The human side of the housing debate: Part 1 – New city department works to help those in need

 The one issue that generates the most intense discussion in Edmonds is housing. Residents and city officials have debated for years regarding issues related to how and where people should live — from housing density to homelessness to affordable housing —  and how much the city should help those who struggle to afford to live here. What follows is the first in a series of My Edmonds News reports on the human service impacts of our housing challenges.

Just two words — human services — sparked controversy when Edmonds launched its first human services department in 2020.

Deputy Parks Director Shannon Burley oversees the city’s human services department.

Two years later, the fledgling department has a program manager, it has survived proposed budget cuts, it has hired a contracted full-time social worker and it is creating needed community partnerships. “We have just been through 12 months of really becoming very educated about the problems and the possible solutions,” said Edmonds Deputy Parks Director Shannon Burley, who oversees the new department. “We are much further along to provide immediate support.”

The Beginning

But those 12 months did not pass easily. The city’s human services web page defines its mission:

“This program is intended to serve Edmonds residents in need of assistance, guidance, and help finding resources across a variety of issues for the wide demographic spectrum that comprises our city. The Human Services program is particularly focused on helping connect individuals and families that are financially or housing-stressed with local and regional resources that can help.”

In past My Edmonds News reader comments, an argument was made that “the city still does not need a human services department and may cause more harm than good.” Another commenter asked: “I would like to know how many people the city anticipates a social worker would serve in our community. Is the number so great that a full-time staff person is needed?”

Debate continued earlier this year, when the Edmonds City Council amended the 2023 budget so that an additional $200,000 initially approved for human services be allocated specifically for housing. Several councilmembers argued during their Feb. 8 meeting that the human services program carried forward into 2022 a total of $409,000 out of its $550,000 budget for 2021, and as a result “there is no need to add additional money.” The money went instead into the city’s homeless fund to be used in partnership with neighboring cities to create shelter space.

Progress

The budget debate was one of several challenges for the fledgling department. Burley said that from “December to March, we weren’t clear what our budget was,” as the city council slogged through three dozen proposed citywide budget amendments. “That meant several meetings with councilmembers educating them,” she said,  “and at the end of the day, the outcome was positive.”

One of the most visible signs of progress is that the new department just hired a social worker. My Edmonds News has learned that the social worker is contracted through Compass Health Community Transitions team, has completed training, and is expected to start this week. The department estimated the top end of the salary and benefits package range could total about $130,000; we do not have final figures on that yet.

“Honestly, the great part about the partnership is that we gain access to their (Compass Health’s) entire team,” Burley said. “This person is an outreach specialist who is supported by two MSWs (people holding Masters of Social Work degrees) all in the Community Transitions program.” It means that Edmonds joins an outreach team that includes Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, Mukilteo and South County Fire. My Edmonds News has also learned that the city is considering hiring a second social worker, who may spend most of their time working with the Edmonds Police Department. That is not in this year’s budget.

The newly hired social worker joins Human Services Program Manager Mindy Woods, the first member of the new department, who was hired in 2020.

Human Services Program Manager Mindy Woods

According to her job description, Woods was hired to  “create and manage a sustainable, comprehensive human services program to connect people and households in Edmonds who may need different kinds of services. These include low-income households, seniors, veterans, disabled individuals, domestic violence victims, immigrants and refugees, at-risk youth, and others. In addition, she will be in charge of finding and applying for grants to help those in need.”

Expanding Human Services

The creation of the human services department came after the city did an extensive study of homelessness in 2018 and updated it in 2021. The city contracted with Edmonds-based Koné Consulting to prepare the report. It surveyed organizations that worked with unhoused people in the city, asking about homelessness, households that spent more than they could afford on housing, and “hidden homelessness” – people ‘couch-surfing with friends or family as well as those living in their cars. It also asked about services these organizations provided.

Koné Consulting, Consulting Report findings, 2021 update

The report also found that:

The Koné report recommended that Edmonds:

– Increase human services staffing

– Increase emergency shelter

– Create a resource hub

– Create a community grant program

– Increase affordable housing options

In addition, the Koné report said:

“There also appears to be a need for the City to engage with community residents to raise awareness about the issue of homelessness in Edmonds. A theme among survey respondents was combatting misimpressions, such as the idea homelessness doesn’t exist in Edmonds or that low-income people don’t live in Edmonds, is important for gaining public support for the programs and services the City provides.”

In February 2022, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson announced “short- and long-term strategies to address homelessness” based on plans crafted by his Homelessness Task Force.

Next Steps

Human services officials estimates that 90% of Edmonds homeless are “invisible”– living with friends or relatives, couch surfing or living in their cars. A few — no more than 10 — have found places at a local church car camp. Police and human services staff tell My Edmonds News that the number of people who actually try to live “on the street” in tents or under tarps is very small. Estimates officials provided suggest that those people number about 10-15 right now. Some of those without permanent shelter have tried to set up camps – as one man did outside the Edmonds library.

