by Erica C Barnett
(This article was originally published on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted with permission)
The Durkan Administration, which has been reluctant to spend city resources putting homeless people in hotels, has signed off on the expansion of the Public Defender Association’s new Co-LEAD program, which provides hotel rooms, case management, food, cell phones, and other necessities to people experiencing homelessness in King County, to include the city of Seattle. Co-LEAD is an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for people involved in low-level criminal activity, and is aimed at reducing criminal activity, at a time when legal options for making money are scarce, and setting clients up for success once the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed.
Co-LEAD started last month in Burien, where LEAD partnered with local police to identify people living in parks without access to basics like food and toilets, and now serves people exiting the King County Jail system. Using city and other funding, the program has secured about 50 hotel rooms in three cities, including Seattle.
The program targets people who need case management and who are also at risk of ending up in jail without intervention — people like those who were living at the Ballard Commons, where the city removed a large encampment two weeks ago. Participants get temporary hotel rooms, access to gift cards for basic needs, help with housing searches, and physical and behavioral health care through an in-house provider.
One goal of the program is getting people connected to services. Another is simply getting them through the COVID-19 crisis — something that’s hard enough to do in a private house, much less a crowded shelter with limited or no access to entertainment. Something as simple as access to television can make a huge difference in a person’s mental health during lockdown, Public Defender Association (PDA) director Lisa Daugaard says. “There’s no question that that’s a stress alleviation tool that we’re all using right now,” and it’s especially helpful “for people with anxiety and certain mental conditions that respond well to distraction,” Daugaard said.
The program isn’t meant to be long-term, nor is it for everyone — a misconception that LEAD has had to combat in Burien, where word of mouth created excess demand for the program.
“It’s not a come-one, come-all program — it needs to have a targeted population,” said PDA deputy director Jesse Benet, who set up Co-LEAD over three weeks. “The whole goal is to get people to shelter in place in hotels, to support them while trying to figure out a longer-term plan.” For example, Co-LEAD case managers might help people get their federal stimulus checks, connect them with medical care and treatment programs, and getting them back on Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program, Benet said.
The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp — which had been a target of frequent neighborhood complaints, an online petition, and a sensationalistic story on KOMO TV — was swept. However, the city did agree last week to partner with the program in the future, which could lead to hotel room placements for some of those living in crowded outdoor conditions in Pioneer Square or near the Navigation Center in the International District, where a large encampment now stretches along the length of South Weller Street.
Many homeless service providers and advocates have pushed for hotels as an alternative to crowded shelters at a time when COVID continues to spread rapidly in the community. But they’ve also started asking what comes next. Providers have long argued that crowded shelters are inhumane as a long-term solution to homelessness, but the Seattle area has failed to invest in sufficient housing to get its 12,000-plus homeless residents out of shelters and off the streets. Hotels could be part of the solution.
Certain aspects of a hotel-based approach to homelessness would have to be worked out, including which hotels, how they’d be funded, and who would work there (Regular hotel staff? Homeless service providers? A combination of both?) But Daugaard says she can imagine a future in which governments fund hotels as an interim step between homelessness and housing even after the immediate COVID emergency is over. “Hotels, to me, are the game-changer,” Daugaard said. “In a landscape where a pure lack of units is the main barrier to a housing-first strategy for alleviating mass homelessness, suddenly there may be much closer to enough units, at least as a bridge to a more permanent plan,” while potentially helping hotels and hotel workers as well.
The Seattle City Council will get an overview of the Co-LEAD program at its 9:30 a.m. briefings meeting today.
Featured image: Tents line a street in the International District on Saturday, May 9, 2020 (Photo: Erica C Barnett).