Yesterday, after city council member Kshama Sawant announced that her committee would hold a special public hearing to readjudicate the cuts to women’s overnight shelters and hygiene centers that the council made last year, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post enumerating all the hygiene services (showers, laundry facilities, and restrooms) that will be available in the 21 “enhanced shelters” it plans to fund this year. “Enhanced shelters provide more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to reduce the door-to-door burden for people already in crisis to meet their basic needs like eating breakfast, taking a shower, doing laundry, and sleeping,” the post says. (What HSD fails to mention: The services available at those shelters probably won’t be available to people who aren’t clients at those shelters—as of last year, council members would only say that they hoped some of the shelters would choose to make their facilities available to non-clients on a drop-in basis).
The post even goes on the defensive about the well-documented lack of (legal) places for people living outdoors to relieve themselves, noting that the city “supports 117 restrooms available to all members of the public,” including Port-a-Potties near five transit stops and restrooms at libraries, community centers and parks. Parks close later than community centers, but they do close; meanwhile, the city is currently embroiled in a massive debate about encampments, one aspect of which is whether people who attempt to sleep in parks overnight should be removed.
The city budget adopted last year hews to the principles of “Pathways Home,” a human services and homelessness funding framework that deprioritizes projects that don’t focus specifically on getting people into permanent housing. As a result, the budget eliminated or reduced funding for three downtown hygiene centers, which “only” provide places for people to clean up and use the restroom. One of those three, the Women’s Referral Center, is on the agenda for Sawant’s public hearing next Monday, along with the SHARE/WHEEL-run women’s shelter for which Sawant also wants to restore funding. (SHARE runs a bare-bones men’s shelter; its sister organization, WHEEL, runs a similar shelter for women. Both had their funding cut last year.).
It seems unlikely that Sawant’s time-tested tactic of holding a public hearing and organizing her supporters to show up to testify in favor of her proposal will restore long-term funding to either WHEEL or the Catholic Community Services-run Women’s Referral Center, but Sawant is taking every opportunity to draw attention to the issue. At a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday, Sawant argued that the roughly $100,000 the city plans to spend on a fence to keep homeless people from erecting tents under the Ballard Bridge “could be enough to extend bare-bones bridge funding for the [SHARE and WHEEL] shelters for the rest of the year.” Funding for both WHEEL’s and SHARE’s shelters is set to run out in June.
Currently, the fence in Ballard is just a temporary structure—a crude construction fence, topped by razor wire, intended to keep homeless people from taking shelter under the bridge. On Tuesday, as I called around trying to get an answer to the question, “Who decided it was necessary to build a $100,000 fence under the Ballard Bridge?”, it became clear that the fence, like the infamous row of bike racks meant to deter homeless people in Belltown, was a political hot potato no one wanted to handle—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office directed questions about the fence and the bike racks to the department of Finance and Administrative Services and the Seattle Department of Transportation, which each deflected responsibility on the other agency. (SDOT put up the fence; the question is whether FAS or its director, Fred Podesta, ordered them to do so back when the city’s Emergency Operations Center was holding daily work group meetings to respond to the city’s homelessness state of emergency*). Both departments agree that the fence is necessary, however, because of the risk that homeless campers will accidentally set the bridge on fire, causing a collapse. Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes Ballard, says he considers the fence “particularly problematic,” because “it doesn’t solve anything—I drove by there a few nights ago [before the fence was up] and there were five tents there. I’m almost certain those folks are not housed. Probably they were just destabilized. So now we’re $100,000 poorer and no one’s better off. What is our long-term strategy here? Is our ultimate goal to fence off every structure in the city because someone might use that structure as a place to live?”
A similar story is playing out around the notorious bike racks. SDOT installed those bike racks, too (and highlighted them on Twitter) but earlier this week, the agency sent out a statement saying that the policy of the Durkan administration (and thus SDOT) was not to use bike racks as impediments to encampments. Several council members praised the agency Tuesday for agreeing to remove the racks and reinstall them elsewhere in the city. “I think this is a great sign from our new mayor, from the leadership at SDOT, that … we will not go down the route that other cities have gone, using hostile architecture to displace folks,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said.
But is it? Durkan has said she supports removing the bike racks, but her office did not respond to questions about what her strategy will be for ensuring that people living unsheltered do not set up tents on sidewalks. And it’s unclear whether Durkan’s policy shop, which is still staffing up, has come up with an answer to the question: If not bike racks and fences, then what? Ultimately, the buck will stop not with any particular city department, but with the new mayor—and two months in, she still hasn’t provided a clear indication of how she plans to deal with unauthorized encampments.
* This story originally said that the EOC has “stood down,” which was incorrect; the work groups no longer meet daily, but the EOC is still responding to the homelessness crisis.
If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.