The city’s homeless response: confusion reigns

All nine City Council members showed up this afternoon for a presentation on the emergency response to the homelessness crisis, but clarity wasn’t in great supply.

The nominal purpose of the Human Services and Public Health committee meeting was to consider releasing $2.26 million of funds that were set aside for emergency homeless response, but held until the city presented a detailed spending plan. The Human Services Department delivered a written version of that plan last week, and Catherine Lester, Director of Human Services, showed up today to present it and answer questions.

Today's meeting of the Human Services and Public Health Committee
Today’s meeting of the Human Services and Public Health Committee

The meeting started out on a sour note: the President of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce spread a rumor that this afternoon’s meeting was to “tie the police’s hands” to prevent enforcement of existing laws when it comes to the homeless. Committee chair Sally Bagshaw patiently explained that no, the committee wasn’t doing anything like that today.

Council member Sally Bagshaw
Council member Sally Bagshaw

Then they got on to business. Lester began by explaining that following Bagshaw’s request, today they would cover the immediate emergency repsonse, and at the committee meeting in two weeks they would present on the long-term plan. She then walked the Council through the six areas of immediate investment:

HSD areas of investment under emergency homeless response
HSD areas of investment under emergency homeless response

This was not a great way to start off, as it’s not the best graphic to represent the simple notion of “smallest to largest investment” — it doesn’t give any true sense of the relative size, and it visually implies that smaller investments are part of larger ones (not true).

The impression Lester clearly wanted to get across in the whole presentation — and no doubt is true — is that there are good people doing good things to help the homeless in each of these areas. And she and her staff can give good qualitative examples of things happening and lessons that are being learned. But overall the operation has the feel of favoring rushing forward over being careful in implementation details. And they certainly aren’t good at reporting quantitative details, as they struggled to answer council members’ questions repeatedly.

For example: they presented an updated table of statistics on the ongoing cleanups (or “sweeps”) of unauthorized encampments.

Homeless encampment cleanup statistics
Homeless encampment cleanup statistics

What they failed to volunteer was that this table only includes encampments of 3 or more tents. They surely knew that the encampment cleanups would be the most contentious part of the presentation (and it was), and that the question would come up about smaller encampments because it had been asked before. They also knew that transparency is supremely important, and it is to their advantage to be as open as possible with data. But they didn’t even bother to bring the data on the rest of the encampments. Why does this matter? Because the city’s protocol on encampment cleanups, including a 72-hour notice posting and outreach in advance, only apply to encampments of 3 or more tents; there are no official rules for the smaller ones, even though they are also being targeted for cleanups. Council members Herbold and Sawant rightfully gave them an earful about this, as HSD has been maintaining that they strictly follow protocol in the face of mounting anecdotal complaints from stakeholders that they don’t. The truth: they strictly follow it on the ones where they are required to, and they don’t necessarily on the rest. When pressed they did claim that they normally give 72 hour notice and do outreach even on smaller encampments unless it’s an imminent public safety risk (such as a tent on a sidewalk, blocking the path and forcing pedestrians into the street), but they gave no guarantees.

Council member Burgess pushed them on the ongoing issues around the low rate of acceptance of services when offered to the homeless through outreach in advance of a site cleanup — on the order of 40%. They had been asked previously by council members for better data on why services are refused; they could give a verbal list of reasons (shelters usually don’t accept couples, pets, people without ID’s, people who might take drugs or alcohol overnight, or people with untreated mental health or substance abuse issues; also, most shelters aren’t 24/7 so even if they go overnight to a shelter they are kicked out in the morning)  but still no quantitative sense of which reasons were the most common. But Burgess also pressed them on another issue that had been previously raised: knowing that the local shelters are at capacity every night, are the outreach workers’ offers of shelter real? Could all the people who were given offers of shelter during outreach actually accept those offers and get shelter? And Lester — who is usually spot-on and responsive — evaded with a vague general answer about acknowledging that demand for shelter in the city currently exceeds capacity and redirecting to talk about all the things they can offer in lieu of shelter.  Council member Johnson asked why the acceptance rate varies so much from week to week; their response: the acceptance rate is much higher now than it was six months ago (hopefully true, though they neither provided any data to back up that claim, nor actually answered Johnson’s question).

Council member Rob Johnson
Council member Rob Johnson

Council member Sawant asked them “What happens to people who aren’t diverted to shelters?” Strangely, their answer immediately went to another hot-button issue: how they handle personal belongings during cleanups (and didn’t answer Sawant’s question either). They explained that the previous reports that they had a $100 threshold for whether something should be thrown away was wrong, the real threshold was $25. But again, they should have known better, as in last week’s session it was discussed at length that placing a monetary value on a homeless person’s belongings is the wrong approach since there are many things of great importance to a homeless person that might have no monetary value at all. HSD clearly didn’t do their homework — again.

One of the problems in trying to have a conversation is that the vocabulary is becoming weaponized. Advocates for cleaning up unauthorized homeless encampments call them “cleanups;” opponents call them “sweeps.” Homeless people who refuse services were referred to as “service resistant” by an HSD staff member today, and Sawant called him on the carpet for what she believed was criminalizing and dehumanizing the legitimate reasons why one might refuse to go to a shelter.  The term “public safety” gets used widely by everyone: to define encampments that put their occupants at risk, or those that put neighbors at risk, or general crime and public health risks to neighboring communities. It’s a safe term that no one can argue against and everyone can co-opt to support the action that they want to see.

And the other big problem that is coming into focus is a “feature” of having an emergency declaration: the city administration is bypassing normal procurement steps in order to move quickly and flexibly.  And good things are clearly happening: “flexible” dollars are getting into the hands of people on the front lines who can fix problems, such as school workers who can buy the things that a homeless student might need (dry clothes, school supplies, food or even emergency housing) or that an outreach worker might use to “rapidly rehouse” someone who just became homeless, diverting them from entering the homeless system long-term. But the record-keeping is intentionally light and is potentially open to abuse. At higher levels, the emergency declaration allows HSD to directly offer contracts for services to agencies that they have worked with previously, skipping the bidding process. That’s fast, but also open to abuse. And HSD is looking to pilot a program of “porfolio” service contracts where five organizations provide 40% of HSD’s contracted services (each organization providing multiple services). There are no doubt significant advantages to consolidating its major providers, especially in terms of enabling an outreach worker to offer a homeless person a customized set of services to meet their needs, but over-consolidation brings risks as well. For an organization that is not showing great aptitude for collecting and presenting data — nor for transparency — this should make us nervous.

The flip side of this is that the people involved, by all appearances, are good, caring people working very hard to bring relief to the homeless in Seattle. Both Bagshaw and Council member O’Brien have spent time out in the field with outreach and cleanup teams and both attested today that they were impressed with the people they observed and their caring, diligence and competence. Moreover, Catherine Lester should be praised for mobilizing a huge force in short order. But this is a big operation, with lots of moving pieces; it’s not being described well, it’s not being tracked well, and it’s running at high-speed without the usual checks and balances.  Discipline has been set aside in favor of speed, which is OK for a short period of time but is not sustainable. This is the danger of using an emergency declaration to mobilize a long-term, open-ended relief effort, and what we’re seeing today is the predictable result.

Despite the lack of concrete answers, the Council concluded the meeting today by recommending unanimously that the proviso on the $2.6 million be lifted, and they will officially vote on that in Monday’s full Council meeting.

You can watch today’s committee here.

See also:

Three Big Questions on the Homeless Response

Hey Seattle, Your Leadership Vacuum is Showing