If you saw Lisa Sawyer walking down the street in Pioneer Square or in her neighborhood of Greenwood, you would be forgiven for doing a double-take, for feeling a flash of recognition.
Sawyer’s face holds a prominent spot on the website for All Home King County, the organization that implements homeless and housing policy for King County. She won Real Change Vendor of the Year in 2015, and she advocates for policies impacting homeless and low-income people.
Despite her work selling the paper and pounding pavement to improve her lot and that of others, Sawyer and her boyfriend, Steven James Drogosz, have struggled to get into housing. She spent five years without a roof of her own, alternately sleeping outdoors and paying for expensive hotel stays for a respite from the cold and damp.
In November 2016, that changed.
Sawyer and Drogosz received help through a rapid rehousing program they accessed through DESC, a large shelter provider in Seattle, a program meant to help people with their rent for a few months. After a year looking, they found an apartment in Greenwood for $1,350 a month. Despite the price, they jumped on it.
“If you’ve been outside so long, you want to get inside right away,” Sawyer said.
Now it looks like her new home may be slipping away.
Sawyer signed a lease for 10 months. The building she’s in expects to undergo refurbishment toward the end of 2017 and cannot have residents at that time. DESC paid first and last months’ rent and move-in costs, but didn’t subsidize future months’ rental payments, leaving Sawyer and Drogosz paying the market rate.
Five months into the program, it’s getting increasingly difficult for Sawyer and Drogosz, a veteran with health problems, to make ends meet. She’s already been late on rent twice.
The rapid rehousing program is a short-term housing program that consists of housing searches, case management and financial assistance, typically lasting between three and nine months, that helps with costs of housing to give new tenants a chance to get on their feet and into self sufficiency.
It’s the darling of housing policymakers, enshrined in Seattle’s plan to combat homelessness, Pathways Home, and pushed by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as an efficient way to get people into housing that costs less per head than transitional housing, a more intensive program.
Ideally, rapid rehousing programs in King County follow standards laid down in the past few months by All Home that include who can get into the program and how much help clients receive. Programs funded through any of the major funders — HUD, the city of Seattle, King County or United Way — have to adhere to these standards, said Felicia Salcedo, a spokesperson for All Home.
To qualify, a person or family has to be “literally homeless,” meaning they’ve been sleeping on the street, in shelters or have fled domestic violence.
Once they’re in housing, the program covers the first month’s rent and move-in costs. It then tapers over the course of the next two months, first asking clients to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent in the second month and then 60 percent of their income toward rent in the third. It stays at that standard until financial assistance through the program ends. Households are reassessed every three months
The 60 percent standard is quite high — HUD considers a person or family “rent-burdened” if they pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.
Critics of rapid rehousing tend not to be against the program, just the way that governments have begun to lean on it to solve homelessness. Although rapid rehousing works for some who have fallen on hard times and need a hand, it doesn’t necessarily work for people with long-term needs that have prevented them from getting into housing.
Also, it relies on the private housing market, which means that landlords have to be willing to accept someone who might have a less-than-perfect rental or credit history knowing that the amount of time that they will receive a government subsidy is limited.
Compare that to a Section 8 voucher, which also leverages the private housing market, but requires that tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and covers the rest.
Sawyer entered the rapid rehousing program before these standards were published. Although DESC could not speak to Sawyer’s case in specific due to privacy concerns, it’s unclear why a person in her situation didn’t get a subsidy, said Greg Jensen, a spokesperson for DESC.
“The situation you’re referring to is not the norm,” Jensen said. “We wouldn’t typically set someone up in a situation they couldn’t either sustain or transition to a situation that they could get the kind of assistance they would need to be successful.”
About half of the 1,612 households that exited the program in 2016 left for housing while they were still active participants, and 61 percent were permanently housed when they finished the program.
All Home calculated the average monthly income of people exiting the program once every quarter during 2016. The amounts ranged from $1,173 to $1,374 per month. That means the average household could not afford the average monthly rent in Seattle — more than $1,800 a month — nor Sawyer’s $1,350-per-month rent.
For her part, Sawyer is hanging on. DESC helped furnish her place, and she now has a kitchen and a microwave. It sounds small, but it’s the first time in a long time she’s been able to cook for herself, or have the cost-saving luxury of leftovers.
Being inside, having her own place, was “totally life-changing,” she said.
Sawyer just hopes it doesn’t get taken away.
“I feel like I don’t have any safety net at all,” she said.
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