Accountability and Homelessness
Summary: Sadly, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has remained too high — despite more spending by our local governments. During the primary election, I personally knocked on the doors of voters on EVERY block in District 4 — that’s ALL 133 precincts and 20 neighborhoods reaching over 18,000 voters — and they reported homelessness as their #1 concern. I will use my extensive background in affordable housing and commitment to accountability to fund only data-driven best practices proven to prevent and reduce homelessness as we have seen in other cities. I will also work collaboratively and persistently to achieve the necessary coordination with King County on mental health, drug dependency, and other key programs so that we have a comprehensive plan and achieve real progress on this regional crisis. Getting better results is necessary to provide compassion toward people experiencing homelessness and to support those on the front lines working to reduce homelessness.
Question: The number of people suffering through homelessness continues at an unacceptably high level despite more spending by our local government. Many view this as a humanitarian crisis while others as an assault on their communities and parks — but all agree something needs to be done. How would you address this issue?
Short Answer: The common ground on the regional homelessness crisis is the desire to achieve much better results. Compassion requires results. While the city’s and county’s homeless response systems house thousands each year, we can and must do better. As someone who worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the Clinton Administration and has over 15 years of experience preserving low-income housing, I believe I am the candidate with most relevant experience to address homelessness. The City Council must (1) cooperate with our Mayor to consolidate efforts with King County and measure outcomes on this regional crisis and (2) fund only programs proven to work, including prevention.
- It’s time for a comprehensive regional plan with relevant performance metrics and outcome goals visible to all, so that we ensure we are truly helping the most people experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, this City Council failed to prioritize the homelessness crisis as they should have over the past few years, instead spending too much time on divisive land use / zoning changes. Recently, the City Council was still arguing about which performance outcomes to measure and how residents should report unauthorized homeless encampments. I will work collaboratively and persistently with our Mayor to achieve the necessary coordination with King County on mental health and drug addiction programs. This accountability from both the city and the county can rebuild the trust not only of frustrated city residents but also of the business and philanthropy communities.
- As the chief funder of programs that provide services and create low-income housing, City Hall must be held accountable for how it spends your tax dollars to address this crisis. I will use my extensive background in low-income housing and commitment to accountability to fund only data-driven best practices proven to prevent and reduce homelessness as we have seen in other cities. Other cities have reduced homelessness because they adhered to evidence-based strategies and applied them across their entire homeless response systems. These solutions have been highlighted for years by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness under the Obama Administration and the National Alliance to End Homelessness (discussed below). We should also stop demolishing existing, naturally occurring affordable housing or ensure it is immediately replaced.
To be truly compassionate toward people experiencing homelessness, our local government leaders must get better results. It’s time for a change.
Goal: To rapidly reduce and prevent homelessness and to ensure homelessness is rare, brief, and one time.
Problem: The number of people experiencing homelessness has continued to increase in Seattle and King County for the past few years, despite increased spending by our local governments.
Approach: Show compassion toward people experiencing homelessness, recognize there are many different causes and types of homelessness, support workers on the front lines trying to reduce homelessness, fund only the program proven to work, and empathize with residents frustrated by the city government’s lack of progress in reducing homelessness.
Collaborate with our Mayor to Coordinate with King County and Implement a Clear and Effective Plan to Reduce the Regional Problem of Homelessness
Frankly, one of the challenges hamstringing Seattle is that every Councilmember thinks they need to have a personal action plan to solve homelessness. Our agencies and response are already too fragmented. Instead, the City Council should collaborate with the Mayor to implement a smart plan to reduce homelessness. Instead of 9 different plans, implement one regional action plan rooted in data, transparency, compassion, and only those programs proven to work. Like an effective Board of Directors providing oversight but rowing in the same direction, the City Council should provide the tools to advance the plan and the metrics to measure progress / make course corrections / ensure accountability — so that the public and business community regain their trust in City Hall’s efforts to tackle this problem when seeing results.
This includes the need for City Councilmembers to collaborate with the Mayor to:
(a) get city departments to work better together to produce better results,
(b) advocate for our state legislators and Governor to provide more funding for mental health treatment and the Housing Trust Fund for permanent supportive housing (in addition to the boost they provided in April 2019), and
(c) drive regional coordination, consolidation, and results with King County government.
