Catching up on the homelessness response

Yesterday afternoon the Council received another monthly briefing on the “Bridging the Gap” short-term response to the homelessness crisis in Seattle.

In the past few months, it’s become very clear that opening up the Emergency Operations Center weekday mornings as a focal point for inter-departmental cooperation was a “game changer” that caused a dramatic improvement in the city’s ability to organize itself, solve problems, and start to respond effectively.  There are still problems and challenges, but department heads are now focused every morning on working together to solve them. The turnaround in the last sixteen weeks is worthy of praise.

Two 24-hour, low-barrier shelters are nearly ready to open. The shelter to be run by Compass Housing at the First Presbyterian Church should open in August; it recently held a community meeting to discuss the shelter and was surprised by the positive response from community members — many of whom wanted to know how they could help.  The second shelter is the long-promised Navigation Center. HSD reports that construction is substantially complete, and its operators (DESC and Operation Sack Lunch) are finishing minor construction, moving in furniture and equipment, and training their staff on-site with a goal of opening the doors in mid-July. They are also scheduling tours with community stakeholders as well as a public “open house” event. Both HSD and DESC have been doing outreach to the community, trying to recover from early missteps.

The three new sanctioned encampments (Georgetown, Licton Springs, and Camp Second Chance) are filling up; in fact, Camp Second Chance, while theoretically having a capacity of 70 residents, is in practical terms already at capacity with 58 people. The variability comes from the number of people living in a given tent or structure. The EOC inter-departmental team is now working on an assessment of the sanctioned encampment programs. The assessment will be delivered to the City Council on June 28.

The EOC team is also working on plans to re-locate the existing Ballard and Interbay sites by November in order to live up to their agreements.  Interestingly, residents in the Magnolia neighborhood apparently have expressed a desire to keep the Interbay site nearby and are offering assistance — a dramatic about-face from past opposition to sanctioned encampments. One of the things that the report will highlight is the pace at which residents are moving through the encampments and not just becoming long-term residents there; HSD believes the data shows that the sanctioned encampments are succeeding in stabilizing people enough to get them tied to a permanent housing program.

The Navigation Team, made up of self-selected police officers and outreach workers, has now engaged with 746 individuals in unsanctioned encampments through 2,392 separate contacts. 36% of those persons have moved to alternate, safer living arrangements, and 66% accept services of some type. That success rate (which is phenomenal compared to traditional provider outreach to homeless persons) is due to training, multiple visits, lots of patience, and having a list of available shelter options, updated every morning, that they can use to make genuine offers that match an individual’s needs and preferences. A case in point is the recent encampment cleanups in the Rainier/I-90 cloverleaf/ Poplar & Dean/Dearborn area: 26 of 56 individuals in the cloverleaf area accepted an offer to move to safer shelter, and 19 of 34 did at Dearborn/Poplar & Dean.

FAS reported that the updated protocol for encampment cleanup, which officially took effect on April 3, has made some fundamental changes in how cleanups happen.  First, the protocol requires that, except in the case of imminent hazards that need to be removed immediately, every individual must be offered a meaningful alternative for safer shelter before being forced to leave an unsanctioned encampment.  Before the Navigation Team began carrying an up-to-date list of available shelter, that was operationally impossible. Now, according to FAS’s Chris Potter, they have never had a case where they had to stop or postpone a cleanup because they didn’t have spaces available to move people to, but now if that situation occurred they would definitely stop the cleanup.

That’s a strong statement (and a good one) but it needs validation. To that end, there is now an agreement in place between FAS, HSD and The Office of Civil Rights for SOCR to “provide high-level oversight” to ensure the city is following the protocols. SOCR was providing this last fall, but then the city discontinued the practice over the winter; it’s a good sign that it’s back in place. SOCR’s duties include (more details here):

The city is also in the process of standing up a community-based Oversight Committee for the encampment cleanups, to review both the protocols and their implementation and review SOCR’s reports. FAS reports that 10 of the 14 seats on the committee have been filled, and its first meeting is scheduled for mid-July.

