In February 2016, Whatcom County Opportunity Council Director Greg Winter spoke with his longtime friend Bill Hobson at Hobson’s home in Seattle. The conversation was in conjunction with the filming of a documentary for the web series “Homeless in Seattle,” created by Lisa Spicer and Frederick Dent. At the time of this interview, Hobson had just retired from his three decades serving as executive director of Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC).
Hobson died just two months later. He was 76.
In his time at DESC, Hobson saw the beginning and end of King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness — during which time homelessness did not end — and led DESC as it pursued a pioneering program that provided housing to formerly homeless alcoholic people but did not require them to stop drinking.
This is an excerpt of Winter’s conversation with Hobson.
Let’s start by looking at homelessness from an earlier time in Seattle, when you first started working at DESC in the ’70s. There were still SROs [Single-Room-Occupancy boarding houses], but by the early ’80s, gentrification and urban renewal began. What other factors were going on during the ’80s that lead to the situation we find ourselves in now?
Well, the government got out of the business of producing affordable housing. Then, during the Reagan administration, the federal budget for the development of affordable housing was virtually non-existent for eight years. If you compare the development of affordable housing the year before President Reagan assumed office with the last year of his administration eight years later, it’s a night-and-day difference. We were producing four times more affordable housing [before Reagan’s presidency].
And I think that has consequence still today. HUD [Housing and Urban Development] has wonderful homeless programs; it gives out a lot of money, seemingly, if you just look at the dollar amount. But that has to be spread out over all 50 states. And I think, principally, the burden has fallen on state and local government, and they don’t have the resources to do it.
And we have an 11 percent increase in rent along with a 7 percent decrease in income for the households who we’re most concerned about in terms of affordability. How do we get those lines to come together?
Well, it’s not rocket science. State legislatures have to figure out, and our state legislature in particular, how to increase its revenue base.
If we were taxing Boeing like we tax QFCs [grocery stores] ... we would have a ton more money. But the Legislature has given Boeing tax breaks. The Legislature has given other commercial and tech companies tax breaks in order to attract their businesses here. That can’t happen.
I have great hope that people like Kshama Sawant on the City Council in Seattle, people like Bernie Sanders — that they are tremendous and valued champions for promotion of a movement that simply says, “No, it is not okay for billionaires to continue to pull all the wealth to their side of the table, leaving lower percentages for all the rest of us. We’ve got to stop this.” So that is one solution.
In terms of how we end homelessness in a kind of technological sense? Do we know how to produce affordable housing? Do we know how to serve people that have extensive periods of homelessness and are living with severe and persistent psychiatric disorders or chronic addictive illnesses? We know how to do that. We have demonstrated the effectiveness of contemporary approaches to those seemingly intractable problems that has proven they not only work, they actually save money or avoid additional expense.
I was reading in The Seattle Times today, Harborview Medical Center has agreed to expand its footprint in Community Clinics throughout the city. ... There were 62,000 visits to the emergency department at Harborview in 2015. Sixty-two thousand. People that are attending physicians and administrators at Harborview tell me that roughly three-quarters of the 62,000 visits were homeless and had either a major mental health issue or drug-alcohol problem. Talk about your trifecta. That cost taxpayers tremendous amounts of money that we don’t need to be spending.
It is far cheaper to put a homeless-mentally ill, homeless-drug-alcohol-affected person into stable, supportive housing. These types of projects have been researched for their efficacy. It is a lot cheaper to put people into permanent supportive housing that can address the challenges and problems in their lives, than leave ’em on the street, let ’em cycle repeatedly through our ERs and our jails, which is a very expensive way to deal with the problem.
There was a time when the concept of Housing First didn’t exist as a practice or even a philosophy, so how did DESC stumble on that?
The affordable housing model that preceded Housing First for disabled people — mentally ill, drug-alcohol-affected people — was called Housing Readiness. You had to prove to an Affordable Housing Operator that you were “ready” to responsibly deal with your housing. We couldn’t get DESC consumers into the affordable housing operated by affordable housing organizations.
In the early ’90s, I started going to conferences, like every executive director does, and meeting people from across the country that serve people like DESC was serving. And they had the same frustrations. They were unable to get their people into housing in their communities. ... We would talk about what kind of housing people needed. And we were seeing a phenomena at DESC that [my colleagues] were also seeing in their facilities: even if we are able to get one of our consumers into affordable housing based on this model, they invariably failed. Usually pretty quickly. Within a month, two months at most. And they failed for a couple of reasons. They had issues that the operators of the building were not prepared to address, and they felt isolated. They felt estranged. They were regarded by other tenants in the building as the weird one.
I can remember one of my first memories of DESC: Some of the staff were giving high-fives because they’d gotten this 55-year-old woman an apartment at one of these projects and, I thought, “That’s great. That’s what we should be doing, getting these people off the streets and into housing.” And within two weeks, she was back in the women’s dorm, saying she felt uncomfortable. She felt isolated. People looked at her as weird and unusual and didn’t want to associate with her. She was lonely. And so shelter, as a limited amenity as shelters invariably are, was more preferable to her because she was around people that understood her issues.
So that began to teach us that if all we do is get housing for these people, and we’re not providing them with the necessary supports to enable them to successfully manage the challenges, then we haven’t done very much.
If you average it all out, per tenant, it’s probably around $10,000 to $15,000 a year per tenant. But if we look at the cost otherwise, we’re talking about a range of $20,000 to $40,000 per person, if they’re left in the state of homelessness.
