Hey Seattle, Your Leadership Vacuum is Showing

This morning, Council member Sally Bagshaw hosted a roundtable discussion of the response to the homelessness crisis. It featured an impressive array of resources and enthusiasm, but a lack of executive leadership to get all the efforts aligned.The marathon meeting, officially Bagshaw’s Human Services and Public Health committee, featured a parade of stakeholders involved in the city-wide response, in one way or another, including:

Several council members showed up to the meeting, including Council President Harrell and Council members Sawant, Juarez, Herbold and Gonzalez. Notably absent: the Seattle Police Department.

Bagshaw has another meeting scheduled for Feb. 10th when her committee is expected to get down to work on how the council should be responding to the crisis, but today’s meeting seemed to be more “information gathering” where each stakeholder (and 50 members of the public who signed up to comment) were encouraged to share their views about what is working and what isn’t.

To be sure, there were many insights to be had. Everyone is working hard, there was praise for the Department of Human Services and the Seattle Police, and everyone is trying to work together. But the relationships, and the communication channels, are mostly informal, and that is causing a lot of problems.

Everyone wants to connect the homeless with services and programs to help them, but often it takes time. Giovengo noted that it can take up to a year to build up enough trust in a homeless youth to get him or her to come into a shelter — and more time to get an ID for them. Every homeless person brings their own specific set of issues that constrains their ability to get both temporary and permanent housing, and it takes time to understand those issues and find resolutions. Some of those issues:

  • Couples — currently there are no shelters that take couples together  (families are a separate program than adults);
  • Pets. Very few shelters accept people with pets;
  • People with criminal records or who are active drug users;
  • People with a large collection of possessions, which may take time to pack up and move;
  • Disabilities, either moderate or severe, which require specific kinds of housing.

The system needs to be able to address both capacity and type issues — and to have enough patience and flexibility to allow enough time for the people conducting outreach to the homeless to be able to work through those issues. If outreach workers are halfway through that process with a set of homeless people when the city comes through and “sweeps” their encampment, it disrupts the entire process. And since one of the challenges for outreach is to be able to regularly and consistently find people over days or weeks, forcing them to move regularly is making the outreach workers’ jobs difficult. Currently there are informal ways for outreach workers to request the city staff conducting encampment cleanups to leave an encampment alone while they are working through issues with its inhabitants, but there are no formal channels to do so.

Lots of people are doing their best to help the homeless. But the big take-away from the discussion was that there is are dozens of organizations involved and no central, formal coordination. For instance: there is no system for identifying open space in shelters on any given night across all the shelters and authorized encampments and matching those openings to the people who need them and best fit the services those locations can provide (aka “coordinated entry”). If a shelter that takes pets gets an open bed, how does a homeless person with a pet find out — and how do outreach providers get that information so they can share it and help get the right person there? There is no system in place to do any of that. If the city schedules a cleanup for a particular unauthorized encampment, how do all the outreach providers that might be working with the homeless people there find out about it in a timely manner?

Council member Herbold said that in her mind the three areas that needed attention were making sure there is a public health approach, ensuring transparency, and increasing dialogue.

There are many ironies in the current situation. Harris pointed out that we are criminalizing behaviors for the homeless that would be perfectly legal in one’s own living room (what Harrell called “ordinary behavior”), such as opening and drinking a beer. Jarvis complained that the city is spending large sums to clean up unauthorized encampments but is reluctant to pay for sanitary services at authorized ones. Harris also pointed out that the current MDAR (the city rule governing encampment sweeps) treats encampments with 3 or more tents differently from those with 2 or fewer — including offering different services and timelines — for no particularly good reason, and adds to the perception that there are “good homeless people” and “bad homeless people” who we should be treating differently.

Homeless people’s belongings are a huge issue, especially when it comes to the “sweeps.” Several speakers pointed out that a person’s belongings are extremely important to them particularly if it’s all they have, but the city staff carrying out the sweeps don’t seem to have an appreciation of the personal value of items that may not have monetary value.  Also, Council member Bagshaw reiterated her advocacy for creating lockers for the homeless in various parts of town.

Many speakers also commented on the need for a better understanding of specific resources that are under-provisioned, such as drug addiction treatment centers, and permanent housing for people with severe disabilities (who tend to be long-term shelter stayers). Dedicated police officers, trained in working with the homeless and who know a particular precinct, are also needed; there are some in West Seattle, but as the outreach efforts spread across the city, the police officers that show up are often either trained ones from another precinct or untrained ones from that precinct. Also, providers who offer multiple services currently need to contract separately with the city for each (one provider has 11 separate contracts for services it provides); there is a clear opportunity to simplify that process, which would also make it easier to deploy resources more flexibly.

Many resources are being deployed quickly and enthusiastically, which is great. But it’s clear that it’s creating a confused mess. The city needs to step up to a greater leadership role before this gets completely out of hand. Who is in charge and coordinating the efforts across all of these organizations?  Is it Catherine Lester, HSD Director? If so, to what extent does her authority extend to the SPD and other city departments participating in the cleanups?  Or is the Mayor the one in charge — if so, he’s not living up to the job. He’s taken some admirable stands in an effort to avoid demonizing the homeless, and clearly in the end it’s his responsibility as the head of the executive branch of city government to ensure that everything gets done, but he has many other responsibilities and can’t watch over day-to-day work.

In the meantime, the City Council is getting very involved — probably more so than will be helpful in the long run. The legislative branch has a critical role with essential responsibilities:  allocating money, crafting ordinances that make the response efficient, and providing an oversight “check and balance.”  But they can’t and shouldn’t run the operation.

Perhaps the Mayor needs to appoint a “homeless response czar” who can coordinate across the city agencies, bring the NGO’s into the circle, and dispense funds to critical needs. And perhaps Lester needs to be that person, if her HSD responsibilities don’t conflict (it’s hard to look after your own org and objectively see the “big picture” at the same time). Lester has organized a meeting of stakeholders for Monday, which might be a good first step. But the need for transparency, coordination and communication is far greater than what we are seeing today, and if that isn’t currently the biggest impediment to progress, it soon will be. People and resources are there; not enough to fully serve the need, but enough to make a serious dent. The leadership, however, is not.

Also read: Three Big Questions