Updated: Oct 10
Blockade, Barriers and Obstacles for Housing First Initiatives
A panicked person called the Community Support Line from Seattle last weekend. The woman - who we’ll call Angela - was a former street-based sex worker who’d survived trafficking, domestic violence and homelessness. Angela worked and struggled and strove. She’d found and kept a job that was close to her heart; advocating for the needs of other people experiencing homelessness with Partnership for Zero. She’d managed to accomplish the monumental task of obtaining and maintaining housing stability for over two years, only to find out with under a month’s notice that the organization had lost its funding and now, Angela was terrified for her and her children’s futures.
According to The Seattle Times, the shuttering of Partnership for Zero — a plan to eliminate visible homelessness in downtown Seattle — will put nearly 40 people at risk of losing their jobs. This program was one of the initiatives that prioritized and employed people with lived experience of homelessness, incarceration, domestic violence, barriers to healthcare, supportive services and even sex workers and survivors. More than 200 people faced eviction as a hotel shelter program run by the Washington State Lived Experience Coalition ran out of funding, so the authority diverted the systems advocates to help.
When the organization hired Angela, she was still on a waitlist for housing assistance herself. It was another 90 days before she and her children could get “inside” and now she had no clue how she’d keep them out of another encampment, rife as they can be with complicated social dynamics, unaddressed substance use and mental health issues, police violence and dangerous weather conditions. She was angry and frustrated that a person could still be just a couple of missed paychecks away from losing it all despite pouring every ounce of their energy into getting and staying afloat. She wondered how this could happen?
How did this happen?
To start, Partnership for Zero received a promise of about $10 million in private donations. But authority officials said they received around half that so far.
“The reality is that KCRHA did not want to continue the program as currently set up. I know the philanthropic community remains committed to figuring out what the next iteration of downtown outreach looks like,” said Erik Houser, managing director of external affairs for We Are In.
For nonprofit homeless outreach workers still working in downtown Seattle, Partnership for Zero’s quick collapse could make their jobs even harder by fostering distrust among people working with the system's advocates.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness noted that funders often have big ideas but no context for process:
“Public and private funders need to hear this message loudly and clearly: The system needs stability, continuity and sustained investment. It does not need additional disruption.”
Other Factors were concerning as well:
Partnership for Zero systems advocates helped 53 people move from the hotels into permanent housing and 122 people into shelter or other temporary locations like a hospital or treatment center. Additionally, 110 people either returned to living on the streets, in their vehicle or with a loved one, but the project never cultivated other funding sources, as intended.
KCRHA Spokesperson Martens said that Partnership for Zero architects envisioned a significant amount of Medicaid funding, but that never came to pass. Partnership for Zero was pitched as the guinea pig so nonprofit contractors and administrators could test how well the reimbursement system works. Some of the prep work and training was completed to start Medicaid billing, Martens said, but at the time the authority decided to end Partnership for Zero, they had yet to bill Medicaid for any of the work. Partnership for Zero was also supposed to be an avenue for a government agency to directly provide homelessness services, rather than contracting with nonprofits. The authority’s decision to do so was controversial.
When the program started, several nonprofits took notice of the wages that systems advocates earned — higher than many front-line nonprofit staff who do the same work. For example, one current advocate, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing employment, cited a starting salary of $82,500. As a result, many established homeless organizations lost staff to the new initiative.
Officials have increasingly considered the low wages that most homelessness services workers earn to be a crisis in the industry.
“That shared experience was an essential part of building trust with people currently experiencing homelessness,” Martens said, “Every systems advocate has experienced homelessness or housing instability. This is a tough situation, and we know that it may be especially difficult for staff who have lived experience of homelessness. It’s important to me to extend our deepest gratitude to the Partnership for Zero team, and make sure staff are supported through this transition.”
David Santiago, a Master of Social Work and Executive Director of REACH, a Seattle Based organization addressing homelessness. was homeless himself more than a decade ago and had achieved stability with assistance of multiple interactions “outside of the system” with individuals that not only saw his potential, but demonstrated real care and intentional provision of tangible assistance that they saw he needed. He went to college and got his masters and returned to community based advocacy and service provision to serve his community.
His frustration with the circumstances around Partnership for Zero were multilevel.
“Hiring people with lived experience of homelessness is more complicated than just hiring currently homeless people,” Santiago said, “The project prioritized everything but low income and supportive housing with services to help manage substance use and severe mental illnesses. We need is more HOUSING - not necessarily more community service workers, but when we DO hire people with lived experience, they need to also experience extensive training and supervision in managing conflict resolution, multi layer systems of reporting, understanding the metrics necessary to and being aware of how to navigate homeless community “stressors'' that require healthy boundaries and more advanced communication skills."
“There are roles for chronically unhoused, underhoused and homeless populations but it's just not immediately putting them in charge of outreach and case management when they don’t have any experience with stability. It creates yet another dysfunctional system of unequal power dynamics. How can you teach what you don’t know? If you really want to clear the homeless, fund the actual housing with services that address their needs. Hiring people with lived experience is only helpful if you have actual housing under a Housing First Harm Reduction Initiative.”
