The Solution to Seattle’s Homeless Problem Is Painfully Obvious

More than 15 years ago, Seattle began experimenting with Housing First and then stopped. Why?

This story was originally published on September 8, 2015, and is being resurfaced as part of the Homeless in Seattle media blitz.

A man named Ray sits in the shady weeds under the I-5 freeway near Boren Avenue. Beside him, a tattered couch resides atop a mottled carpet where a Hershey bar lies in a melted heap. Wide-set hazel eyes sit behind oval-framed lenses that Ray says he found on a chair in Occidental Park. His dark-brown hair is overgrown and untamed, and crumbs from his Subway turkey sandwich have made a mess of the baggy black pants that cover his long, pole-thin legs. He says he’s 54 and has been living hand-to-mouth for two years, most of the time in Eugene, Portland, or Seattle.

“Sometimes I go to a shelter, but I’d rather be out here when the weather’s good, plus they kicked me out. Said I had a screw loose or something like that,” says Ray, amid the honk and hiss of the freeway above. Hands slightly trembling as he clutches his hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers, Ray slaps on his St. Louis Cardinals cap, its red beak badly frayed. “Man, I used to work there in a cement plant, south of town. That was a long time ago. I’d like to get back there someday. Just need a little dough.”

“Don’t listen to him, he’s a crazy asshole,” yells a camp compatriot kiddingly.

With that, Ray, with several top teeth missing, smiles like a jack-o’-lantern, and one can sense that some form of mental illness envelops him. Still, when he enthuses in a loud, raspy voice, “How ’bout those Red Birds,” even a stranger might glimpse the illuminant personality that may have bloomed as a younger man.

Ray is a member of a growing community: a homeless population that has swelled by 21 percent in King County in the past year alone. At this point, only New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas have greater numbers of people living on the streets than we do.

The signs of this intractable social ill become more apparent by the day: the dispossessed sleeping beneath mottled blankets in downtown alleyways and trash-strewn parks, under freeway ramps and makeshift camps.

“In the last 18 months, it has really exploded,” observes Daniel Malone, the new director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center, “and we are not keeping pace by increasing the number of shelter beds or psychiatric beds.”

Washington ranks 47th of the 50 states in access to psychiatric beds, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy—even though much of the $90 million the state slashed from the mental-health-care system during the recession-ridden years of 2009 to 2013 has been restored.

“By not investing more heavily in mental-health treatment, we are generating more and more chronically homeless people,” opines Vince Matulionis of the United Way of King County. He adds, “It feels a lot worse now, like the homeless are far more visible in Seattle.”

No one knows the numbers for sure, but it’s clear to the Washington State Department of Transportation that there’s been a sharp spike in the number of homeless people, most probably the chronically homeless, who in burgeoning numbers are taking temporary root under I-5 in and around Seattle.

“They cut the fences to get in there,” says Jim McBride, who oversees the WSDOT highway crews charged with cleaning up the areas. “We see them stretching all the way from Ravenna at 50th and 45th Streets way down to the Duwamish Bridge. You have hypodermic needles, human waste. We have a terrible time keeping employees. I’m getting ready to retire. You can only take this for so long.”

Chloe Gale is the co-director of REACH, a nonprofit group created by the King County Public Health Department, whose 40 workers try to connect the unsheltered homeless with social-service agencies. A kind, thoughtful woman with long hair streaked with gray, she says the city’s rental market, where vacancy rates are at an all-time low, has made things worse.

Citing studies that show that a $100 increase in rent can result in a 15 percent increase in homelessness, she says, “There’s so much development now. They used to camp under the Viaduct, but they got flushed out of there because of the construction, so then they started moving more into downtown and up to Capitol Hill. But now with all the development going on, they’re going under the bridges and freeways.”

“There’s a lot of misconception about these people,” says REACH employeee Kelly Craig. “I’ve been to camps under the freeway near Eastlake, and I’ve seen camps with people growing vegetables and flowers, beautiful little camps. There was one camp in the Queen Anne greenbelt where there was an umbrella, a little table, and all the shoes lined up neatly outside this wooden structure.”

To get into a real home, though, is a Herculean task for many of these chronically homeless, requiring them to first pass through a gauntlet of social programs to get them “housing-ready.” Individual success stories exist, but the numbers don’t lie: The system is not working. Most of it, anyway.

