December 16, 2018

By Vianna Davila

If there is any single name associated with Seattle’s overhaul of the city’s homeless-response system, Barbara Poppe might be it.

Poppe, a previous director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, was hired by former Mayor Ed Murray to produce one of two reports — the other by Sacramento-based consultant Focus Strategies — that laid the groundwork for Seattle to rethink how it approached solving homelessness.

Among her recommendations in 2016, Poppe said the city should shift from basic overnight shelters to 24/7, enhanced shelters like the Navigation Center. She pushed Seattle to hold its homeless-service providers more accountable; a year later, the city rebid its contracts for the first time in a decade.

Seattle’s Human Services Department said last week they had taken action on 66 of the 69 recommendations in Poppe’s and Focus Strategies’ reports.

But the city is far from achieving what Poppe claimed was possible if Seattle adjusted its approach — getting every unsheltered homeless person inside within one year. Two years after her report, the county’s unsheltered-homeless population exceeded 6,300.

Poppe was recently in Seattle to speak at Starbucks about the city’s progress and the company’s ongoing efforts to combat family homelessness, particularly in partnership with the family shelter Mary’s Place. The Seattle Times caught up with her afterward.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How would you grade Seattle as far as implementing some of your recommendations?

I think as far as the recommendations that were in the report and that the city decided to implement, they’ve done a strong job … Things like competitive funding and having a joint set of metrics with the other funders, that’s an area that I think they strongly implemented and was part of changing the culture of how (homelessness) funding was provided in Seattle and King County.

The greater challenges of really addressing the affordable-rental-housing crisis and making it possible for, in particular families, to exit homelessness to stable housing, progress was made but not to the scale of what the needs were.

A constant issue here is the lack of a central governing point for the homeless-response system. What role do you think that has played in the city or the county’s ability to address the issues here?

Governance is about how you make the big strategic decisions together. … (but) there isn’t a unifying kind of decision table or governance structure to make those decisions.

I think that separate from governance is the issue of who’s gonna implement which strategy when and how … There’s no entity responsible for implementation. In many ways, it’s implementation by committee without any clarity as to who’s the leader and kind of drives the process. So in your community you struggle both at the governance decision-making table, but also at the implementation of the actions that need to get undertaken.

This seems to be a really tough thing generally for Seattle to get.

Why do you think that is?

Everybody can’t be a part of every decision or decisions don’t get made, or they’re really inefficient.

My feeling is, there’s just so much talking. How much more talking can you have?

Right. On the implementation side, implementation is about doing, not talking.

Do you have an example of where you’ve seen that happen in Seattle?

There was a Seattle Times story, it had this picture of a family that was living in a car and the caption said the family, which had two infants … was not prioritized for services, for shelter. So I did research and came back to them and said, you can’t use this particular method (for determining who gets shelter).

I assumed that because what I presented was that these infants were at serious health risk, that it would get expedited. So in their expedited world, it meant that they adopted these recommendations, I think sometime in the fall, and then they began implementing them sometime in February and then finally in November they had a new way to do it. These are just these drawn-out steps.

In the last few months, the Seattle City Council repealed the head tax which would have resulted in more affordable housing. You’ve talked about the need for more affordable housing. Do you think that decision set the city back in terms of addressing homelessness here? 

There are many ways that the federal, the state and the local governments collectively don’t invest in affordable rental housing. It’s not solely a city council or mayor decision, but there have been opportunities to increase investment in many ways, and so far that hasn’t happened.

Unfortunately, we need investment, significant investment at all three levels (of government) just to try to catch up to the severe (housing) gap that exists everywhere in the nation. This is not unique to Seattle. It’s just that the crisis is more severe in Seattle.

Just in the last year, Seattle expanded to nine tiny-house villages. You’ve raised concerns about them in the past. What do you think about that strategy?

The early tiny homes did not provide power, sanitation, the basic requirements to be safe, decent housing, and that was one area of criticism that I had. (Note: the structures in Seattle’s tiny-house villages now have heat and electricity; bathrooms are on site at each village).

The second issue was, was the purpose of the tiny home really an alternative to emergency shelter, meaning it’s going to be a temporary place for people to stay until they … get out of homelessness? … Are those more effective or at least as effective as the (city’s) enhanced shelters, and are they having sufficiently high rates of exits from homelessness into housing?

I think I sometimes come across as very dogmatic about this, but if in fact people’s basic human needs were met and they were seeing good results, I would have a different opinion on it.

You have met with the mayor a number of times in the last few months, is that right?

Yes. She is extremely serious about finding solutions. Every time I’ve talked with her she does ask very hard questions.

I’m curious if you feel like her strategy is clear to you because I don’t think it’s clear to the public. And do you think that’s a problem?

That’s an interesting question. I think because the city doesn’t control all the levers to address homelessness, it can be hard for mayors to navigate because they often have fewer tools and levers to pull (than) other people might have.

It’s about getting the coalition of the willing government leaders to address it. In that way, I would say that her strategy seems to be evolving as she’s testing what partnerships are out there as well as exploring what works and doesn’t work. She’s very data-driven. Her team, in the human-services area, they’ve done yeoman’s work to implement the recommendations that were in Focus Strategies’ and my report, and they have improved access to data that they’re making available to help craft the going-forward strategy.

I started coming to Seattle in 2015 … What I am always struck by is … the amount of building that has occurred that changes your downtown skyline. It is just astounding how much the city changes in those few months between my visits. And yet I still see people in doorways and under bridges, and that part doesn’t get any better.

So I’m always just struck by how, for many people, Seattle becomes a better and better place to live with more opportunities for housing and places to eat and better hotels and more interesting arts and cultural venues and sports things. You’re a very fabulous environment if you have money, because it’s always changing for that part of your population. But if you’re at the lower end, it definitely is more desperate.

(In Sodo in 2016) I saw people that were really struggling, but just the number of people now in that same neighborhood is immensely different. It’s visibly a lot more vehicles, a lot more RVs. There’s a lot more misery there than there was three years ago.

But at the same time, I’ve also had the chance to see some of the work that Mary’s Place has done and see them transform their shelters to be 24/7, to be housing-focused.

What would you say to Seattle residents and businesses who we hear from on a daily basis who are just ticked off, and they are not (necessarily) thinking about this as a humanitarian crisis?

I understand the frustration … It can be a really difficult environment to operate a business, to live, to send your children off to school.

I think the question needs to be, at the end of the day, what’s going to change the situation … The solution is not going to be arrest and incarceration, because we know that doesn’t work. But there has to be a willingness to come together and solve together as opposed to being divided over this, because it’s only in coming together are you going to get to a solution.

It’s not like there’s a lack of good intention and smarts and compassion … That’s why I remain hopeful and engaged with Seattle because you’re smart enough to get there. The values are there.