Homeless Survival: The Number Games

You see the signs in the workplace. You hear the ads on the radio. “Let’s have zero work-related injuries this year!” “We want zero traffic deaths in our state in 2016!”

No agencies ever use those kinds of slogans for preventing homeless people from dying. That’s not even a goal of most official policies meant to address homelessness – even among the agencies charged with helping them. Quite the opposite. Quantifiable data points are important. Survival? Not so much.

That’s the dynamic underlying Seattle’s failed efforts to address its chronic and rapidly expanding homeless population. This month, the same tension has been driving the latest, and perhaps final, skirmish between King County and the long-time emergency shelter organization SHARE. Understanding that conflict requires some context.

A New Approach

In 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released a report entitled “A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years.” The report advocated shifting public resources away from emergency shelters in favor of transitional and permanent low-income housing for the chronically homeless. It envisioned that each “client” was to followed by a case manager, who would help them find housing, access health care and substance abuse treatment programs, find jobs, and get back on their feet.

The ambitious goal, hard-wired into the program’s structure, was not just to get the homeless into permanent housing, but to get them “housing ready” so that, once placed, they would be able to stay in their new homes.

That report quickly became the definitive blueprint for the funding priorities of first the Bush and then the Obama administrations. As a condition of federal funding, communities across the country, including King County, enacted ten year plans following the new federal guidelines.

Over a decade later, in most of those communities the plan has been a dismal failure. The local version, enacted in the summer of 2005, has since created 1,222 “service enriched units” of housing meant to serve those without homes – about 100 a year. By contrast, King County’s annual one night count in January 2006, the first annual count taken after local officials adopted their Ten Year Plan, registered 1,946 people living on the streets. Ten years later, in January 2016, that number was 4,505, an increase of a staggering 132 percent. local shelter capacity only increased by about 25 percent over the same period.

This year’s One Night Count put King County’s overall homeless population at 10,122, the third highest number for any metropolitan area in the country – exceeded only by the vastly larger cities of New York and Los Angeles. .

Nobody is even officially counting the number of local homeless who’ve died – at least 67 are known to have died in 2015 alone. The Homeless Remembrance Project (HRP), begun by homeless people themselves in 2007 to honor those who’ve passed, has anecdotally listed 222 deaths in that period. The annual Women in Black vigil commemorating homeless deaths in Seattle counts over 600 such deaths since it began in 2002.

Those numbers are by definition grossly incomplete. Seriously ill homeless people also die in hospitals, in friend’s homes, or in Idaho or Georgia or somewhere else where they might try to seek help from family or friends. Those who die suddenly – from crime, from overdoses, or many other factors – may have official addresses they no longer live at.

It’s nearly impossible to quantify the number of people in our area who die each year while not having a home. But the numbers are clearly rising, just like the numbers of homeless themselves. In 2016 it’s quite possible that the number of new “service enriched units” created by All Home (the re-branded, and less derision-provoking, name for the Ten Year Plan) will be exceeded by the number of people who die on the streets. Over a decade after the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness became official King County policy, homelessness hasn’t ended. Instead, it’s gotten vastly worse.

An Invisible Crisis

What happened? The Ten Year Plan has never had proper funding at any level. The de-emphasis on already inadequate shelter space means that there is now only about one local shelter bed for every three people who need one. A decade of predatory lending practices, a bubble-bursting deep recession followed by a local tech job boom, severe state budget cuts in access to mental health care and other social services, and city policies that have essentially begged developers to build new, expensive housing by tearing down affordable housing stock have all contributed to the failure.

In 2005, approaching the height of the housing bubble, the median cost of a studio apartment in King County was $942 a month. In 2015, that figure was $1573 a month, with no end to annual double-digit rent increases in sight. Studies show that every increase of $100 in rent results in a 15 percent increase in homelessness, and the local numbers bear that out. For every 100 low-income families in King County, there are only 15 affordable rental units – and that’s with the county’s highly generous definition of “affordable.” The homeless that now beg each day at every freeway ramp and major intersection in the county are only the most visible tip of a very large, and still steadily growing, crisis.

In the face of this human catastrophe, echoed in many cities across the country, federal bureaucrats have doubled down on their approach. Local officials have dutifully followed suit, increasingly focusing solely on funding housing projects and shelters that include case management. Local officials brag that they are national leaders in their focus on this program, which is disingenuously called “Housing First” but actually offers housing to homeless people last. First, they must complete a gauntlet of programs, managed by the case worker, to ensure that they are clean and sober, have their health needs attended to, have income, and can manage a household – a paternalistic process meant to ensure that the client is “Housing Ready.”

