Evening Crank Part 2: Unanswered Questions

Coming soon to a sidewalk near you?

1. Since the COVID crisis began, it has become tougher than usual to get information directly from city departments, which now respond to pretty much any inquiry with some version of “all questions have to go through the mayor’s office.” (There is one exception, but I won’t tell you what it is.) The mayor’s office, in turn, typically responds to these requests with some version of, “We will have an announcement on that in the coming days,” which may or may not be followed by an announcement.

Things the mayor’s office was unable to tell me about in the past few days include:

When the city (specifically, Seattle Public Utilities) plans to deploy the portable toilets announced on the Human Service Department’s website one week ago; how many toilets there will be; where they will be located; and how (and how often) they will be maintained.

Where four mobile hygiene trailers funded in last year’s budget (funded last year but re-announced in the same HSD blog post) will be deployed, and on what schedule.

How, specifically, the city plans to fill the 50 new shelter beds, and 50 new spots in two tiny house villages, it plans to open in response to the COVID crisis, and how the city will choose who gets this scarce resource. Specifically, I’ve asked how many of those beds and slots will be reserved for people referred by the Navigation Team, which is providing outreach and information at unsanctioned encampments, and how many will be open to people who are contacted by other outreach workers, such as those at REACH, which is still doing encampment outreach during the pandemic.

These questions, particularly the ones about restrooms, are of critical and immediate importance to the thousands of homeless people, both unsheltered and staying in nighttime-only emergency shelters, in Seattle. Most of the city’s public restrooms, including those inside private businesses and those in libraries, hygiene centers, and social service agencies, have closed, giving people without homes few options in a city where restroom availability already fell far short of international standards.

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2. This afternoon (12 days ago in COVID time), the city council approved a plan to reallocate about $1 million (out of about $12 million total) in community development block grants originally designated for housing construction to pay for grants to low-income small business owners. Only council member Kshama Sawant voted against the plan, arguing that the city should dip into its “rainy day fund” instead of taking money that could have theoretically gone to housing (although it was not allocated to any particular project.)

The city has two emergency funds, the rainy day fund and the emergency subfund, which can be used to pay for unanticipated spending needs or to mitigate cuts during budget downturns. Earlier this month, city budget director Ben Noble estimated that the city could face a revenue shortfall this year of $110 million. Together, both emergency funds total about $125 million.

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the legislation, raised one concern last week that she said she’ll revisit after the funds are allocated and the current crisis has abated: Online application materials for the grants were initially only in English, potentially putting small business owners who don’t speak English as their native language at a disadvantage when applying for the grants.

“When those who don’t speak English have extra barriers put in place in order to participate… [it’s] an example of how often our city government operates with blinders on to anyone who isn’t part of the dominant culture,” Morales said at a council meeting last week. But, “rather than slow down the disbursement of this particular fund, I’m asking that we hear back from the [Office of Economic Development] this summer on how these funds were distributed” to make sure that non-English-speaking business owners had equal access to the funds.