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Regional Homelessness Authority plan spurns low-cost solutions, fails our most vulnerable

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s draft five-year plan to significantly reduce homelessness in our region needs a major overhaul.

By Sharon Lee & Robert Jeffrey Sr.

This opinion piece appeared in the Seattle Times on March 10th, 2023: Link

The 133-page draft has an unrealistic sky-high price tag of $12 billion and does not identify revenue sources to finance this overly ambitious proposal. The plan does not set realistic achievable targets and includes flawed methodology and questionable math. The RHA implementation board and governing committee, which comprises elected officials and community members, should not approve this plan as written. It will never work in its current form.

Most important, RHA does not lay out a concrete step-by-step plan to address the 7,600 homeless people who are now living unsheltered in Seattle and King County. The estimated 2022 point-in-time count documents 13,368 homeless people, of which 57% are living outdoors in parks, vehicles and on right-of-ways and sidewalks. Unsheltered people are the most at risk of dying from exposure to the cold, acute health problems, overdoses, suicides and violence. The King County Medical Examiner recorded 310 deaths of homeless people in 2022, a 65% increase from 188 deaths in 2021. Reducing the number of deaths and getting people inside quickly must be our collective North Star.

The plan should prioritize the urgent need to bring 7,600 vulnerable people indoors and reduce deaths by the following:

∙ Adding shelter beds countywide.

∙ Developing a robust severe and cold weather response system.

∙ Accelerating the current “throughput” of people moving from shelter to housing.

∙ Working closely with service providers, faith-based partners and the community to employ some low-cost and common-sense solutions.

Instead, RHA utilizes questionable methodology and inflates the homeless count to 56,000 people, which it suggests experience or “touch” homelessness over the course of a year. The plan uses this outsized number in prescribing a plan with a $12 billion price tag when not everyone facing or touching homelessness needs a shelter bed or supportive housing. Many people “resolve” their situation with the help of friends or family, short-term financial assistance, eviction prevention, diversion assistance or a short hotel stay. The five-year plan must start by focusing on the subset of unsheltered and long-term chronically homeless people.

Because of its lack of focus, the plan contains some startling and surprising proposals, including the addition of 15,690 shelter beds at a cost of $3.3 billion with annual operating costs of $1 billion. Nowhere is this number of shelter beds justified nor can this be realistically funded.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan is that it spurns low-cost solutions that can quickly respond to the homeless crisis with urgency. One proven shelter model, tiny houses, actually has zero dollars budgeted by RHA for all five years of the plan. In fact, the plan proposed a reduction in the existing stock of tiny houses from 439 units down to 384 — even while declaring a shortage of shelter beds to the tune of tens of thousands. This is quite stunning when tiny houses are highly desired by homeless people, low cost and high performing in terms of transitioning people into permanent housing.

On average, 50% of participants who moved out of a tiny house secured permanent housing, much higher than most other forms of shelters. A survey of RV dwellers reported that tiny houses were the most sought-after form of shelter. Street outreach workers and the city of Seattle HOPE Team report overwhelming demand for tiny houses.

Many tiny house villages have on-site behavioral health services, which for some participants might be their best chance at getting connected to substance use disorder treatment or mental health counseling. Each program participant gets their own private, insulated, heated, dry space with locking doors. People living unsheltered prefer tiny houses over conventional shelters because they can bring partners, possessions and pets, which breaks down some of the most common barriers for many people to accept services.

The per-unit development cost of a 50-unit tiny house village, with offices for case management, full kitchen, laundry room and hygiene facility with flush toilets is about $15,000. A village can be built in two to four months. Compare that to the per bed cost for a brick and mortar, non-congregate shelter unit at $350,000. A building might take three to four years to complete.

There are other low-cost options as well. One obvious choice is to fill existing vacant shelter beds. An estimated 23% of the 4,148 shelter beds systemwide are not occupied. We could quickly shelter 954 more people by making some changes on how vacant beds are filled. Most shelters do not take referrals after 4 or 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Why not have outreach workers fill vacant beds not just during the day, but also in evenings and weekends?

Another solution is to decrease the time people spend in shelters by increasing throughput to permanent housing. Currently only 14%-19% of people in traditional shelters exit successfully to permanent housing, many of whom return to the street or move to another shelter. Adding additional staff to provide case management and assistance in securing housing would be a good investment to improve housing outcomes.

We urge RHA to include in the plan 3,500 of less expensive emergency shelter that can be provided over the next three to five years including tiny houses, purchasing hotels, adaptive reuse of vacant commercial space, and expanding non-congregate and congregate shelters. Nowhere in the RHA plan are partnerships with religious organizations mentioned. For example, the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, based in the Central Area, hosts a year-round shelter for homeless young adults in its fellowship hall and sponsors the True Hope Tiny House Village.

Leveraging the goodwill and resources of faith-based organizations for basic shelter and cold weather shelter can add 500 to 1,000 more beds countywide. RHA can support and incentivize churches, temples and mosques to open their fellowship halls, basements and auxiliary spaces to bring people indoors. Expanding the use of senior centers, community centers, sport arenas, city halls and other public spaces can also shelter people during severe weather. These low-cost measures would be a great start to get 7,600 unsheltered people indoors and to reduce homeless deaths.

The RHA has an opportunity to redo its plan to prioritize unsheltered people and reconsider cost-effective shelter models like tiny houses, improving shelter throughput and activating faith-based partnerships. People should not be dying on the streets while they wait years for other types of emergency and permanent housing to be built. The RHA five-year plan should be rewritten. We must measure the effectiveness of RHA in its ability to dramatically reduce the number of deaths and the number of people with no other option but to live outdoors.

Sharon Lee is executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. Its mission is to develop, manage and advocate for low-income housing throughout Seattle and Western Washington. LIHI owns or manages 60 properties containing more than 3,000 housing units.

Robert Jeffrey Sr. has been the senior pastor of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church since 1986. He has been a prominent voice on economic and racial justice in the region, and started a community feeding program, transitional housing for homeless families, annual walk-a-thon community fundraiser and more.

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