Only a small percentage of homeless actually complete this process. As anyone who’s ever been seriously poor (a cohort that clearly doesn’t include the brain trust that designed this), it can be overwhelming to simply figure out, from day to day, how to find food and shelter, manage illnesses, and so on, without having to track endless appointments and meetings. Nonetheless, this is the focus of most current shelter and housing efforts for those without homes. In the PowerPoint bureaucratese of the revised Ten Year Plan, the approach was known as “Permanent Supportive Housing, the evidence-based solution to chronic homelessness.” That’s not the description – it’s the title.

The approach seems based on the notion that homelessness is an individual failure – that if only we can “correct” individual behaviors – make people “Housing Ready”- the homelessness crisis will end. Especially locally, that emphasis on individual choices, with the inevitable moral judgments, is tailor-made to avoid examining the structural impediments that virtually guarantee that a percentage of our local population cannot afford or access housing. Focusing on individual behavior only manipulates which people will be literally left out in the cold.

Most obviously, “Permanent Supportive Housing” is in high demand but woefully short supply in the Seattle area. Subsidized housing is often reserved for the elderly and/or disabled, and even then, most such buildings have waiting lists that are either years long or frozen entirely. Even beyond the affordable housing crisis and cutbacks in social services, the failure of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has also been exacerbated by developer-driven local politics and by “urbanist” public policy zealots who insist, like something from an Ayn Rand fantasy, that the best way to create more affordable housing is encourage developers to tear down what little is left of it.

Which brings us to the present day, and SHARE’s closure of most of its emergency shelters in Seattle.

The SHARE Controversy

Caught firmly between the political focus on moving homeless people into housing and the urgent need on the streets for basic shelter is SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort), which for decades has been the main provider of low-barrier, no-frills emergency shelters in Seattle. For most of that history, SHARE’s model, which includes having the homeless who live in shelter spaces self-manage them, has been too inexpensive and effective for the city not to fund, but too resistant to paternalistic policies for funding bureaucrats ever to feel too comfortable with.

If homeless people are capable of self-management, maybe, just maybe, not all of them have made individual choices that need fixing. If competent people can become homeless, it invites scrutiny of structural problems involving housing, health care, domestic violence resources, and a host of other issues. Having homeless people manage their own shelters is pretty much the opposite of “Permanent Supportive Housing, the evidence-based solution to chronic homelessness.” Seattle, like any city, needs both. But that’s not what’s happening.

2016 has been a particularly stressful year so far for SHARE and its lead organizer, Scott Morrow, who also helps manage Nickelsville’s outdoor shelters. In January, residents of one of the Nickelsville encampments, egged on by a fired Nickelsville employee, voted to disassociate their camp from Nickelsville. In doing so, they also voided the contract the encampment had with the landowner, the nonprofit and church sponsors, and the city.

Backers of the newly christened “Camp Dearborn” justified their decision with a staggeringly vitriolic campaign against Morrow, accusing him – without offering any evidence – of physically and sexually assaulting residents, embezzling money, running drugs, and being secretly rich, among many other things. It emerged that the camp’s main complaint was that Morrow was often the person charged with enforcing Nickelsville’s no-alcohol, no-drugs policy – a policy decided upon by previous residents. The camp’s new fiscal sponsor proudly announced that her ultimate vision was encampments where people could use not just alcohol and marijuana, but street drugs like heroin and meth “responsibly.” Perhaps the most notable part of the fiasco was the support or silence of city and county officials and other homelessness policy leaders, even in the face of the most hyperbolic of the accusations against Morrow.

Meanwhile, SHARE’s long-running financial problems were coming to a head. In Fall 2014, King County officials, following federal guidelines, denied a renewal of county funding for SHARE in favor of suburban shelters that served far fewer people at much higher cost, but offered comprehensive case management services in line with federal guidelines. SHARE was explicitly defunded for its failure to adequately demonstrate “affordable housing outcomes” – a focus that has never, in its decades-long history, been part of the work of SHARE (or any other emergency shelter). The county subsequently also refused SHARE’s funding request last fall, despite a commitment in the four-year plan produced by the newly christened All Home to have both the city and county “support existing shelter.”

