By Erica C. Barnett
As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.
The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)
After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.
The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)
In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.
In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”
The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).
This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.
Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue.
As the protests for Black lives heated up across the city and nation, PubliCola’s most-read story in June was our exclusive report about white city council member Alex Pedersen’s decision to fire his only Black employee, a single mother and community activist who lives in low-income housing, in the middle of a pandemic. Another woman who worked for Pedersen, who is white, quit in protest.
As Black Lives Matter protests continued, Mayor Durkan and her police chief, Carmen Best, faced calls to dramatically reduce the size of the police force; protesters demanded a 50 percent cut, the city council discussed how and whether they could hit that number, and Durkan dismissed the debate by saying it amounted to an unworkable call to “abolish the department.” Her deputy mayor, Mike Fong, said advocates for divestment and reinvestment had done no analysis to back up their calls to cut the police budget and invest the savings into community-based public safety alternatives, and suggested that the city should adopt a slow, incremental approach to police “reform.” Within one month, Best had resigned, and Durkan had said that she would not begin the search for a new chief until 2021, because—given the calls to dramatically shrink and change the culture of the department— potential candidates wouldn’t “know what they’re applying for.”
In August, reporter Paul Kiefer reported that the city and county maintain lists of officers who are unable to testify in court because they have records of dishonesty. The lists, known as “Brady Lists,” are a catalog of cops who remain on the public payroll even though their ability to do their jobs is limited. For example, if an officer on the list is the sole witness in a case, prosecutors are far less likely to file charges, limiting the officers’ abilities to work alone. Nonetheless, Paul found, dozens of such officers remain on patrol, including one who was reprimanded for punching a coworker and strangling the coworker’s son and one who was charged with felony harassment after breaking into his ex-wife’s home and threatening to kill her and her boyfriend.
PubliCola re-launched on September 15, and with it, we revived Morning Fizz, our regular column of short items and breaking news. In the very first installment under the PubliCola brand, we reported that the city was paying hired Not This Time founder Andre’ Taylor, a controversial activist who urged protesters to abandon the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone and frequently appeared alongside Durkan at press conferences, $12,500 a month to serve as the city’s “street czar.”
Also in the mix: News that the city finally replaced a pair of mobile shower trailers that opened months late and cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to operate with new, cheaper units, and an update on the delayed hiring of a new CEO for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. In September, the county estimated it would have someone in place by November; currently, the best estimate is mid-February or later.
October’s most-read post was a guest piece by two advocates for local restaurants, who argued that political leaders and advocates for big businesses, not restaurant customers, were partly responsible for the failure of so many small restaurants around the city. Here’s the quote that seemed to resonate most with PubliCola’s readers:
For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football, threatening that restaurants would be forced to close if we raised the minimum wage, or if we passed paid sick leave, or if we raised overtime standards, or adopted secure scheduling procedures. Those threats were amplified by politicians and conservative media outlets who wanted to appear concerned about neighborhood businesses when they really just wanted to keep more money in the hands of the wealthy. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.
In December, the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce sued the city over the JumpStart tax, a tax on the city’s largest businesses that will fund (among other things) relief for small local businesses affected by the pandemic.
A statewide eviction moratorium has kept many tenants in their homes since the beginning of the pandemic (for how long, no one knows), but evictions haven’t completely stopped. In this piece, we described some of the circumstances in which renters can still be kicked out of their homes, and talked to tenants battling with landlords who want them gone.
In addition to evictions that are clearly illegal but happen anyway, landlords can kick out tenants by saying they plan to sell a property, by declaring that they plan to move in themselves, or by saying that a tenant poses a “significant and immediate risk to the health, safety, or property of others”—an ill-defined term that tenant advocates say is being used to justify evictions that wouldn’t happen if the tenants were able to pay their rent.
Capping off the year, former Real Change reporter Ashley Archibald wrote a barn burner of an op/ed correcting the record on KOMO TV’s followup to its infamous “Seattle Is Dying” propaganda special. “Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” Archibald wrote, “aims to reveal a city held hostage by a few thousand people experiencing homelessness caught in the thrall of addiction, propped up by lenient harm reduction policies, and never facing the consequences of their actions—unlike the upstanding (housed) citizens who suffer at their hands.”
In reality, the film—which features numerous shots of non-consenting people in florid crisis—”is 90 minutes of tape exploiting the most vulnerable people in Seattle” and demonizing one nonprofit in particular, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, whose leaders KOMO never attempted to reach before blaming them for turning downtown Seattle into a lawless zone.
Allow PubliCola to pile on: Poverty porn is the opposite of compassion. It’s rubbernecking at the scene of a deadly car crash, then complaining about traffic as you drive away.