Part of the Pathways Home plan is to re-invent the ineffective Landlord Liaison program into a new Housing Resource Center (HRC) that will serve as a more effective means to leverage private-sector landlords to create permanent housing for the homeless. The city has struggled to get this effort off the ground, but it looks like it’s finally making some progress. The Office of Housing has hired two interim staff members, the first of which starts next week. They have held two workshops with property owners to gain input on what incentives would be most valuable to them in return for renting to homeless people. Surprisingly, the owners said that they didn’t want the kind of financial bonuses that other cities have tried offering, because they didn’t want to profit from the homeless crisis. Instead, they wanted to be offered reimbursement for damage or if a tenant is unable to pay the rent. They also wanted the program to be run with the mindset of a business: efficient in terms of filling units (since vacancies cost them money), and great customer service so it’s easy for them to work with the HRC. It’s still early days for the program; they are working on defining metrics goals, as well as their initial budget needs. Ideally they would like to contract with an outside agency to run the program (they consider that a best practice among cities who have built a similar program), but if they can’t recruit one they are prepared to build and run it themselves.

The trash, debris and needle cleanup effort continues to operate at scale. Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) reported that since March 7th they have cleaned up 2,837 tons of trash and debris. They have also collected 10,640 needles from drop boxes at eight locations since February 2016, and another 3,906 needles “on demand” from complaints since August 2016 — nearly 100% within 24 hours of receiving the request.  Scheduled trash pickups at several well-known encampment locations continue, and one-off trash cleanups continue at “hot spots” across the city.

George Scarola, the city’s Director of Homelessness, has been leading the team’s community outreach efforts. He reported attending 65 community outreach and engagement opportunities since the beginning of the year. He met with business leaders on April 26 to discuss ways to partner with business districts; they have a follow-up meeting scheduled for June 22. He also hosted a meeting with leaders of Seattle’s communities of faith earlier this month. They have established community advisory committees for the three new sanctioned encampments, and he attends their monthly meetings.

The Parks Department continues to make shower facilities available to homeless persons at community centers and public swimming pools. The Delridge and Green Lake community center programs are heavily utilized: Delridge is used because Camp Second Chance doesn’t have a permanent shower on-site, and Green Lake is heavily depended upon by a small set of people.  The city is also looking to boost a program for school counselors to offer shower facilities to homeless students and their families.

The first EOC activation was scheduled for 16 weeks; that has now completed. This week the city began “EOC phase 2,” which will last until July 7. In phase 2, the leadership team, which had been meeting twice every weekday morning, will now meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they will have conference calls on Tuesday and Thursday. They plan to sustain the current “critical operations” through the end of the year, then develop management protocols to institutionalize those operations in 2018 with adjustments to the model as necessary.

The city continues to post information about its homelessness response at 

This is an admirable turnaround for the short-term homeless response, given the complete disarray even six months ago. This year’s One Night Count, which took place before the EOC activation and the new encampment cleanup protocols started, are the new baseline to see how much of a difference it makes to have better outreach and more efficient use of existing shelter, housing and treatment programs, and next January we will know much more. In the long term, though, the city (along with King County) still needs to implement the long-term “Pathways Home” plan to reinvent the emergency shelter system and to increase the set of programs — housing, treatment, job referral, diversion — that are key to truly solving the homelessness crisis in Seattle.



  1. It is incorrect to assert that the residents, employees and businesses in Interbay support an extension of the temporary tent encampment. Four churches in Magnolia did write a letter, none are near the camp nor do they experience the related impacts on the neighborhood. However, a letter signed by nearly 40 individuals representing even larger goups in residences and businesses surrounding the immediate area of the camp did however send correspondence to the mayor and council voicing our collective dissapproval of any extension. For two years we have borne an exceptional burden of a community wide problem. Now we are determined to reclaim the health, safety and welfare of our neighborhood.

  2. I was the person collecting signatures regarding the tent city in Interbay. Many of the workers and business owners wanted to add all the names within their company. I wanted to show that, unlike the churches that got all of their staff to sign the letter they submitted, the Interbay Neighborhood Association made a point to have one signature per company. If we did what was submitted by the churches in Magnolia, which are 2 miles from TC5, our signatures would have been triple fold. As Jeff has expressed, we have been good neighbors to the TentCity5 for the two years, but it is time for them to move on so that Interbay can turn into a viable Business Improvement Area.

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