by Erica C Barnett
(This article was originally published on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted with permission)
Last week, Mayor Ed Murray announced a $275 million levy to address the city’s homelessness crisis that emphasizes temporary housing vouchers on the private market, rather than more-intensive strategies like service-rich transitional housing, to get people off the streets and on their feet. The levy also funds some mental-health and drug treatment services, which Murray noted are “new lines of business” for the city.
The proposal is based largely on recommendations from a Columbus, Ohio-based consultant named Barb Poppe, whose 2016 report on Seattle’s homelessness crisis became the basis for the set of recommendations known as Pathways Home. Poppe’s report and Pathways Home are based on a larger federal shift toward the concept of “housing first”—the idea that housing homeless people should be cities’ top priority, above sobriety, employment, and other metrics that have historically served as barriers to housing—and away from the concept of “housing readiness,” which assumed, paternalistically, that homeless people need to jump through multiple hoops before being “ready” to move indoors.
Rapid rehousing has been somewhat controversial because it assumes that most homeless people will be able to afford market rents within months of moving indoors, which, in Seattle, works out to just under $2,000 a month for the average one-bedroom. Rapid rehousing also represents a shift away from transitional housing, programs that are more expensive and come with more services than a housing voucher but are less service-intense than permanent supportive housing programs.
Poppe has also been a harsh critic of the city’s policy of creating sanctioned encampments and allowing children to live unsheltered, whether in vans, or encampments, or “tiny houses,” and has spoken out against allowing any additional encampments in city limits—statements that have put her in conflict with the city, in particular homelessness director George Scarola, who has said he has a “professional disagreement” with Poppe about the need for encampments as an interim solution.
I talked with Poppe by phone on Friday.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Have you had a chance to look at the homelessness levy the mayor proposed this week? Any initial thoughts on the mix of projects the levy would and wouldn’t fund?
Barb Poppe [BP]: I did. I know the mental health and behavioral health stuff is a really Washington-specific issue, because I think you have one of the worst mental health systems in the nation. If you were another community, I’d say that doesn’t seem like it really fits with addressing homelessness, but I know that’s a current issue [for Seattle]. It looked like the all the other things they were going to invest in were similar to the recommendations that Focus Strategies and I made. It didn’t seem like it was going to be putting up more encampments or RV parks and other things like that. It looked very much like housing plus services.
In my recommendations, I recommended conversion of all the existing shelters to 24/7, low-barrier, housing-focused programs. When I visited Seattle and understood the number of places that you had that were just nighttime-only shelters, what that does is, one, it’s very difficult for people who are staying in them to get back on their feet, because they’re always in transit. And it increases the number of folks who are visibly homeless on your streets because they have nowhere to go. They have all the same problems of someone who has no shelter at all, whether it’s access to phones or meals or sanitation. They have to navigate those all in the course of the day.
ECB: Is it realistic for all the shelters in Seattle to convert to low-barrier, 24-hour shelters?
BP: In a lot of places in the country, that is the model. In Columbus, when I first came here in 1990, we had some nighttime-only shelters, but we moved to all of them being 24/7. I had mistakenly assumed that most places in the country had also done that, but in fact as I traveled the country as head of [the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness] I found that it was a fairly common model that was used with single adults. Families were mostly in 24/7 shelters, but there were places that required families to leave during the day, which I found even more distressing. A lot of the big mass shelters that are run by mission-based groups are going to be nighttime-only, and it’s just not good. What I understood as I talked to the city and All Home [the agency that administers homeless programs in the county] is that there were some unique challenges in that some of the 12-hour shelters were in buildings that were not available during the day, so they expected that in order to do some of those programs, they would have to move locations.
I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it.
ECB: The city seems on board with moving in that direction, but they’ve also said that in the meantime, it’s better to have people sleeping in staffed, sanctioned encampments rather than in ad hoc illegal camps throughout the city. You’ve been opposed to that policy. Why?
BP: I don’t find that an acceptable response to homelessness and would not encourage that, because you don’t get folks in out of the weather. Sanctioned encampments don’t solve anything. They’re not solution-focused. They’re often not good places to be. And they’re a burden on the neighborhoods as well.
Your public dollars should not be used to provide places where people live that don’t even meet the basic UN convention on human rights standards. The fact is that these are places that don’t have sanitation, that don’t have water, that don’t have electricity, that don’t have heat, and that don’t meet basic building codes. And in particular, I was alarmed by the number of children I saw in those places, including quite a few newborn babies. It’s a policy choice. All of those families could be brought inside if that was the choice that was made to do that. The data was showing that you weren’t fully utilizing the family shelters and that you weren’t exiting people to stable housing. It’s just a really ineffective approach.
