How Seattle “Protects and Serves” the Homeless
This week, the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department released two important but seemingly contradictory documents that capture perfectly the destructive assumptions behind “Pathways Home” and the city’s new, supposedly data-driven approach to our city’s homelessness pandemic.
First out on Tuesday was its Request for Proposals (RFP) for 2018 city funding for nonprofits hoping to provide shelter to the homeless. The RFP marks the first time in over a decade that the city has opened up its shelter funding process to competitive bidding – largely because for years only a limited number of nonprofits have operated most of our city’s shelters. A number of sweeping changes and bewildering assumptions are buried in the RFP’s thick bureaucratese. Happily, Erica C. Barnett saves me the trouble of decoding it by doing a fine job here of breaking down what the document means.
In short, most of the $30 million in shelter funding available from the city is dedicated to shelters that funnel their guests into “Rapid Rehousing,” the Pathways Home program that focuses on giving people three-to-nine month vouchers to cover renting private market housing. Another $20 million in city funding will go to programs like hygiene centers that are no longer considered part of the shelter system and are thus outside the scope of the RFP.
A few specifics of the RFP and its implications are worth highlighting:
First, as I reported earlier in June, for the last month the city has been telling current shelter providers that in order to be eligible for the new funding, they must allow 24/7 access to their shelter space rather than only providing emergency night shelter – a requirement that will disqualify 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 so: “Well, we have all this money for shelters, but nobody applied for it…” It’s a similar trick to claiming that the city has unused shelter capacity on many nights – which is true, if you include, for example, the places with mandatory hours that conflict with job requirements, or which have proprietary religious worship as an all-but-compulsory part of the package, or that have other alienating conditions that many homeless people find even more problematic than sleeping outdoors.
The “but we’re funding shelters, really!” ruse becomes more obvious with Pathways Home’s own language, which promises as part of its Rapid Rehousing scam to “rightsize” the “survival services and permanent housing imbalance between shelter beds available and housing available.” Since, in the first months of Rapid Rehousing, there’s already reportedly a 6,000 person waiting list for a program that’s now placing literally scores of people in permanent housing; and since the number of people living on Seattle’s streets overwhelms the roughly 3,000 shelter beds available on a given night; this translates to: “We don’t want to embarrass ourselves by being unable to place shelter guests into housing that doesn’t exist, so we won’t offer them shelter, either.” If you’re not signed up for nonexistent housing, you’re on your own.
In the corporate world, “rightsizing” has been used exclusively for a generation now as a euphemism for “cutting,” as in, “we’re going to buy this company and rightsize its workforce.” That never, ever, ever means “we’re going to hire more people.” And in a corporate-modeled program like Rapid Rehousing, the semantic tricks are identical.
And make no mistake: Rapid Rehousing is a scam, in terms of what it promises and what it can do. 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.
There are a few situations in which a few months’ subsidy is all people need: individuals recovering from illness or who find a job after a period of unemployment, for example. But many homeless people already work, and still can’t afford Seattle’s skyrocketing rents – now approaching a median cost of $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. If you’re homeless simply because you’re poor, tough luck.
If you have sufficient earning capacity but first need to be “fixed” – given help for substance abuse issues, say, or job retraining, or assistance recovering from a messy divorce – Pathways Home and its wraparound (and highly expensive) case management can definitely help. But the baseline problem with Pathways Home is that it is based on an outdated, paternalistic notion of who is homeless and why. In this view, if people are homeless it’s because they have personal problems – not because they have been failed by institutions or public policies that, to pick a not-random example, encouraged an unprecedented crisis in Seattle’s affordable private market housing without adequately funding public housing in turn.
Once again this week it was announced that Seattle had the fastest-growing rents of any major city in the nation – a news item treated as completely unrelated to HSD’s unrealistic RFP rehousing targets.
What Housing Crisis?
In the Pathways Home universe, if you’re homeless, for whatever reason, it’s your own damn fault. The city certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. The very DNA of Pathways Home is a mixture of outdated paternalism, right-wing judgmentalism, and bureaucratic ass-covering. (“If they’re still homeless, it’s because they didn’t want to be helped.”)
