1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.
“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.
Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.
WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”
A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”
Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.
SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.
Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”
In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.
2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”
This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.
Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store.
The DSA wants its members to blame homeless and addicted people for the closure of “more than 220 small businesses” in Seattle, and accuses the city council of “spending precious time and resources on how [the “underlying causes” of small business closures] can be excused.”
But homeless and addicted people didn’t cause the pandemic and the economic downturn, and ensuring that they stay stuck in a jail-to-streets cycle isn’t actually going to help them find gainful employment outside the illicit economy. (Neither is mandatory drug and mental health treatment, which law and order groups seem to view as a magic wand for desperation, homelessness, and poverty.)
It’s disappointing to see the DSA, which has a record of supporting some progressive policies, urging its members to bombard Herbold’s committee with ill-informed denunciations next week (when the basic-needs defense isn’t even on the committee agenda). A more productive approach might be sitting down with the public defenders, city staffers, and criminal justice reform advocates who support this approach and figuring out a way to work in partnership on actual solutions to the problems both sides say they want to fix.
3. Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best reappeared in the national press after the attack on the US Capitol on Wednesday, this time on NBC’s TODAY Show alongside Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration.
Best, who joined NBC as a commentator in October, offered a brief analysis of Capitol Police tactics during the attack. While she initially edged toward criticism by commenting that the Capitol Police seemed to take “an interminable amount of time” to respond, she immediately backed off, adding that she couldn’t say anything substantial until she sees the findings of an independent review of the incident.
In addition to her commentator role on the TODAY show, Best recently joined Seattle-area NBC affiliate KING5 as a law enforcement analyst. She also appeared on that network Wednesday, comparing an attempt to storm the governor’s mansion in Olympia to protests outside of the homes of Seattle city leadership—including her own home in Snohomish—last summer. “This is the new era we’re in,” Best said, wondering aloud whether police will need training to respond to a new wave of protests that target the homes of elected officials.