Seattle made some big shifts in its approach to homeless services last year, including signing new contracts that gave the city the ability to ding service providers that don’t get enough people into permanent housing.
For the first time in more than a decade, the city competitively bid roughly $34 million in service contracts, which included “pay for performance” measures.
Now the city has softened on this policy. Providers who don’t meet the standards in the first quarter of this year will get a pass.
At least until next quarter, when the city says it will begin enforcing those requirements.
This decision, although not unusual for big cities, comes amid intense public debate about the head tax, Seattle’s charge to big businesses to raise money for homelessness and affordable housing.
At community meetings over the head tax, people have hollered for more accountability on spending for the homeless. In response, city officials say they are tracking performance and changing the system to better serve the homeless and get more people off the streets.
The city announced in 2017 that homeless service providers would compete for money.
Providers offering certain services – emergency shelter, day centers with services, rapid re-housing, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing – would have to get a certain percentage of people into permanent housing every quarter.
If they missed the benchmark, the city could withhold a small portion of their funding for those programs — 3 percent each quarter.
For example, emergency shelters for single adults need to get 40 percent of people who come to the shelter into permanent housing at the end of each quarter. If it’s a shelter for families, they have to get 65 percent into housing.
Fast forward to the first quarter of this year, the first time the city could enforce its new performance standards.
City officials say they're waiving that part of the contract. A letter sent to service providers in March states:
Agencies will receive the full eligible contract amount for the quarter. This ‘hold harmless’ period allows [Seattle’s Human Services Department] to provide a full quarter of performance data analysis, and to identify individual agencies and system performance trends.
Jason Johnson, acting director of the city’s Human Services Department, said the city did not feel it was fair to penalize providers who are trying to respond to changing expectations during the period of transition.
“They needed time to ramp up in the first quarter,” Johnson said.
The city switched to a performance pay model after recommendations from national consultants.
Barbara Poppe, one of those consultants, said it’s not unusual for performance pay requirements to be waived in the first quarter due to a transition period. But she said the city should enforce requirements in the second quarter.
It's unclear how many providers are achieving or missing their housing targets this quarter.
The city has not yet released 2018 first quarter performance data from the 30 providers that received a chunk of the $34 million. Data should be forthcoming this spring.
KUOW asked several service providers directly where they stood.
Four providers that received more than $14.5 million dollars between them said they had at least one program each that failed to meet housing performance standards in the first quarter of 2018. Those that did fail were shelter programs, the providers said. Other programs funded by the city and administered by these providers met housing rates.
Flo Beaumon is the associate director for Catholic Community Services of King County. Her organization oversees programs that received more than $4.4 million from the city.
She said the first quarter waiver was a relief. Some of their programs hit performance goals, but their men’s shelter, their day center and their family shelter all failed to meet the city’s housing targets, Beaumon said.
Their men’s shelter needed to hit a housing rate of 40 percent in the first quarter. Instead, it was at about 19 percent, according to Beaumon. That translates to 26 men housed.
Beaumon said her organization wants to hit performance goals in all programs - and exceed them - but it's complicated.
"Judging us on a standard which is not realistic in our housing market is not a judgement of effectiveness,” she said. “We are very effective. We work with gravely disabled people and we move them to housing when it's available."
But she said it’s hard to find available housing.
Beamon said the city’s standards are unrealistic and her organization’s emergency shelters are also unlikely to meet them in the second quarter. That makes her nervous, she said, because the funding the organization would lose is not easily replaced. Other providers expressed similar concerns.
The city said they want to work with providers to make sure they’re funding programs that work.