SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | Homeless lives matter

In late June, the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) released two important, seemingly contradictory documents that capture perfectly the destructive assumptions behind the city’s new, supposedly data-driven approach to our city’s homelessness pandemic.

First out on was its Request for Proposals (RFP) for 2018 city funding for providing  shelter to the homeless. A number of sweeping changes and bewildering assumptions are buried in the RFP’s bureaucratese.

Most of the $30 million available is dedicated to shelters that funnel guests into “Rapid Rehousing,” the Pathways Home program that will provide three-to-nine month vouchers for private market housing. To underscore the city’s insistence that homeless pursue these vouchers, shelter providers have been told that priority for the new funding will be given to 24/7 access to shelter space rather than solely emergency night shelter - a requirement that disqualifies almost all of the current, mostly church-based locations. This becomes a neat bureaucratic trick for destroying Seattle’s existing emergency shelter system without claiming to do.

Similarly, Pathways Home promises as part of its Rapid Rehousing scam to “rightsize” the “survival services and permanent housing imbalance between shelter beds available and housing available.” “Rightsize,” in this case, is a euphemism for “eliminate shelters.” Meanwhile, there’s already a 6,000 person waiting list for a Rapid Rehousing program now placing literally scores of people in public housing, so that leaves the voucher program. And for most homeless individuals, being expected after a few months to pay market rates for rental housing is a near-certain ticket back to homelessness.

Once again in June, Seattle had the fastest-growing rents of any major city in the nation - news treated as completely unrelated to HSD’s unrealistic RFP rehousing targets. And HSD’s “data” constantly uses definitional tricks to underscore the premise that people are homeless due to their own failings - not a systemic inability to provide affordable housing.

First, the goals set forth for successful funding bids focus heavily on success in rehousing a shelter’s guests in “permanent” housing. Private market vouchers count as a successful permanent outcome – regardless of whether their residents can continue to afford rent after the vouchers expire. If they have to move to a friend’s couch or some abandoned doorway afterwards, that doesn’t count as a failure - in fact, it’s not considered at all. Aren’t statistics fun?

Meanwhile, the homeless can always go elsewhere, right? According to the RFP, “Data does not currently show us if people are being housed in their communities of choice or displaced to other locations.” Pathways Home, however, explicitly states that some people will need to move “housing that is a considerable distance from work or which creates a substantial rent burden” - which is to say, unaffordable or in distant suburbs. That, too, is a “success” regardless of whether it’s sustainable. And even the idea that distant suburbs are cheaper is obsolete; exorbitant rents are now the norm throughout Puget Sound.

This all speaks to the most fatal flaw in the justifications for Pathways Home: The successes cited by “Rapid Rehousing” advocates are all in cities with much lower rents, like Phoenix, Houston, and Salt Lake City. In the one city with rents similar to Seattle where Rapid Rehousing has been implemented, a study found that homeless receiving vouchers in Washington, DC quickly became homeless again when the vouchers expired. But that’s the wrong kind of data.

Two days later, HSD was back with a report on what does work: the city’s sanctionned homeless encampments. An 18-month study of the first three, in Ballard, Interbay, and Othello, found that of their 759 residents, 121 went on to find a “safe, permanent place to live.” From the report: “The City-permitted encampments have met and exceeded the contracted performance measures...The model is successfully serving people who have been living outside in greenbelts, on the streets, in cars and in hazardous situations.”

About those results HSD found so successful: 121 of 759 encampment residents found permanent housing, or about 16 percent, from outdoor encampments funded specifically as overflow, equivalents in function to indoor shelters.

Compare that outcome with the RFP, which defines success for emergency shelters steering guests into permanent housing as: 50 percent for single persons, youth and young adults, and 80 percent for families. The encampment success rate that thrilled HSD came two days after the same department issued an RFP demanding that bidders meet a success rate three to five times higher.

This leads to two conclusions: First, the city’s homelessness program is deeply, internally incoherent. And second, that the city seems intent on a homelessness approach that dismantles much of a successful emergency shelter system that keeps people alive, in favor of “permanent” housing that helps fewer people, and steers them into housing that will often be only a temporary mirage.