City staff aren’t providing legally required homeless data

We’re supposed to get data every three months — it’s been a year.
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Last summer, Camp Hope became a flashpoint in Spokane. Sprawling over a large lot in sight of the I-90 freeway, organizers counted more than 600 people in the heat of summer. Opinions ranged on why people had come to the camp and where they were from. Julie Garcia, the founder and director of Jewels Helping Hands, collected her own data on the camp’s inhabitants, but no official data was collected by the city — and the reliability of Garcia’s data was challenged by local leaders.

The lack of information allowed anecdote and conjecture to fill the holes left by solid numbers. Excuses proliferated:

People were coming to the camp from out of town. Garcia was exaggerating the camp size. The camp was full of criminals and people who wanted to be homeless.

But under city law, this information vacuum shouldn’t have existed.

One year earlier, in the summer of 2021, Spokane City Council passed a law requiring city staff to track the overall homeless population, provide demographic information on people experiencing homelessness and identify barriers to accessing housing. City staff in the Community, Housing and Human Services (CHHS) Department were required by the law to provide quarterly reports to city council and the public through the city website.

According to a public records request filed by RANGE, no such quarterly reports have been made in nearly two years, leaving policy-makers and the public at the mercy of rarely updated and problematic data.

The Point-In-Time Count

With these quarterly reports not being made, the annual point-in-time count (commonly called the PIT Count) is the only point of reference to track homelessness in Spokane. The PIT Count is a federal requirement for accessing federal housing dollars. Locally, the count is intended to survey every unhoused person in Spokane County, whether they are currently sheltered or living outdoors.

The 2023 PIT Count, which happened over 5 days in late January, counted 2,390 unhoused people in Spokane County, a 36% increase from 2022. The sheltered population total was 1,435. That’s a 54% increase from 2022, and can be attributed in part to the addition of the Trent Resource and Assistance Center (TRAC) and the Catalyst Project. The unsheltered population grew as well to 955, a 16% increase since 2022, suggesting that even the additional shelter capacity isn’t keeping up with the rate of people losing housing.

At the time of the PIT Count, there were 124 people at Camp Hope, underscoring that over 87% of unsheltered unhoused people were living somewhere other than that patch of WSDOT land.

The problem is bigger than even those grim numbers suggest.

There is widespread understanding that the PIT Count is a significant undercount of people actually experiencing homelessness nationwide and in our region. In general, more people who fit the definition of unhoused find situations where they can move in temporarily with friends or family or otherwise find shelter during the winter. On the flip side, more people camp outside during the summer. The mere fact of doing the count in January, as the federal government requires, almost ensures underestimating the number of homeless in Spokane County.

A more comprehensive methodology used by the state estimates that more than 5,000 people are homeless in Spokane County, more than double the published PIT Count.

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Council members don’t get adequate data, even when they pass laws demanding it

Council members are hungry for better data and frustrated that it’s not coming from city staff — despite city laws that require it. In an April 27 city council study session on the point-in-time count, Council member Michael Cathcart requested that the CHHS create a live dashboard of homelessness data. Presumably with live data on the state of homelessness in the community, policy decisions could both be data-informed and be constantly tracked for their efficacy.

Council member Kinnear responded, “Michael, Michael, we’ve asked for that for years.”

“Hence the reason I’m asking for it again,” Cathcart said.

“So, keep repeating that,” Kinnear said. “In fact, I think we put that in one of our ordinances that we require that.”

“It’s in an ordinance,” Cathcart said.

“It’s a head-scratcher,” Kinnear said.

Council President Breean Beggs said that the lack of information can’t be chalked up to short staffing or trouble accessing data. He said that he’s asked to have the data provided but has been stonewalled. “Based on what I have been told by employees, I believe the lack of providing the information is at the direction of the mayor’s office,” Beggs said. “I have been told by multiple people in the administration that the data is available.”

Emailed questions to the mayor’s office and a voice mail left for communications director Brian Coddington were not answered before publication. This article will be updated if the mayor’s office responds.

Council member Zack Zappone said the missing reports are part of a larger pattern of the administration shirking legal requirements. “There seems to be a problem where an ordinance is passed and then not followed,” Zappone said. “Then, what’s the point of passing laws?”

While council repeatedly expressed ongoing frustration with not having this required data provided, Jenn Cerecedes, the head of the CHHS Department, told RANGE that she only recently became aware of the legal requirement to generate that data. When RANGE asked her about Council President Beggs’ assertion that data was being deliberately withheld by the administration, Cerecedes said that wasn’t the case. “It’s definitely not ever our intention to not share information.”

