Fizz: Burgess Previews Encampment Initiative, Nguyen Mulls Bid for County Exec, and “Opening the Door” to Hotel Shelter

1. At a meeting of the Queen Anne Initiative on Community Engagement last week, former city council member Tim Burgess outlined the contours of an initiative that will be filed in the coming weeks that would fund new homeless services with existing city dollars and effectively reinstate the city’s Navigation Team, which removed encampments from public spaces until the city council dismantled it as part of the budget process last year.

PublICola reported on a poll about the potential initiative in February.

Sounding very much like a man in campaign mode, Burgess told the group, “The tent encampments that we see in our public spaces have essentially become permanent because the city government has no specific plan to help the people in those encampments or to make certain that our parks and public spaces remain open and available to everyone.” (In fact, one large and obvious reason encampments have become “permanent” is that a global pandemic made it impractical and unsafe for the city to dislocate people living unsheltered, and the city has consistently failed to provide adequate shelter or housing for the thousands of people living outdoors).

“What we need,” Burgess continued, “is a plan —a specific plan that focuses on what I believe is the primary presenting issue for most of the individuals in these encampments, and that is their medical condition,” including addiction and mental health challenges. Those issues are difficult to address while a person is living unsheltered, Burgess said, so the solution is to provide them with shelter or housing and address their health conditions at the same time.

So far, so good: Burgess clearly understands that it’s next to impossible to get healthy, or sober, while living on the street: Housing, or shelter at an absolute minimum, is essential to any kind of recovery from physical or behavioral health conditions. But the next leap he takes is troubling: If shelter is available but a person refuses to take it, he said, the city should have the authority to permanently remove them from a public space in order to make it available to the rest of the public. “We’re governed by the court decision”—Martin v. Boise—”that says we can’t force people… to leave unless we offer accommodation where they can go.”

It’s unclear how the initiative to reinstate sweeps and pay for housing and health cafe would be funded, or how it will get around the requirements imposed by Boise.

2. After PubliCola’s relentless coverage of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision not to seek FEMA reimbursement for hotel-based shelters, city council president (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González issued a statement about her recent conversation with FEMA administrators, which she said affirmed for her that even if federal funding isn’t “guaranteed” (which it never is in advance), “we can be confident that non-congregate shelter is FEMA reimbursable in eligible circumstances.”

In other cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, FEMA has paid for hotel-based shelter for people living unsheltered who suffer from conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID—a standard that covers most chronically homeless people.

Durkan has insisted that FEMA will not reimburse the city for any services at hotel-based shelters, and has objected to the federal agency’s “onerous” application requirements.

In an interview, González said the most important thing she took away from her conversation with FEMA was “that non-congregate shelter services for populations at high risk of COVID-19 exposure is possible during the remainder of the pandemic, and the question is, are we going to walk through the door that’s being opened to us take advantage of that reimbursement program, or are we going to close the door and walk away?”

“I would like to see the city throw that door open,” González said.

The city council only has the authority to appropriate money; they can’t force the executive branch to spend it. Council member Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, told PubliCola last week that he plans to introduce legislation authorizing the city to spend money on hotel shelters in anticipation of future FEMA reimbursement.

3. State Senator Joe Nguyen, who has emerged since his election in 2018 as a champion of progressive taxation and police reform, says he is seriously considering a run against longtime King County Executive Dow Constantine. Since his first election in 2009, Constantine has run practically unopposed, winning his most recent race with nearly 77 percent of the vote.

Still, Nguyen said, his work in the legislature, “talking to people across King County,” has convinced him that “it’s pretty clear that people want change right now. … Nationally and locally, I think the idea of somebody going for a fourth term is kind of tough, because we need a leaders that reflects the times and I don’t know that we have that now” in Constantine. Over the past several years, he continued, it has become clear that “the status quo is not working for a lot of people, and it’s not an accident that you the most progressive and diverse group of leaders in the state’s history.”

When he first ran for senate in 2018, Nguyen said, he was told that he was too much of a political outsider to win. “As a person from a lower-income community and the son of refugees, when I first ran, everyone basically wrote me off and said ‘Not only are you not going to win, if you do win, you’re not going to know what you’re doing.”

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