Edmonds police arresting “Charlie in May 2021. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Police Department)

 We called him “Charlie” in our May 2021 story. Police arrested the man when he refused to leave the camp. He has since found stable housing.

The woman living on Edmonds’ Interurban Trail in August 2021. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

This woman camped out on a bench for several weeks near Lake Ballinger that same year. Police did not arrest her and eventually human services staff found her medical help and new housing. Edmonds does not have tent or tarp encampments. Edmonds police statistics do not show increasing numbers of those who are homeless moving into Edmonds, as Seattle and other communities crack down on the camps.

Those living on the street make up a tiny percentage of the focus of Edmonds’ human services department. The city’s new ban on public camping and the use of temporary motel vouchers have, so far, proven effective in helping defuse that issue, the city said.

What Human Services Program Manager Mindy Woods — and soon, the new social worker — will focus on is providing help and resources for the hundreds of people the Koné Report labeled the most vulnerable. These include those who must spend more than 30% of their income on rent and others who are worried about losing housing; those who cannot afford food; seniors on fixed incomes and veterans and people with disabilities who need housing help.

Before the pandemic, the Koné study reports that one in five Edmonds residents were considered “cost-burdened” — their incomes could not keep up with rising costs. Coming out of the pandemic, Koné reports that number is now two of every five residents struggling, especially with inflation at the highest levels in 40 years.

Burley told me her department receives 125-150 phone calls quarterly from people who “are scared and want to know what kind of help is out there.” That is not surprising, she added, “given the current situation with the pandemic and rent and eviction moratoriums; all of a sudden those are lifted, and people are left behind.” A large number who call human services, said Burley, “are elderly who just didn’t plan for this.” Property taxes go up; utilities expenses go up. “It takes a lot for elderly individuals to reach out for help,” she added.

Burley pointed to another initiative that she said has helped Edmonds families — the 2021 federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  That federal money has helped human services provide residents with household support grants, without making a dent in the city budget.

Human services is now working with Snohomish County to buy a motel along Highway 99 so it can provide more intense and immediate help. The goal is to get people out of shelters and into short-term living spaces as one more step in the process of creating stable housing. “It’s our goal down the road that we won’t have to put people into temporary shelters,” Burley explained. “We’re trying to go a step above what I would call very, very temporary… and getting somebody on the path to recovery or a better situation.”

Burley said that Edmonds is making a full-court press on the county to buy a motel — again with federal ARPA money — and transfer it to a nonprofit to run. She said that level of supportive housing is “really lacking” in South Snohomish County. Verdant Health has expressed “strong interest” in providing funding, Burley added. Such a site, she explained, could provide skilled nursing care and  job resources and get people ready to move on to more permanent housing, like the Housing Hope project that the Edmonds Lutheran Church is developing.

The city is also expanding partnerships with both Verdant and Compass Health, which have substantial health and mental health resources available. Edmonds’ human services webpage can link people to dozens of programs. Burley said Edmonds is now “very, very plugged in” to the people who can make changes in the community and that, in turn, has led to better cooperation with neighboring cities. “Mindy and I have a goal,” she summed up, “that, if in two years, someone needs shelter, we say no problem, we have something.”

“We’ve had people not really wanting to admit that we had homeless in Edmonds or in offering services,” Burley continued. “We have come so far, and our neighboring cities are starting to realize that we’re pulling ahead, that communities are stepping up and doing more and we encourage others to do more.”

— By Bob Throndsen

  1. Compliments on this very well written and well researched article Mr. Throndsen. I sort of wonder why supervision of this comes under our Park Department rather than our Human Resources Department but with today’s homelessness situation sometimes impacting public spaces, maybe that makes some sense.

    As long as the main emphasis of this program is really trying to help ACTUAL Edmonds residents who are struggling with things they have little control over, I’m in general support of it. Spending our limited funds on a human service like this makes much more sense to me than the city spending our funds on consultants for plowing snow and reimagining our neighborhoods. I also like the overlapping with regional groups like Compass Health as I think this is much more a regional problem than an Edmonds problem alone. Bottom line though, the city services being there for everyone and anyone truly living in our town makes a lot of sense.

  2. I like this approach for handling our Edmonds issues and expect long-term solutions.

    My problem as a retired female senior is limited income and rising rent: income $1,441/mo and rent has increased another 15% to $1,395/mo. This does not include PUD or water/sewer/garbage (approx $100 each/month). My apt complex is owned by Snohomish County Housing Authority and they are the problem! Affordable rent is not in their plan … gouge, gouge, gouge. Seniors need a LOT OF HELP … it’s not just the homeless. Get some $ help for deserving seniors who have worked, veterans, paid taxes, and done all THE GOOD DEEDS!!!!

  3. I admit, I have not completed reading the entire thing but why are we paying a social worker at the top end of the range when that range far exceeds the average salary of a social worker. Please contact city council and bring this to their attention. Whoever is making these salary decisions doesn’t seem to care that you don’t start people out at the top end of the range. Why do people spend our money like its monopoly money, and it’s unreal? https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-careers/social-work-salary/

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