A few weeks ago it was reported that the proposed five-year plan of the King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA) would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The exact figure is up for debate; depending upon who you ask (and how much they dislike the KCRHA), the price tag could be $12 billion, or even $25 billion.
And then the pearl-clutching began. The Seattle Times called it “unrealistic.” King County Council Chair Dave Upthegrove said, “I don’t see a realistic pathway. I just simply don’t,” while a “deeply concerned” County Councilmember Reagan Dunn thoroughly decried it – while trotting out time-worn and debunked statistics about how nearly 50 percent of the county’s homeless population moved here because of our “generous services.”
You know the services he’s talking about: the same ones that Dunn also tells us are dysfunctional, run poorly, and just plain don’t work. Trust me, almost no one is moving here to take advantage of our homeless services; even the annual “Point in Time” report that Dunn points to says that 84 percent of the county’s homeless population were already living in King County when they became homeless. (Every metropolitan area in the United States spreads the same myth that homeless people are moving there for the services.)
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said “If you’re going to put that [$12 billion price] out there, then you have to help leaders find the route to it.” Sharon Lee, who runs Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the organization managing Seattle’s “tiny home” villages, managed her own hand-wringing, arguing that we should really just build more tiny-home villages. Never mind that such tiny homes are no magic solution. They are the most expensive program per exit from homelessness, the average length of stay in a tiny home is nearly a year, and the length of stay for someone exiting to permanent housing is a whopping 524 days.
The list of naysayers and pearl-clutchers goes on. Few of them had anything nice to say about the KCRHA.
But here’s the thing: none of the politicians and stakeholders were truly surprised at the price tag for addressing homelessness at the true scale of the problem. They were only surprised that KCRHA director Marc Dones actually said the number out loud. They all know that it will cost billions; that much has been clear for years.
Between the affordable housing that needs to get built; the permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless who may never be able to live independently again; the scaling up of behavior health services – addressing both mental health and substance abuse – that have lagged for years; the need for more emergency shelter and day centers; the transitional housing; and diversion programs for those just entering the homeless system — it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that it will cost billions of dollars.
But our local politicians have been either unwilling or unable to come up with a plan for addressing homelessness at the scale of the problem. Instead, they talk incessantly of how much we’re spending and engage in sideshow arguments over encampment removals. They hope that if we see the amount of money they have approved in the budget and the demonstrated level of their passion, we’ll ignore the fact that they don’t have a credible plan. To Seattle’s credit, it has been pouring money into building affordable housing and, to a lesser extent, permanent supportive housing; that is a necessary part of an eventual solution to homelessness, but it alone is far from a real plan.
The most generous thing you could say about the creation of the KCRHA is that it was a recognition that any plan to address homelessness that hopes to make real progress will need to be regional (and perhaps even wider). The most cynical thing you could say is that it was an attempt by local politicians to make solving homelessness someone else’s problem – and to set that person up for the fall when it inevitably fails for lack of sufficient funding.
It’s a convenient catch-22: the KCRHA can’t get more money unless what they’re doing now is shown to work, but they don’t have enough money now to do anything that would work given the scale of the problem.
Dones (who uses they/them pronouns), to their credit, didn’t take the bait. They could have come in, taken the money that Seattle and King County gave them, muddle along with the same poor results for a few years, and then exit stage right. But they didn’t. Instead, Dones tried to honestly answer the question: What will it take to solve homelessness in King County? They wrested away control of the process of quantifying homelessness in the county so that it was no longer driven by the arcane, bureaucratic requirements of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and replaced it with a system that gave more useful data. They then used that data to do a real “gap analysis” – something that I pointed out we needed SIX YEARS AGO – looking at the difference between the need for services addressing homelessness and what is actually provisioned in the county. (Dones’ is only a partial gap analysis, since it doesn’t cover all of the services.) They then ran the numbers to calculate the costs to fill that gap: in the billions. Here’s a presentation they gave to the KCRHA’s Implementation Board back in December, laying out the analysis (there is more detail in the full report).
The report also points out that social-service workers are paid a pittance – barely above minimum wage – in King County, which has led to chronically short-staffed nonprofits trying to keep up with the demand for services. Fixing that, and consequently making the homeless response system more sustainable, will require even more money.
