OPEN LETTER: LIHI is the problem, not tiny house villages
As followup to the open letter of January 18, 2023, LIHI mistreatment of tiny house village residents, several volunteer mutual aid groups that support unhoused people have sent the following letter to Seattle City Council and Mayor, King County Council and Executive, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and members of the Housing and Budget committees in the Washington State Legislature:
Tiny house villages, when properly managed, can be effective, cost-efficient and supportive communities for helping people move out of homelessness. However, the whole project of providing transitional shelter and services is being undermined by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) which has been allowed to create a virtual monopoly on tiny house villages and other transitional housing services in our region. LIHI’s management of their monopoly has been characterized by neglect, abuse, misuse of public funding, and flagrant dishonesty.
As mutual aid volunteers, we have come to know many unhoused people who have become residents of LIHI tiny house villages and other LIHI buildings. On January 18 of this year, we issued an Open Letter titled LIHI Mistreatment of Tiny House Village Residents. On that same day, LIHI issued a statement which attempted to deny that residents saw what they saw or experienced what they experienced. The many falsehoods in LIHI’s statement demonstrated both LIHI’s dishonesty and their refusal to address internal issues. Instead of asking for dialogue with us, LIHI should have been listening to the urgent concerns of their mistreated residents.
We have continued to gather stories and reports from residents and from current and former LIHI staff. Many current residents have been brave enough to speak out despite LIHI’s long-time pattern of reprisals against any who complain. What we have learned about LIHI has cast doubt on LIHI’s competence or even willingness to fulfill their duties as a service provider, so we are addressing these findings not to LIHI but to LIHI’s funders and clients in city, county and state government. Issues to be addressed immediately include:
• Deaths and lack of wellness checks: We have now heard credible, consistent reports by many residents of three LIHI tiny house villages that deaths in all three villages have gone undiscovered for days and even weeks, causing gruesome decomposition. In some cases, staff had to be begged and cajoled by residents before they would check inside the units, even when the smell of decomposition was present. LIHI’s January statement insisted that staff perform wellness checks every 72 hours, but many residents across many LIHI villages report that the supposed 72-hour wellness checks do not happen on any regular basis. In the words of one resident, the wellness checks “only happen if we bug them and bug them and bug them”.
• No counseling offered: Contrary to LIHI statements, residents in all three villages where the deaths occurred have stated that no grief counseling was offered after the discovery of decomposing bodies, nor were any commemorations planned by staff.
• Lack of trained case managers: Many residents speak highly of specific case managers at various villages. However, we hear from many residents and staff that villages often have no case managers for long periods of time because of high turnover, low pay, poor working conditions, excessive caseload, and slow replacement.
• Untrained, abusive staff: Onsite LIHI staff at villages are often temp workers with no training, and even regular LIHI staff are reported to receive very little training of any kind, much less training in de-escalation or trauma-informed care. In their January statement, LIHI tried to misrepresent this by suggesting that “Our case managers are trained in trauma informed care practices and de-escalation.” This implicitly confesses that non-case manager staff do not receive such training, and we hear reports that cast doubt on whether even case managers receive it. Case managers also work limited hours and are not always onsite at villages, even when the village has a currently assigned case manager. The regular 24 hours/day LIHI staff and temp staff are not case managers, and while some of those staff seem to be trying to do their jobs, we have many, many detailed reports of LIHI staff and temp staff who are escalating conflict rather than de-escalating, as well as abusing, humiliating, physically assaulting, and taking sexual advantage of residents. At several LIHI villages and buildings, staff are reported to be selling drugs or using drugs which leave them unable to perform the simplest security or emergency tasks.
• Evictions without cause or due process: Residents, former staff, and contracted partner organizations all continue to report that residents are evicted “for nonsense reasons”, such as being insufficiently deferential or for complaining about policies or treatment. We know of many evictions that were not related to safety issues. We also hear of many cases — and some of us have witnessed — when LIHI staff misrepresent raised voices as physical threats, as suggested in this Publicola article about a former tiny house resident suing LIHI for unlawful eviction.
• Lack of grievance or appeal process: Residents widely report that they are intimidated and made to fear retaliation if they file grievance forms about staff or appeals forms about evictions. Many report that grievances or appeals are not investigated. Many residents and staff report that favoritism and romantic or sexual relationships among upper-level staff prevent real investigations into complaints.
