On Nov. 28, 2017, the day that the city of Seattle announced where it would put $34 million worth of homeless services, three things became clear.
First, the city planned to put money behind the Pathways Home plan, a controversial strategy to combat homelessness in Seattle.
Second, leaders wanted to do so in an inclusive way, funding organizations led by Indigenous peoples, an acknowledgment of the reality that Native Americans are seven times more likely to be homeless than a White person in King County.
Third, a lot of people were going to lose access to the services to which they became accustomed as resources moved from an emergency shelter-centric stance to one envisioned by the consultants who created Pathways Home, which emphasizes rapid rehousing and housing-first programs.
The change in funding priorities significantly impacted Seattle’s ability to provide basic services to the homeless population of Seattle. Much of that funding has been restored, but through a one-time source. Day centers, places where folks go for meals and a respite from the elements, remain closed or limited.
Day centers, places where folks go for meals and a respite from the elements, remain closed or limited.
What will this mean for people who rely on these services? At this point, it’s impossible to tell.
At first, it seemed that it would be much more difficult to get a shower in the city of Seattle.
It also looked as though homeless women or women escaping domestic violence would have fewer resources rather than more.
“Every night at 6 p.m., every night of the year for almost 20 years now, women have been lining up, checking in with staff and letting them know that they need a place to stay,” said Eileen McComb of Catholic Housing Services in front of a room full of supporters.
It was a Monday night, Feb. 12, and City Councilmember Kshama Sawant had arranged for a hearing regarding cuts to homeless services in Seattle.
The reasoning seemed opaque to many — the Human Services Department (HSD), which doles out money for services supportive to people experiencing homelessness, had created a new set of criteria with which to evaluate organizations that got money from the city.
Organizations that had long received funding had to go through a Request for Proposals (RFP) process and apply for future funding. The criteria for the RFP process prioritized organizations with a proven record of getting people into housing.
It devalued other services that provided critical steps to housing but didn’t get people through the door.
Hygiene services like showers and toilets? Cut. The Women’s Referral Center that directs women in need to services? Cut. The Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) and the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL) high-barrier shelters housed in churches? Cut.
It left some in despair.
As people representing organizations began to describe the impact on their organizations, a woman from Serbia asked for a few minutes. She was homeless and living at a center that required her to check in at a certain hour or risk losing her spot for the night.
Her voice quavered as she spoke, describing a person who yelled at her because she smelled.
“I did not,” she said, “but I had a suitcase. I asked, ‘Why did you say that to me?’ and she said, ‘It’s supposed to upset you.’”
And therein lay the problem. How do you get a job if society treats you as trash? How do you get housing without a job? How do you maintain your humanity if people look at you askance, scuttling away from you on the sidewalk or inching away on the bus because you might be “one of those”?
How do you get a job if society treats you as trash?
On Feb. 20, the City Council answered.
You don’t. You can’t. We’ll help.
Elected officials voted to use money from the sale of a property to fund the organizations that HSD did not, directing $1 million to hygiene and emergency services. But that money won’t last, and the future is, once again, uncertain.
People need support services
Real Change Vendor Zackary Tutwiler prepared comments for the Feb. 12 meeting, hoping to convey a simple message. He, a Black man homeless in Seattle, got help from DESC. He’d stayed at the shelter on Third Avenue for the requisite 365 days before he got into housing. He couldn’t have done it without a case worker, without the supports provided.
“My case manager and I met once a week or whenever needed, and we discussed when my housing voucher came up,” Tutwiler said. “They sat me down with three different case managers for three different programs. I ended up going into DESC housing, which is a studio apartment built for me.”
After the RFP, organizations reported that case managers had been removed, and day centers where folks could access help had been closed.
Peter’s Place, on Rainier Avenue South, where gentlemen from Cuba played card games and employees served meals, is no longer open for service during the day. DESC restricted access to its day center to people involved in its enhanced shelter program, focusing resources on a small number of people compared to the volume served in the past.
While no staff were lost, the organization did have to move people around, out of the program that helped homeless people get jobs and into other areas, Daniel Malone, executive director of DESC, said .
“People were getting some of their needs met in some of those day-only services from us or others,” Malone said. “Having those go away makes for a gap, but it’s really a question of what the priority is with the resources.
“We had to choose,” he said.
A group of caseworkers wrote to Real Change in protest.
“To our houseless neighbors and friends,” the letter begins, “it is with remorse and heavy hearts that we write you now.”
They lamented the loss of services and the change in focus. They apologized there wasn’t more they could do to help. They blamed the nonprofits for which they may have once worked for not standing strong.
“These nonprofits, these social service providers, they have the power to continue to keep the services they are cutting from you,” they wrote.
Those services were important to Tutweiller.
“Without a case manager, I wouldn’t be housed,” he said. “I’d still be on the streets.”
“Without a case manager, I wouldn’t be housed,” Tutwiler said. “I’d still be on the streets.”
There are a finite number of resources available to help people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. It’s a crisis growing in all but one of the Western countries between the United States and Europe. In a city like Seattle, in a state like Washington, it is a zero-sum game — without another tax base, worthy interests compete against one another for scraps. And it is people who pay the price.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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