The city of Seattle unveiled a massive realignment of its homeless services spending Monday that officials expect will reduce the overall number of emergency shelter beds as it doubles the number of people who move into permanent housing in 2018. The new contracts represent $34 million that will be spent on homeless services in the city. This is the first time in a decade that service contracts have been put out to a competitive bid.
Shifts to spending line up with the city, King County and the United Way’s new approach to ending homelessness, enshrined in the Pathways Home document crafted by consultant Barbara Poppe. They include a significant investment in rapid rehousing — a program that provides a time-limited rental subsidy for market-rate housing — and the quadrupling of “enhanced” shelter beds like those at the new Navigation Center.
One of the new priorities during the RFP was racial equity, given that people of color are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness. Groups that specifically serve the Native American population of Seattle will get money through the RFP for the first time, said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club.
However, provider requests out-paced available resources by a factor of three, and longstanding organizations lost out on funding. The city denied Catholic Community Services application for funding for 11 shelters to be operated by the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) and one through the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League.
Multiple organizations, including the Low Income Housing Institute’s Urban Rest Stop in the University District, were denied money for hygiene services.
The city anticipates that it will lose roughly 300 emergency shelter beds as providers attempt to move 7,399 households into permanent housing in an effort to value “quality over quantity.” In 2017, 3,026 households exited to permanent housing.
Change is difficult, said interim-Mayor Tim Burgess at the announcement at the Chief Seattle Club, and it will take “courage and strength to see this through.” He assured reporters that no shelter beds would close during winter months.
Concerns that the RFP process would result in an overall system-loss have been on the minds of service providers since the timeline for the RFP was announced in June. That’s when the public learned that organizations competing for the then-$30 million in funding would find out the results around December, one month before contracts were set to launch in January 2018.
Catherine Lester, who heads the Human Services Department, conducted a tour of organizations and interest groups to explain the process and try to allay fears, but ultimately participants in the RFP were confronted with a set of stubborn facts.
First, the degree to which requests under the process exceeded available resources — providers made $105 million requests for the $34 million available.
Second, the data-driven nature of the RFP forced organizations to demonstrate that they meet certain metrics, with a focus on exits to permanent housing, length of stay in the homeless services system, returns to homelessness, the number of people becoming homeless for the first time and maximizing the use of shelter beds.
It was here that some organizations stumbled, despite their significant presence in the community. A program could offer ongoing shelter services for people, but could lose out on funding because clients do not exit homelessness at a high enough rate or because the program did not meet certain race-equity goals.
Programs were evaluated based on data from January 2017 to June 2017. The performance metrics constituted 40 percent of their overall score in the system. The remaining 60 percent was determined by the applications and budget responses delivered to HSD.
SHARE and others have long been at odds with institutional funders for requirements including the use of the Homeless Management Information System and their inability to demonstrate exits to housing.
In SHARE’s case, the city found that the application — made through Catholic Community Services — “was the lowest scoring application for shelters serving single adults,” and that the applicant said it wouldn’t be able to achieve the required outcomes.
Organizations that lost funding have a 10-day window to appeal.
The City Council has stepped in to assist programs that lost money from the big three funders — the City of Seattle, King County and United Way — in past budget cycles. In 2016, Councilmember Lisa Herbold proposed $220,000 to save transitional housing programs that would otherwise have been axed as the strategy to combat the homelessness crisis shifted away from transitional housing.
Council members will be constrained in their ability to save favorite programs from cuts; the budget process wrapped up Nov. 20, a week before the announcement of the RFP results.
Advocates hoped that the council would pass the employee hours tax proposed by councilmembers Kirsten Harris-Talley and Mike O’Brien. The promised revenue stream could then be used as collateral to finance the “bridge fund” to prevent a loss in services through the first half of 2018 as nonprofits rearrange their budgets following the Human Services Department’s announcement, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) on Nov. 24.
Though that measure did not pass, Eisinger is hopeful that it is merely delayed, not dead. The Council has already committed to a process in early 2018 to address concerns raised by six council members who ultimately voted against the tax. Criticisms mainly focused on the rushed process to craft the tax and the lack of outreach to affected businesses.
“I regret that council members weren’t able to come to agreement in this budget process to add resources, but I feel that it is imminent,” Eisinger said. “There is no way that our incoming mayor is going to be able to make progress without additional resources.”
HSD officials said Monday that they had identified $800,000 within the department to ease organizations through the transition period, provided they provide a written plan.
The $800,000 identified for “bridge” funding is unlikely to be enough, Eisinger said Monday.
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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