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Seattle Council struggled to decipher their own homeless spending

(AP Photo)

A number of Seattle council members struggled to figure out just how much they were spending to help tackle homelessness, emails reveal. This offers yet another look at the inner workings of a council hoping to convince the public their head-tax efforts were necessary.

Related: Councilmembers coordinated coverage of head tax with activist groups

Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez worried about the numbers the council would use to highlight their homelessness prevention efforts. “It contributes to the public narrative that we don’t even know how much money we are spending on homelessness,” she emailed.

Amidst the high-stakes head-tax debate in May, councilmembers hoped to assure a concerned public that the dollars spent on homelessness prevention were actually getting results. But three councilmembers couldn’t figure out how much was actually being spent, an indication of the complexities of the whole process.

Meg Olberding, the Director of External Affairs for the Human Services Department (HSD), presented a memo to the entire council explaining key takeaways and funds spent. Spending approximately $54 million, HSD boasted moving 5,058 homeless individuals into permanent housing in 2017, and said more funding will help see even better results.

Upon receipt of the memo, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda hoped to immediately share it with the media, but Councilmember Lisa Herbold shared a concern with the $54 million price tag.

“I don’t understand how that [$54 million] lines up with other statements that suggest we spent $63 million…” Herbold emailed Councilmembers Gonzalez, Mosqueda, and Mike O’Brien. “$54 million was the HSD RFP, but it wasn’t – I don’t think – the total HSD investment.”

The email links to a “2018 Proposed Budget Executive Summary” memo that explained: “Funding to address the homelessness crisis has increased by 60% from $39 million to more than $63 million over the last four years, an average of $6 million per year.”

Mosqueda, rather than clarifying the amount, pushed to send the data out anyway.

“Shall I go ahead and share tonight and look into that question tomorrow?” she emailed the group. “Looks okay to me.”

But Gonzalez jumped in to caution her from spreading the data, emailing:

“I worry about sharing inconsistent funding information. It contributes to the public narrative that we don’t even know how much money we are spending on homelessness.”

Indeed, criticism from many – myself included – point to the council spending money inefficiently and ineffectively, which, in part, is why homelessness has worsened with them in charge

“Like the rest of the city, it seems like the council lacks clear insight into how the money is being spent and even more importantly which dollars are being used most effectively,” 21st Century Seattle leader Saul Spady explained to me. “It’s time for Seattle to call for fiscally responsible, transparent and accountable local government to fix this problem.”

Fiscal responsibility aside, it seems clear the council didn’t, in fact, ”even know how much money we are spending on homelessness.” It’s not that easy to decipher.

Timeline: Understanding Seattle’s homelessness issue

Jesse Rawlins, a legislative aide for O’Brien, emailed the group that “…the $54 million number is actually not reflective of the total Homeless Services Investment (HSI) for HSD.” Then, Alan Lee, a legislative analyst for the Seattle City Council central staff, weighed in:

“Recently CBO restructured what is considered to be in the homelessness portfolio and I suspect that’s what’s driving the lack of consistency here. Meg’s memo identifies $54M in spending in specific intervention categories, including prevention, emergency services etc. Missing funding categories that are not included in Meg’s number are DV housing, certain public health investments (Health Care for the Homeless Network), and other categories, which are a part of the $61M number provided by CBO. These categories do not involve HMIS reporting, so I can see why they’ve been left out in the context of the performance measures—but the language could be clarified. I will find out and report back.”

Confused yet? Read the email chain here.

The city would end up using the lower price tag, which intentional or not, indicated a better return on their investments. But the council wasn’t immune from criticism. As Matt Markovich originally pointed out at KOMO TV, the largest chunk of money was used for emergency and shelter services, not on people who used the services for permanent housing.

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