State of Homelessness series examines progress, challenges since state of emergency declaration

By: Scott Kennedy Posted: 10/26/2017

Panel included representatives from City and County, service providers and study author, Barb Poppe

It’s been two years since the Mayor of Seattle and King County Executive came together to declare a state of emergency on homelessness in our region.  One year ago, the City of Seattle implemented its Pathways Home initiative, informed by the commissioned reports produced by Barbara Poppe and Associates and Focus Strategies, with the goal of creating an outcomes-based and person-centered plan to reduce homelessness in partnership with King County, All Home, and the United Way of King County. 

What progress has been made in the past two years to address this regional crisis with the urgency and accountability it demands? What steps have the City and County taken towards implementing the important recommendations outlined in the Poppe and Focus Strategies Report?  What obstacles remain to achieving effective solutions that will help our most vulnerable citizens move from a state of unsheltered living and into permanent, stable housing with access to the individual services they require?  These were some of the questions addressed in a panel discussion hosted by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Seattle Association, Visit Seattle, and the Alliance from Pioneer Square, and sponsored by Starbucks.


Moderated by Jonathan Martin, editor of newly launched Project Homeless series at the Seattle Times, the panel featured Catherine Lester, director of the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department, Adrienne Quinn, Director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, Janet Pope, Director of the Compass Housing Alliance, and Barbara Poppe, Principal of Barbara Poppe and Associates and author of the 2016 city-commissioned report titled “Recommendations for the City of Seattle’s Homeless Investment Policy: The Path Forward – Act Now, Act Strategically, and Act Decisively.”

Much of the initial conversation focused on the progress made by the City and County in recent months, with emphasis on projects like the newly opened Navigation Center, and the implementation of new accountability measures like the City’s Request for Proposal (RFP) process for human services program funding.  Among their accomplishments, both the City and County touted success in bringing more families inside, shifting to more low-barrier shelter options, and improving outreach and services through the work of navigation teams.  It was also highlighted that multiple businesses, like Starbucks and Amazon, have come forward to support the work of programs like those provided by Mary’s Place and Compass Housing Alliance.

Panelists also addressed significant challenges to progress, with particular focus on the lack of affordable housing supply available.  For example, Seattle’s Navigation Center, based on a successful model implemented in San Francisco, has seen significantly fewer than expected exits into stable housing since its inception in July 2017.  Janet Pope commented that San Francisco has seen far more success because that city had set aside low-income housing units specifically for Navigation Center clients.  By contrast, Seattle’s affordable housing crisis has contributed to the difficulty in moving people from the Navigation Center and into stable housing.

Continuing the discussion around housing, Adrienne Quinn added that the County has made significant improvements to its data quality over the past year, and has seen promising success with its rapid rehousing program, which provides short-term rental assistance to keep individuals and families from falling into or reentering homelessness.

In fact, recent data shows that only 5.2% of rapid rehousing program recipients return to homelessness.  Barb Poppe added her support for the program, chiding the region for responding to the current crisis through efforts to build costly housing projects instead of focusing on low-cost rental assistance programs that can help individuals and families get and remain housed.  Poppe emphasized her distaste for programs building “tiny houses,” which she said violate the United Nations human rights standards, as most units do not provide for basic needs like plumbing, heat, and electricity.


A clear outcome of this conversation was the need to address this crisis with urgency. The County is currently seeking partnerships with regional landlords and property management companies, with the goal of improving access to affordable and market-rate rentals through a new landlord liaison project. 

Additionally, county and city leaders reiterated the need to continue down the path of accountability, by awarding funding contracts to human service providers based on specific performance metrics, and ensuring that our city and regional human services system is working in alignment with the report recommendations and the Pathways Home plan.

The Chamber will continue to work with leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors to highlight solutions recommended for lasting, systemic change to address our region’s homelessness crisis and move people off the streets and into stable, permanent housing.