City Hall Scrambles to Continue its JustCARE Program for Downtown Homeless

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Image: Gillfoto, CC BY-SA 4.0

The JustCARE program, which takes a compassionate and constructive approach to bringing off the streets 130 of downtown Seattle’s homeless individuals causing the greatest issues, is set to run out of money next month. That has left organizers and some local officials scrambling to find additional funds to keep the program running through September.

The JustCARE program, launched last October as an offshoot of Seattle’s LEAD program, according to the Alliance for Pioneer Square  “is a multi-agency and multi-provider approach to respond to individuals living outside in both Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District area through January 2021, and to respond to repeated neighborhood calls for attention to public order issues without resorting to traditional enforcement.”  (LEAD stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.) It is a coalition led by the Public Defenders Association, the Chief Seattle Club, and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), with partnership with Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), REACH, and downtown business associations.

Where LEAD is primarily a law enforcement diversion program many of whose clientele are homeless, JustCARE flips that: it is a shelter and services program focused on homeless individuals downtown who are at highest risk of running afoul of law enforcement and who have been creating issues for residents and businesses in the downtown neighborhoods. JustCARE places individuals in leased hotel rooms and then provides case management and services to address the needs of each individual in the program in order to stabilize them and prepare them to exit from homelessness. Currently it is serving 130 people, which is near its capacity.

King County provided the initial funding for JustCARE through January, then extended that funding through the end of March. The JustCARE team has proposed growing the program to 288 individuals and extending it through September.

Here’s the catch: the JustCARE program is extremely expensive. The price tag for the proposal to extend through September is $10.5 million. Once the program ramps up to full capacity, it will cost about $5,800 per month, per person, or just under $70,000 per person for a full year. About half of that is housing costs — leasing hotel rooms. On top of that, add support staff at the hotels, the cost of other services (housing assistance, substance and mental health treatment, and case management), and program administration. Here’s the full budget breakdown from JustCARE’s proposal.

JustCARE has pitched this to both King County and the Seattle City Council, neither of which are sitting on piles of unspent funds waiting for a program like this to come along. But both are hoping that federal COVID relief funds will come to the rescue. Under the Trump administration, FEMA was reimbursing up to 75% of some local programs to shelter homeless individuals determined to be at high risk for COVID. The Biden administration’s FEMA is indicating that it will increase that to 100% reimbursement, but the qualification rules are tricky, and not everything qualifies as a reimbursable expense — such as many of the “wrap-around” services that JustCARE provides. On top of that, the latest COVID relief package is still pending in Congress, and it’s unclear how quickly it will make it to the President’s desk.

In an email this week, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles echoed these concerns:

“[T]he County’s funding for the JustCARE program will be going through the end of March. But, as we don’t know yet for certain when Congress will pass and the President will sign the new COVID-19 Recovery appropriations in the 2021 American Rescue Plan, I cannot fully anticipate what will happen as of April 1. There is a growing concern on the part of the County Executive and the Council about the very high cost of the program. It just is not sustainable to keep funding it without a reduction of cost and the need to provide permanent housing for its clients.”

At the beginning of this month, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the Council’s committee on homelessness, began sounding the alarm on the soon-to-expire funding for the program. This week he raised the decibel level, saying that he intended to spend this week engaged in shuttle diplomacy to try to fund the funds — perhaps a co-funding arrangement between the city and county. In an email exchange, Lewis expanded on how he is approaching the challenge of finding funding to continue the program:

“There are lots of different ways we can make that investment work. First, we have enough slack in the reserves we held back to hedge against FEMA reimbursement to pay for the program outright, but that is not my preferred course of action. The second option where we petition for FEMA reimbursement is by far my preference. We have clear guidance that hoteling is 100% reimbursable, which represents $5,260,000 of the $10.5. We also know security is reimbursable, which is another $550,000. We are awaiting clear guidance on what other services are and aren’t reimbursable, but we already know more than half of the cost of JustCARE can be reimbursed. 

As we heard from Director Noble last Friday, FEMA reimbursement is typically only a problem if there are cashflow issues since it can sometimes take years to be reimbursed. Director Noble represented to the Council that we do not have cashflow issues. Therefore, we should be pursuing FEMA reimbursement for this critical COVID-era service.

I am trying to coordinate with King County as well to see if there might be a way to arrange some kind of cost sharing strategy between the jurisdictions. As you heard me say in briefing, there is a nexus between JustCARE and County caseload due to the program’s partial origin as a jail diversion strategy. The $10.5 million is the total cost and not just a cost that would be attributable to the City. Hopefully, there is some way the jurisdictions can work together to keep this going. 

As a final consideration, this program is the social services equivalent of “shovel ready”. Meaning, JustCARE has already identified the hotels, the partnerships, has brought their staffing levels to scale, and identified the maximum capacity of this arrangement if it is adequately funded. One of the big hurdles with a lot of our other sheltering arrangements has been working with the executive to nail all those things down. The fact that this is ready to go, and indeed has been going, is a big point in its favor and means less work for HSD (Human Seervices Depaertment) to get it going.

Despite Lewis’ optimistic tone, he faces several formidable challenges. First, as mentioned earlier, getting FEMA to reimburse the costs, even partially, is far from guaranteed. Earlier this week, City Budget Director Ben Noble sent city officials a summary of his office’s best understanding of the current state of affairs when it comes to the substantial limitations and barriers still in place for FEMA reimbursement for non-congregate shelter.

