[Hpn] More money, more questions:No one knows if the city has reduced homelessness
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 16 Jul 2001 20:21:27 -0400
Monday, July 16, 2001
Seattle Times <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com>
[Seattle, Washington, USA]
Local News section
More money, more questions: No one knows if the city has reduced
By Alex Fryer
Seattle Times staff reporter
DAI SUGANO / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Joe Grimm, who is homeless, sleeps in a stairwell in Seattle's Pioneer
Square. "Seattle is a pretty good place to be homeless; it_s not difficult
to live comfortably," Grimm says. He gets three meals a day from various
organizations that care for homeless in the city.
--[End of photo caption]
Within months of taking office in 1998, Mayor Paul Schell visited a number
of Seattle homeless shelters and was moved by the experience.
Although he had little knowledge of social services before taking office,
Schell says he realized that aiding the homeless was one way a big-city
mayor could really make a difference in people's lives.
Over the next three years, the city, flush with tax revenue from a hot
economy, poured millions of dollars into helping the homeless. With a
supportive City Council, funding for survival services more than doubled
under Schell to $14.9 million next year.
The money bought shelter beds and transitional housing apartments. But it
did not erase the impression that probably just as many people are living on
the streets as ever before.
In fact, there's no way to tell whether the money has made a serious dent in
Despite an annual one-night count of homeless, there is no reliable number
of how many people live on the streets and why they are there. It's not
known how many are drug-addicted, escaping domestic violence or mentally
ill. Even the city's assertion that 60 percent of the city's homeless
originally come from Seattle is overstated, according to most providers.
As a result, no one can say for sure — not even the mayor — whether
homelessness is less of a problem now than it was four years ago. Some
shelter operators suggest that even more people may be living on the
"We know more about the woodpecker population in the Tolt (River) basin than
we do about homeless in Seattle," said Bill Hobson, executive director of
the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which operates a downtown
shelter. "I've not seen any reduction in demand for my services. We continue
to turn people away."
A computerized database that would provide information about each homeless
person is at least three years away. The system, called Safe Harbors, has
been criticized by some advocates for the poor, who worry that it will be
invasive and a waste of city funds.
One of the early opponents of Safe Harbors, SHARE/WHEEL — a shelter provider
and organizer of the roving tent city — is part of a coalition of nonprofits
seeking to get Initiative 71 on the November ballot. The initiative would
substantially increase funding for shelters and homeless services. The
projected cost: about $5 million annually.
While Schell agrees that more could be done, he said his efforts have
improved hundreds of lives, with little thanks.
"There is no political win in this one. That's why politicians don't address
it," said Schell. "I'm not sorry I set goals I didn't meet. I don't consider
it a failure."
Contracting for services
In 1996, the city spent about $7 million for homeless services, shelter and
transitional housing. That number rose steadily, with a sharp increase last
year, from about $10 million in 1999 to $14 million.
Unlike other cities, Seattle operates few homeless services directly, opting
instead to contract with nonprofits and faith-based services. Some of the
largest contracts are held by the Catholic Archdiocesan Housing Authority
and Compass Center, a Lutheran social-service center.
In some ways, the return on investment is easily measured. The money helped
increase the number of shelter beds in Seattle from 2,046 in 1998 to about
2,278 today, an increase of 232 beds. Schell and others say without the
extra focus and dollars, more people would be forced to sleep in parks,
under freeways or in their cars.
But just as many people are living on the streets. Estimates peg the number
of homeless in Seattle at about 4,500, a number that has remained constant
in recent years.
Even Schell could not deliver on his promise to house all women and children
by Christmas 1998, a broken pledge that illustrates the difficulty of
finding easily measured examples of progress.
But Rita Ryder, executive director of the YWCA — which received $759,733 in
city funds this year, mostly for programs aimed at women and children — says
the city is getting its money's worth.
"I think the money is well-used. The shelter community runs a tight ship,"
she said. "This is a tough, complicated problem. We've had the high tide
(economically), but chronically homeless women were not on the boat."
