by Kelsey Hamlin
This is the first of a three-part series analyzing last week’s reports on Seattle’s homelessness crisis coming from City Hall. This week looks at Barbara Poppe’s recommendations (70 pages long), next week will look closer at Focus Strategies’ data findings (134 pages), and the following week will hone in on the Pathways Home report (68 pages) that was produced by the Human Services Division. South Seattle Emerald feels each document deserves the time to be combed through and scrutinized such that it may be reported on properly.
The recent recommendations on homelessness call for a complete overhaul of Seattle’s system. This means some drastic changes, program cuts, and new forms of evaluation. Though that sounds grim — and it very well may be for some — it’s needed.
Barbara Poppe — pronounced “poppie” — (& associates) was one of three groups tasked with producing a solution on homelessness. Poppe’s came in the shape of well-informed recommendations. The woman herself was the executive director for the United States’ Interagency Council on Homelessness, and created the very first Federal plan to prevent and end homelessness.
Here is the summary of her recommendations.
One of her key recommendations is honing in on the “literally homeless,” something defined in the report as “living outside, on the streets, or in a shelter.”
The report found 22 percent of adults and 36 percent of families entered a shelter from an explicitly unsheltered situation. That means about three quarters of homeless adults and two-thirds of homeless families remained outside, in the weather, and at risk of god knows what.
Essentially, the report calls for making priorities, figuring out what category of people should be helped first, second, third, and so on. While there certainly are some contentions with this notion, it makes sense. A targeted approach that best helps a specific group frees up more shelter room for everyone else.
With this in mind, everyone’s situation shifts to at least one better level of assistance and care. Furthermore, with the target of helping those on the streets first, Seattle could reduce the psychological and physical harm, vulnerability, and health depletion to a group of people with the highest probability of facing these things.
Changing the priorities of Seattle’s homeless-centered programs, projects, and organizations — there’s about 480 of them — requires a new systematic approach. Currently, Seattle’s system uses a ‘vulnerability assessment’ to prioritize housing and shelter.
“It needs to shift to length of homelessness,” said Poppe in the Human Services & Public Health Committee meeting last week. “[A long period of homelessness] really tells you that this is an individual who really is not able to do this on their own.”
And in the event of insufficient shelter capacity, Poppe feels prioritization should be on unsheltered families with pregnant women or children under one year of age. Then to unsheltered families with children under age four and “other families with extraordinary situations that are at severe health and safety risk.”
Focus on permanent housing
While the focus seems commonsensical— the one best way to help someone who is homeless is to give them a home — it’s perhaps the most contentious part of Poppe’s recommendations within the Seattle context.
That is to say, Seattle has an affordable housing crisis. It’s hard to solve a homeless crisis while there’s an entirely different (but related) crisis occurring simultaneously.
Despite this, Poppe, speaking during the HSPH meeting, said “You’ve got available affordable housing that does have vacancies that turn over…But there’s no systematic ways to access that.”
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw quickly retorted with skepticism. While Seattle created 12,500 affordable renting units under the Housing Levy, the demand for affordable housing remains extremely high.
Returning the focus to homelessness, Seattle served over 34,000 people in 2013 and 2014, but only 18 percent of them received permanent supportive housing. Seattle’s current focus seems to be transitional housing and encampments.
While some interpreted Poppe’s recommendations as saying ‘no transitional housing at all,’ I beg to differ. The report says to “stop investing in transitional housing that is not effective and cost-efficient” (page 47). It then goes on to say that funds should be shifted to transitional housing that does meet those standards.
Poppe’s main contention seemed to be this: “Lengths of stay in transitional housing were shockingly long at 328 days for single adults and 527 days for families — more than ten times the goal of housing people in 30 days”
And their studies show that transitional housing is the most expensive. It reaches more than $20,000 for each single adult, and more than $30,000 for each family.
So, again, in summary: it’s not effective. Poppe wants to keep the ones that are, give the ones that aren’t a chance to turn it around within a year, and eliminate the ones that don’t make the change by then.
In order for permanent housing to be more accessible for the homeless population, well, first there needs to be available housing (but some of those contracts don’t expire until 2017). Second, workers in programs and organizations need to understand the housing and rental market better while also working closer with local landlords.
“Your homeless service providers are not that savvy about the rental market,” commented Poppe last week, “or that savvy about getting people to enter it.”
And it’s true. Some organizations are so focused — and that’s not a completely bad thing — on their own mode of functioning that their unable to put more efforts toward shifting people not only into their own organizations but also out of it into a more stable situation. For some, it’s a matter of staffing, for others it can be a quasi-reckless ambition where their scope becomes so narrow that they forget their true end goal of housing the homeless.
Make funded programs and projects accountable
To address those programs that have gotten lost along the way, Poppe wants to switch from the provider-driven system — where each program/organization essentially advocates for itself and gets funding — to a competitive system.
The switch would finally create an across-the-board measurement on each group’s performance. Currently, the measurement is simply how many people each program oversees over a certain period of time. Poppe suggests moving to measure the number of people in the program who exit homelessness each month.
“The rubber will meet the road as they implement those performance standards,” Poppe said at the meeting. “So it’s important staff at HSD has capacity to implement those, do the follow up, the tracking.”
The concern centers on outcomes. For every program contracted with the city of Seattle here on out will be required to meet performance standards, and report to the HMIS (the homeless tracking data system).
In the end, this means that taxpayer dollars are given to the programs that are the most effective.
Among other things like the well-discussed hope for a Seattle Navigation Center, less racial disparities, and more 24/7 services, Poppe also calls for more coordination between every one of Seattle’s homeless programs.
“Move away from independent program responses,” demanded Poppe, “where people who experience homelessness are trying to figure out where they fit in among the 300 or so programs your community has to address homelessness.”
This is just the tip of an enormous iceberg that is Seattle’s homelessness system. There are so many working parts, and not every single one works efficiently. Parts of the iceberg will have to melt off, yes. These changes are slow, but they’re coming, and it won’t be easy. But they are necessary. In fact, there will be times where conversations will feel insensitive because this shift requires focusing on specific categories. Just know that a focus on one thing or one group does not equate to the complete ignorance of another.
Poppe’s report was largely based off of data from Focus Strategies — which was released in another report, and will be discussed next week.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with South Seattle Emerald this summer, and has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists, and has a second internship with KCTS 9. She finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is a journalism major at the University of Washington, planning to double-major in Law, Societies & Justice (currently her minor). See her other work on her website, or find her on Twitter