While collaboration and oversight with the Mayor is key, Councilmembers should ensure we are implementing effective strategies such as these:
Emphasize Prevention of Homelessness
The City and County governments and the nonprofits with which they partner are, in fact, housing many people experiencing homelessness. The problem does not seem to be getting better because there are new people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Therefore, in addition to implementing these other strategies proven to reduce homelessness, we need to allocate more attention to preventing homelessness in the first place.
- Bringing both the Seattle Housing Authority and private landlords to the table to collaborate on prevention, we should thoughtfully and quickly explore recommendations from the report published jointly by The King County Bar Association and Seattle Women’s Commission in September 2018: “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle.” (Since this report was issued, the Washington State Legislature adopted some of the recommendations, such as giving tenants 14 days to cure nonpayment of rent instead of just 3 days.)
Support One-Time Funding for Families and Individuals At Risk of Losing Their Home
- The recent story about a woman facing eviction by being just a few dollars short on her rent highlights that small, cost-effective investments could keep some people from plunging into homelessness. To help people at serious risk of losing their home or getting evicted because they are temporarily unable to pay their mortgage or rent, we should support cost-effective programs like these:
Deploy More Navigation Teams More Effectively and with More Tools
Assemble and deploy more Navigation Teams to handle the volume of people experiencing homelessness outside.
Empower Navigation Teams with technology:
- For quicker and more accurate access to available shelter beds. There should be “an app for that.” Currently, Navigation Teams are calling various shelters on the phone.
- Expand the “Find It, Fix It” App to include a choice for unauthorized encampments and consider implementing a 3-1-1 Call Center as discussed in my Op Ed for Crosscut.com in 2017.
- Dispatch Navigation Teams faster to encampments where there are newly homeless people to divert them from homelessness before things get worse, which is a best practice recommended by our City Auditor in February 2019 based on programs in New York, Los Angeles, and London (called “No Second Night Out”)
- Direct and Coordinate the disparate outreach efforts of the nonprofits using city funding so they are more effective and strategic, as recommended by our City Auditor in February 2019. Acknowledge that outreach to homeless youth often require different approaches than outreach to adults.
Discourage Illegal Camping
- Prevent Illegal Camping in our Parks
- Prevent Unauthorized Encampments from Returning
Free Up Shelter Space by Increasing Use of Diversion and by Moving “Long-Term Stayers” into Permanent Housing
There is a frequent concern that there are not enough shelter beds. A partial solution recommended by the 2016 report from national expert Barbara Poppe: free up shelter beds by focusing case management on those individuals who have been in shelter the longest, the so-called “long-term stayers.” In addition, studies show the success and cost-effectiveness of housing “diversion” tactics that empower people to get back into their housing quickly by solving their actual problems, whenever possible — thereby, freeing up shelter space.
Continue to Support the Successful Seattle Housing Levy:
Doubling an existing levy must be well-justified with tangible results. While I’ve never been afraid to raise questions about proposed tax increases, I supported doubling the Seattle Housing Levy because it has a track record of producing tangible results and because additional low-income housing is needed. Thanks to the generosity of Seattle voters and taxpayers, the Seattle Housing Levy has over the past several years funded over 13,000 affordable apartments for seniors, low- and moderate-wage workers, and formerly homeless individuals — plus provided homeownership assistance to more than 900 first-time low-income home buyers, and emergency rental assistance to more than 6,500 households.
Intervene to Make Sure People Suffering from Serious Mental Health Challenges including Substance Use Disorder (commonly referred to as drug abuse) Get the Treatment They Need
- While the Seattle area has pioneered some successful programs, we must be open to piloting additional programs proven to work well in other U.S. cities.
- Work more closely with King County to leverage funding from the State of Washington and to link those in need to King County’s promising Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) program.
- Fully fund Project LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) while continuing to ensure it is implemented correctly and evaluated for continued success based on measurable outcomes.
Build Better, Faster, Cheaper Housing for the Homeless:
Encourage “Modular” Housing
Modular apartment buildings, which I recently inspected in Vancouver B.C., are built in a factory and assembled on site. It can be attractive and good quality while costing less — and it is constructed much faster than traditional housing so we can get people experiencing homelessness into housing quickly. It should ultimately be built with union labor.
Lower Land Costs
Rather than selling or giving away publicly owned “surplus” land (such as a utility substation no longer needed), city officials should use long-term leases to rent the land to low-income housing operators. Long-term leases of land lower the overall cost of a new housing project while enabling the public to retain public land and the operator to obtain bank financing to construct the housing.
