The city of Seattle invests almost $41 million in homelessness services providing permanent housing, shelter and homelessness prevention. The majority goes to what the city calls “interventions,” meaning emergency shelter, drop-in centers, hygiene centers and meal programs.
That could change. Mayor Ed Murray is preparing to revamp the city’s homelessness investments, putting more emphasis on homelessness prevention and programs that show they help people get and stay housed.
Murray is basing this shift on a report prepared by the mayor and the Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) this spring titled “Homelessness Investment Analysis.” The report lays out where the city is spending its money and provides some recommendations for next steps.
About 70 percent of the current funding goes toward emergency services such as shelter and hygiene centers, 19 percent toward permanent housing and 11 percent toward homelessness prevention.
Jason Johnson, director of the Community Support and Assistance division at HSD, said that the analysis is not itself a plan, but a report on the existing state of city funding on homelessness. It does point the city in the direction of putting more emphasis on homelessness prevention and less on emergency services for people who are already homeless.
“When I look at this analysis, it shows that we’ve been doing the same thing over and over again, and we’re not garnering the same kind of results that we would expect,” Johnson said. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Homelessness is growing.”
Johnson said that HSD will start with pilot projects and that it’s too early to say whether this shift will involve new funding or redirect existing funding.
Murray said the city doesn’t have new money to spend on homelessness, so any change in priorities will require adjusting the city’s current investments. Some existing programs could lose funding in this process, he said, adding that the city should not be making investments in homelessness that are ineffective.
“If we are going to fund based on outcomes, some providers will see more city funding going to them, and others will not,” Murray said.
Some advocates for homelessness say the analysis is flawed. It only briefly mentions the cost of housing as a cause of homelessness and does not delve into the development of more affordable housing. It also does not take into account many other funding sources for homelessness programs, such as King County and the non-profit world.
Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH), said that the analysis argues that Seattle over-emphasizes emergency services and programs for single adults without recognizing that King County makes a lot of investments in homelessness prevention and programs for families with children.
“It’s just an incomplete and skewed picture of what our community is investing in homelessness,” Eisinger said.
The report reveals a tension in Seattle over how the city should respond to homelessness. Increasingly, national organizations and the federal government are emphasizing prevention, which attempts to capture people before or just after they become homeless. Others have said that prevention won’t work without more affordable rental units in the city.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily an either-or, but I would favor more spending on prevention for sure,” said Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess. “But you don’t stop helping people that need help now.”
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said the solution will be in increased case management, staff people who can help guide people through the services they need.
“It’s going to require a lot more case managers,” she said. “People who can get to know the people who need help.”
The report was released the same week that Murray announced a number of new investments in housing and homelessness. Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets is receiving $152,000 to turn its winter shelter into a year-round program and expand the number of beds from 15 to 20. The Downtown Emergency Services Center will receive $350,000 to create 100 new shelter beds on city-owned property. And the YWCA and Catholic Community Services will receive $310,000 each for diversion programs, which offer short-term assistance to quickly rehouse or prevent people from becoming homeless.
According to the “Homelessness Investment Analysis,” the city does not have a clear focus for how it allocates funding, often earmarking funds for specific populations or agencies based on advocacy rather than a city-wide plan.
The report recommends that the city implement a plan that was developed in 2012 called “Communities Supporting Safe and Stable Housing,” which called for a shift of 2 percent of funding from intervention services to other “strategies and best practices.”
Eisinger said shifting dollars away from emergency services for homeless people is a mistake.
“Prevention is by definition a less targeted approach,” Eisinger said. “Everyone understands that prevention is a necessary piece of stopping people from becoming homeless in the first place, but it is sheer folly and ignorance to think that we can take homeless specific dollars and use it in prevention.”
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, said the analysis was good in that it showed how people of color are overrepresented in the homeless population, but that it did not address the need for affordable housing.
“There’s nothing in here talking about expanding affordable rental housing, which is why there’s so many people who are homeless,” Lee said.
The analysis does hint at the role housing prices and the economy play in homelessness. The city’s analysis cites a 2012 Journal of Urban Affairs study that said a $100 increase in median rent correlates to a 15 percent rise in homelessness.
The trend is seen in Seattle. In 2014, apartment rents rose about $100 according to Apartment Insights. In January, volunteers working with the SKCCH found 2,813 people unsheltered in Seattle, an increase of 22 percent over the 2014 count.
Given that reality, Lee worries that prevention services will only prevent people from becoming homeless temporarily. After they are stabilized, the economic market could drive them out to the streets again.
Prevention programs such as rapid rehousing or diversion that call for short-term assistance won’t help people who are chronically low income, Lee said.
“That solution might work for someone who is temporarily homeless because they recently lost their job or they were recently evicted, and through case management they can find work,” she said. “But there is a whole population — I think a large percentage — who need permanent, affordable housing.”