Chief Seattle Club Director Joins Mayor’s Race, Durkan Deflects Dunn Denunciation

1. Colleen Echohawk, the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club—a human service provider and day center that focuses on American Indian and Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness—will announce she’s running for mayor on Monday.

Echohawk, an enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation, told PubliCola Sunday that she probably wouldn’t have gotten into the race if it wasn’t for COVID-19, which she said has created “opportunities”—like the city and county’s newfound willingness to move people out of overcrowded shelters and into hotels. “If you had told me last year that we would have roughly 1,000 people in hotel rooms right now, I would be shocked,” she said. With the end of the statewide eviction moratorium “looming,” she added, “we can’t have more people falling into homelessness. It’s just immoral.”

Native Americans make up a vastly disproportionate percentage of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and elsewhere. Over the past several years, advocates from groups like CSC have made Native American homelessness a priority for city spending, and successfully advocated for culturally competent assessments to get more Native people in line for homeless services and housing.

“I don’t think that anyone who’s been in a leadership position of an organization thinks you can, all of a sudden, just demand that everything is going to change. We are hitting the right tone and now we need to figure out ways to find common ground.”—Colleen Echohawk

“When we’ve had a lot of success has been when we’ve been at the table,” Echohawk said. “If we miss one meeting, decisions get made without us that affect us down the road.” Echohawk said she has been “disappointed in recent months” to see how long it has taken to stand up the regional homelessness authority, which she supported. “It honestly breaks my heart, because we have people who are hurting and because we’ve committed to the regional [approach.]” 

In 2018, Echohawk led the team that helped Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is not running for reelection, select former police chief Carmen Best. Two years later, Best quit under a cloud of criticism over her handling of protests against police brutality.

Asked whether she supports the movement to defund the Seattle police and reinvest their budget in community-led public safety alternatives, Echohawk, who serves on the Community Police Commission, said, “I don’t think that anyone who’s been in a leadership position of an organization thinks you can, all of a sudden, just demand that everything is going to change. We are hitting the right tone and now we need to figure out ways to find common ground.”

Durkan has declined to begin the process of looking for a permanent police chief, and will likely leave it up to her successor to replace interim police chief Adrian Diaz. If that happens, Echohawk said she will look for someone “who has vision, a strong history of being anti-racist … and who understands the dynamics of the power of a police officer and how to work with community and work with the [Seattle Police Officers] Guild to find ways to change the system.”

Echohawk is widely viewed as an ally of the mayor’s, and reportedly turned down a job in Durkan’s office early in her term. But, she said, they differ in a number of important ways. “I come from a very different background” than Durkan, the native of Delta Junction, Alaska, said. “I grew up in a home where my dad would literally pick people up off the side of the road and bring them home. … We don’t have a legacy of privilege. We have a legacy of serving the community.”

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2 .The regional homelessness authority, already off to a slow and rocky start, will succeed or fail based largely on whether more conservative suburban cities and liberal Seattle can agree on what kind of homeless programs to fund and how to fund them. Already, there have been schisms and delays: Several suburban cities opted out of a sales tax that will fund housing and homeless programs across the region, and the hiring of a director for the agency is months behind schedule.

Last Thursday, another schism revealed itself, when members of the Lived Experience Coalition—a group of people with direct experience of homelessness—challenged King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, of Bellevue, over his voting record and public statements about homelessness. The exchange came during a meeting of the authority’s governing board, which includes nine elected officials and three Lived Experience Coalition members. Dunn cast the lone “no” vote on the county council against a 0.1 sales tax to fund hotel-based shelters and housing for people experiencing homelessness in King County, and proposed spending $1 million to bus homeless people out of the area.

Zaneta Reid, a member of the governing committee, addressed Dunn directly at the end of the meeting: “We’re at this table for one reason, and that’s really to solve this problem of getting people off the stress and ending homelessness. Why are there some who are working against this?”

She continued: “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?”

Before Dunn could respond, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who chaired the meeting, jumped in.

“None of us can go off on on just what’s written in newspapers about us, in reflecting our deep work and passions on issues,” Durkan said, then suggested that a smaller “session” offline (and out of public view) would be a more appropriate venue to discuss the issues Reid was raising. Reid said that she had asked for just such a meeting and hadn’t gotten a response. Durkan thanked the members of the coalition for sharing their views, told them that they “are full members of this group,” and again suggested taking the rest of  taking the discussion offline.

Last year, Dunn told right-wing radio host Dori Monson that he opposed the tax for homeless services because “it doesn’t seem to require much action, if any, from the individual homeless member that would be housed to the tax dollars” and because “it was done really under the cover of darkness.” The issue of whether to attach strings to basic services such as shelter and housing, by requiring people living unsheltered to find jobs, pass sobriety tests, or other requirements, is a significant and lasting fault line between suburban and urban cities, and will likely remain an issue as the authority decides how to address homelessness across the region.

