Program to Move Unsheltered People Into Hotels Stymied Again as Police Turn Attention to Protests

Police face off against protesters during Weller Street encampment removal last month.

Despite significant progress late last month, the Public Defender Association has been stymied once again in its efforts to move homeless Seattle residents with criminal justice involvement into empty hotel rooms it is currently renting for this purpose—this time, because the Seattle Police Department stopped actively participating in the PDA’s Co-LEAD program, less than one week after the city gave the go-ahead for the PDA to start enrolling clients.

Co-LEAD is an offshoot of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, an arrest-diversion program run by the PDA in partnership with Seattle police. Created specifically for the COVID crisis, Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, gift cards, and services to clients who would otherwise be living on the street and committing crimes of survival, such as shoplifting and selling drugs.

The PDA had hoped to expand the program, which has been accepting clients from Burien and the King County Jail for months, to Seattle, starting with a large encampment on Second Ave. Ext. S. in Pioneer Square. Last month, PDA deputy director Jesse Benet told me the group had identified about 15 people living in the encampment who qualified for the program, and was just waiting for final approval from the city to enroll these new clients and move them off the street.

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Instead, the city has given its approval to enroll between ten and 15 completely different people, identified long before the COVID crisis, whose whereabouts are currently unknown—a group of so-called “prolific offenders” who, according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, “voluntarily admitted their involvement in committing low-level crimes” and were deemed eligible for the program.

The issue with enrolling new clients, according to the mayor’s office, is that SPD has “ceased regular operations since May 30,” when protests against police violence began in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, so no one has been available to approve clients identified since the pandemic started.

The mayor’s office says the police department should be able to “restart the referral process in the coming week.” It’s unclear exactly what that means; SPD itself did not respond to a request for comment.

Part of the encampment on 2nd Ave. Ext. S.

PDA director Lisa Daugaard said she’s disappointed that Co-LEAD, which started enrolling clients in Burien two months ago, has not made similar headway in Seattle. “We have a team of anti-racist, trauma-informed people with a great deal of lived experience and a lot of skills and compassion, ready to respond to the kind of public safety and public order issues that everyone seems to agree the police shouldn’t be asked to intervene with, and we are not able to move forward in Seattle,” Daugaard said.

“We have only received permission to try to find ten people” identified months ago, she added. Those people could now be anywhere, including out of state.

Meanwhile, the crisis of homelessness becomes more visible on streets like Second Ave. Ext. South, where the encampment has only grown and become more disorderly since LEAD started screening potential clients last month. The conditions on the sidewalk could make the encampment ripe for removal by the Navigation Team, which has continued to conduct occasional sweeps during the pandemic. The PDA tried to convince the city to let it enroll clients in Co-LEAD before the Navigation Team’s three most recent encampment removals, but was unsuccessful each time.

The role and makeup of the Navigation Team—which, under Mayor Durkan, has expanded to include a larger number of police officers every year—is now in question, with city council members drafting legislation to remove police from the team. Homeless service advocates and providers have long argued that human service and social workers, not armed officers, should be responsible for outreach to people living in encampments.

Protests like the one that took place during a recent sweep of South Weller Street, where demonstrators crowded against police barricades set up to keep them from entering a public street, now look like eerie precursors to the much larger protests against police violence that began less than two weeks later. Fundamentally, both groups of protesters were posing the same question: Do we need police to ensure public safety? And if not, what nonviolent alternatives might take their place?

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