Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson says investments in programs to help people exit homelessness are working, but the demand still far exceeds capacity.

“We need to understand that the system is basically drinking from the fire house,” Johnson told the city councilmembers on Tuesday.

Johnson appeared before the Human Services, Equitable Development & Renter Rights Committee to provide performance data covering all of 2018, broken down based on program investments.

The city released a Pathways Home request for proposals in 2017, a competitive bidding process for homeless service providers that required new performance standards be met in order to maintain funding.

Data provided to the committee on April 9 showed the first year of performance under this new standard compared to 2017.

The city reports 7,428 program exits in 2018, 5,627 into permanent housing and 1,801 maintaining their permanent supportive housing. This amounts to a 30 percent increase in exits over 2017.

“The key term here is permanent, meaning there is not going to come this period of time when they are going to have to leave,” Johnson said when asked to define permanent housing.

Granted a seat at the table during the meeting was Ted Virdone, a staffer for Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who chairs the committee. He questioned whether Rapid Rehousing vouchers are counted twice — once when a person exits homelessness and again when the voucher expires.

“There is some duplication in this exit number,” Johnson confirmed.

Sawant said the data provided by the Human Services Department looked good, but was hard to accept.

“I’m just not able to square such impressive numbers with what’s happening out there,” she said.

Johnson said it’s a matter of programs being unable to keep up with demand, and tens of thousands of people fall into homelessness every year.

“There is an inflow that far exceeds the outflow,” he said.

The councilmember and human services director agreed the city is making the right investments, but not consistent with the scale of need.

Between the numbers, councilmembers tried during the meeting to understand just how many people were served. A household can be an individual or family, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides critical funding.

Johnson said the 25,420 households served by programs receiving city funding represents 30,205 individuals, or a 7 percent increase over 2017.

HSD data shows 3,559 unique households exited homelessness to permanent housing in 2018. A total of 4,227 households moved into housing or were prevented from entering homelessness, an increase of 17 percent over 2017.

Prevention funding increased from $3.1 million in 2017 to $4.6 million in 2018, adding six programs supporting culturally specific programs meant to address the homeless disparities among American Indian/AlaskanNative and African-American populations.

The rate of exits to housing in 2018 were up over 2017 numbers for American Indian/Alaska Native, African-American and Hispanic/Latinx populations.

More people were served through prevention programs in 2018 than 2017, and the rate of exits to permanent housing remained the same at 89 percent.

The city reduced funding for basic emergency shelters by $800,000 in 2018, which amounted to a loss of 296 beds, but that funding was channeled into enhanced emergency shelter programs, said Tiffany Washington, HSD’s deputy director of homelessness.

The enhanced shelters saw 21 percent of users exit to permanent housing, up from 13 percent in 2017, and the number of beds provided increased by 662, or 1,411 total.

Washington said the efficacy of city-permitted tiny house villages remains in question, a number of new facilities opening in 2018, increasing the number of units to 328 from 255 in 2017. Thirty-three percent of residents exited to permanent housing in 2018, up from 23 percent in 2017, but that’s just 125 households, Washington said, and data needs to be compared with basic and enhanced shelter numbers. Investment in tiny house villages increased from $1.5 million in 2017 to $4.2 million last year.

The city wants people to exit shelters within 30-90 days of entering, but the recently closed Licton Springs tiny house village had residents staying for more than a year. The village had been managed by SHARE/WHEEL for the Low Income Housing Institute, which terminated its contract with the nonprofit earlier this year. Residents at the Interbay tiny house village, which is expanding this year, voted to remove SHARE/WHEEL as an operator last summer.

Washington said people at Licton Springs were happy to stay at the village, but a high amount of residents did transition to permanent housing prior to its closure at the end of March.

“The lesson learned is you need not just a place, but extensive services combined to get them to exit,” she said.

The committee meeting took place just hours after the grand opening of Clement Place in Licton Springs, an affordable apartment building the city funded with $9 million, that is being operated by the Downtown Emergency Services Center.

Transitional housing programs supported by the city are considered successful if people exit within two years. While fewer people were served in 2018 than in 2017, Washington said, exits to permanent housing were higher.

The city increased its investment in one-time diversion funding from $1 million in 2017 to $2 million last year, increasing its program exits from 1,011 to 1,370. Exits to permanent housing were up by 307 households or 5 percent over 2017. Diversion funding is used to keep people from entering shelter programs.

Sawant has long opposed sweeping unsanctioned homeless encampments, and said she’s hearing from those impacted that they don’t want the type of shelter being offered to them.

Washington clarified that the city’s Navigation Team — a combination of REACH outreach professionals and Seattle Police officers — is not focused on exiting people into permanent housing. REACH is evaluated based on the number of contacts it makes and the number of people moved into shelter, and is just one of eight outreach contracts the city holds.

“Once that person is handed off to the shelter, the program responsible for moving that person into permanent housing is that shelter,” Washington said.

She added the Navigation Team did recently attend diversion training, which will help when engaging with people in encampments prior to cleanup.

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