More cash needed
What's needed to fully address the problem of homelessness, according to
I-71 supporters such as the Seattle Human Services Coalition and the King
County Labor Council, is even more cash.
I-71 would require the city to fund 400 more shelter beds and increase
spending on related services by at least 20 percent.
The projected annual cost of I-71, about $5 million, would come from the
city's general-fund budget, meaning it would compete with other basic
services, like fixing roads. Supporters hope to turn in 18,000 valid
signatures in August so the measure can qualify for a spot on the November
ballot. If the signatures are valid, the City Council can put the initiative
into law, put it on the ballot or do nothing, effectively killing it.
I-71 is organized by Real Change, which publishes a newspaper about
homelessness. Supporters say the initiative is needed because the city's
shelters are routinely full, leaving hundreds to fend for themselves each
While DESC is listed as a supporter of I-71, Hobson, the shelter's executive
director, said the city's response to homelessness has been scattershot and
not based on solid information.
"We've been forming public policy on anecdotes and ideology," he said. "Safe
Harbors is an idea whose time is long overdue. The taxpayers would like to
see some accountability."
According to city officials, Safe Harbors will work like this: A homeless
person goes to a shelter and is asked to fill out a form that asks questions
about race, sex, age, mental status, drug use and whether the person is
fleeing an abusive husband or lover.
The next time the homeless person enters a shelter, the information can be
pulled up by another provider.
The goal is to learn more about the people living on Seattle streets, people
like Richard, a 36-year-old construction worker who spends each night on a
mat in the lobby of City Hall.
Unwrapping a donated Dick's cheeseburger at a referral service where he'll
be given a bus-pass and shelter voucher, Richard said he has been living on
the streets for about three weeks, after he couldn't afford to pay rent for
his wife and three kids. He works for a construction company during the day
and sleeps at City Hall at night to save money for a subsidized apartment.
His wife and kids live with her mother.
"It's for my family," he said of his life on the streets. "They are the
point of everything."
In describing his story, Richard did not mention his criminal record — which
includes convictions for second-degree rape and illegal firearms possession
— or how it may have contributed to his current situation.
Criminal history is one category that won't be tracked by Safe Harbors.
Focus groups of homeless men, women and families last November revealed
fears that disclosure of a felony record would make it harder to get housing
and jobs. Some worried that the data would not be kept confidential.
But overall, the focus groups told city administrators that they would be
amenable to filling out questionnaires on a voluntary basis. "I'm surprised
you don't have that data now," said one focus-group participant. "How do you
The City Council allotted $680,000 to launch Safe Harbors. When it's
operational, the program's information on homelessness could be used to
refocus city money from building shelter beds to drug treatment programs or
rental assistance, if that's where the statistics show the dollars could do
the most good.
But that future scenario doesn't sit well with the Rev. David Bloom,
spokesman for the I-71 campaign and longtime homeless advocate.
"It would be a mistake to redirect money from shelters until we get everyone
in shelter," he said. "We've got to get people off the streets."
Others say Safe Harbors could violate privacy rights and suck funds from
more pressing needs.
"Who will have access to that information? How will it help us help the
(homeless) guy?" asked the Rev. Rick Reynolds, executive director of
Operation Nightwatch, a shelter referral service that organizes the annual
count of the city's homeless. "If it doesn't, it's a waste of money."
But Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, the primary supporter of Safe
Harbors, said the city needs to fine-tune its response to homelessness.
"Shelters alone will not make the problem go away," he said. "We have
reached a point when we need to show results. Compassion only goes so far."
Alex Fryer can be reached at 206-464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
Looking for news and information about homelessness?
Visit the Homeless People's Network (HPN)
for CONSTANTLY UPDATING NEWS on Homeless People:
Over 10,000 articles by or via homeless & ex-homeless people
Been Homeless? Then JOIN! EMAIL Tom Boland <email@example.com>
Nothing About Us Without Us - Democratize Public Policy
Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at http://explorer.msn.com