Poll Tests Encampment Crackdown; Turf Battles Possible as Homelessness Authority Takes Shape

1. A recent poll asked respondents about a potential Seattle ballot initiative that would use existing government funds to support treatment for mental illness and drug addiction while giving police more authority to “intervene” if people experiencing homelessness didn’t accept the “help” they were offered. The hypothetical ballot measure would also re-establish the police-led Navigation Team, which removed encampments and offered information about shelter and other services to their displaced residents.

The poll also included a number of test messages supporting and opposing the theoretical measure. Among the opposition messages: The groups supporting this initiative don’t really care about solving homelessness and this solution doesn’t include housing; encampment sweeps are unethical or immoral; it’s wrong to involve police in homelessness; and big business contributed to the problem of homelessness and should help solve it.

The “pro” messages included: We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars and the problem is still getting worse; the council is too lenient on repeat offenders, including one council member (Lisa Herbold) who is trying to pass a “poverty” defense for crimes; businesses are struggling and facing the possibility of having to reopen with encampments everywhere.

Gauging the impact of negative and positive messages helps supporters of ballot measures (and candidates) craft a campaign that responds to the strongest objections while pushing the most compelling message in favor of a measure.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll. PubliCola has reached out to several groups that have advocated for the city to change its approach to unsheltered homelessness, including the Seattle Metro Chamber, which did not respond to questions.

An early version of the regional homelessness authority structure, circa 2019.

2. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced this week that it has finally chosen a director to lead the agency, which was supposed to take over most of the functions of Seattle’s Homelessness Strategy and Investments division beginning last year. The new director, Regina Cannon, is the chief equity and impact officer at C4 Innovations, which released an influential report on racial inequities in homelessness.

One of the chief authors of that study was Marc Dones, the other finalist for the director position and the lead architect of the original plan for the authority itself. Dones was a frequent presence at City Hall in 2018 and 2019, when Seattle and King County were discussing the makeup of the future authority. As a city consultant, Dones advocated for “digital IDs” that would enable people experiencing homelessness to access services using biometric markers (such as fingerprints) or some other form of digital “signature,” and in 2019, Dones’ firm received $637,000 from the county for various contracts.

Assuming Cannon accepts the $200,000-plus position, she will be in charge of creating an organizational structure for an entirely new agency that will oversee homeless services throughout the county, including both Seattle (the primary fiscal contributor to the authority) and three dozen smaller cities, many of which have their own ideas about how to deal with homelessness in their communities. And she will be responsible for taking over hundreds of homeless service contracts currently held by the city, which plans to shut down its homelessness division over the next year.

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3. In the meantime, the city’s Human Services Department plans to retain control over homeless service contracts in 2021, and, in at least one instance, perhaps beyond. Prior to the elimination of the encampment-removing Navigation Team last year, Durkan had planned to keep that team—and only that team—at the city. Now that the Navigation Team is no more, Durkan reportedly wants to keep the outreach providers that currently contract with the city, primarily REACH, under city control.

Durkan’s office did not respond directly to a question from PubliCola about whether she was “seeking to hold outreach contracts at HSD, as opposed to moving outreach to the new authority.” Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower confirmed only that the city would retain its contracts with outreach providers such as REACH “through the end of this year.”

If the city does keep the outreach contracts rather than relinquishing them to the new authority, it would be consistent with Durkan’s desire to keep encampment outreach (and removal) at the city. Doing so could empower the new HOPE Team, established by the council last year and made up of the members of the old Navigation Team, minus the police, to deploy nonprofit outreach providers to encampments in much the same way HSD previously deployed the Navigation Team.

The purpose and authority of the HOPE team continues to be a sticking point between the mayor and the council. Council members, including Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda, have repeatedly expressed frustration and dismay at the fact that the HOPE Team has been essentially barred from leaving their desks and helping out at encampments under any circumstances, including when outreach providers ask for their assistance.

When council members asked why the HOPE team was telling outreach providers they couldn’t help them during events like the recent relocation of RVs in Georgetown, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller gave a cryptic response, saying, “this is a little bit of a change for our city team, and we’re all trying to settle in to the new normal and trying to be mindful of the perception that the HOPE team members themselves are out and about and on the ground.”

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