Durkan and Constantine endorse consolidating ‘fragmented’ homelessness response

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This piece was originally published by the The Seattle Times on Dec. 19, 2018. Image Credit: Seattle Times

Responding to widespread criticism that King County’s $195 million-a-year homeless response is fragmented, Seattle and King County are moving toward consolidated services into a single agency.

In a rare display of unity on the homelessness crisis, leaders from Seattle, King County and business and philanthropic communities endorsed a rough plan to bring the region’s unwieldy effort to fight it under one roof.

The plan, based on a new report commissioned by Seattle and King County, highlights what critics of local efforts to address homelessness have said for years: Confusion over a response spread over six different city, county and federal agencies has “minimized efficacy across systems and stunted progress toward ending homelessness in the region.”

To rectify that, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan embraced recommendations to merge their spending, operations and policy-making authority for homeless services – from shelters to long-term supportive housing – under a new agency, led by a small board. The report recommends giving the new agency’s director power to streamline bureaucracies and act “quickly.”

Seattle currently spends about $90 million a year, including pass-through state and federal dollars, to help fight and prevent homelessness. A 2017 Seattle Times analysis showed that, with additional spending by King County, federal housing authorities and some philanthropies, the countywide homelessness system spends at least $195 million a year.

Despite the show of support for the consolidation effort, troubles arising from the “fractured” system are far from over. City and county officials acknowledge that merging services, spread across dozens of contracts with social-service agencies, will be difficult work. There is no timeline for completing the consolidation.

Constantine said city and county staff have already begun discussing how the new agency will do the work, and some design work could be completed within months. Seattle and King County hope to rebid contracts to homeless service providers together by 2020.

The report does not set specific goals — including whether the mission is to end or to reduce homelessness — or explain in detail how efficiencies created by consolidation will result in better outcomes for people experiencing homelessness. It also doesn’t detail the costs of integration.

In a Wednesday news conference, both Durkan and Constantine stressed that unifying the response won’t solve the region’s homelessness crisis. “But we also know that we cannot make advances or meet the challenges we face without this,” Durkan said.

They also addressed public fatigue arising from what’s become a steady stream of plans to fight homelessness.  The crisis has only worsened in the three years since the city and county declared states of emergency over the problem. On any given night, an estimated 12,112 people were homeless countywide last year, an increase of more than 25 percent since 2012. Overall, more than 29,000 people accessed some kind of homeless-related services last year.

“The criticism is always going to be around whether we’re just rearranging the deck chairs,” Constantine said. “We’re rebuilding the ship, we’re creating a vessel that can better accomplish what we want.”

To make the system more efficient and effective, the report recommends:

  • Folding All Home, the agency that currently coordinates policy and handles the region’s application for federal funding, into the new regional authority.
  • Revising existing performance targets imposed on providers of homeless services, who’ve criticized some metrics as unrealistic.
  • Increasing access to behavioral health care, including mental-health and substance-abuse treatment.
  • Stepping up efforts to eliminate racial disparities among people who fall into homelessness.
  • Creating a public-private partnership to allow charities and the business community to work together to reduce homelessness, and to ensure that the public, private and philanthropic sectors are focused on the same goals.
  • Consolidating the city and county’s affordable-housing development efforts.

Implementing those recommendations won’t be an easy task or a quick one.

As the consolidation effort moves forward, the city and county will need to hire a director, negotiate an agreement to create the authority and work out practical details of merging the work of hundreds of city and county employees — all while continuing to manage the response to a worsening crisis.

About 30 community, business and philanthropic leaders signed a letter supporting the consolidation effort, calling recommendations “critical first step” toward creating a true regional plan to address the crisis. The Downtown Seattle Association, in a statement, commended Durkan and Constantine. “With a more coordinated and collaborative effort we can get more people off the streets and onto a path toward stability,” the statement read.

The report recommends that Sound Cities, a group representing King County’s 38 cities outside of Seattle, potentially be part of the new governing board. But it was unclear how many regional cities will participate, or what role they’ll ultimately play in shaping a policy set by the regional authority.

David Bly, Pacific Northwest director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said he’s hopeful that other King County cities will eventually come to the table.

“They will eventually be here too, there’s just a lot that needs to be determined,” he said. “I’m convinced that the time is right because of the immensity of this problem.”

“Fragmented” homeless response

The new report is the latest step in a reform effort reaching back years. Even before Constantine and then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency in 2015, observers criticized the response to homelessness as “fragmented.”

The new report released Wednesday by consultant groups Future Laboratories and the Corporation for Supportive Housing, who were paid a combined $157,000, notes the current response is spread over six government departments. “Six agencies cannot hold primary responsibility for the same thing,” according to the report.

Durkan, during her 2017 mayoral campaign called for the creation of a single authority to oversee the response, and Constantine and other elected and government officials have expressed a similar sentiments.

The lack of coordination is at least part of the reason that Durkan and Constantine established the 75-member One Table task force earlier this year, comprised of elected leaders, businesses and union leaders, philanthropists, service providers and formerly homeless people. One Table, however, was widely considered a fizzled effort, with few tangible results other than a commitment in April by Durkan and Constantine to move toward consolidation.

But authorities say the report builds off those talks, highlighting several policy initiatives authorities say will improve the existing system.

The report calls for merging efforts to find vacant, underutilized buildings that can be used to create additional shelter space for people living on the streets; increasing pay for the staffers who do the on-the-ground work; and creating an ombudsperson’s office to handle complaints and hold the agency accountable.

It’s also unclear whether meeting those goals will require more money. At the Wednesday news conference, Durkan and Constantine balked at questions about taxes or other revenue increases, saying that the unification effort will focus on ensuring that existing funding is being used effectively.

Seattle City Council members applauded the announcement, though some suggest that making a dent in the crisis could require more resources for affordable housing.

While addressing inefficiencies and accountability is necessary, “We are also well-versed in the recommendations of numerous reports demonstrating that long-term solutions are not possible without a significant increase in housing resources,” said Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena Gonzalez in an email.

Other West Coast cities struggling with growing homeless populations have already integrated their responses.

Like King County and Seattle, Portland and Multnomah County had a fragmented homelessness system before merging, with neighboring cities, into a single joint office. It’s unclear if elected officials in King County’s 38 other municipalities are willing to do the same.

Consultants have spent hundreds of hours speaking to elected officials and others from around the county who are involved in the response to the homelessness crisis. Authorities say they will continue to consult with stakeholders as they flesh out the plan.

Seattle Times reporter Vianna Davila contributed to this report