As an aside, Dones’ modeling isn’t very good. They chose to organize it around the idea that a certain number of people (about 23,000) will become homeless over the course of a year, so the resources need to be available to provide services to them. That approach fails for several reasons. First, it ignores the “backlog,” if you will, of people already in the system who continue to have needs for the KCRHA to address. Second, it’s the wrong way to model capacity-planning for an ongoing service: what’s most important is understanding the PEAK capacity, the maximum number of homeless people who will need services at the same time.
Dones did a good job of debunking the value of the old annual “point in time” count that simply told us how many homeless people could be found on a given night in January. That produced a dramatic undercount, chronically wrong, that varied substantially from year to year based upon the weather that night and the number of volunteers canvassing neighborhoods to count homeless people.
But they replaced that flawed count with a new figure, the number of people who will experience homelessness over the course of a year. This count tells us nothing about how long they are likely to remain homeless, what services they need, and most importantly the maximum number of people who will be homeless at the same peak time. Solving homelessness means provisioning for peak capacity needs, not for run-rate.
But those aren’t the criticisms about data gathering that our local politicians are raising. Their complaint is a more fundamental one: Dones dared to be honest about what is required to solve homelessness. In so doing, they exposed the hypocrisy of local leaders, who want to appear as if they are solving homelessness but are unwilling to (or incapable of) going to bat for the resources it will take to truly do so. Their response is not unexpected: attack the messenger.
We should be thanking Dones, who did what the job required and, at least in theory, what the intended purpose was of creating a Regional Homeless Authority in the first place. Their modeling is imperfect, but its rough order is correct: it will cost billions of dollars to solve homelessness in King County, and the cost increases every year that we don’t try to address it at scale. But now Dones has called the politicians’ bluff: by calculating the gap analysis and telling everyone how far off we really are, we all have a way to measure the inadequacy of our politicians’ proposals. Don’t get tricked into focusing on the dollar figures; look at the gap analysis. We’re not close to making a dent, or even to treading water. The resources the city and county are provisioning don’t even cover the new homeless people entering the system, so with every passing year the problem increases (as we have all witnessed).
Coincidentally, NASA spent about $25 billion on the Apollo moon program in the 1960s. Solving homelessness in King County is our moonshot: it is an incredibly ambitious goal, prohibitively expensive, and fraught with problems at every step. It will take bold leadership, dedicated funding (and passing the hat broadly), the support of the community, and great people with big hearts and big brains to make it happen.
Alternatively, we can spend a fraction of what it will actually cost to solve homelessness, convince ourselves that we’re making a difference, watch the problem continue to balloon, and look for someone to blame when we don’t get the results we want. Dones wants to do the former; our local leaders – the same ones who created the Regional Homeless Authority – want to continue doing the latter, and to blame Dones when nothing gets better.
But if the politicians insist on short-term results before they invest at the level actually required – which they will – then Dones and the KCRHA should once again call their bluff by picking one specific demographic within the homeless community and solving homelessness for them. There are plenty of worthy candidates that could be moved to the front of the line, including: families with kids, youth and young adults, veterans, and members of indigenous tribes.
That doesn’t imply that all other homeless individuals are unworthy of urgent support, but the current system that largely peanut-butters the same under-provisioned services across the entire community of homeless persons ultimately fails all of them, whereas a smaller subsystem optimized for the needs of, say, families with kids, could work. Mary’s Place has already developed a mix of services for homeless families that has proven to be successful, but it needs partners, resources and support to scale it up to serve all of King County. The day we can announce that there are no homeless families with kids here anymore is the day that the homeless response system begins to earn credibility.
This would need to be paired with a program for a second key demographic: bringing the chronically homeless in off the streets. They are the most visible, the greatest risk to public health and public safety, and the ones whose fate is the benchmark that most people use to evaluate the success of the homeless response. They are also the ones with the greatest needs and are the most difficult and costly to serve. A targeted program on a limited budget won’t “solve homelessness” for them overnight, or even in five years; that would take the full investment in permanent supportive housing, behavioral health programs, job programs, and other social services that we apparently are unwilling to pay for. But it could provide something that is a step better than being on the street, and it would start getting them stabilized enough that they could sign up for other services to the extent that they become available. And if done well, it could convince the voters and taxpayers of King County that a moonshot might just be worthwhile.