“Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division

1. Last year, the city council set aside $100,000 in the 2021 budget to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective.” The idea was to rapidly install dozens of sinks in public places around the city where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands, a simple way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis and COVID-19.

As PubliCola reported back in February, the sink program has since stalled, as several city departments that answer to Mayor Jenny Durkan have raised concerns about runoff from the sinks going into planters rather than storm drains (will children eat the soil?), whether the pipes will function in cold weather, and ADA compliance—a concern that apparently does not extend to many of the city’s existing public restrooms.

Now, after the Clean Hands Collective has gone through another round of design in collaboration with the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities, the city has decided to open the whole process up for bids by any group that wants to apply. The rebranded “Seattle Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program” now includes an additional $50,000 for “waste prevention solutions focused on food and other materials.” According to the city’s handout on the two “innovation areas,” food waste prevention proposals could include things like “sharing, reusing, repairing, and repurposing.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources.” —SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register

We think it is important to provide a fair and equitable process for distributing funds and ensure the public receives the greatest benefit for its funding,” said Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. The city is holding an informational webinar for groups interested in applying on (UPDATED) April 22; Register said eight groups have signed up so far and “We are excited to see what community groups propose!”

The additional process means it will be even longer before sinks are available for people to access running water, something that has been necessary since pandemic-related shutdowns began more than a year ago. Street sink proponents—whose initial demonstration sink, outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District, opened almost a year ago—are starting to wonder if the mayor’s office is actually interested in helping homeless people wash their hands.

“Some of these arguments are arguments against hygiene services” in general, said Real Change policy director Tiffani McCoy. “One of them was, ‘We’re worried about vandalism and feces being spread around.’ That’s an argument against any hygiene model.”

SPU spokeswoman Register said the city is “eager to partner with community to provide hygiene options for the public that meet health, safety, and accessibility requirements, and that the new application process “helps guide applicants through these public health requirements to ensure their designs are meeting community needs.”

McCoy and others familiar with the meetings between the Clean Hands Collective and the city said one suggestion from the city was something proponents referred to as “Purell on a pole”—which is exactly what it sounds like. If the problem is disposing of the water, the argument went, why not just get rid of the water?

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Although street sink proponents pointed out that people experiencing homelessness have expressly expressed a need to wash their hands under running water, not squirt them with sanitizer (nor is sanitizing a best practice when water is available), the idea refused to die and is, according to Register, “not off the table.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources,” Register said.

Ironically, “theft of hand sanitizer” was one of the reasons the city was initially reluctant to provide portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness when the pandemic began.

2. The city’s Parks Department removed a small encampment in the dugout at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle Friday morning, after identifying the site as a “high priority location for engagement,” according to a joint statement from Parks and the Human Services Department provided to PubliCola Thursday. (The statement was identical to the response sent to at least one city council member who also asked about the sweep).

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said six people at the site received referrals into the Executive Pacific Hotel, about five miles from the site, from REACH, and “one individual voluntarily left the area.” The five men, all of them Spanish speakers, “were provided Uber rides to the hotel,” Mundt said.

It’s unclear why the city decided to prioritize Rainier Playfield specifically. On Thursday evening, the park was full of people playing tennis and football, walking dogs and strollers, and using every corner of the park. The dugout is tucked away at the edge of the park and no tents or trash were visible.

The city is also reportedly planning three more encampment removals in the coming weeks—a sign that sweeps, which had largely paused during the pandemic, are ramping up again in response to neighborhood complaints. The upcoming locations for encampment removals are: Miller Park on Capitol Hill (on or around April 13), Gilman Playground in Ballard, and the University Playground near the University District.

The city also recently removed tents at Fourth and Yesler, where, according to HSD, they were blocking access to the sidewalk. People living unsheltered downtown are reportedly being channeled into City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse, which is so crowded now that it resembles a densely packed shantytown, with dozens of tents instead of permanent structures. The city provides three portable toilets to serve all the people living in the park.

Efforts to provide places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands—a basic need that has been largely unmet throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to stall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and executive departments have raised objection after objection to proposals to create a street sink program that would help prevent the spread of disease.

3. Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s longtime advisor on homelessness, will take over as interim deputy director of the Human Services Department overseeing homelessness after the current deputy, Audrey Buehring, departs for a job in Washington, D.C. next week.

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who held the deputy director position herself before resigning for a new role in the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning in 2019, reportedly selected Colby herself for the job. The city plans to advertise for a permanent director of the division in May.

It’s unclear what the role will involve in the future; the city is supposed to be transitioning most of its work on homelessness to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which just got its own director, Marc Dones, last month. However, a proposed amendment to the city charter would direct the city to spend 12 percent of its general fund budget on human services and homelessness, with an emphasis on “emergency or permanent housing with services,” raising the question of how much stock the city places in the concept of a regional approach to homelessness.

Washington replaced deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan in 2020; Casey Sixkiller, not Washington, is the deputy mayor who officially oversees Durkan’s homelessness policy.

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