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City councilor joins effort to restore shelter funding

Some emergency beds were cut in a rebidding process—and an effort to restore them is gaining momentum

A scattering of tents are visible under a curvy freeway bridge, leading to a dense urban center full of skyscrapers. EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

City Councilor Kshama Sawant is calling on the city to restore funding to shelters that lost city contracts by hosting a public meeting—and with a planned budget amendment.

In a recent rebidding process, the city started from scratch awarding homeless services contracts. Some providers came away with more funding than they had before—and some new providers received city dollars. But in an effort to prioritize programs like rapid rehousing over emergency shelter, some longtime providers didn’t receive city contracts. A few, including Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) and Women's Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), lost their funding altogether.

Advocates, including the Housing for All coalition, which includes many local service providers and advocacy organizations, have claimed that the rebidding process disproportionately impacted women experiencing homelessness—including WHEEL and two Catholic Community Services (CCS) programs that specifically serve women. Back in December, the coalition delivered a letter to Seattle’s mayor and city council back in December demanding they reverse recent cuts to homelessness service providers. Sawant has joined that effort.

Sawant will be hosting a public meeting rallying support for the shelters on the evening of Monday, February 12, and said she’ll be introducing a budget amendment to restore funding to the providers. Sawant’s office did not immediately respond to a request for the funding source of the budget amendment; we’ll update when we hear back.

The Housing for All coalition has advocated cutting money used for city’s clearing of unauthorized homeless encampments, better-known as sweeps, from the budget and using that money for services instead.

Last year, Housing for All estimated that the cut programs add up to about 300 shelter beds. In an email announcing the amendment and meeting, Sawant’s office estimated that around 250 shelter beds have already been lost so far.

After the rebidding process in November, the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) said the city would fund the emergency beds with “bridge funding” for the following six months, and said that no shelter beds would be lost this winter. Reached by email, department spokesperson Meg Olberding reiterated that no beds have been lost over the winter.

Olberding pointed to a December statement from HSD, which addresses CCS’s shelters that didn’t secure funding. The organization worked with HSD to use a small portion of the funds it was awarded in the rebidding process—CCS was one of the top-funded service providers—to fund their Women’s Referral Center while a funded project, the Lazarus Center, remains under construction.

“We applaud the partnership and creativity of CCS for working with us to ensure service at the Women’s Referral Center continues for a bit longer, while moving their funded project that aligns with city priorities forward,” HSD director Catherine Lester said at the time. “This is the kind of partnership that puts clients first, and also recognizes that we can’t fund everything.”

There have been efforts to fund more programs than were addressed in rebidding, though. During the city budget process last year, city councilor Mike O’Brien proposed an employee head tax that would have increased funding for both housing and homeless services—and would have allowed more contracts to be funded. That measure failed, but the city council passed a resolution to pass legislation by the end of March to address that funding gap.

A campaign kickoff hosted by Housing for All late last month saw around 200 people come out in support of a tax on large businesses to increase the city’s investment in housing and support services.

“Are people meant to have dignified lives?” said former City Councilor Kirsten Harris-Talley said at the event. “And is government a place where people come together, the vehicle for us to do that? I think it is.”

When the city contracts were announced, Housing and Human Services Department affairs director Meg Olberding told us over email that SHARE and WHEEL run programs that were a low priority in the city funding process; they “run basic, mats-on-floor shelters, and [have] not exited anyone to permanent housing, which is a priority in this funding round,” said Olberding.

This article has been updated with a statement and information from HSD.

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