Among the barriers listed: FEMA eligibility is currently tied to sheltering of the “COVID-19 target population,” meaning isolation and quarantine facilities for groups including “those who test positive for COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization but need isolation (including those exiting from hospitals); those who have been exposed to COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization; and asymptomatic high-risk individuals needing social distancing as a precautionary measure, such as people over 65 or with certain underlying health conditions (respiratory, compromised immunities, chronic disease).”  Nevertheless, Public Defenders Association Director Lisa Daugaard is making the case that the JustCARE clientele, a large proportion of whom have substance abuse issues, qualify under this standard because research has shown that people living with substance abuse disorders are considered high-risk for COVID-19 infection.

Despite this, the Mayor’s Office and the Human Services Department are balking at funding JustCARE through September. A spokesperson for the Mayor offered several reasons for this:

  • JustCARE is a county program (whereas the city has funded LEAD and CoLEAD), and the city would be unable to gain FEMA reimbursement for a county program (a fairly weak argument, since if the city provided funding it would surely become a city program too). “The City cannot extend a grant that we do not oversee nor to programs that we have not made a commitment to.”
  • “[W]e believe the County will work to resolve this issue using County resources.”
  • The high cost of the program.

The Mayor’s Office provided cost comparisons with other City-funded shelter programs:

  • DESC’s hotelling program at the Red Lion: $38,666 per bed, annualized, including services;
  • the Navigation Center: $25,000 per bed;
  • the new SODO enhanced shelter, including “intensive services”: $37,000 per bed;
  • Other enhanced shelters: $18,000 per bed;
  • Tiny home villages: $17,000 per bed;
  • Permanent supportive housing: $18,000 to $22,000 per bed per year.

Few of these are apples-to-apples comparisons. JustCARE provides the most comprehensive shelter+services; some of the above offer limited services, or only represent the cost of ongoing services and don’t include the cost of building/leasing the shelter itself. Also, JustCARE is intended to focus on the most challenging of the city’s chronically homeless population, the ones with the most issues to resolve, and it should be expected that helping them will be more expensive. Here is a document with data that JustCARE collected on the demographics and needs of its clientele:

That said, $70,000 per year per person is still an extraordinary amount of money — effectively a year’s salary at a little below the median income in Seattle.

Plus, there is one more significant, unresolved issue: even if funding is found, what happens after September? Even if the COVID pandemic is easing (though it’s unlikely that the emergency declaration will be withdrawn by then), the city will still return to its previous issues: not enough affordable housing, and not enough permanent supportive housing. Will 288 individuals simply be returned to the streets of downtown Seattle? Lewis is trying hard to ensure that the 130 currently enrolled in JustCARE don’t return there on April 1, but is he simply delaying the inevitable?

The lack of a “next step” is one of the concerns for Kohl-Welles in considering whether to extend the JustCARE program in its current form. As a workaround, she is looking to see if JustCARE can be joined to an existing county program that would provide longer-term housing:

“We’re also looking at our Health Through Housing program approved by the Council several months ago that would increase sales tax by 1/10 of a percent for providing permanent housing for up to 2,000 clients similar to JustCARE’s through the County’s purchase of hotels while they are available and with the current low interest rate. By doing so, we’d be able to lower the costs by not having to rent hotel rooms as is the case with the JustCARE program. I am exploring options for combining the two programs.”

In the meantime, the clock is ticking for Kohl-Welles and Lewis as they try to prevent 130 of the most challenging individuals from Seattle’s homeless population from being released back into downtown on April 1st.

This story first appeared in the author’s site, www.sccinsight.com.

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Kevin is a city hall reporter and the founder of SCC Insight, a web site focused on providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and Seattle City Hall in general. In a previous life, he worked for 26 years in the tech industry in a variety of positions but most notably as the COO of the research division at Microsoft. Kevin volunteers at the Woodland Park Zoo, where he is also on the Board of Directors. He is also the Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of Harvey Mudd College.

3 COMMENTS

  1. YIKES How did this happen ? We spend 3 times the $$$ on 130 law breakers and mentally ill than a working poor person earns …….And they say it is not enough…..

    Prosecute the crime with jail or hospital sentence and incarcerate till resolved. Fight the ACLU and other groups legally and quit trying to change the people that don’t want to get out of the cycle.

  2. No one said it isn’t working — just the opposite, it does seem to be working for a large number of people in the program. But the scale of the problem is much larger, given the number of chronically homeless in the city. The argument is the program needs to be continued and expanded.

    Jail and hospital sentences would be even more expensive than JustCARE — and jailing them wouldn’t solve any of their issues. In fact, just the opposite: after their jail term, they would be dumped back out on the streets with a criminal record that would make it even more difficult for them to find housing and employment.

    Treating the chronically homeless is expensive. There is no magic, cheap workaround to that fact.

  3. One of the lessons I draw from this story is just how many people are involved in homelessness issues — councilmembers, mayoral staffers, feds, service providers — and how far we remain from a centralized control. Many politicians will want to get credit for their concern and their proposals, even if they don’t really take hold.

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