Seattle’s War on the Homeless

Capping a catastrophic year for homelessness policy, the city is now quietly preparing to dismantle its shelter network, in favor of “permanent” housing that simply doesn’t exist

Two weeks ago, the Puget Sound region’s homelessness pandemic was back in the news, with the release of the long-delayed Winter 2017 point-in-time census of King County’s homeless. The numbers and local media coverage of them were both bad. But for the homeless, what’s going on behind the scenes is even worse.

Far from leaving the mess for a new executive to tackle in six months, lame duck Seattle mayor Ed Murray and his appointees are proceeding as fast as they can with the mayor’s ill-considered “Pathways Home” approach. In doing so, the city is poised to irreparably harm far more people than it will help. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what Murray is spearheading – with generous assistance from local media and significant parts of the Nonprofit Homelessness-Industrial Complex – is nothing more than a particularly vicious escalation of previous attempts to “solve” homelessness by attacking the homeless themselves. If we make their lives miserable enough, the thinking is apparently going, perhaps they’ll just go away. It’s worked great so far, right?

The Homelessness Emergency

Eighteen months ago, in late 2015, Both Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine formally declared states of emergency for the region’s homelessness crisis. This move was one of several that generated significant new funding, at least $55 million, to tackle the problem. A few weeks later, in January 2016, the county’s annual One Night Count posted alarming numbers that justified the declarations. The 2016 count found over 4,500 people living outdoors in King County, and over 10,000 people homeless overall. Those numbers, gathered in the dead of winter, were a staggering 19 percent increase over the previous record Winter 2015 numbers.

For context, in all of Seattle there are about 3800 shelter beds on any given winter night; less in non-winter months.

In the 16 months since that 2016 count, a lot has happened. Murray protected his program of aggressively sweeping homeless encampments – including, most visibly, the Summer 2016 destruction of the long-running unsanctioned encampment known as The Jungle – from city council legislation that would have protected homeless individuals from the chronic capriciousness of city sweeps. Murray then announced – with the support of $80,000 consultant Barbara Poppe – “Pathways Home,” an approach meant to emphasize finding permanent housing for the unhoused. Murray has also launched, last summer, a program to safely park RVs and other vehicles being used for shelter by homeless people; announced, in October 2016, the opening by December of a 75-bed, full-service shelter modeled on San Francisco’s Navigation Center; and announced funding for four new city-sanctioned encampments. Meanwhile, city voters last summer approved a $290 million housing levy with unprecedented funds for affordable housing, and earlier this year the city council added another $29 million for the same purpose.

And as anyone with eyes can attest, homelessness has gotten even worse in this time. What’s going wrong?

In a word: Everything.

Murray’s sweeps remain. A year after his promise to issue revised, more stringent criteria for enacting them, and several months after successfully killing more stringent city council legislation, in January Murray’s office finally released revised protocols for when and how the city would eradicate unauthorized encampments. (The council legislation had been written by the ACLU and other nonprofit groups who even a year ago had given up on the mayor’s assurances.) The revisions offered modest improvements but failed to address a number of chronic complaints – and also abolished the monitoring program that had revealed the city as frequently not following even its own lax guidelines. If anything, the number and ferocity of the sweeps have only increased in the months since.

But while the sweeps are rightly getting a lot of attention, there have been plenty of other problems, too. A pilot program to open three parking lots for the one-third of all homeless that use their vehicles for shelter opened one lot in Ballard last year for 15 RVs before collapsing after two months, leaving vehicle-dwelling homeless residents again with no stable or safe place to park. The city gave up on its pilot program not only because of neighborhood objections, but because it was somehow spending a bewildering $35,000 a month, or about $1750 per vehicle per month, on the program, before concluding that it wasn’t cost-effective.

In March this year, Murray announced he would put a $275 million property tax measure on this summer’s ballot to address the homelessness crisis – and then scrapped that proposal three weeks later, in favor of a more regressive county-wide sales tax measure in November whose details, let alone prospects, remain uncertain.