Family homelessness is a problem in many states and many communities. The concern I had in Seattle was it was the only place where I saw so many children and felt that there wasn’t a lot of community alarm about the notion that infants were in encampments or that children were in tents. It was abnormal compared to other cities I had worked in, like Los Angeles, which has lots and lots of struggles and large numbers of people, but they are very focused on offering and making sure there is same-day shelter for families. What I believe is that the more acceptable this is to your community, the more that your community believes that these sanctioned encampments are a solution to homelessness, and the more you’re going to have to build them. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces.
In other communities I’ve gone to, if you have a room that would accommodate two moms and two kids, they would take two moms and two kids, rather than say we’re going to turn that other mom away. Their priority is that no child be outside, whereas in your community, it just seems like you make the choice that families will be on the street. The flow out of the shelters to housing is not good. It’s really, really low results, which indicates that they aren’t housing-focused shelters. It’s not just that the shelters aren’t accommodating families, it’s that they aren’t working to get people into housing. I just can’t say enough that part of the reason I’ve stayed engaged with your community is that alarm that in a place that has the great abundance that you have in your community, you have infants in cars. I don’t get it.
ECB: Another one of the recommendations that came out of your report was that we may have to accept the fact that some people will have to spend more than a third of their income on rent. But that flies in the face of how HUD and every city and state agency in the country sets affordability rates. What’s the reasoning behind saying we may have to stretch our concept of affordability in that manner?
BP: The definition of affordability isn’t that they have a voucher and they get it for life and they only pay 30 percent of income. [Formerly homeless people served by rapid rehousing] are still going to have a housing cost burden. All poor people in your community live with a housing burden unless they have a voucher. You have lots of low-income workers who have a housing cost burden. They make it, and they don’t fall into homelessness. Rapid rehousing gets them back on their feet, and in an ideal world, their income goes up and their housing is affordable at 30 percent, but the reality that we’re living in right now is that low-income workers are cost-burdened, but they’re housed. They’re not on the streets. They’re not in shelters. Their kids can go to the same schools. All of those things are much more possible if you’re not homeless. In Seattle, the goal of the homeless programs was to get people to the point that they aren’t cost-burdened, which is an unrealistic expectation in your market. It’s really hard to live [cost-burdened], and I’m not saying that it’s not, but because we don’t have a national policy that says everyone who has a housing need gets a housing voucher and never has to pay more than 30 percent, our goal in the homelessness system has to be to get everyone housed, and hopefully they’re going to be on an income path that provides them some stability.
ECB: The city has said it wants to make it possible for people who are homeless to find housing here, rather than having to move to far-flung suburban parts of the county or nearby counties. But your report and the Focus Strategies report say explicitly that for rapid rehousing to work, a lot of people may have to leave Seattle. How do you respond to the charge that this is furthering the suburbanization of poverty? Don’t people do better when they’re able to stay in their communities, where they’re near job centers, family, and frequent, reliable transit?
BP: The core of the rapid rehousing model is family choice, and that you should never say to a family, ‘You have to move here.’ In the same way that you wouldn’t say, ‘You have to stay in Seattle,’ the city shouldn’t say, ‘We’re not going to move you to Tacoma,’ or wherever. In these other high-cost cities, they do have families who say, ‘I don’t see that our family is going to do well in San Francisco; we’ll be better if we move to an East Bay community where the housing is more affordable.’ So in designing the city’s rapid rehousing program, I think they have to allow that families have choices about where they want to live, and families will have to weigh the pluses and minuses. It’s not our job to be paternalistic. Old-school transitional housing programs are very paternalistic. They say, ‘You will live in this neighborhood, you will go to this program for three days a week, your kids will be in this preschool program.’ Rapid rehousing lets families determine the choices they want to make. It’s not the responsibility of the homeless assistance system to overcome the greater economic and housing issues your community faces.
ECB: Right now, HUD is largely dictating the current move toward rapid rehousing. Do you anticipate that federal guidelines for homeless investments will remain the same with Ben Carson at HUD?
BP: I have no crystal ball on what Carson’s going to do. It’s not even clear to what extent Secretary Carson gets to call the shots. We have made significant progress across the country. We have almost reduced veterans’ homelessness by half, chronic homelessness by large percentage, and family homelessness by 10 percent. My hope is because the homeless assistance programs have been well-managed and produced good results, that they won’t tinker and roll back to the old housing-readiness model, which largely excluded folks who had had any barriers or challenges in their life before they experienced homelessness. And the larger budget issues are really alarming to think about. If we preserve all the homeless programs but lose all the other [housing] programs, that’s terrible as well, because if the Carson-Trump administration cuts the [Section 8 housing] voucher program and the families who are stably housed with housing choice vouchers lose their housing, that’s devastating.
Featured image: Erica C Barnett