Seattle’s affordable housing crisis is treated as a vaguely relevant externality having nothing to do with why people live under bridges. As always, this is justified by DATA!! The same bureaucratic types that for decades have been meeting poverty or inflation reduction goals by changing the definition of poverty or excluding inflationary costs (like housing, health care, and other essentials) from the Consumer Price Index – these are the types of definitional tricks at work and play here. And there are two major ones in this week’s RFP.
First, the goals set forth for successful funding bids to meet are predicated heavily on success in rehousing a shelter’s guests in “permanent housing.” (Barnett does a good job explaining what does and does not count in these types of definitions.) Transitional housing, of the type provided by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and others, doesn’t count as a successful outcome, because it’s not permanent – but private market vouchers do count as a successful outcome, regardless of whether their residents can continue to afford rent after the vouchers expire.
In other words, underwriting someone’s rent for a few months in an apartment they can’t otherwise afford is considered a Pathways Home success. 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, unless the newly re-homelessized (is that a word?) sign up for the Pathways Home shelter system, with its fake permanent housing track, all over again after their vouchers expire. Then, they’re just another newly homeless person, with no relationship to their previous experience. In neither case are they tallied as returning to homelessness.
This amounts to a guarantee for the provider (and Pathways Home) of either a 100 percent or a 50 percent success rate in placing an individual in permanent housing – for an individual that, after a year or more in the system, still has no permanent home. Aren’t statistics fun?
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
To the extent that Pathways Home does acknowledge Seattle’s brutal housing market, once again, it’s relying on old news. From Barnett’s article:
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 part of solving homelessness in Seattle may involve moving people to “housing that is a considerable distance from work or which creates a substantial rent burden”—in other words, housing that may be unaffordable and far away from Seattle. “While these are not ideal situations, they are all better than the alternative of homelessness,”
The missing data echoes the Department of Justice’s inability earlier this decade to determine whether there was any systematic racial bias in the Seattle Police Department’s policing, because SPD simply didn’t keep the relevant data. However, the idea that a program can rely on private market housing for Seattle’s homeless by uprooting them from existing jobs, families, and support networks, and moving them to Federal Way or Kent or Lynnwood, was problematic enough even when those areas had housing that was more affordable than Seattle’s.
And guess what. “Housing that may be [or is] unaffordable” is only “better than the alternative of homelessness” for a short while, until the resident has exhausted his or her financial reserves and is homeless again. Then, it’s exactly the same as being homeless, except that it’s a Pathways Home success story. As captured by Data.
And even that flawed premise of cheaper rent in the far suburbs no longer applies. Exorbitant rents are now the norm throughout Puget Sound. On average, you might save $100 a month in rent living in Auburn – maybe – but if you have to go to Seattle for a job, or for any other reason, more than a couple of times a week, additional transportation costs will eat up even those marginal savings with a significant additional loss of time and quality of life. But “we can ship them to distant suburbs” is an easy CYA reassurance from and for policy-makers for whom such considerations are almost always pocket change. As a bonus, it appeals to that segment of policymakers whose preference for dealing with the homeless is just to make them go away.
This all adds up to the most fatal of the many flaws in Pathways Home’s faith-based approach to manipulated data. Barnett again:
A report from a homeless advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which implemented a Pathways Home-style rapid rehousing system, found that many families fell off the “rapid rehousing cliff” when their vouchers ran out and they had to pay full market rent for their apartments; indeed, all the studies that have concluded that rapid rehousing is a success were in markets where rents are a fraction of what they cost in Seattle, such as Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.
So What Does Work?
That RFP, from the city’s Human Services Department, was on Tuesday. Then, on Thursday, came this:
Seattle’s city-sponsored homeless camps are working even better than expected. That’s the short version of a report just released by the Seattle Human Services Department reviewing the first year and a half of camps in Ballard, Interbay and Othello. The camps — comprised of tiny houses and/or tents on platforms—are administered by the homeless advocacy and services groups SHARE and Nickelsville. Based on data from the federal Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) from September 2015 through May 2017, the report says that 759 people have lived in the camps and 121 of them found a “safe, permanent place to live.”
“The City-permitted encampments have met and exceeded the contracted performance measures,” [HSD’s report] reads. “The model is successfully serving people who have been living outside in greenbelts, on the streets, in cars and in hazardous situations.”