It is far cheaper for the tax-paying public to put homeless-mentally ill, homeless-drug-alcohol-affected people into permanent supportive housing than it is to leave them on the street. ... And I’m arrogant enough to think that research coming out of DESC really put the exclamation point on the cost-effectiveness, and that’s the research on 1811 Eastlake [as a Housing First model].
Right, that article that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, what was it, 2009?
April 2009. I always thought there was a kind of delicious irony that it came out on April 1st. Like, okay, world, fooled you! … The average citizen in the city of Seattle thought it was absolute nonsense to take a chronic alcoholic, put him in housing and not require him to stop drinking. And it sort of catalyzed a national dialogue about Housing First. It was kind of fun to be involved with it. I was never worried about demonstrating the cost-effectiveness. I thought we would do it. I didn’t quite believe we could achieve the magnitude of cost-offset, but we did. That was quite surprising.
So we know Housing First works.
I’m a believer!
In Whatcom County, if you look at our Point-in-Time Count, over the past eight years, every year, about 70 percent of people we encounter who are homeless will say they were last stably housed in Whatcom County. So we have 30 percent who were last housed outside of Whatcom. That hasn’t changed beyond minor single-digit fluctuations; however, over that same time period, we’ve made major new investments in supportive housing.
One of the problems with our planning efforts and all of our efforts — absent a major systemic change in this country — is that homeless policy actors — state legislatures and administrative departments, like our Department of Commerce, homeless service providers, county executives, mayors — all have no control over the feeders into homelessness. And we’re getting deluged.
The original thinking over the Ten Year Plan [to End Homelessness] — I was never comfortable with — the thinking is “close the front door, stop the feeders into homelessness, and open the back door.” Meaning, provide apartments and jobs and stable housing for people that are currently caught up in the homeless emergency response system. The flaw is, you can’t control those feeders. You can’t control those feeders when you got a Congress that’s as dysfunctional as the present one, when you have a legislature in Olympia that’s almost as dysfunctional.
Cities and counties can’t do it by themselves, and yet, those are the very people that are developing these Ten Year Plans, or the vast majority. But the vast majority of the 300-odd Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness were municipal based, and they just don’t have the strobe, the political strobe to control feeders.
One of the things that’s struck me recently: I was in Skagit County, working with people planning an affordable housing development there, and it was shocking to me. They put up this chart with some of their trends showing the amount of multi-family housing that was being permitted each year. It was going along at a steady pace until the Great Recession, and then, boom, it fell right off. And for the last five years, zero, zero, zero on the supply side of housing. It makes me wonder, where are we headed?
We’re headed to a lot more tent cities. A lot more camping along freeways, unless we come up with the money to turn that graph around.
We’ve seen here and all along the West Coast — all over the country — an increase in homelessness, especially unsheltered homelessness. So that’s leading some communities, including our own, to think: “Are we doing something wrong or different, and if so, what do we do about the people who are left in a state of unsheltered homelessness?” We don’t have enough turn-over in our supportive housing, maybe we should shift some of our housing investment into emergency shelter.
Yeah, or even take that more dramatically: Legitimize tent cities like Seattle has done. I’m of mixed-mind about that. I think emergency shelters and organized tent cities are safer than sleeping in The Jungle, safer than sleeping under a freeway or in a park, by yourself or with three or four other colleagues. I think shelters and tent cities in spite of the meanness of their accommodations, they’re basically safe places.
Do we want that to be the solution? Because essentially, we’re telling people that are living in tent cities and in shelters that they’re not entitled to the same fire and life safety standards that you and I are entitled in our home or in a hotel that we would visit. We’re saying that it’s okay for the impoverished to live in sub-standard housing. I wrestle with that. I don’t know what the silver bullet is. I supported [Mayor Ed Murray] in his willingness to expand the number of tent cities; I supported his predecessor that tried to get it done also. But it troubles me. It worries me, about the morality of that.
Let’s get back to this concept of Housing First. At its basic level, it’s a pretty simple proposition: Let’s provide housing first and we’ll provide support and worry about the other stuff later. I often get asked, “Does that mean that you actually let people drink in this housing? So what are the rules?” So, what are the rules under the Housing First program?
Pay your rent and be nice.
We have a zero-tolerance policy for violence. That needs to be understood as existing on a continuum. Violence is not always outright physical assault, attempt to do bodily harm, there are gradients of violence: throwing things, cursing loudly. We do not tolerate an outright physical assault. If someone seriously assaults someone in one of our housing projects, they’re going to jail. Then we back up and hopefully make the consequence proportionate to the seriousness of the transgression. So, if it’s just loudly cursing or verbally threatening someone in the community room, we may require that tenant to go back to their room and make the community room off limits for a period of time. But that’s basically the limit.
Alcohol is less of a challenge to us. When I say “us,” I mean the Seattle community. Alcohol is a legal product. I don’t know what the percentage of Seattleites who imbibe is, but it’s probably significant. And most people are understanding of alcohol ingestion.
And there’s a lot of concern about drugs. We tell our residents that drugs are illegal. Our residents know that we are not going to be in their apartments looking under their socks in their bureau drawer to see if they’ve got some illegal drugs there. We’re not gonna narc ’em out if they come back intoxicated. We basically are imposing on our residents the same general contract that any market-rate apartment landlord would impose on their tenants: Pay your rent and be nice. Don’t tear the place up. Don’t threaten the safety and well-being of other people that live in your building. If you’re paying your rent on time and being nice, you’re good to go for continued tenancy. Why do we impose all these regulations on homeless people? Market rate landlords don’t impose ‘em on their tenants.
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