“We’ve done some innovative things like 1811 [Eastlake],” says Malone of a decade-old pilot program that provides permanent housing for the chronically homeless. “But we haven’t invested enough to scale. Utah came here and learned how to do it, and then they really went back and took it to scale.”

Far from Seattle, beneath a gleaming Utah sun, Lloyd Pendleton climbs into his light-brown F-150 Ford pickup on a warm mid-August morning, guns the engine, and heads south from the airport. In the distance the craggy Wasatch range beckons, while the statue of the angel Moroni prevails over Salt Lake City’s skyline, his golden trumpet raised atop the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple, a majestic granite creation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A devout Mormon, at 75 Pendleton still works endless hours, to his wife’s occasional dismay, to put an end to chronic homelessness in Utah, among the reddest states in the Union. And he’s become quite famous for his efforts. As we begin a day-long tour of attractive apartment complexes that today house the state’s most incorrigible homeless population, he attributes the recent spate of glowing national media attention to a speech he gave in Casper, Wyoming.

“It was in November 2013,” Pendleton begins. “I was at a luncheon of business and political leaders, and I told them how we were eliminating chronic homelessness by giving them permanent housing and that it was working. So anyway, the story in the Casper paper got picked up by NPR, and next thing I know I was getting calls from all over the country.”

In January, Pendleton even landed an invite to The Daily Show, telling correspondent Hasan Minhaj “We did it by giving homes to homeless people.”

An elegant man with silvery hair and pale blue eyes, Pendleton, who could be mistaken for Senator Harry Reid, is trim and decorous in gray trousers, a button-down shirt, and cinnamon-colored cowboy boots. It’s the same dapper look he sported in the late 1960s as a financial analyst for the Ford Motor Company, where he was hired straight out of school after earning an MBA from Brigham Young University.

“I remember feeling like a country hick when I was sitting around with all these guys from Yale and Harvard at headquarters [in Dearborn, Michigan]. But none of them out-worked me.”

Raised on a small cattle ranch and dairy farm in a remote desert town on the far western fringe of Utah, it took a long while for Pendleton to reject the notion that a person living on the street wasn’t simply lazy and indolent and had only himself to blame for his plight.

“When I was 6 or 7, I was milking the cows, chopping wood, even driving a truck out there in Vernon,” remembers Pendleton. “I was used to hard work, and so I’d tell these homeless guys, ‘You lazy bums. Go get a job.’ I figured that’s all they needed.”

Pendleton is a big name in the Beehive State. After leaving Ford, he went to work managing the L.D.S. Church Welfare Department, a huge Salt City corporation which helps church members with food, money, and a place to live if they lose their job or home. “This is where I was exposed to the homelessness, and I got to know these people and their problems,” he says. “I learned their stories, and when I found that they’re human just like me, we became brothers and sisters.”

Pendleton’s work at the charity caught the attention of then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, who convinced him to take the job as director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force.

“So in 2003 at a big meeting in Chicago, there were all these homeless providers who were saying they wanted to end homelessness in 10 years,” recounts Pendleton. “And I thought, ‘What are you guys smoking?’ I didn’t think it could be done, because there are too many personal choices—alcohol, drugs, and all that.”

At that meeting, Pendleton was introduced to a program called Housing First, which finds the homeless houses first and takes care of their other needs later. “Yeah, I had an epiphany,” he recalls. “I’m flying back here, and I thought that if there’s any state that could do this, it would be Utah. We are collaborative, caring, and very compassionate.”

Pendleton managed to mobilize the Mormon Church, unite homeless-services providers throughout the state, and convince many skeptical politicians back in 2005 that in 10 years he would virtually eradicate the problem of chronic homelessness, defined as someone who has spent at least a year living on the streets and has other problems as well: a mental illness, substance abuse, or a physical disability.

Of the nearly 600,000 homeless people in the U.S., the vast majority, some 85 percent, spend relatively short periods of time (“the episodic homeless,” they are often called) sleeping in shelters and the like, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The remaining 15 percent are the real desperadoes—the ones who have fallen so far that night after night spent in a soggy blanket must suffice for a permanent home.

In 2005, Utah was home to 1,932 chronically homeless people. Today there are 178—a remarkable 91 percent drop statewide.

“It can be done. It’s not rocket science,” says Pendleton. “You just need the political will.”

