Fiscally Responsible Strategies to Reduce Homelessness

Posted by | September 24, 2018 | 1 Issue to Engage | No Comments
[For the briefer version of our piece published by the Seattle Times, CLICK HERE.]

Whether you are outraged by our local government’s failure to reduce homelessness while your tax bills increase or your heart breaks when you see the human suffering in our public spaces, we share common ground: we all want the problem solved.


Lack of progress, as noted in Seattle Weekly’s recent article “One Table Has No Clear Game Plan for Tackling Regional Crisis,” adds to the frustration.

First, let’s continue the compassion that makes our city special.  Truly caring about the people suffering also means we should demand results: homelessness should be reduced so that human suffering is reduced. The good news is that the tools proven to reduce homelessness already exist. Unfortunately, Seattle’s political leaders have so far avoided the tough love needed to take charge and require those tools. Once Mayor Durkan applies the same relentless passion and accountability she used to launch and achieve reforms in our police department and once our Councilmembers help her by focusing all of their efforts on this emergency, they can reduce homelessness. There are fiscally responsible solutions, but they require political will:

  1. Learn from other cities: When we crafted the high-quality Seattle Preschool Program, we visited the cities that had already produced the best outcomes for children. Instead of wasting resources by reinventing the wheel, City Hall must learn from the mistakes and successes of communities that have already reduced homelessness: Atlanta, Columbus, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and others.


  1. Stick to evidence-based strategies. Other cities have reduced homelessness because they adhered to evidence-based strategies.  Mayor Durkan should enforce Barbara Poppe’s 2016 report (“The Path Forward”). Crafted by the national expert on reducing homelessness, “The Path Forward” should be Seattle’s proverbial playbook to guide all actions. It brilliantly spells out proven strategies such as:
  • Housing First
  • Diversion
  • Coordinated Entry
  • Homeward Bound
  • “By Name Lists”
  • Long-Term Stayers focus
  • Landlord-Liaison
  • Permanent Supportive Housing.  

While Rapid Rehousing is more difficult here than in cheaper cities, it can be tailored to work for moms and their children fleeing domestic violence. These solutions have been highlighted for years by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

  1. Stop funding programs that don’t work. Don’t spend less, but spend wisely — that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. Re-invest those funds into the evidence-based strategies. City leaders should be commended for finally implementing performance-based contracts to ensure accountability for the nonprofits on the front lines that receive our tax dollars.  Now city leaders must enforce them. The Mayor should use her veto power to prevent the City Council from re-granting funds to organizations that are not achieving results.


  1. Use Data to Inform Decisions: Believe it or not, our city government is successfully moving many homeless people into permanent housing. But the number of homeless people on the streets is increasing. The City must continue to use independent surveys to track not only the raw numbers, but also the causes of their homelessness and where they are coming from. Any organizations receiving city funding must use the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) so that policymakers can analyze all available data and track results.


  1. Phase Out Encampments: HUD does not recognize encampments as housing and the evidence shows that government-authorized encampments fail to move enough homeless people into housing.


  1. Install a “Homelessness Czar.”  Accountability requires a single point of contact with authority to solve the problem.  Create a temporary Deputy Mayor position to head the Human Services Department. This Deputy Mayor would also have the authority to tell all departments (Parks, Transportation, Housing, etc) what to do to house the homeless.  The Mayor would also put this Deputy on the board of the Seattle Housing Authority, Housing Levy Oversight Committee, and any other boards with power over housing resources. Similar efforts in the past failed because the Mayor never gave the person real authority.  The Mayor and her Homeless Czar must hold all departments and service providers accountable for results.


  1. Reasonable Rules.  Individuals who refuse multiple offers of shelter/services must not be allowed to camp illegally in our city.  The recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals does not change this:  as reported in the Seattle Times, our City Attorney recently confirmed that the ruling still allows for Seattle’s reasonable ordinances limiting where camping can occur. According to the article, “Seattle prohibits people from sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., mostly downtown and in areas designated as neighborhood commercial zones. Camping is banned in public parks, with a few exceptions.”


  1. Build more truly affordable housing now.  Whether or not one favors the controversial H.A.L.A. up-zone scheme brokered by former Mayor Ed Murray, it will take too long to create the promised new affordable housing (and will likely destroy naturally occurring affordable housing). Our city already has substantial capacity to accommodate new housing units under current zoning, so let’s not wait. Sharpen the tools we already have, such as making full use of our city government’s authority to issue bonds and King County’s ability to leverage all hotel tax revenues (instead of subsidizing stadiums) to build more affordable housing quickly.

As the rock band Pearl Jam decides how to spend a portion of the $12 million its fans raised to reduce homelessness and Jeff Bezos decides how to distribute his $2 billion, they can learn from the failings of our local government leaders:  if you really care about solving a problem, invest only in what’s proven to work.

Once the Mayor and City Council get their own house in order by adhering to fiscal responsibility and evidence-based strategies, more of the wealthiest businesses and philanthropists will be compelled to contribute to those solutions. While the city might not need new revenue sources to solve the problem, it will require prioritizing existing resources and using them smartly.

We already have what it takes to reduce homelessness: Mayor Durkan must once again lead the way by relentlessly holding City Hall accountable for results.

More to Explore:

  • For solutions from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, CLICK HERE.
  • For solutions from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, CLICK HERE.
  • To follow the issue of homelessness more closely, read the ongoing “Project Homeless” series in The Seattle Times: CLICK HERE.
  • For the action plan for Seattle by national expert Barbara Poppe, CLICK HERE or HERE.
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