So lets review:
The philanthropic community wanted to fund an initiative that allowed people with lived experience work to provide services and support for the homeless population in Seattle, but when it didn’t happen quickly enough, they bailed.
This is not uncommon. The philanthropic grant process is nothing short of grueling and has reporting objectives and requirements that are intense, invasive and it is incredibly difficult for people who are providing services to accurately report the number of times it takes to “touch” potential participants.
But we fixed the problem! Why aren’t you better?
Statistics of patient interactions with nurses show that it takes a minimum of 7 to 13 “touches” - also known as interactions or substantive “conversations” before a potential patient/participant feels comfortable fully expressing their needs and their challenges. Examples of what is considered a “touch” is a personal contact between a service provider and a potential client that works to build a relationship built on mutual trust, dignity and respect. Literally no one wants to immediately be presented with an intake form from a perfect stranger offering assistance without some kind of relationship being developed and if you really think about it, this is a serious blockade for service providers and potential clients.
If you meet someone at a conference and they give you their business card - and you give them yours - you have not developed a relationship - you have given - or received - a “pitch” for a possible future contact. All you have really achieved is the access to get another meeting. A follow up” touch” might come in the form of an email, a letter or a phone call where you share the spaces and places where you have a shared value or a desire to further interact. It may take more than one email, phone call or text to get a third “touch”. Examples of this in a service provision dynamic demonstrate the following statistics:
2% of connections are made after the 1st “touch”
3% of connections are made after the 2nd“touch”
5% of connections are made after the 3rd “touch”
10% of successful agreements to continue to interact are made after the 4th “touch”
80% of participants agreeing to receive services are made between the 5th and 12th “touches”
What this means is that a social service provider - particularly one with lived experience of asking for or receiving promised services - KNOW FOR A FACT - that building a real foundationally sound relationship is the key to demonstrating that the service is 1 - real, 2 - accessible and 3 - deliverable.
But most philanthropic funders aren’t interested in the intensity and the nuance behind relationship building; they just don’t want to see homeless encampments.
Even though they may be on board with the idea of hiring, training and facilitating a healthy work environment for people with lived experience, they just don’t understand why someone isn’t able to achieve “Single Touch” services and support within a narrow time frame.
Sex Workers and Survivors of Exploitation and Violence know this paradigm all too well.
Many of our grassroots organizations don’t qualify for local, state or federal funding for a variety of reasons and most of them are related to accessibility. The problem of Homelessness and the nuance within funders of programs and projects like the Seattle based organization We Are In are hamstrung between what is ethically correct - building programs and projects that are led by impacted populations - and what is prohibitively inaccessible - unreasonable metrics and the lack of understanding about the complicated situations people find themselves in - and the people who suffer the most are those who were in the middle portion of the “touch” situation.
The homeless population being served in Seattle will probably have to start all over again with new service providers and establish those relationship building efforts all over again.
But advocates and clients are tired of giving the same information all over again. And why should they trust that the “new” organization is going to be able to follow through when no one really understands how many systemic failures they have already experienced?
Everyone admits anxiety over this defeat, but they also admit the project wasn’t given enough time or resources to make sure the program could stay in place.
Angela already has another job prospect but it is paying her almost 20% less than Project for Zero. And she knows there will be some cutbacks in her future and there is a possibility that she will have to dip into her very small savings account that she has religiously transferred about 8% of her check into for the past 18 months and it is only totally about 1 1/2 months of regular living expenses and there could be potential gap in checks - even if the new job works out - and that is giving her a lot of anxiety.
"I know that I'm gonna be OK because the job I had really taught me a lot and I really do have better skills and a lot more confidence in my abilities now.", she said in a follow up call. "But it took me a long time to get my family back together and on a schedule where everyone was thriving in school, had friends and knew that we were be having dinner together every night. I worry about my clients that are still homeless. I care about them and they are really upset that I might not be their advocate any more. I discovered I was really good at this work because I could really connect with my clients. I love them and they love me and we trusted each other. We always knew the system was gonna eventually let us down but we were prepared to lean on each other. I'm really hoping the new job will take my clients that haven't gotten housing yet and not make them start all over again."
So we ask everyone involved in the multiple homeless initiatives in Seattle and beyond that you look at your programs and projects and make sure you ensure that you send a significant amount of time focusing on getting the NUMBER ONE THING YOUN REALLY NEED before starting a homeless initiative...
And that is affordable, low income and accessible housing with the right, culturally appropriate services and support that will allow them to achieve long term stability of both the clients you seek to serve, but the people with lived experience you have hired. Because its PEOPLE - not PROGRAMS or PROJECTS - that make the difference.
Want to know more about David Delgado and his lived experience of serving the homeless community in Seattle? Watch this powerful video on his take on REAL advocacy for homeless and under-housed populations!