What Utah did was discard the old paradigm long employed by social-service agencies nationwide, which, in essence, dictates that first one needs to make the homeless “housing-ready”—meaning they should be placed in temporary crisis shelters or halfway houses and complete drug-rehabilitation treatment or mental-health counseling or both before they can expect to live permanently in their own apartment. This concept, sometimes called “linear residential treatment” or “continuum of care,” often fails because very few chronically homeless people ever complete the work required to become “ready.”

“If you have to worry where you’re going to be sleeping tonight, you’re not going to care about dealing with staying clean,” Pendleton explains as we pass strip malls filled with Mexican food trucks and a scatter of old, wood-peeling clapboard houses on the city’s poorer west side. “Everyone living on the streets deserves a home, and we operate on the belief that no one should have to prove that they are ready or worthy of residing in their own place.”

The new model emerged from an extensive study that began in 1992 under the direction of a New York University psychologist named Sam Tsemberis. He and his associates, a group called Pathways to Housing, provided apartments in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y., to 242 chronically homeless individuals.

Few restrictions were imposed. No tests to take, no rehabilitation programs to attend, no forms to fill out. The longtime street denizens could still drink, take drugs, whatever, as long as they didn’t hurt anyone or bother their neighbors. Let them decide, the thinking went, whether they wanted to avail themselves of free counseling, health care, or substance-abuse treatment.

What Tsemberis discovered is that permanent housing can actually foster sobriety and stability, not the other way around. The results were amazing. Five years later, 88 percent of the participants were still in their apartments, and the costs of their care had been dramatically reduced.

One study, in fact, found that each New York City homeless individual suffering from a mental illness—which is the reality for a large segment of the chronically homeless population—costs an average of $40,449 a year in emergency-room visits, police intervention, incarceration, and shelter expenses. Getting that individual into permanent supportive housing, though, saved taxpayers an average of $16,282.

And in Utah, says Pendleton, the price tag of providing an apartment and case workers to Housing First clients is about $11,000 a year, compared to $17,000 annually if they remain on the streets.

Tsemberis told Seattle Weekly in a recent telephone interview that “The system we have had is that if you see someone on the street, well, then, the only solution is to get them detoxed or something. The key to all this is that we have to treat the chronically homeless as human beings … Housing First has showed us that no one has to be housing-ready.”

Following its early success in New York City, the Housing First idea caught fire. By 2003, the Bush Administration had bought in and promoted the idea while encouraging communities nationwide to draft a detailed “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness” by the year 2015. Seattle, says Tsemberis, was one of the first cities to embrace Housing First, but “never took it to scale.” He adds, “No one has made the kind of political commitment to the program the way Utah did.”

But, as Pendleton can attest, it is not an easy sell. “Landlords and even the politicians said to me, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t put alcoholics and drug users right into permanent housing,’ ” Pendleton recalls. “There was a lot of skepticism, so finally I had an idea: Let’s run a small test pilot program.

“So we went out and found the worst of worst, people on streets for many years, people with serious mental illness—the very worst. And then we [the task force] convinced landlords to give them apartments, and we [the state of Utah] gave them health care and other services. There were 17 people in the pilot, and after 22 months, they were all still in those apartments. Oh yeah, we all became true believers after that.”

Squeezing a packet of ketchup onto a platter of fries at a Seattle diner last month, Bill Hobson has a lot to say about the sorry state of homelessness in his city.

“In this town, it’s difficult to get the political community interested in anything but homeless families, homeless veterans, and homeless children. They got plans for all them, but there’s never been one to end chronic homelessness,” says Hobson, who retired in July after 31 years running the Downtown Emergency Services Center, the city’s largest nonprofit dealing with the homeless. Hobson is well respected among the city’s social-service providers. Seattle mayors dating back to Norm Rice have made certain to return his calls.

Lloyd Pendleton himself came a-calling during a Seattle visit in 2004, looking for advice when he was putting the final touches on Utah’s ambitious Housing First plan, aware of Hobson’s involvement in the late 1990s in one of the earliest permanent supportive-housing units in the nation: 1811 Eastlake, an $11.2 million project for 75 homeless men and women identified as chronic alcoholics.

“He was my mentor,” says Pendleton. “When he came to Utah and saw what we’d done, I remember Bill said to me, ‘I’d kill for the kind of collaboration you’d had here. In Seattle, everyone does their own thing.’ ”

Hobson goes on. “This town I think is pretty progressive, but in the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, we ignored federal policy. We didn’t do a thing about the chronically homeless, and that’s been a big mistake. Study after study has shown that leaving the chronically homeless on the street is a lot more expensive than building affordable housing. It is an investment against greater downstream costs.

