Data from Seattle HOPE Team finds that referrals lead to shelter placement in only half of all cases

Mar 22, 2022, 1:18 PM | Updated: Mar 30, 2022, 1:05 pm
Seattle City Hall homeless encampment, HOPE Team...
A homeless encampment outside Seattle City Hall getting removed on Wednesday. (Councilmember Tammy Morales)
(Councilmember Tammy Morales)

For encampment removals in Seattle where outreach workers are present, the Homeless Outreach and Provider Ecosystem — or HOPE Team — is tasked with providing shelter resources to unhoused individuals. But in nearly half of all instances, a referral doesn’t actually lead to placement in an available shelter space.

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That’s according to data compiled from outreach and service connections done by the HOPE Team over the last year, which found that “approximately half” of referrals ended up qualifying as a “shelter arrival,” defined as someone who stays overnight in a shelter up to 48 hours after being referred. According to Seattle City Council central staff, that number is likely even higher when combined with those who opted out of sharing their data.

That said, reported “shelter arrivals” were even lower under the now-defunct Navigation Team, which was replaced by the HOPE Team in the spring of 2020. On average, between January 2019 and March 2020, just 26% of Navigation Team referrals resulted in shelter arrivals. Since the HOPE Team took over outreach work in April of 2020, that number has increased to 45%.

That said, central staff notes that “it is not clear whether this improvement reflects different practices that better match clients to shelter vacancies or simply that more of the available shelter capacity was enhanced shelter and tiny home villages, rather than basic shelter.”

Shelter referrals can be affected by logistical issues as well, given that an unhoused individual will often be responsible for their own transportation. A shelter placement also isn’t guaranteed to result in permanent housing, which will frequently see someone back out on the street within a matter of days.

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In past years, there have been further concerns over a lack of available shelter beds, which have sometimes been mitigated by outreach workers not expecting most referrals to be accepted. In February of 2020, the Navigation Team estimated that on any given night, the city had just 12 available shelter beds. Seattle has expanded its shelter capacity since then, adding 89 temporary spaces last year through a contract with JustCare, and 200 other shelter spaces in late 2021 combined between the Friendship Heights Tiny House Village and Benu Community Home.

Even so, larger-scale expansion efforts have been slow to arrive. Seattle City Council approved funding for over 1,600 new non-congregate shelter units in 2021, but as Councilmember Andrew Lewis noted last year, “few of those funded shelter resources have been realized,” with efforts curtailed by a series of “bureaucratic bottlenecks” related to land use regulations, “NIMBY opposition,” and limited capacity from providers.

Hypothesizing that the link between shelter referrals and arrivals is “most significantly tied to the availability of suitable shelter options,” central staff posits that “the rate the HOPE Team referred people to shelter each quarter would be expected.”

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Data from Seattle HOPE Team finds that referrals lead to shelter placement in only half of all cases