of options must be looked at, everything from bus tickets to help individuals who have housing options in other cities in the region, to subsidized long-term housing for individuals with substance abuse issues. The biggest shift, Olson said, has been changing the shelter system to be a truly beneficial resource (“places that just had mats on the floor and limited hours didn’t help,” what was required were places with meals, laundry, services and extended hours).
The city’s overall spending on homelessness prevention and response increased from $71.3 million in 2017 to $86.7 million in 2018, with an adopted 2019 budget of $91 million, Olson said, noting that her staff focuses a great deal on fiscal auditing of their contracts and programs, along with a full annual audit of all agencies. Another focus, Olson said, has been working closely across agencies to work through the waiting list of 12,000 households needing assistance, and extend services to the household most likely to benefit from the programs and ultimately move into housing. Also, her department works with landlords and property owners to find market-rate housing and to “lower the barriers for those existing homelessness. Housing is how we end homelessness, so it’s the most important part of our system.”
In response to a question about “what city programs are lagging because of increased investment in homeless care,” Olson said she couldn’t answer that because she doesn’t have visibility into all city programs, but she can certainly say that investments in other human services programs have not been negatively impacted.
The next part of Olson’s presentation focused on the results they’ve seen from 2017 to 2018, based on data such as a 2018 King County survey:
- Among unaccompanied minors, homelessness has been reduced 22%. Family homelessness decreased by 7%, and veteran homelessness decreased by 31% (including a decrease of 23% in “chronic homelessness” among veterans)
- However, unsheltered (outdoor) homelessness increased by 15%, including a considerable 46% in vehicle residency (people living in their cars). There was also an increase in homelessness among single adults and chronic homelessness (up 28%).
- 25,420 households were served in 2018 (up 7%), with a total of 7,428 “exits” into housing (1,801 maintaining housing and 5,627 into permanent housing which is up 30%).
- “Enhanced shelters” with more services showed a 78% increase in exits to housing (854 to 1,520).
- There was an 87% increase in Native American / Alaska Native households entering housing.
- Many other statistics and trends are described in the slide presentation.
The city’s Navigation Team contacted a total of 9,607 individuals in 2018, and made 1,372 referrals to a safe place (91% of those to shelters). Olson described the effort as an “outreach team” of volunteer officers and groups, that responds to large encampments where there are safety concerns, and visit the sites to provide offers of services prior to other teams coming in and cleaning up. The navigation team has 27 members, 11 from the police department and 16 from Human Services.
Tess Colby from the mayor’s office added that the mayor’s priority since taking office as been to “respond in an appropriate way” to issues of homelessness, which means allocating budgets and police/service resources in a way that best fits the situation (emergency or non-emergency).
Raw notes below from Q&A between meeting attendees and Colby and Olson:
- Q: What’s being done when people who are homeless are asked to leave but don’t want to go? A: Most individuals do comply, but Olson said it’s really about continuing to engage the person and make offers of meaningful alternatives, which can be “a long and arduous process.”
- Q: I see these positive statistics you’re showing us, but when I look out my window I don’t see a lot of progress (there’s an encampment across the street from my house). A (Olson): We really have made changes and seen a huge difference in the last couple of years, but we also recognize that many of the gains being made are in the homelessness that is less visible, while we’ve seen increases in people living outside and in their vehicles (especially in Seattle) which is “what you see; it’s more visible). Olson added that they know that homelessness is largely caused by the lack of affordable housing, which is a complex issue involving lots of different partnerships and initiatives.
- Q: Where are you sheltering people in West Seattle? A (Olson): I don’t live in the area but I know there is Mary’s Place shelter in White Center, a permitted village (confirmed by an attendee as being the Camp Second Chance (C2C) encampment on Myers Way), and a single adult shelter that is faith-based but “not one of ours.”
- Q: What about LIHI (Low Income Housing Institute) and SHARE / WHEEL (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort / Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League)? I’m concerned about their track record. A: LIHI has been a contractor for homeless encampments (it currently manages C2C). SHARE/WHEEL was not recommended for continuous funding in the last review process, the mayor has given them temporary funding to extend the contract for 6 months.