“For every 100 low-income households in King County, there are 15 apartments that are affordable. We got rid of all the flophouses and SRO’s [single-room occupancy units] decades ago, and they are now all high-end condos. I don’t fault building a more livable, attractive city, but we didn’t realize the cost of displacement. Until we turn this around and invest heavily in affordable, permanent housing for the homeless, we’ll never make any dramatic impact on people sleeping in the streets, living in shelters, in tents.”

The United Way’s Matulionis was part of the group that launched King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homeless, a report that he concedes paid scant attention to the need for permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless—something that he says has been rectified in the updated “July 2015 to July 2019 Strategic Plan” prepared by the Seattle/King County Committee to End Homelessness.

The revised plan states, “Our goal is for all chronically homeless adults to be housed or in a shelter and on a pathway to housing. This will require significant new investment in Permanent Supportive Housing, the evidence-based solution to chronic homelessness.”

To meet this goal would require the city and county to rethink its priorities. In 2014, the city spent $40.8 million on various homeless services, spread across 183 contracts and 60 agencies. Of that, $28.7 million went toward intervention, such as emergency shelter, case management, outreach programs, and health care. Another $7 million was allocated toward prevention that included short-term rental assistance and getting landlords to accept homeless people with rental-assistance vouchers. Only about $7.6 million went to building permanent housing.

Sola Plumacher, Community Support & Assistance Division Director for the city’s Department of Human Resources, says DHS oversees 1,085 permanent housing units in Seattle, with about half dedicated to the chronically homeless. “We need at least 3,000 more units,” she estimates.

Back in Salt Lake City, Pendleton pulls up to the Sunrise Metro Apartments and is greeted warmly by the staff. The handsome four-story brick building opened in 2007, the first of five Housing First projects built in Salt Lake City, multimillion-dollar structures funded with state, local, and federal money and private donations. About 100 formerly homeless people live here and pay $50 a month, or 30 percent of their income, whichever is more.

“There has to be accountability,” says Pendleton. “That’s why they pay a little rent. And if they don’t pay, they are evicted. Or if they are violent, they are evicted.” (The eviction rate, though, is low: only 6 percent each year of the more than 600 residents in the five Housing First complexes.)

Pendleton says that about 10 percent of the participants leave the program to strike out on their own, and that the vast majority are successful in forging a new independent life. Also, each participant has a caseworker to help them stay on the straight and narrow and perhaps assist them in finding a job, though they still get to keep their apartment if that doesn’t work out. Same goes if they keep abusing drugs or alcohol.

The one- and two-bedroom apartments are the kind you might see in a college dormitory. There’s a nice wooden table and chairs, a plush leather chair, a bed, dishes, towels, a walk-in closet, a refrigerator, a sink, and a stove, which comes with a 15-minute timer “so they don’t burn the place down,” says Nils Abramson, one of Sunset’s five caseworkers.

Most of the furniture is donated by the church, as is the food, which residents pick up weekly in the downstairs pantry. Outside, there’s a courtyard, beautifully landscaped, where volleyball tournaments are played. In one corner of the commons, a memorial garden has been planted in honor of residents who have died.

About 25 percent of the residents in the Housing First network have low-paying jobs. The rest are on Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income.

For many, the adjustment is difficult. “Some of the residents keep their rooms immaculate. Others trash it. It’s like they’re still living in a homeless camp,” says Abramson. “We’ve had people living here for four years, and they are still sleeping on the floor, and they’re still hoarding food or getting it out of garbage dumpsters, even though it’s free here.”

Pendleton sees a resident he knows, Terri. He asks what she’s up to. “I’m just looking for a psychiatrist. They say I’m insane,” she replies. She’s joking, but like everyone here, she’s got issues.

Raised by a single mother, an alcoholic, in Fort Collins, Colorado, Terri had an abusive marriage, her life dragged further down by booze and drugs. She’s been living outdoors for more than a year, and after a few months at the Road House, a huge 800-bed shelter in Salt Lake City, she managed to get herself into Sunrise. “It’s hard. It takes a while to realize you’re safe,” she says.

Over at Grace Mary Manor, home to 84 residents—many of them afflicted with disabling conditions: cancer, severe depression and anxiety, brain injuries—caseworker Kay Luther says, “There are no requirements [in Housing First] to attend addiction treatment or mental-health counseling. My job is to treat them with unconditional positive regard. We do everything we can for them, but we’re not disciplinarians. All we ask is that they pay their rent and be good neighbors.”

