By Erica C. Barnett
Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.
Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of efforts to shelter people in some of the city’s thousands of empty hotel rooms, the closure of public restrooms during the COVID pandemic, or the delayed transition of city homelessness services to a new regional agency, read on.
City OKs Hotel Shelter
After staunchly resisting requests from advocates and service providers to fund and facilitate non-congregate shelter in hotels, the city reversed course this fall, agreeing to use federal dollars to fund a 10-month pilot program that will place several hundred people in hotel rooms. The plan, shepherded through by deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller earlier this year, is to move people through the hotel rooms and into regular apartments through short-term “rapid rehousing” subsidies.
The Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services will be the service providers at the hotels the city will soon announce it is renting as part of its 10-month hotel-to-housing program, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.
The city has not announced which nonprofit agencies will receive the contracts or which hotels they’ll be renting with federal relief dollars, but PubliCola has learned the names of the three agencies and one of the hotels. The Public Defender Association, which provides hotel rooms and case management to unsheltered people through its existing Co-LEAD and JustCares programs, and the Chief Seattle Club will provide services at the hotels, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown and at least one smaller motel.
Catholic Community Services will serve as the rapid rehousing provider, connecting shelter residents to housing in market-rate (non-subsidized) apartments by providing short-term (up to one year) housing assistance.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population faced an elevated risk of exposure not just to COVID-19, but to other communicable diseases such as hepatitis A, because the closure of public buildings and retail businesses greatly diminished their access to restrooms and running water. According to the city auditor, the number of public restrooms available to people experiencing homelessness was already inadequate before the pandemic.
As we documented throughout the spring, the city itself exacerbated the problem by shutting down or failing to reopen dozens of public restrooms, then claiming that they were actually open and providing a map directing people to restrooms that weren’t actually available. In our review of 27 restrooms the city claimed were open to the public at the end of March, eight were closed and locked.
Eventually, the city did reopen many of the restrooms it shut down (although most library and community center restrooms remain closed), and it slowed down the barrage of press releases touting wide availability of restrooms for unsheltered people. Restroom access after hours remains a major problem, as does access to potable water, but things are better now than they were in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.
As winter approaches, many public restrooms will be shut down again, although many that were subject to “seasonal closures” last year (those at beaches and parks that don’t get much winter traffic) will stay open. According to Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, many of the city’s park restrooms were built more than 70 years ago and have pipes that can’t withstand winter weather. Schulkin provided a list of nearly 30 parks restrooms that will be closed for the winter, including Alki Playground, Greenwood Park, Little Brook Park, and others across the city.
Other restrooms that would ordinarily be closed for the season will be open this year. The city’s Human Services Department maintains a map of open restrooms on its homelessness resources page.
Layoffs at the city’s homelessness division
As we’ve reported, the new regional homelessness authority has experienced repeated delays in hiring a director (whose official title, thanks to the current vogue for pretending the government is a corporation, will be “CEO”). Under the original timeline, the regional authority should have had someone on board in November; instead, the timeline has been pushed back repeatedly, most recently until February.
The delays have created massive uncertainty, low morale, and high attrition in the city’s existing homelessness division, whose employees still don’t know for sure whether they’ll have jobs at either the new authority or elsewhere in the city. (HSD has told employees in its Homelessness Strategy and Investment division that they’ll they will be laid off from their current jobs sometime next summer). Nor is it clear whether these workers will have to compete with outside applicants for jobs that are substantially the same as the ones they already do at the city.
According to PROTEC17 union representative Shaun Van Eyk, the union and the Public Employee Relations Commission, the state agency that oversees public-sector bargaining, have not yet agreed on whether PROTEC17 can represent employees at the new authority, or whether existing employees will get the “right of first refusal” before positions at the authority are opened up to all applicants. “I have a hard time when, out of one side of their mouth, they’re saying, ‘You’re doing great, vital work,’ and then out of the other side of the mouth, they’re saying ‘by the way, when you get laid off, feel free to compete for those positions at the new authority,'” Van Eyk said.
If the new positions are substantially different than the existing ones, Van Eyk said current employees should have the right to apply for those jobs first, before they’re opened up to the public, “to acknowledge the massive amount of attrition and massive amounts of extra work” they have had to do during the elongated transition period.