Few things are as arbitrary as tracking policy change by the calendar year, but 2020 is shaping up to be a sea change for homelessness policy at the local and federal level. What that means — and who feels the consequences — will be the measure of success.
Close to home, Seattle and King County have taken steps to combine their homelessness response through the new Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA), a watered-down version of the technocratic body envisioned by consultants to standardize and streamline the provision of services to people experiencing homelessness.
The RHA was originally conceived as a public authority with decision-making power in the hands of experts and people with lived experience of homelessness. That changed at the beginning of December, however, when a different outline was presented to the Regional Policy Committee, which has representation from officials from cities throughout King County.
The RHA, as approved by the King County Council and Seattle City Council, is now an interlocal agreement that gives more voice to elected politicians, a move justified on the basis that the people spending public tax dollars should be directly accountable to the public.
“I think it’s much better now that it is an interlocal agreement,” said King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert at the council meeting in mid December. “I’m a little surprised at some of the comments about elected officials. Elected officials are elected and therefore people can un-elect. It protects the citizens when you’re talking about so many millions of dollars that are being spent.”
However, the majority of those millions of dollars — $73 million — flow from the city of Seattle, which is arguably more liberal in its approach to homelessness than other municipalities that might sign on to the interlocal agreement and will have a reduced voice under the new agreement.
Although the city will put up most of the funding for the new body, it won’t have a commensurate amount of voting power, giving outlying suburban cities the same amount of control, but with less skin in the game.
This clearly disturbed City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who pointed out that while Seattle could flex its muscles by refusing to fund the new organization, it likely wouldn’t take so drastic a step. When the council adopted the new plan — without Gonzalez’ support — they simultaneously approved an ordinance outlining their concerns with the new plan. That ordinance has no teeth, Gonzalez pointed out.
“We’re faced with a situation eight to nine months from now being put in the position of having the new City Council having to vote to decline participating with our dollars in the regional government authority if we are unsuccessful in executing upon the intent as described in this ordinance,” Gonzalez said.
Ostensibly, the new governing authority will reduce the amount of fragmentation in the homelessness response system, a weakness identified by the King County Auditor. The new body — while far from ideal — will move in that direction,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.
“It’s not perfect by any means, from anyone’s viewpoint,” Kohl-Wells said. “But this is what we have before us now with time running out. If we do not act, we will go into next year.”
Concerns about the new approach are widespread, but some remain hopeful that it will be a net-positive for the community. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, an advocate for vehicle residents, remained hopeful that while the structure changed significantly when transformed into an interlocal agreement, the bones of the plan remain the same.
“I am not a fan of having politicians at the top,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “There’s too much turnover, too much politicizing. But we had a governing board once before and now that we’re going to have another one, we can work around it because the plan underneath is better.”
The new plan still calls for evidence-based responses and best practices. It still gives people who have been homeless a bigger voice in policy making and experts will still guide the process, Kirlin-Hackett pointed out.
Gonzalez and other members of the Seattle City Council stressed the need for evidence-based policies to guide the new interlocal agreement in order to avoid spending taxpayer dollars on policies that don’t work. Many of those tend to be punitive and focus on moving visible, chronically homeless people out of sight and out of mind. They also don’t work, noted Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University and head of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.
That hasn’t stopped governments in Washington state from passing new laws such as bans on structures with walls like tents, policing panhandling or making it illegal to sit or lie in public during certain hours.
The original format of the RHA shielded decisionmakers from politics, allowing them to follow evidence-based solutions with less worry about how policies would be perceived by the public. However, even the concept of “evidence” can be debatable, no matter who is at the helm.
In the eyes of Council Central Staff, the phrase refers to a range of programs, even those with an “emerging” base of evdience, wrote Jeff Simms, a member of Council Central Staff, in an email.
“There isn’t a definition,” Rankin said. “When I hear ‘evidence-based practices’ coming at this as a lawyer, that can be anything from weak or circumstantial evidence and then strong, forensically proven evidence. It’s along a spectrum.”
Some policies such as “housing first,” a practice that prioritizes housing before worrying about other problems such as drug or alcohol addiction, have rock-solid studies behind them, Rankin said. But there are relatively few “gold standard” options like that.
That, in part, has to do with the difficulty of studying people experiencing homelessness. The ethical considerations that surround studying humans are broad, requiring informed consent. Random controlled trials, the pinnacle of research, are expensive and difficult to pull off. Case studies are inherently local, and difficult to generalize outside of the time and place where they were conducted.
Some of the most detailed information about the homeless population that we have as a community comes from the annual point-in-time count where homeless people fill out surveys over a few weeks at the beginning of the year. But that means that the person experiencing homelessness is plugged into the system enough to receive and fill out such a questionnaire.
Questions about data make it hard to counter rhetorical arguments against compassionate policies couched as demands for data, Rankin said.
“You want to avoid that sort of weird, ironic swivel where critics point out there’s no evidence that an evidence-based practice works,” Rankin said.
Even tested programs see backlash. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (lead) program was empirically studied by experts at the University of Washington and found to be less expensive and more successful at helping low-level offenders, but that study is now nearly six years old, causing doubters to ask for new, more timely evidence of its effectiveness.
New leadership at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) seems likely to compound this problem.
President Donald Trump appointed Robert Marbut Jr. to head up USICH, the agency that coordinates the federal homelessness response. Marbut is a longtime consultant who parachuted into cities and recommended punitive measures, forcing people experiencing homelessness to show progress on other problems before being allowed to have housing.
Such policies fly in the face of the body of evidence behind “housing first,” but were in line with Marbut’s personal opinions of people experiencing homelessness. According to an article from CityLab, Marbut repeatedly made assertions that 93 percent of money gained through panhandling was used on drugs, alcohol or sex workers.
There is no evidence to back the claim.
It’s caused Rankin to coin the term “Marbutting”: to make decisions that you feel are righteous without evidence that they actually work.
Given President Trump’s own baseless rhetoric on homeless people — often in left-leaning cities where he enjoys little support such as Los Angeles and San Francisco — advocates are concerned that Marbut-esque policies may become the law of the land, putting additional pressure on local governments to invest in proven strategies.
Whether the new policy structure in King County can stand up to such a task will only be borne out in time.
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. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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