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Homeless Families in Seattle

Last month we published a letter written to Mayor Murray and signed by four neighborhoods in the Central District, including Leschi. We urged the Mayor to consider opening the community centers for homeless families (these centers are true emergency centers designed for shelter during earthquakes). We eventually received a response, which did not address our suggestion. It does, however, pull together the various approaches the city is taking. ~Ed.

We appreciate you writing and would like to share some information with you regarding the City’s response to our homeless community.

Our region has made extraordinary investments and has informed best practices used by other communities across the country. Still, more people are living unsheltered in Seattle than ever before. And the prevalence of black and brown people in our community who are homeless is particularly disturbing.

This is a humanitarian crisis that requires us to take a step back to honestly assess what is working and build upon those practices, while having the courage to shift away from the practices that are not. Mayor Ed Murray has made this idea the cornerstone of his three-pronged strategy for addressing homelessness and its systemic causes, including his announcement in September of an initiative named “Pathways Home.”

The first prong of his strategy focused on crisis response and emergency stopgap measures, when the Mayor declared a state of emergency to bring more resources to help those without shelter on our streets. From designated RV safe lots and authorized encampments on City property to planning the launch of a low-barrier, 24-hour navigation center, the Mayor has taken unprecedented steps to recognize the plight of those who are living unsheltered and minimize the harm of their circumstances.

The second prong has focused on affordability. Here, Seattle has led the nation. We committed to a living minimum wage of $15-per-hour. We’ve committed to the creation of 50,000 new housing units over the next decade, including 20,000 affordable units. And in August, Seattle voters renewed and doubled the Seattle Housing Levy, which preserves more than 2,100 affordable housing units and provides rental assistance for more than 4,500 families.

The third prong is focused on systems transformation. “Pathways Home” is based on recommendations from an in-depth review of our homeless system by national experts, commissioned by the City of Seattle, King County, United Way of King County and All Home King County (formerly the Coalition to End Homelessness in King County) – It is a person-centered, systemic plan that funds work proven to move people out of homelessness, and will involve a reinvestment plan for the nearly $50 million that the City manages and invests annually.

In the past, the City’s response to a clogged shelter system has been to invest in more shelter capacity. And in fact, 70 percent of the money spent by the City on homeless services is spent on emergency shelters. But every dollar spent on emergency, temporary shelters is a dollar not spent on helping people stay or get into permanent, stable homes.

A more customized approach might include mental health or addiction treatment, a job or rental assistance, or flexible funding that helps you avoid the shelter system or quickly get back into housing – which is exactly the approach Pathways Home takes.

By developing a coordinated, by-name list of people waiting for housing, the city meets people where they are, and partners with other funders and nonprofit agencies to creatively and actively problem-solve the barriers that keep people outside. We believe this will help us reduce homelessness for long-term shelter stayers and those living outside.

By reducing barriers to our emergency shelters – such as restrictions on partners, pets or possessions, or clean-and-sober requirements – enhancing the services accessible to people needing emergency shelter, expanding low-barrier, 24-hour shelter options, and restricting our emergency shelter beds to those who are not just homeless but lacking shelter, we can bring more people in off the street, properly identify their individual needs and shift them on to a stable housing situation.

We will also increase investments in diversion for every family at risk of becoming homeless and for more rapid rehousing of families without shelter. No family with young children should experience the distress of being outside. We can and must do better.

Lastly, we must institute performance-based contracting to make sure the City is investing in what works. Our accountability to results depends on the City clearly establishing performance standards in every contract and for service providers operating with a laser focus on those standards. The City has not established performance expectations, nor have we competitively bid our homeless services contracts in over a decade. This must change.

Planning is currently underway for a significant funding process this summer when the Human Services Department will release a Request for Proposals for multiple “Pathways Home” strategies, including rapid re-housing, diversion, permanent supportive housing, shelter, outreach, transitional housing, and more. It will be the largest reinvestment of human services funding in the city in at least 10 years.

Seattle will continue doing all we can and will work with our partners at the county, state and federal level to support residents like you. I hope that this information is helpful, and that you will continue to be interested in the work we are doing.

~Jane Klein, Sr. Executive Assistant City of Seattle, Human Services Department

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