Shelters vs. Housing


Don’t cut money for shelters! (Wikipedia)

An open letter to Seattle’s mayor from one of his crankiest constituents

Dear Mayor Murray:

Please don’t repeat the mistakes of 2005.

Eleven years ago, as Nicole Macri, candidate for state House of Representatives, 43rd District, recalls, Mayor Greg Nickels wanted to cut shelters for the homeless in order to fund the new, bright and shiny solution to homelessness: transitional housing. “There was a public outcry,” recalls Macri. Nickels’ backed off from cutting shelters.

Now, you’ve introduced Pathways Home, your program to transform the way that the city spends nearly $50 million for homeless services. And you want to cut funding for shelters and transitional housing.

Transitional housing programs provide up to two years of subsidized housing; have on-site social workers and job training; put people on waiting lists for ongoing subsidized housing; and serve refugees and disabled people among other folks. It’s expensive, but sometimes you get what you pay for. Don’t cut it.

And quit griping about shelters. On Sept. 8, you announced your Pathways Home program by stating, “There is no question that our system is overly focused on providing expensive, temporary shelter. In fact, seventy percent of our nearly $50 million investment is spent on emergency shelter services.”

I’m sorry, but it just isn’t true that our system is too focused on shelter. Homeless people need expensive, temporary shelter. According to your own figures, there are 6,000 homeless people in Seattle: half are living outside, half are in shelters and transitional housing. This reality demonstrates that we have a very real crisis of shelter. We need to double our shelter and transitional housing capacity, just to take care of the current need. And, on top of that, as you acknowledge, the number of homeless people increases every day.

You argued, “We know, and national experts have confirmed, that emergency responses are not the answer. Every dollar spent on emergency beds is a dollar not spent on strategies that allow people to exit homelessness.”

Your solution is rapid re-housing. That is this year’s bright, new and shiny solution to homelessness. The Gates Foundation loves it. The federal government loves it. But what the hell is it exactly?

Rapid re-housing programs place homeless people in market-rate apartments and subsidize their rent for three to nine months, explains the Low Income Housing Institute’s (LIHI) Sharon Lee.

This approach can work for a lot of homeless people, but, as your own figures show, it doesn’t work for many others. In 2013-14, Focus Strategies, one of your consultants, reports that only 52 percent of adults and families provided with rapid re-housing managed to start paying for their own apartments. In 2015, the City’s Human Services Department says things went much better: 68 percent of homeless folks successfully “exited” rapid re-housing programs.

Aside from the numbers, there are fundamental problems with the idea that the City can rely on rapid re-housing to really shrink homelessness.


State House candidate Nicole Macri warns against repeating past mistakes by trying to cut shelters. (Macri campaign)

First, thousands of Seattle’s homeless need ongoing subsidies for housing or to live in publicly owned housing. They will never be able to pay market rent for apartments. They are too old, too young, too disabled, too drug-addicted, too physically sick or too mentally ill to hold a steady job. Thousands of others will never make enough money at their minimum-wage or under-the-table jobs to pay for an apartment by themselves.

“We need high quality public housing,” says candidate Macri. “Actual public housing, that’s the best way.”

Second, rapid re-housing is made much more difficult by the on-the-ground conditions of our overheated housing market. In Jan. 2015, according to the Washington Dept. of Commerce, King County’s rental market had a teeny, tiny vacancy rate of 1.8 percent.

As of Aug. 2016, Rent Jungle, an online search engine for rental housing, shows Seattle’s average one-bedroom apartment costs $1980 per month. Zillow, the real estate website, says only 7 percent of new apartments built since 2014 serve the low-end of the market. At the same time, in the last year, Zillow states, rents for cheap Seattle apartments rose 14 percent— faster than the Emerald City’s overall rental market increase of 9 percent. Yikes!

“It’s ridiculous to throw [homeless] families into market-rate housing,” says LIHI’s Lee.

By now, I’m sure you are wondering what I do want you to do.

The good news is that you have already done some of it.

You passed a new, larger housing levy. That means more public housing!

As Seattle’s boom increased the city’s tax coffers, you put more money into homeless services—$12 million in your most recent budget proposal.

That’s a good start. And we’ll talk more later about land-use policies and sweeps.

Sincerely yours,

George Howland Jr

Questions, tips, comments: 206-877-2952 or

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by the Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land-use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.

About George Howland Jr

Since 1977, George Howland Jr. has lived in Seattle and written reportage, opinion pieces, memoirs, fiction and book and music reviews. He has worked at Real Change, Seattle Weekly and The Stranger.
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