5 thoughts on “Chief Seattle Club Director Joins Mayor’s Race, Durkan Deflects Dunn Denunciation”

  1. There needs to be a Regional Authority because Seattle taxpayers should not be required to support all the homeless who come to the Pacific Northwest without any contribution from surrounding cities. If they cannot contribute in money, they should contribute in-Kind (meaning provide land where housing can be placed, or allow the hotels King county bought to be used for homeless housing). But council member Dunn does have a good point – that homeless in traditional shelters are not given any responsibilities – no requirements to clean or cook or do any type of housekeeping at all. These types of responsibilities could be good for homeless and helpful. It would give someone something to do – an accomplishment they could be proud of – rather than just feel rudderless. Everyone needs a purpose – it would be very hard to pull oneself up without purpose. This needs to be a central mantra of the homeless system. Giving people a purpose and a reason to overcome life problems (such as addiction) and rejoin society.

    1. Excellent point about homeless persons not being able to do much more than survive! When I was homeless I once woke up in Freeway Park to find someone had stolen ONE of my shoes right off my foot! I had to walk around with one shoe for two days!

      The only way Seattle will ever gain the political will to take a real bite out of homelessness here is to first, start with a correct narrative about homelessness. One major untruth about the homeless is that they “choose” to be out there. I KNOW from experience that there is not ONE single person who lives on the street that actually wants to be there instead of in a stable home of their own.

      All the homeless need is a pathway back to stability, not some arbitrary requirement to show they deserve to be helped. As a board member of the KCHRA, I honestly believe that Reagan Dunn and Sound Cities Association are only participating on this Authority to protect their political interests and make sure the KCHRA does not impinge upon their current homelessness policies. They appear to have no real interest in listening to anything the Lived Experience Coalition, or the three Lived Experience board members have to say. All we are saying is:

      1. Don’t hire people to do this work who failed last time,

      2. Use a racial equity lens to evaluate how we move forward and create homeless policies moving forward;

      3. Address institutional racism within city and county governments and institute the Theory of Change so that we as a governing body are accountable to the homeless people we supposedly serve.

  2. “it doesn’t seem to require much action, if any, from the individual homeless member that would be housed to the tax dollars”

    Wouldn’t the “action” the individual homeless members are taking, consist of getting healed and back on their feet?

    Transitioning out of homelessness sounds like a time when people need support – rest, food, shelter, health and mental health care – and not to be pumping out relentless productivity right away. They’re supposed to be working on themselves, is the whole point of this.

    I think about when I’ve been exhausted, stressed, or very ill – like I probably would be if I lived on the side of the road or had to bounce around couchsurfing – I would take a while before I can commit to chairing a year’s worth of board meetings, take on a new job, or roll up my sleeves to help volunteer build a tiny house. How many college kids can’t focus on lecture when they have a hangover, and that’s considered normal… and they’ve been fully housed and fed?

    Does this guy think you can just roll off the street, and suddenly be pert and functional at work at 8am the next day?

    1. Homelessness can be extremely stressful – when working, when stolen from, when forced to find a new place to sleep. But by and large, homelessness with food stamps, and without an addiction, isn’t nearly as stressful as, say, holding down a full-time job. There isn’t much “have to” in it.

      Making demands of us before admitting that we’re human and thus deserving of shelter is usually intended to avoid that admission. It’s like poll taxes: make the price of help so high that nobody will pay it, and a politician can then say we’ve all chosen our fates.

      But that doesn’t mean making demands of us is, in and of itself, evil. Being human involves making demands on each other, and we homeless really do get too much of a holiday from our share of those.

  3. As a Lived Experience Committee member of the KCHRA, I am appalled at the actions and position of Reagan Dunn. He (and Sound Cities Association) has consistently blocked our efforts to ensure this new authority operates according to the original recommendations of the NIS Report which was accepted by Dow Constantine and Jenny Durkan back in 2018. The main recommendations were:

    *Institute a system-wide theory of change
    *Consolidate homelessness response systems under one regional authority
    *Become accountable to customers
    *Create a defined public/private partnership utilizing a funder collaborative model

    The three Lived Experience members of this committee have encountered what we consider a great deal of resistance to our efforts to dismantle the obvious institutional racism within this body and the absolute denial of white privilege within our ranks.

    From the beginning we have always believed that putting the same people on Boards and in positions of power who failed in the first 15 years to end homelessness is a prescription for failure again. If we as a group do not work according to the principles recommended in the Theory of Change, we are doomed to same results we have seen since 2006, which are housing outcomes that are affected by a persons race, housing intake services that disproportionately affect people of color (Coordinated Entry for All System) and housing services that directly reflect a governing body (KCHRA) that has no accountability to the people they serve and result in unequal distribution of housing services to people of color.

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