[Hpn] More money, more questions:No one knows if the city has reduced homelessness

Morgan W. Brown morganbrown@hotmail.com
Mon, 16 Jul 2001 20:21:27 -0400


-------Forwarded article-------

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

--[Photo caption]
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 
the problem.

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 
problem solve?"

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 afryer@seattletimes.com.


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-------End of forward-------

Morgan <morganbrown@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA

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