Seattle forgoes federal homelessness funding in smaller than planned hotel ‘shelter surge’

The Executive Hotel Pacific at 4th and Spring (Image: Executive Hotel Pacific)

As evidence builds that hotel shelters can help and increased funding becomes available to create new shelter opportunities in the city, there is a crisis within a crisis for Seattle’s mission to help the thousands of homeless and underhoused people who live here.

The Seattle Times reports that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to secure apartment units for 24-hour shelter and provide more rental assistance is coming in with fewer spaces and help for fewer people than expected.

The crux, the Times reports, is how the city decides to divide its millions of dollars in potential resources earmarked for the problem as it splits its effort across people who cost less to support and have lower needs around issues like addiction and mental health and people with the most challenging, expensive support needs who are regularly entangled with the city’s law enforcement resources.

Seattle’s “shelter surge” will now launch months late and will not be using as much federal funding as first expected to create the 125 units and provide rental assistance.

The smaller approach is especially frustrating for advocates after revelations Durkan’s office has decided to forgo available FEMA funding.

Publicola reports:

“While we appreciate the work of President Biden’s administration,” city budget director Ben Noble and Office of Emergency Management director Curry Mayer wrote in a memo to council members this week, “there continues to be no option to receive 100% reimbursement of the operation and services of non-congregate shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness in King County or Washington.” In other words: The city is grateful that the new administration is offering to pay for hotels; they just don’t consider it a viable option for Seattle.

According to Publicola, this puts Seattle at odds with other major centers of the national homelessness crisis:

Other cities began renting hotels on the presumption of future reimbursement shortly after the pandemic began. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have used FEMA dollars to pay for thousands of hotel rooms funded through Project Roomkey, California’s effort to bring people experiencing homelessness indoors. When the Biden administration announced the costs for efforts like Project Roomkey would be completely reimbursed by FEMA, local officials in LA called it “manna from heaven.”

Councilmember Tammy J. Morales has criticized the Durkan administration over the decision.

“Homelessness is by far the biggest issue that my office responds to on a regular basis,” she said in a statement from her office. “Everyone is frustrated at what appears on the outside to be a lack of willingness from our City to react to the plight faced by unhoused people.”

But even with the smaller Seattle program and a “fiscal cliff” coming quickly for another successful program, the federal money might not be a good deal for the city.

Seattle City Council Insight’s report on JustCare — “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 respond to repeated neighborhood calls for attention to public order issues without resorting to traditional enforcement” — includes a breakdown of the strings attached to the FEMA money:

Under the Trump administration, FEMA was reimbursing up to 75% 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.

Meanwhile, a study (PDF) from researchers at the University of Washington found that hotel shelter rooms reduced COVID-19 risk, improved sleep, hygiene and mental health for residents, and produced fewer 911 calls than congregate shelters, while increasing engagement with services.

A regional effort to jumpstart approaches to addressing the homelessness crisis, meanwhile, is mired in bureaucratic failure. After a long delayed search to find a leader, the candidate selected to head the newly formed King County Regional Homelessness Authority has turned the job down.

For now, the city’s shelter plan is moving forward with plans to provide the 125 rooms and lease two buildings — the Kings Inn in Belltown and the Executive Hotel Pacific in downtown Seattle — for a year.

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