One of the stumbling blocks in creating these reports is the challenge of counting people who are unsheltered, Cerecedes told the committee when they asked why the quarterly reports weren’t being made. During the 2023 point-in-time count 170 volunteers assisted in locating and interviewing people on their homelessness status. Having that kind of effort on a quarterly or ongoing basis would be a major challenge. “I have been trying to seek some more clarity on the concept around unsheltered count, because that’s a large portion of that request, and it isn’t something that we currently would be able to do.”

In the meeting, Beggs said that the expectation wasn’t that the department use more resources to create quarterly reports at the same scale as the PIT count, but rather that they report out the information that CHHS staff is already collecting from shelter providers and outreach workers contracted by the city.

Cerecedes said the city could provide information from shelter providers. “We get asked for that regularly and we do have access to that information,” she said.

But, she told RANGE, she couldn’t explain why the data reports required by city law haven’t been created or published. “I’m not sure. I’d need to really look into why that is.”

Dollars without data

Without regular data tracking the homeless population and the barriers to exiting homelessness, it’s difficult to understand if homeless responses are working at all, much less which responses are working best.

Council members and state auditors have expressed concerns about how the city’s lack of data sharing and data-driven processes impact homeless services.

“Not having the data makes it very difficult to provide the most effective services, create collaborative agreements with other government entities and social service providers, and undercuts the trust of community members in city government,” Beggs said.

A November 2022 state audit of the homeless response of Spokane, Seattle, Snohomish County and Yakima County, found the city’s lack of data-driven decision-making impacted their ability to hold providers accountable.

The audit found that Spokane almost never intervenes when a service provider isn’t meeting their contract requirements. These requirements include things like how often a contractor successfully finds permanent housing for a person, for example. The audit analyzed 18 separate times providers weren’t hitting performance targets. The only time the city intervened, it was to change the target, not to demand better performance.

Those performance targets should be data points that the council uses to guide homeless funding. Benchmarks like how successful different programs are at moving people from shelters into permanent housing can help the city target funding to operators who are moving people out of shelters.

“Contractors hired to provide services should have short- and long-term goals they can reasonably meet,” the auditors wrote. “And when goals are not met, it is incumbent on elected officials and other government leaders to hold them accountable and take appropriate action.”

“Spokane staff said that high turnover at the director and staff level has affected their ability to address poor provider performance, and we agree this likely played a role,” the audit reports. “However, not using performance data to identify when a provider was underperforming also contributed to inaction.”

The city also attributed the inaction in part to the lack of service providers and affordable housing available. “[Spokane CHHS] said that in some cases, the city would continue to pay an underperforming provider because it was the sole provider for a specific service or population in the region.” This example is now playing out after the Guardians Foundation collapsed in the wake of an embezzlement scandal and the Salvation Army was the sole provider left that had bid on a contract for shelter operations at the Trent Assistance and Resource Center (TRAC).

“While we acknowledge that these external factors play a role, we do not agree that external factors should prevent local governments from holding providers accountable,” the auditors wrote.

Forcing the issue

Because of language in the Spokane City Charter, city council cannot force administrative compliance. So, accountability for service providers relies on city staff demanding performance from operators and imposing consequences on providers who fail to meet contract goals. And accountability for city staff relies on city administration voluntarily following council’s mandates or legal action from a citizen of Spokane to force compliance with city law.

“Unfortunately, under our City Charter, the city council is not permitted to retain a lawyer and sue the administration for ‘specific performance,’” Beggs said. “That was the point of the independent city attorney ballot measure last November that was narrowly defeated after a large influx of cash from the mayor’s supporters.”

The other option is for a private Spokane citizen to sue the city for not following the law by failing to file quarterly reports tracking homelessness in Spokane.

“Any taxpayer in Spokane can file a mandamus, which is a special proceeding to ask the court to enforce the municipality’s own laws or to enforce against the executive — the mayor — the municipality’s own laws,” said Jeffry Finer, a local attorney who represented Jewels Helping Hands in a civil rights lawsuit against the city and county which was settled in January 2023.

This kind of lawsuit is “a well-understood, well-established method to force a recalcitrant official to do their job,” Finer said. “The language [of the ordinance] is clear, it’s mandatory. This is not discretionary. The mayor’s decision to ignore that is frankly a little shocking.”

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