Squaring the circle: Housing Seattle’s homeless as City austerity budget dawns

Mar 3, 2022, 5:22 AM | Updated: Mar 7, 2022, 4:24 pm
Ricky Moore is seen in his room arranged by the Co-LEAD program at a hotel in south King County. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

JustCARE— a homeless outreach coordinator which, largely, assists the Seattle unsheltered population into hotel housing — faces a fiscal cliff.

While the program sources some of its funds at the county and federal level, the City of Seattle sponsors JustCARE through two multi-million dollar contracts set to expire in June. On Wednesday, the program directors justified their expenditure to the Seattle City Council as the City faces a potential austerity budget and looks for corresponding cuts.

JustCARE’s expenses

One contract, through the King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), operates 89 hotel shelter beds through June 30 at the expense of $5.5 million. The second operates 150 hotel shelter beds through the same date for $7.5 million. As those contracts expire, the City looks to transition those clients into permanent housing.

As a model for that expense, the City references hotels acquired under the Health through Housing initiative. Per capital costs associated with that program, it estimates that each bed rings in at an average of just over $200,000. To date, no source funds have been identified to pay the debt service on the bonds potentially issued to fund the acquisition. No funding has been identified to keep JustCARE operational past the summer (JustCARE requires nearly $49,000 per bed to provide the services and staffing for hotel sheltering to keep the beds operational). All told, the City estimates that JustCARE requires an annual $7.3 million for the operation of 150 beds.

When operating costs are added to hotel acquisition, JustCARE estimates an average annual operating cost of roughly $10 million. Councilmember Andrew Lewis noted in council session that some of that cost could be defrayed with state-level housing subsidies, although the legislation in question is still pending.

JustCARE’s inception and services provided

JustCARE reports the resolution of 14 encampments in under two years among the International District, Pioneer Square, and the downtown area. Since November, the outreach coordinator has served 147 clients with high acuity behavioral issues. A total of 67 have been assisted into housing support, 50 into permanent housing, and 13 waitlisted for permanent shelter.

The program is affiliated with the Public Defender Association (PDA’s dedicated homeless outreach service is branded as Co-LEAD) and has assisted 159 clients with the legal system.

JustCARE is also affiliated with REACH and We Deliver Care, an LLC that provides safety and de-escalation services. JustCARE was created in the middle of the pandemic with the help of advocacy from the King County Council, largely with the intent to take pressure off the city’s pandemic-fueled rise in homelessness.

“In the early months of the pandemic, not only were many people who had been in congregate shelters … out onto the streets, but also many people who had never been welcome in the sheltering system found themselves out on the streets,” Lisa Daugaard, co-executive director for policy at PDA, said.

“Many other people were not recipients of the official relief strategies that our country used to support people through the COVID pandemic and economic shutdown and were forced into the illicit economy, and, as well, dealing with the despair and sort of uncertainty about what the future held, … it was a miserable and very critical situation for many communities around the city. … The level of acuity was escalating to a degree that obviously needed a response.”

Services provided include integration into state-sponsored health care, COVID intake, reduction of emergency medical services, medication management, overdose prevention, on-call support to reduce emergency service calls, coordination with city and county prosecutors for casework and warrant issuance, transportation and networking into housing, and building relationships with the homeless for the integration required to illicit those services.

The City looks for budget cuts

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s mid-year supplemental budget will be released in the summer. The Council reports that city expenditures outpace general revenue funds.

“The city budget office and the executive are going through the 2022 budget to look at making some very, very significant reductions to the budget that we passed last November,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Wednesday.

“If we’re going to have a compounding decline in the city, a general sense of unease, frustration, and malaise around the intersecting issues of chronic homelessness, crime, and everything else that JustCARE is effectively responding to, we’re going to have a compounding budget crisis that’s going to continue to impact the city in perpetuity,” Lewis said.

“I would hope, as we are having this conversation as a city family regarding those hard decisions, that we’re also trying to prioritize investments designed to get our general fund back on track and rebuild the coffers of the city in a way that reduces having a budgeting process of austerity due to COVID era decline and some of the compounding impacts that we’ve seen regarding chronic homelessness and crime that have exacerbated that,” Lewis added.

Teresa Mosqueda, councilmember and budget chair, clarified the figures jeopardized by potential budget cuts over the summer.

‘Our city budget would have been in the red’: Mosqueda touts early returns from JumpStart tax

“Council rebuilt this program in the 2022 budget,” Mosqueda said. “One-hundred and fifteen million dollars from the Council’s general fund is going into the regional homelessness authority, which makes up nearly 70% of the regional homelessness authority budget. …We all are gearing up for these conversations around short-term or time-limited funding going into ongoing investment needs. There is going to be a budget crunch.”

“We’ve had a population that’s grown by 21% in the last 10 years and we haven’t seen, absent the Jumpstart program, the progressive payroll tax, corresponding investments, and deep revenue changes. So I think that’s something to very much be considered here.”

County-wide vision for homelessness response

JustCARE envisions their expense as one which not only provides ongoing relief for homelessness but establishes a model to expand that service county-wide.

“Our goal in starting down this road was to demonstrate that this can work, and, having experienced that, that model, that lesson is available for expansion and replication,” Daugaard said. “We could use these same rooms, over and over again — 150 rooms can support hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people over a several-year period. And that begins to be a real impact on the city-wide population that fits the suite of services that we’re providing here.”

Lewis implied that its the Council’s wish to integrate JustCARE into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, but that was not possible in November as the funding for JustCARE did not exist beyond the summer.

“We’ve all spoken to the circle that needs to be squared,” Lewis continued. “If we do want to continue this program … while the current contract supports this program with money transmitted through Seattle Human Services Department to the County … It is something we were not quite able to migrate to the regional homelessness authority in the fall, despite the Council … wanting to figure out a way to send it to the authority, but, at that time, it wasn’t quite practical since the existence beyond June was not clear.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article described Lisa Daugaard as the director of CoLead. Daugaard is the co-executive director for policy at the Public Defender Association

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Squaring the circle: Housing Seattle’s homeless as City austerity budget dawns