• Lack of eviction assistance: In their January statement, LIHI made the claim that they have “a practice of lining up other shelter and program options [for evicted residents] so they are not turned out on the street”. We hear of rare and isolated cases where this might have happened, but residents overwhelmingly report that no such help takes place. In the words of one resident: “When people are kicked out, they usually set up tents right outside the village someplace. They become homeless residents of that neighborhood. The evictions actually create homelessness in the neighborhood.” We have witnessed ourselves that former residents of villages often set up right outside the villages.
• Lack of mental health support: LIHI does employ some behavioral health specialists, but their January statement fails to admit that there are far fewer of them than there are tiny house villages, meaning that a small number of specialists have to split their time between a large number of villages. Even these positions are often unfilled, making the already high case-load even higher. Residents and some staff report that these behavioral health specialists are mostly unseen, either because they are absent or because they are not proactive in reaching out to build trust and relationships, but instead are waiting in offices for residents to approach them with emergencies. Behavioral problems are described as “rampant and ignored”, and fatal incidents have left many residents in fear for their physical safety.
• LIHI failures not due to a lack of funding: LIHI has received well over $100 million over the past two years. Several LIHI executives receive six-figure salaries, with Executive Director Sharon Lee earning more than $300,000 per year. By comparison, many onsite LIHI staff are receiving minimum or entry-level wages, and we hear repeated stories of onsite staff resorting to drug sales or confiscating public donations for their own use. We believe that a full financial audit of LIHI will reveal misplaced spending priorities on the organizational level and misuse of funds and donations at the operational level.
• A culture of refusing to care: We have many reports of staff preventing residents from using common spaces, of staff being told not to be too friendly, not to get too close, not to care too much, of staff being disciplined for taking too caring an attitude toward residents. Many residents report being told “This is not your home” even when they might be forced to live there for months or years. We have reason to fear that all these conditions are similar in the many buildings that LIHI owns and manages.
• Losing staff, losing mission: We witness a very high rate of staff turnover and we hear that many LIHI staff are quitting because LIHI has lost touch with its mission as a provider of care, has repeatedly contracted for services they are unable to fulfill, has repeatedly accepted referrals of people with special needs which LIHI is unable to care for.
There are working alternative models for managing tiny house villages and low-income apartment buildings, even under difficult conditions. These models are based on participation, person-centered care, community-building, and neighborhood involvement, rather than isolation and restriction. LIHI management seems to focus on control rather than care, on preventing community from forming, and on cutting costs and increasing corporate revenue through volume, all in the manner of privatized prisons.
We understand that LIHI tiny house villages are in the difficult position of being forced to accept random residents from Seattle’s useless and immoral program of sweeps, which cause great suffering and serve no purpose but to move unhoused people temporarily out of sight. However, LIHI’s inhumane mismanagement of those tiny house villages actually perpetuates the work of sweeps, which is to deprive unhoused people of rights and try to keep them invisible and silent. LIHI’s random unfair evictions leave many people back on the streets but worse off than they were before — just as sweeps do.
Our elected officials from state, county and especially Seattle City government have repeatedly enabled and preferred LIHI over other services providers, despite ongoing complaints, evidence of failures, and a clear pattern of LIHI’s organizational dishonesty. The result is a transitional shelter network dominated by the LIHI model which elevates incarceration over care. This has been made possible by the ignoring and silencing of the voices of unhoused people and the residents of LIHI’s transitional buildings and villages.
We the undersigned are part of a growing community of volunteers who are listening to and documenting those voices. We have other and worse stories but are withholding some to protect informants from retaliation by LIHI.
The pattern of egregious dishonesty by the current leadership of LIHI has left us with no confidence that they are capable of making the necessary changes. However, if LIHI is to continue contracting with public agencies, our demands remain, at minimum:
• A full outside audit of LIHI practices, finances and use of public funding.
• Establishment of an ongoing third-party oversight and accountability process for LIHI.
• Preemptive steps to prevent any LIHI reprisals against residents and staff of their villages and buildings that have shared their stories with us.
• Immediate steps to dismantle LIHI’s monopoly by shifting hiring and funding toward alternative providers and alternative management models.
• A clear mandate from city, county and state agencies that transitional shelter programs must prioritize care, community, self-determination, and healing over revenue, restriction and corporate growth.
Aurora North Mutual Aid
Beacon Hill Neighbors Collective
Black Star Farmers
Casa del Xolo
Coffee Not Cages
Give a Damn Collective
Greenwood Mutual Aid
Homies Helping Homies
Long Haul Kitchen
Neighbors on I5
North Beacon Hill Mutual Aid
North Seattle Neighbors
Stop the Sweeps
Wallingford Mutual Aid
West Seattle Mutual Aid Party
A Will and A Way