Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round

1. Last year, after the COVID pandemic forced the closure of most public and publicly accessible restrooms across the city, advocates for people experiencing homelessness suggested a creative approach to help stop the spread of COVID: Cheap, portable handwashing sinks that could be installed in any location with access to a public water outlet.

The first Street Sink, a collaboration between Real Change and the University of Washington College of Built Environments, was installed outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District last May. The prototype consisted of a basic utility sink with a soap dispenser that drained into a steel trough filled with soil and water-loving plants.

The Seattle City Council added $100,000 to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget for a street-sink pilot project last November, hoping to capitalize on the success of the prototype and expand the sinks to neighborhoods across the city. Since then, though, the project has stalled.

According to communications between staff for Seattle Public Utilities, the Department of Neighborhoods, and street-sink proponents, the city has a range of outstanding concerns, including the environment (the soil-based system is not equipped to deal with “blackwater,” or unfiltered human waste), the weather (if left unwrapped, the sinks’ pipes may not be able to withstand a hard freeze), and accessibility (the sinks, though wheelchair-accessible, are not fully ADA compliant. Neither, for that matter, are many of the city’s public restrooms).

“It’s incredibly frustrating, because we’re getting bogged down in process instead of acting with urgency” to provide people living unsheltered with soap and water to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, said. Since the pandemic began, there have been repeated outbreaks of hepatitis A and other communicable diseases among the city’s homeless population; in the case of a recent shigella outbreak, the rise in cases coincided with the regular winter closure of public restrooms with running water. The city provides portable toilets in locations where restrooms are closed, but these “sanicans” are not equipped with sinks and often lack hand sanitizer.

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The prototype for the Street Sink cost about $400. A more detailed budget puts the cost of each sink at just over than $750. More elaborate sinks with sewer connections or barrel collection systems would cost significantly more; last year, for example, Seattle Makers proposed a stainless-steel handwashing station that includes collection barrels, electronic sensors, a GPS connection, and components “built to withstand abuse from hammers,” for whatever reason, all at a cost of $7,250 per sink.

McCoy says $100,000 would fund the installation of 63 street sinks around the city. But the city seems unlikely to use the prototype her group designed. Instead, according to emails from the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, the city is planning to “pivot” away from the Street Sink project to a new “expanded mutual aid opportunity – the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot” that will “facilitate solutions that meet our safety and regulatory guidelines. For example, we will match sink prototypes without safety and blackwater issues to Real Change, or another implementing organization.”

PubliCola has reached out to the mayor’s office to find out more about the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot and to see if there is any timeline for the city to actually deploy the handwashing stations funded last year.

2.The Renton Chamber of Commerce issued a statement on Facebook over the weekend defending the organization and its director, Diane Dobson, against unspecified allegations of racism.

The statement read, in part, “The Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce, Diane Dobson, has been a tireless champion in standing against racism and bias. She has worked to drive diversity, equity and inclusion through numerous community events and actions aimed at addressing racism in our community. The Chamber Board of Directors unanimously stands with and supports Diane as she continues to make a meaningful, positive difference in our community and region.”

A look through the comments on the post clarifies what it’s about. During the recent snowstorm, a woman (identified in by her male companion as “Robin”) threw snowballs at the car of an Asian-American passerby and—according to the text accompanying the video he took after he got out of his car to confront her—called him a “fucking ch*nk.” In the video, posted on the Youtube channel RevealKarens, the man asks the apparently intoxicated woman repeatedly why she used that term, as she grows more and more agitated and finally says she did it because he was being “a dick.”

Eventually, according to the man’s account, Dobson came by and convinced the woman to leave. In subsequent comments on the Facebook thread, the person behind the Chamber account responded to criticism by praising Dobson in increasingly lavish terms, describing her “wonderful” work in the community and referring to “reports we have received of her donations of masks to the School District for teachers and staff and many of the front line workers in essential nonprofits as well.” The responses became so focused on Dobson, the person, rather than the Chamber as an entity that many commenters assumed that the  person posting for the Chamber was Dobson herself.

Dobson’s name has appeared in PubliCola before. She has been a vocal opponent of a shelter at the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Renton and onto city streets, blaming its homeless residents for the economic downturn in downtown Renton, and reportedly threatened to revoke an LGBTQ+ organization’s Chamber membership over their advocacy in favor of the shelter.

3. Lightning-round election news:

Brianna Thomas, a legislative aide to council president and mayoral candidate Lorena González, will make her candidacy for González’ position official later this week. (González is relinquishing her seat to run for mayor.) Thomas ran once before, in 2015, for the West Seattle council seat now occupied by Lisa Herbold.

Another onetime candidate, attorney, activist, and 2017 mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, is reportedly considering a run for the same position.

Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who now works as a senior vice president at the lefty Civic Ventures think tank, confirmed last week that she is seriously considering another run for mayor, but did not give a timeline for when she’ll make her decision.

And the Puget Sound Business Journal reported Monday that Arthur Langlie—whose grandfather served as a city council member, mayor, and governor of Washington—is “on the cusp” of running for Seattle mayor, on a platform that focuses on “cleaning up the city,” reducing homelessness, and increasing public safety. Langlie owns a home in Broadview and is active in local civic life in Indianola, a town in Kitsap County where his family owns property.

According Historylink, former governor Langlie was one of two city council candidates put forward by the New Order of Cincinnatus, a militaristic, “pseudo-fascist” and anti-labor young men’s group that emerged in Seattle in the 1930s. 

This will be the first Seattle mayoral election Seattle in which mayoral candidates can accept democracy vouchers, a form of direct public financing in which individual Seattle voters assign up to $100 in public funding to the candidate or candidates of their choice. So far, only one mayoral candidate—Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk—has qualified for vouchers, a process that requires collecting 600 signatures from Seattle residents along with minimum contributions of $10 each.

According to the most recent program data, as of last week, Echohawk had received more than 1,000 qualifying contributions totaling just over $27,000; González, who declared her candidacy a week after Echohawk, had collected a little over half that amount—around 550 signatures, totaling just under $14,000. Architect Andrew Grant Houston, who announced he was running for mayor in mid-January, has collected just under 400 qualifying donations, totaling about $9,500.

2 thoughts on “Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round”

  1. You make it clear that you don’t think the handwashing sinks would need to be designed to withstand heavy abuse such as by blunt instruments…. like hammers.

    You act as if you are not aware of why this might be (“….for whatever reason”).

    Your audience is not fooled by your feigned mis-understanding: If public sinks are installed in Seattle they are guaranteed to be attacked by blunt instruments or similarly destroyed and/or rendered inoperable by vandalism just like every other public amenity in Seattle.

    Time and time again I find you attempting to effectively tell a lie thinking you will not get caught, and you never seem to learn anything about homelessness or how to solve it. Steve Willie.

    1. From a reader who pays attention to everything she can find relating to homelessness in Seattle, Erica C. Barnett is the best source of factually-based reportage on that issue. Perhaps you are not interested in facts.

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