Unkind cuts

Seattle may soon get its fair share of federal homeless funds. And that spells disaster.

Seattle may spend more per capita on the homeless than any other city in the country. Local advocates, service providers, and grant writers manage to win (and spend) a disproportionate share of homeless service and support grants. That’s both good news and bad: According to a new formula devised by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Seattle receives almost $10 million in federal homeless assistance above the city’s so-called “level of need.”

Two weeks ago, Seattle and King County grant writers sent a proposal to HUD for $17.6 million from a federal pool known as the McKinney Homeless Assistance program, the primary source of federal money for homeless assistance programs. If the feds stand by their “level of need” calculations, half of Seattle’s McKinney request will be denied.

McKinney money represents most of the public support for Seattle’s homeless programs, excluding long-term capital grants. According to a SeattleKing County Homeless Response report from February, the county spends roughly $1 million on a variety of homeless shelter programs. Another $3.2 million comes from city general funds, $4.5 million from a separate federal block grant program, and $1 million from Olympia. United Way, the largest local private charity for health and human services, had a record fund-raising year in 1997 and spent a little more than $5 million on shelter, food, and employment services. Last year, $14.5 million of the McKinney funds were spent in Seattle, where roughly one-third of the county’s 1.6 million homeless live.

The McKinney grants were signed into law by a reluctant Ronald Reagan in 1987. Traditionally, grants were awarded on a competitive basis, and Seattle enjoyed a decade of increasing federal support. “The good news,” says Alan Painter, director of community services for Seattle’s Department of Housing and Human Services, “is that Seattle has been extraordinarily successful in new housing services.” The bad news is that cities—usually larger Eastern ones—that have been less successful at winning federal homeless grants complained that they received an unfairly small piece of the McKinney pie. Under additional pressure from Republicans in Congress who wanted to portion McKinney into block grants, HUD announced “level of need” distribution guidelines based on the size of each city. After all, homeless people in Cleveland are just as deserving of federal assistance as the homeless in Seattle, right?

“I understand it on principle,” says Paul Carlson, Harborview Medical Center’s mental health housing coordinator, who requested $2.5 million in this year’s McKinney proposal. “But I will be partisan about it. I know the scandals that go on in some Eastern cities. The federal government rewards us for good planning and good services and good management. Why shouldn’t they? We’re excellent stewards of federal tax dollars.”

No one expects Seattle’s McKinney dole to drop immediately to its $9 million “level of need.” As a matter of past policy, HUD has automatically refunded ongoing McKinney programs. Seattle’s current $17.6 million request covers only grant renewals for existing projects, including the politically popular Shelter Plus Care, which seeks $10 million. This is the first year that Seattle will not apply for new programs.

Although Painter refuses to concede that Seattle’s 10-year run of increasing funds for homeless programs has peaked, he doubts that any other funding source will emerge to replace lost McKinney money. In addition to HUD’s new “level of need” rules, new legislation currently pending in Congress sets future McKinney funding at $975 million nationwide—up slightly from this year but $125 million short of what President Clinton recommended. “The city and county cannot come anywhere near covering the support McKinney needs to provide,” Painter says. “I don’t know who would make that up.” To prepare for the inevitable, the city and county have already formed a McKinney Steering Committee, which is made up of 16 pubic and private service representatives, and charged with ranking projects for support. HUD will announce the next round of McKinney awards in December. “If we get $12 [million] to $13 million out of our current [$17.6 million] McKinney application, we could loose 50 to 100 units of housing,” warns Painter. “Luckily, we haven’t had to face those hard choices quite yet.”