Six months past its scheduled December 2016 opening, and having already spent over $2 million on the project, Murray’s “Navigation Center-style” shelter has yet to open – but the city did find a location for it, in January, in a building already used by an existing 75-bed shelter, which it promptly evicted so it could remodel the space. In other words, instead of adding new shelter capacity, the city lost 75 beds in the middle of winter. Similarly, of the three (not four, as had been budgeted) “new” sanctioned encampments Murray actually announced, two already existed – one, intended for relocated Jungle residents, and another, an existing unsanctioned encampment called Camp Second Chance. In other words, after 18 months of emergency, and lots and lots of money, the city really hasn’t helped get all that many people off the streets.

Of course, the point of Pathways Home and its “Rapid Rehousing” focus is to house people, not to shelter them. In the two months between February and April of this year, the most recent for which there is public data, Rapid Rehousing found homes for about 40 people, out of over 6,000 on city waiting lists. Extrapolating from the rate at which local homelessness has been increasing, this means that while Pathways Home proudly touts the number of people it has housed, each month the city is actually losing ground; for every 20 people newly housed, nearly 100 are becoming homeless. And these numbers also don’t reflect the city’s plans to de-fund its existing network of transitional housing.

Even beyond that looming crisis, the housing effort may well get worse still. Rapid Rehousing plans for its “permanent housing” to come in the form of three- to nine-month private market rental vouchers. After the vouchers run out, those same formerly homeless people are expected to pay their own rent, in an open market where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is now over $1,700 a month in Seattle overall, and well over $2,000 a month in most of the neighborhoods where social services for low-income residents are located.

In the first four months of 2017, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s office, 48 homeless people died in King County. This means that while the city houses 20 people a month, and scores more each month become homeless, an average of a dozen each month are dying.

Which brings us to the past two weeks.

Count Us Out

After 30 years of an annual One Night Count, organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the county’s annual “point-in-time” count was moved this year to the nonprofit All Home, which contracted with a California company to oversee a supposedly more comprehensive census that could be used to inform Murray’s supposedly data-driven policies. Rather than being announced the following day as in past years, this year the rebranded “Count Us In” finally released its numbers four months later, on Wednesday, May 31.

The totals? Over 11,600 homeless in King County, including 5,485 living outdoors without shelter. About 70 percent of those unsheltered folks were sleeping in the city of Seattle. Some 92 percent of those surveyed said they would accept housing if it were offered.

These are numbers our local politicians invariably want before deciding on policies. How many of those 48 deaths from January to April could have been prevented with more timely publication?

On January 27, the low temperature in Seattle was 37. On May 31, a cloudy day, Seattle’s high was “only” 71, and the urgency of getting people off the streets nicely muted. Official reaction to the Count Us In totals, which were a staggering 22 percent higher than the same figures in 2016, was surprisingly blase. Elected officials almost uniformly echoed the official Count Us In conclusions: Our survey was more comprehensive this year, so we can’t really compare from year to year. Apples and oranges. And Count Us In made sure of that, by failing (in its 112 page report) to include neighborhood-by-neighborhood figures that could be directly compared to 2016, instead opting to create its own new county “regions.” Whatever its motivations, the effective result was a one-year free pass for civic leaders worried about accountability.

But we can make apples to apples comparisons, at least roughly, because it’s a statistical fact that increases in rental costs correlate predictably with increases in homelessness. Any increase of $100 in median one-bedroom rents in Seattle, historically, has been reflected in about a 10 percent increase in homelessness. The 19 percent jump in the 2015-2016 One Night Count totals actually exceeded this – and the same rent factor alone predicts most of the 2016-2017 jump in the new All Home numbers.