It’s not a bad life at Grace, where the average resident was homeless for eight years before entering the Housing First facility. There’s a gym, a huge barbecue underneath the gazebo, a library with bay windows and comfy leather chairs.

Caseworkers, who are required to check in with their clients at least once a day, see their share of desperation. Says Luther: “These are people who have destroyed every relationship in their lives.”

Darren Deane is a caseworker at Palmer Court, a converted Holiday Inn, where one resident has scrawled this note on his door: “I’m already disturbed, so please come in.” Deane reflects, “You know, we never see the family until they die, and then the relatives come. And they’ll say things like, ‘I’m so glad Uncle Ed died here. We’re so grateful that he could spend his final years here.” ’

Seattle has recently taken steps toward addressing its homeless population in earnest. Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray made waves when he announced what, compared to Pendleton’s program, is a modest plan to install three tent cities to house 200 of Seattle’s homeless. It received mixed reviews. Some complained that they didn’t want encampments in their neighborhoods, but most agreed that something needed to be done.

“It’s absolutely a Band-Aid approach, but we have to do it,” stresses Plumacher.

As Murray told the Weekly last month, “Homeless encampments are a solution to nothing but a safer night for some. I don’t want them dying or getting killed out there.”

Hobson says we must do more. “The Mayor and the [King] County Executive, and their staffs, they are all singing the right music, but their recommendations are tepid,” he argues. “What we are doing is not nearly enough. It will take over a billion dollars to do what’s needed to build enough affordable housing in King County to handle the homeless.”

Even if the city could secure the funds, there remains the issue of placing such housing. The bitter fight between community activists and the city over the placement of Murray’s tent cities signals that this would be no easy task. In this regard, Seattle might not be that different from Salt Lake City.

“Seattle has this reputation for being generous, and that’s the reason why the homeless are coming here,” Hobson says. “That’s bullshit. We are no different than any other metropolitan area.”

Before entering the Kelly Benson Apartments in West Valley City, a charming 59-unit complex on the outskirts of Salt Lake City that caters to once-homeless people 55 and older, Pendleton says pridefully. “We have no labels here. There is nothing to indicate that this is a place where the chronically homeless live.”

Of all the buildings in Housing First’s portfolio, this was the most challenging endeavor. “We encountered a lot of not-in-my-neighborhood sentiment here. There’s an elementary school nearby, and there were people who figured the kids were going to be raped and pillaged. We made a big mistake here, not paving the way first with the community.”

Pendleton says he learned from that experience that you have to forge a consensus in the beginning—get community leaders on board and invite neighborhood association groups, church pastors, and local elected officials to visit the site of the proposed facility, or even show them other places where the program has succeeded.

“It all worked out, though, in the end. Kelly Benson is part of the neighborhood now,” exults Pendleton. “We have families who bring food and clothing in. The kids wave to the residents on their way to school.”

One of those residents is Russell Flowers, a big, burly man who found his way to Utah’s capital city in 2009. The recession was at full boil and Flowers wasn’t making it in Memphis. He knew Utah had—and still has—one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, and he figured he might find work at the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation’s Bingham Canyon Mine, one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world, a 15-minute drive southwest of Salt Lake City.

“I did demolition work in Memphis. Figured they can use me at the mine,” he says inside the sun-washed community room at Kelly Benson. “I had $1,600 with me when I left and the money got stolen. I got here with 40 cents in my pocket.”

Flowers says he found a shelter near the Salt Lake City bus depot and landed odd jobs at construction sites and shoveling snow in Park City. “Then I got an apartment until the money ran out, and then [in 2009] I had the heart attack.” For two years he bounced from shelters to group homes, spending many a night outdoors, until coming to Kelly Benson in 2011, where he pays $271 from the $936 in Permanent Disability he collects monthly. “My daddy used to say ‘People shy away from people who get sick, so don’t get sick.’ ” Like under-the-freeway Ray, Flowers yearns someday to get back to the city he came from. “But I don’t know if that’s going to ever going to happen.”

Pendleton gives Flowers a pat on the back and asks him whether he’d like to make a trip with him to Los Angeles in mid-September and speak at a conference of homeless providers about his experiences in the Housing First program.

Flowers eagerly accepts. “It’d be nice to get out of here for a while,” he tells Pendleton. “I could use a change of scenery.”