- Q: How are contracts and budgets handled? A (Olson): We monitor all of our contracts monthly, if not going well then we give them a performance improvement plan and work through that with them. We are planning an RFP process in 2020, for 2021 contracts, and we have agreed with King County to share data to help with that process. Colby: The City Council bought into this with the ordinance to fund initiatives based on data, and we concurrently fund agencies that are part of normal RFP process (that’s what happened with SHARE/WHEEL).
- Q: Is there a timeline for a family moving into permanent housing, and what’s the definition of “transitional.” A: We have guidelines but it varies – someone who meets all of the typical criteria could move out quickly, others could be there longer. Our expectation is that there is no “your 90 days are up and you need to move” mandate; we have policies but treat each situation uniquely.
- Q: What about homeless individuals who want to maintain a drug habit and have no intention of cleaning up? A (Olson): There are programs to help them; our approach at Human Services is that it’s much harder for someone who struggles with addictions to break that habit if they’re also homeless, so we want to continue trying to help them unless there is a safety issue that puts our staff and other clients at risk.
- Q: You mentioned that, nationally, the average age of the homeless is increasing. For older people on fixed incomes, there is subsidized housing, but landlords keep raising rents yet fixed income doesn’t change, this can’t keep up, what can be done to stop rent increases? A (Olson): Some of these issues are related to state and federal legislation and regulations (hard to change), this year there was an increase because of a federal increase. A lot of it is unfortunately outside of our control as a city, but we do what we can to be aware of trends and opportunities for “workforce housing” and fixed income. Colby: There are projects specifically trying to benefit seniors, but yes, the issues for limited housing for those on fixed incomes are happening all across the country, which will have dramatic effects on the types of services we can provide. We are “at the beginning of this wave, and are still at the learning point” and will be continue to work to be sure that our services match the needs of the people.
- Q: Getting back to the opening statements about wanting to get everyone off the street and into housing, what’s the expected amount, what’s the number and the goal? A (Olson): One of the things to think about is that historically we frankly were only bringing people in to keep them alive. In the last few years we’ve increased investment in housing and prevention, to keep the emergency number static put resources into strategic efforts. We are trying to beef up both ends of the system, we don’t have enough shelter beds as it is, but we focus on “how can we build a better system” and train our staff to focus on the most important things. We are definitely not at maximum efficiency yet, but are getting better. A challenge is that county-wide, we are having success moving about 8,000-12,000 households out of homelessness each year, but simultaneously almost the same amount of new households are becoming homeless and coming into the system. We have doubled the number of people existing homelessness, but just as many people are coming in to backfill. Colby: The number of folks we see on the street that have addictions are a relatively small number. Many families will experience one episode of homelessness in their lifetime, but the typically have more resources (like extended family) to help them through it, and we try to help those families that don’t have those resources. So, a lot of the good work that’s being done is somewhat “behind the scenes” and you don’t always see it on the streets.
- Q: There are a lot of different lists and systems, how are those handled? A: In the past year there was a pilot, we find that the vast majority of those on the Seattle Housing Authority waitlist are eventually housed. Most people who live in poverty don’t become homeless.
- Q: Will the number of people on those lists go down? A (Colby) Unfortunately, probably not. We have to keep building more affordable housing but it will likely never fully address the backlog of those that are unsustainably housed. “That’s not an excuse to stop trying, but it’s a challenge.”
- Q: Can you define homelessless? What’s the effort to figure out why people are homeless? A: This is defined for us at the federal level, which is that they are living unsheltered (outdoors or a car/RV or tent), in a shelter, in transitional temporary housing, fleeing domestic violence, or other factors. There are broader definitions, such as when school districts say that they serve a high number of homeless families, that tends to include families who are living in a hotel, living with other families, or have moved more than 3 times during the school year.