Since, by its own figures, the number of people being newly housed through the city this past year has been miniscule, there are only a few possibilities: either the 2016 numbers were high; the 2016-17 changes, for unknown reasons, don’t track as well with historical rental price precedent; or, most likely, there really was an over 20 percent jump in homelessness this past year, and Count Us In really wasn’t much more comprehensive this year than the One Night Count was in 2016. It just cost more money, took a lot more time to report back, and gave great cover to politicians who want to look like they’re doing something while actually doing something else.

Behind the Scenes

The morning after Count Us In released its numbers, the city was back to business as usual, evicting RV owners from an unsanctioned encampment at a state-owned lot in West Seattle that they had arrived at only the previous week. They’d landed there only after police chased them off a previous, informal but supposedly city-approved “safe” lot in SoDo in late May.

Meanwhile, Catherine Lester, head of the city’s Human Services Department, has been meeting with the various churches in the city that are the primary locations for overnight emergency shelters. Lester has reportedly been informing church leaders that their shelter contracts will not be renewed unless they can provide 24-hour services – a simply impossible demand for churches whose buildings are usually in heavy use during the day. Such a demand, if enforced in time for the 2018 budget that city council will pass this November (before a new mayor takes office), would effectively destroy the city’s already grossly inadequate emergency indoor shelter network.

But that’s OK, because according to Pathways Home, we’re going to house them all. With temporary private rental market vouchers.

And yes, that’s even more ridiculous than it sounds.

The Enormous Tusked Animal in the Room

You would never know it from the official reactions to the Count Us In numbers – or from the media accounts of them – but it is utterly impossible to solve our region’s homelessness crisis without first meaningfully addressing its even larger affordable housing crisis.

How bad is the affordable housing crisis? Some simple math will illustrate the scale of the catastrophe.

About 150,000 households in Seattle rent their homes. More of these are below Seattle’s median household income (which now tops $80,000 a year) than above it. Except for a few lucky retirees, these households include almost all of the people with incomes below the federal poverty level (FPL), currently $16,240 a year for a two-person household, or even 200 percent of FPL, or $32,480 a year.

If we use the standard metric that households should pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent, this means that the nearly 100,000 Seattle households at or below 200 percent of FPL should be paying no more than $800 a month in rent. The over 47,000 households at or below federal poverty level should be paying no more than about $400 a month.

An $800 per month rent per household in Seattle’s private rental market is virtually extinct; $400 a month is laughable. That leaves subsidized housing, which is offered in 133 commercial rental properties in Seattle, totaling less than 10,000 units – many of which are affordable at 200 percent of FPL, but not at FPL. Most of those properties have waiting lists that are either closed or exceed two years. Similarly, the waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers is closed, too, with occasional lotteries held just to get on the waiting list.

Additional projects, like some of the building authorized by last year’s housing levy, won’t be open for years – and even then, won’t be nearly adequate for today’s demand, let alone the demand years from now.

In other words, for every household now living in subsidized housing in Seattle, at least five more households need it. Meanwhile, those households are left to the private market – where they must compete with tens of thousands of the city’s other, less impoverished renters for what passes for semi-affordable units.

Little wonder there are over 6,000 people on the city’s Rapid Rehousing waiting lists. With only a couple hundred of them a year being rehoused by the city, the program isn’t even close to keeping up with the net figure of 900 newly homeless that Count Us In identified in its 2017 figures.

And between now and when all that newly funded affordable housing comes on line – a development which will at present only make a dent in the crisis – there’s every reason to think that more low-income households will continue to flee Seattle, and that homelessness will become more widespread, not less, unless and until the city or region puts some sort of cap on housing costs.

So why is the city playing whack-a-mole with human lives, pushing the homeless from one site to another, planning to dismantle the emergency shelter network that keeps people alive and (relatively) safe, and promising to instead house them in housing that isn’t available or doesn’t exist, and has no prospect of existing in the foreseeable future?

It’s a war. And like all undeclared, class-based wars these days, it’s the most vulnerable among us who are losing the most.

[Author’s note: Ironically, I had hoped to post this article last week but was delayed by personal health and money crises. If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing that and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

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