Carmen and Robert Patterson were featured in a KUOW story about life in the Jungle, a homeless encampment in Seattle under I-5.
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Carmen and Robert Patterson were featured in a KUOW story about life in the Jungle, a homeless encampment in Seattle under I-5.
Credit: Courtesy of Robert Patterson

Seattle could end most homelessness in 3 years, national experts say

Thousands of people in Seattle won’t have shelter tonight.

The problem isn’t that Seattle isn’t spending enough, according to two national experts.

It’s that Seattle needs to unclog the pipeline. People have been camping out in shelters for years, and they consume the lion’s share of the resources.

Get those people into permanent housing, the experts said, and free up resources to help people who aren't getting help now.

Most of the crisis could be solved in three years, they said.

After 10-year plan, why does Seattle have more homeless than ever?

The city plans to start reforming the system immediately by examining local programs. They have a big study to help them in this work, the most comprehensive analysis that’s ever been conducted.

Megan Kurteff-Schatz, one of the study’s authors, said sophistication of data has helped.

“You really can use this information strategically to really understand your whole homeless population and how to house everybody,” she said.

Kurteff-Schatz said the data tell us what works and what doesn’t.

It’s going to be hard, she said, because people running those programs have hearts of gold and deserving clients who will beg for their funding to be restored.

“Which hamstrings the process to actually moving forward to actually working together as a system,” Kurteff-Schatz said. “It maintains the status quo of having an array of programs operating independently.”

That kind of talk makes Sharon Lee’s ears burn. She runs the Low Income Housing Institute.

“We think we’re high performing,” Lee says. “Of course, they’re categorizing us as low performing.”

One of her projects – a housing project in the Central District– will lose its $36,000 of public funds.

It reflects the kind of shift in funding the consultants say we need.

“I think they’re trying to defund very worthwhile programs for families with children,” Lee says.

The city and the county say the funds will be redirected to programs that rapidly move people into market rate apartments, and help them with a few months’ rent.

Because not everybody needs the level of service her project provides.

Conflicts like these will be on public display in coming weeks as people on both sides get a chance to dive deeper into the data – and its implications.

This isn’t the first time Seattle has vowed to end homelessness.

In 2005, King County made a bold promise to end homelessness in a decade. It failed. The number of people sleeping on streets and in shelters increased instead – even though the situation improved at the state and national levels.

The national experts noted that not all people who are homeless have insurmountable obstacles; many just need a little help.

Rapid rehousing – a widely recognized national technique – gets people into housing quickly by helping them with rent for about three months. That’s enough for most of those who are homeless.

Adrienne Quinn of King County’s Human Services department said the latest data suggest only 3.7 percent of people who go through a rapid rehousing program return to homelessness.

They’ll still have other programs that are more intense, but those will focus on the people who need them most.

A lot of this program's success relies on getting landlords on board. The city and county has to convince them to take a lot of homeless people in, not out of the goodness of their heart, but because it’s in their interest.

According to the studies, some of the city’s investments are very low performing. Some of the programs receiving city money do not meet the goal of the new plan, which is to get people into housing as soon as possible.

Roughly 500 families are currently on a wait list for housing.

The experts also say that family and youth shelters should be 24/7 operations.

Seattle councilwoman Lisa Herbold was skeptical. She questioned that we can use existing capacity to house all unsheltered people. She wanted to know what numbers were used. She also asked if the city could reduce funding for the less effective programs after seeing results for the “more effective” programs.

A speaker from Nickelsville, a tent city, asked the city to keep paying for shelters and tent encampments “so that we have a safe place to live today.”