- Q: What about offering showers in community centers to those who need it? A: Yes, that can help, there are 11 centers in Seattle, and some churches offer this. Michael Taylor-Judd noted that one of the reasons for the high number of people living in RVs in Delridge is because the Delridge Community Center offers showers and laundry, many neighbors offer soup and food. He said they probably get “a dozen or more people per week” using those services.
- Q: What do we know about individuals who are homeless? A: It’s hard to study and know for sure, the data tends to be self-reported, but we do know some things from the county’s annual “one-night survey,” we see that the overwhelming number of homeless individuals do not have issues with mental health or addictions, most issues are financial, and actually 40% of homeless individuals do have jobs (they are struggling with bills and rent increases). Colby: Many homeless individuals are not the ones you see on the street, they are behind the scenes, but it’s possible that the ones you see on the streets may be more likely to struggle with issues of mental health and additions.
- Q: You mentioned the data from the county’s “one-night count,” how does that work and what’s the methodology? A: This changed a couple of years ago, but it is basically a census-based count on one night in January, teams of volunteers get a map of an area and are paired with a guide who is/was homeless and knows where in the area to look for homeless individuals. The teams go out at 2-5 am in January and walk every street and count everyone they see that is living outdoors (sleeping in doorways, at bus stops or on the bus itself, sleeping in vehicles). They do the entire count in one night, then spend a couple of weeks conducting surveys to find out more about the homeless populations, such as employment and mental health and chemical dependency factors, to give us some demographics. Then we add in the number of people that we know are in our programs and shelters, and add the numbers all together. (Editor’s note: See this link for information about the “Count Us In” point-in-time effort)
- Q: I just did some quick math on your Navigation Team numbers, and it works out to 35 contacts per day, that seems very high, but obviously we need more per day if what we’re doing isn’t working. A: It’s important to remember that’s it is one team (dividing into groups) with limited resources, but their entire role is going to those homeless populations and dealing with health or safety issues. We have other teams that help with homeless issues as a whole. In terms of numbers, if the team goes to an encampment with 20 people, then that counts as 20 contacts. It ranges from small one-person encampments to larger encampments.
- Q: What about tiny homes, can groups of those be beneficial to helping the homeless? A: We consider those to be an alternative to shelter. There are places that use tiny homes as housing. None of them are like “HGTV tiny homes,” they are very basic, there are similar efforts involving alternatives with modular housing and even reconditioned shipping crates. There are some fairly large examples (Compass in Snohomish County). There is a “huge spectrum” of possibilities, including block-by-block projects using accessory dwelling units.
After the presentation, a few announcements and mini-discussions:
- CANDIDATE FORUM: A representative from Speak Out Seattle reminded attendees about the District 1 Candidate Forum for City Council candidates, on Thursday, March 21st from 7-8:30 pm at American Legion Post 160 (3618 SW Alaska St), with moderator Juan Cotto. Key issues to be discussed include “homelessness, public safety, addictions, and top issues facing District 1.” Candidates expected to attend include Jesse Greene, Lisa Herbold, Brendan Kolding, Phillip Tavel, and Isaiah Willoughby. Questions can be submitted in advance on popsee.com with the code “sosforum.”
- LIGHT RAIL IN WS: Attendees discussed the upcoming deadline for public feedback on Sound Transit’s light rail plans, which would impact West Seattle. As we reported earlier this week, the deadline for public comments has been extended until April 2nd (online here), and there are two meetings in West Seattle next week with ST representatives present.
- TRANSPORTATION: Larry Wymer said that he would be giving a presentation to the Admiral Neighborhood Association on behalf of the West Seattle Transportation Coalition at ANA’s next meeting on Tuesday (March 12th) from 6:30-8:30 pm at The Sanctuary at Admiral (2656 42nd Ave SW). Wymer also noted that WSTC met last week, and will be meeting again on Thursday, March 28th, 6:30 pm, at Neighborhood House High Point (6400 Sylvan Way SW).
The Southwest District Council meets the first Wednesday of most months, 6:30 pm at the Senior Center of West Seattle’s Nucor Room.