Innovations Expand Housing Options for people Experiencing Homelessness

Environmental Works July 2017 News

Seattle and King County are among the wealthiest areas in the country, with a median annual household income nearly 1.5 times the national median. Dozens of people move here every day, causing rents to skyrocket.

Unfortunately, for every $100 increase in median rent, the number of people experiencing homelessness increases by 15%. On January 27, 2017, the day of this year’s point-in-time count, 11,643 people in Seattle and King County were living in non-permanent locations including parks, vehicles, and shelters.  Approximately 55% of them were people of color, and 13% were children and young adults on their own.

How can we work to ensure safe and affordable housing for everyone, as thousands of people are displaced by our region’s economic boom? Environmental Works’ partners are implementing innovative programs to work toward housing for all, informed by their longtime service to people experiencing homelessness and the latest research.  A current focus for some is the Housing First model, which maintains that the highest priority for the well-being of people experiencing homelessness is safe and stable housing.

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Broad-Based Partnerships

Two current EW projects involve powerful, broad-based collaborations among local cities, community nonprofits, and faith groups.  The City of Everett’s Safe Streets Plan arose from a regional opioid epidemic, and growing recognition among Everett’s city government and service providers that people experiencing homelessness were cycling repeatedly through jail and hospitals.  People without stable housing were arrested for sleeping in parks, and then released from jail back to the streets.  Exposure to the elements caused serious health problems, which people visited emergency rooms to treat because they had no other options.

In 2015, Everett’s police force added social workers to their team to reach out to people experiencing homelessness and assist them in accessing housing, treatment, and other services. Everett’s emergency responders, nonprofits, law enforcement, and service providers are collaborating on a program to serve the most chronic users of emergency and criminal justice systems, which has been highly effective at reducing the frequency and severity of these contacts.  And Everett is working with Catholic Housing Servicesand EW to develop a permanent supportive housing facility for 65 chronically homeless adults, which will incorporate on-site case management and services such as treatment for mental illness and addiction recovery.  EW Project Lead Bill Singer notes, “Everett is putting their money where their mouth is.  While there have been some strong community concerns, most parties are very supportive and doing everything they can to ensure this project goes smoothly, including the implementation of a new land use classification to allow this housing to be built.”

Several local churches and the City of Kirkland are also hard at work developing a new facility for services for people experiencing homelessness in their area, including the New Bethlehem Day Center for families that opened in November of 2016 in the basement of the Salt House Church.  The New Bethlehem Day Center will be combined with a 24-hour shelter for families; and a 24-hour shelter and day center for single women in a new facility on the Salt House Church property in the early stages of design by EW.  The family shelter will be run by Catholic Community Services, and the shelter for single women by The Sophia Way.   Of the many enthusiastic community supporters of the project, a nearby high school plans to engage students in volunteering at the shelter.  Because so many different groups have been partnering to get the Kirkland shelter off the ground, community design conversations started even before EW joined the project this spring.

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Permanent Supportive Housing

While older housing models were often selective about who they served, Catholic Community Services’ Southwest Regional Divisional Director Bonnie Hill notes that her agency finds that more inclusive permanent supportive housing is the best practice for single adults. Bonnie explains, “With permanent supportive housing, our goal is to stabilize someone’s housing so they can pursue services and support, rather than screening people out for drug use or requiring them to accept treatment in order to get housing.”

Permanent supportive housing (or PSH) typically offers studio units for single adults in the range of 250 – 350 square feet, in a facility with case management and other services such as addiction treatment and mental health counseling.  Though PSH does not limit the length of residents’ stays, the housing plus services model frequently enables residents to eventually move out into independent housing.  In addition to the Everett project described above, other recent EW PSH projects include Catholic Community Services’ Devoe II Veterans Housing (profiled in our December 2016 newsletter), Community House Mental Health Agency’s project at 23rd and Jackson (see our April 2017 newsletter), and a new Compass Health and Lotus Development project in Everett for people with mental illness.

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Permitted Encampments

Permitted encampments are dedicated sites for tiny houses and/or tents on platforms, which are permitted by the City of Seattle to operate for up to two years.  They offer case management along with an array of services such as job training and referrals to health care and housing providers.  Residents may be single adults, couples, or families with children.  Encampment residents govern their camps through democratic decision-making: each resident has an equal vote, and paid staff do not vote in camp decisions.

Seattle is the first city in the country to offer public land and funding for permitted encampments.  Three were opened last year, in Ballard, Interbay, and Othello, and another three (in Georgetown, Myers Way, and Licton Springs) have opened in 2017.

A recent report from the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), an early advocate for permitted encampments, finds that the encampments have exceeded performance expectations so far.  The three encampments served 467 people in 2016, more than half of whom had spent the night before their arrival in a place not fit for human habitation.  People exiting the encampments entered transitional or permanent housing at a rate of 39%.  Neighboring communities have responded positively to the encampments, and frequently come to value interactions with residents and to donate time and money to the camps.

For the latest news on housing for people experiencing homelessness in our region, and ideas on how you can help, please visit Catholic Housing ServicesThe Sophia WayLIHI, the Housing Development Consortium,  SHARE/WHEEL, and Nickelsville.