The county cuts represented a loss of $75,000 a year to SHARE’s annual shelter operating budget of $647,000. The cash flow crisis was compounded by the city – the source of just over half of SHARE’s annual shelter budget – providing that money not with grants, but by reimbursing expenses after they’ve been paid for by SHARE. By February 11, while the local homeless population was exploding, after 16 months of correspondence with the county, and having failed to secure enough alternative funding, SHARE was publicly warning it was amassing unsustainable debts and would need to close its shelters without additional money.

On March 21, SHARE announced it would need to close its shelters at month’s end without additional funds. And on March 31, that’s what it did, keeping two shelters open for the disabled and infirm and otherwise relocating to a plaza on the north side of the King County Administration Building, in hopes of pressuring the county into releasing funds.

SHARE’s protest encampment, christened “Tent City 6,” has been there ever since, overflowing its capacity with over 150 protesters now sleeping there each night. By mid-month, SHARE was reporting that “Harborview Hospital has been referring indigent patients to us when they are released from respite with no place to go. King County Jail has been sending folks down the hill here to us when they are released from custody with no place to go. King County has also been bringing people here who have had their camps ‘swept.'” But while some county workers have apparently had no problem sending people to the encampment, the officials in charge of homelessness policies for the county and city – and other private sector advocates as well – have been eviscerating SHARE for, essentially, not getting with the federal program.

SHARE has been criticized for “not honoring” its contract with the city (by running out of money), for “playing politics” with a “hostile protest” that “uses the homeless as pawns” by closing shelters “with no notice,” and much more. Real Change founder Tim Harris, perhaps the city’s most influential advocate for the homeless and a veteran of overnight encampments to protest the Ten Year Plan, took to Facebook the day after the shelter closures to urge SHARE’s leaders to “wear big boy pants” and “take some f***ing responsibility for your organizations [sic] failures instead of projecting how it’s always someone else’s fault.” The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, sniffed that SHARE shouldn’t need any money since the churches providing shelter space could offer it for free. Myths, red herrings, and patronizing language abounded, but allies were few to be found. Most, it seems, have gotten with the official program – even though it has been a demonstrable failure in its own goals.

The accusations are both familiar and hotly denied by SHARE, which points to a years-long stack of correspondence with the county as evidence that the current crisis was neither abrupt not unexpected; reports that understandably, not one of the churches that host its shelters were willing to continue doing so for free; strongly denies that residents have ever been required to protest to stay in shelter; and notes that the decision to mount the Tent City 6 protest was made by homeless residents themselves, who would then hardly count as pawns. But the assumption that homeless people can’t advocate or organize for themselves has been at the heart of what makes comfortably housed bureaucrats uncomfortable with SHARE over the years. And the demand, from both county bureaucrats and former rabble-rousers like Harris, that SHARE “evolve” and get inside the official Housing First tent by fundamentally changing its mission from emergency shelter to lining up housing, seems deeply disingenuous. It’s rather like criticizing the Seahawks for not winning any baseball games. (Well? They’re playing a game – with a ball – in Seattle – what’s the problem? Evolve! Get with the program!)

Only this isn’t a game; it’s survival. Some homeless people absolutely need programs that provide housing and the services that make it possible for them to access it. Seattle also needs far more affordable housing, period. Meanwhile, each night, the homeless also need to get out of the rain and cold, whether they’re willing to become officially “ready” for housing or not.

Both types of services are critical, but only one is now considered worthy of taxpayer support. And, while SHARE struggles to avoid closing its doors permanently, and concern trolls demand that any further funding for SHARE be conditional upon unspecified “reforms” likely to include a complete change in mission, installation of more pliable staff and board members, and ditching that troublesome self-management model, people are continuing to die on the streets.

Even if it weren’t anathema to much of Seattle’s political class, creating new, genuinely affordable housing units is vastly more expensive than simply providing a roof and a safe space. It would take years and a lot of money to build enough such units to house even the people who need one today. But the relatively paltry numbers of affordable homes that are getting built are numbers that look great when being shown to an appreciative committee or conference workshop on a four-color slide. (Up next: Our press release, with photos!)

Meanwhile, SHARE remains broke and most of its shelters remain closed, victims of a lack of alternative funding and the pervasiveness of a failed yet now-ubiquitous approach.

Somehow, that four-color slide isn’t likely to be much consolation to people sleeping outside tonight. Almost certainly, at some point this week, at least one of them will die.

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