That conclusion isn’t surprising; it echoes what homeless people and their advocates have claimed for years. The source, however, is surprising. HSD has been at war with SHARE and Nickelsville for just as many of those years, primarily over its discomfort with the self-management model those two groups use, allowing homeless guests themselves to run the shelters and encampments they live in. Despite a decades-long track record of success, that sort of empowerment model still makes paternalistic, control-minded bureaucrats – public and nonprofit alike – deeply uncomfortable.
Even more interesting are the results HSD found so successful: 121 of 759 encampment residents finding permanent housing, or about 16 percent. Remember that the city only grudgingly agreed to fund encampments in the first place once it became blindingly obvious that the city didn’t have anywhere near enough indoor emergency shelter capacity to meet the demand. These three existing outdoor encampments were funded specifically as overflow: equivalents in function to indoor shelters.
So compare that outcome with Tuesday’s 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. In other words, the Nickelsville 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, that the city’s homelessness program is deeply, internally incoherent. And second, that the goals laid out in the RFP are an incentive nearly certain to result in manipulation of data to show “success” that, like Seattle’s affordable private market housing, simply doesn’t exist.
Homeless Lives Matter
Meanwhile, for the past two weeks, parts of Seattle have been in a justified uproar over the June 18 killing of Charleena Lyles by two Seattle Police Department officers. The investigation is ongoing, but there is already plenty of publicly available information to make clear that Lyles didn’t need to die – but that the institution responsible for her death will hold itself legally and morally blameless.
So what are we to do with the fact that according to the King County Medical Examiner, a record 48 homeless people died in the first four months of 2017 alone – compared to 91 in all of 2016 – and that was almost certainly an undercount?
Of those 48 deaths, six were due to opiate overdoses; another four were homicides. An unusually cold winter accounted for a spike in deaths. But in many cases, the deaths are a combination of factors. Poverty. Illness from a weakened immunue system and/or lack of access to timely medical care is common. People can have substance abuse or mental health issues, but it’s always hard to tell whether those predated and helped cause the homelessness, were exacerbated by homelessness, or were a result of it. If you had to struggle to find safe shelter each day, you might self-medicate, too, but the lack of an affordable apartment could still be the root cause of your homelessness.
Now, none of those deaths were at the direct, violent hands of public employees. Certainly none were executed in front of their own small children by the people they asked for help from, the way Charleena Lyles was. Lyles’ death was viscerally horrifying.
But the City of Seattle seems intent on a homelessness approach that dismantles much of an emergency shelter system that keeps peoples alive – and does so in favor of a “permanent” housing approach that helps fewer people, at a higher cost per person, and steers them into housing that will often be only a temporary mirage.
Regardless of any professed intent to help, the architects of those public policies kill people as dead as if they were struck by officers’ bullet.
When politicians and bureaucrats decide upon and then implement policies that they know will inevitably endanger lives – lives of our community’s residents who are least able to fend off such challenges – a certain number of those people are predictably going to die. They will die despite the many committed, well-intentioned people on the ground doing their best to help with what they have.
What they have going forward looks like it will be a system predicated on blaming the homeless themselves for what are, in many cases, institutional and policy failures. They are policies designed to play well to the rafters, regardless of their actual impact on the ground. (“But we have DATA!!”)
Our city’s emerging Nonprofit-Homeless Industrial Complex seems predicated on approaches where the control rests with the service providers rather than their constituents – not just because those constituents lack specialized skills or experience, but because they’re considered morally inferior and need fixing. (Because what’s the alternative?)
The problems start at the top – with policymakers whose primary concern with homelessness is funding, public perceptions, or optics, rather than the homeless themselves. That’s why the homeless themselves are virtually the only stakeholders who are never, ever in the room, or even consulted, when policies governing their lives are crafted and adopted.
The great contributions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been twofold: to use the system’s most spectacular (and irreversible) failures, like the killing of Charleena Lyles, to also highlight the smaller but far more numerous racially based abuses that our law enforcement system inflicts on a daily basis; and to give a collective voice to the people who for far too long have suffered those abuses in obscurity.
We learned this week – or at least, Seattle’s Human Services Department acknowledged this week – that on balance, shelters managed by the homeless themselves continue to have very good outcomes. That’s a lesson that needs to be internalized throughout Seattle’s Nonprofit-Homeless Industrial Complex. The homeless themselves have voices. They have relevant experiences. They, too, demand accountability.
It’s a lesson too many of Seattle’s elected officials and candidates and department heads will find counter-intuitive – but that’s their problem. Homeless lives matter.