Fund Only Programs Proven to Work
Learn from Other Cities:
When we crafted the high-quality Seattle Preschool Program, we visited the cities that had already produced the best outcomes for children. Instead of wasting resources by reinventing the wheel, City Hall must learn from the mistakes and successes of communities that have already reduced homelessness: Atlanta, Columbus, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and others.
Stick to evidence-based strategies.
Other cities have reduced homelessness, in large part, because they adhered to evidence-based strategies. These solutions have been highlighted for years by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Alliance to End Homelessness:
- Housing First
- Permanent Supportive Housing, including less expensive but high-quality modular housing
- Enhanced, low-barrier emergency shelters that more successfully exit people to permanent housing
- Diversion for the newly homeless (empowering people back into housing by helping to solve their actual problems quickly whenever possible)
- Coordinated Entry
- Homeward Bound
- “By Name Lists”
- Rapid Rehousing
- Long-Term Stayers focus
- Landlord-Liaison (which is being reinvigorated into the “Housing Connector”)
Seattle has been using several of these strategies, but the City Council needs to stay focused on this crisis and take these best practices to scale across the entire homeless response system in conjunction with King County.
Note: While “Rapid Rehousing” is more difficult here than in cheaper cities, it can be tailored to work for moms and their children fleeing domestic violence. Also, the City Council should be professional in its relations with landlords since we need their assistance to provide housing.
Stop funding programs that don’t work.
Don’t spend less, but spend wisely — that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. Re-invest those funds into the evidence-based strategies noted above. City leaders should be commended for finally implementing performance-based contracts to ensure accountability for the nonprofits on the front lines that receive our tax dollars. While the Mayor’s team might need to refine those contracts to adjust to realities on the ground and provide technical assistance to nonprofits initially struggling with higher expectations, the city should ultimately enforce the contracts and make sure tax dollars are achieving results. In addition, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has for the past 10 years discouraged temporary measures such as encampments because they divert resources from sustainable solutions.
Consistently Collect Relevant Data and Evaluate Programs to Inform Decisions and Measure Results:
- Collect not only the raw numbers, but also the causes of their homelessness which can aid in prevention.
- Measure outcomes, not just outputs. For example, don’t count just how many times you asked a homeless person whether they wanted shelter and/or services, but track how they fared after they accepted the shelter and/or services.
- Any organizations receiving federal funding must already use the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) so that policymakers can analyze all available data and track results. This central system is important for tracking data and progress. However, the rules for how people experiencing homelessness are referred to shelter and services could be more flexible and effective for both nonprofits and the homeless clients.
- Independently evaluate performance to ensure we are actually reducing homelessness and we are learning from what is working and what needs improvement.
In addition to these strategies for reducing homelessness, please see also my discussion of the need for more affordable, low-income housing, which includes preserving the affordable housing that we already have by CLICKING HERE.
Why I Can Deliver Solutions:
After obtaining my Master of Government Administration in 1994, I started my work on the challenges of homelessness at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during the Clinton Administration where I worked in the division that awarded grants to cities to address homelessness. I also have over 15 years of experience in financing the preservation of low-income housing across the country. This year I attended the latest presentations by the consultant Future Laboratories to the current City Council and participated in the One Night Count on January 25, 2019. I am campaigning to deliver more accountability and that includes ensuring City Hall produces better results on complex and costly issues, such as homelessness.
Caveat: As someone who has spent years in the field of affordable housing, I understand that homelessness is complex and solutions cannot be easily summarized into the plank of any campaign platform.
CLICK HERE published October 3, 2018
CLICK HERE, Published November 8, 2017
CLICK HERE, published November 3, 2018
CLICK HERE, published February 22, 2019
Some Key Sources for More Information:
- For solutions from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness predominantly from the Obama Administration, CLICK HERE.
- For solutions from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, CLICK HERE.
- To follow the issue of homelessness more closely, you can read the ongoing “Project Homeless” series in The Seattle Times: CLICK HERE.
- For the 2016 action plan for Seattle by national expert Barbara Poppe, CLICK HERE or HERE.
- For the 2018-2019 consultant report by Future Laboratories, CLICK HERE.
- For reports from the City’s Human Services Department see their Homeless Response Bio, CLICK HERE.
- For the MDAR (Multi-Department Administrative Rule), CLICK HERE.
- For the City Auditor’s reports on HSD’s efforts, CLICK HERE.
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