Durkan Says School District Should “Step Up” and Sweep Encampment, State Makes FEMA Funding for Hotel Shelters Easier

1. At a press conference on federal recovery funding last Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan was asked what she plans to do about the encampment on school district property near Broadview Thomson K-8, which PubliCola covered earlier this month.

Durkan spun the question on its head: Since the tents are on school district property, she said, it’s up to the school district to not only remove the encampment and store people’s tents and property but to “stand up their own process” similar to the city’s for doing outreach and connecting people to services, housing, and shelter.

“We’re working with them so that they can stand up their own process, and I hope that they are able to take that approach,” Durkan said. “I think that if they follow what we’ve been able to do in many places using city properties and city resources, that you can do very compassionate-based outreach and you can also move any encampment that has a particular public health or safety risk.

Staying on the other side of this invisible line has protected encampment residents from city-led sweeps, but it has also meant that the city has refused to help the people living there.

Durkan has refused to provide city assistance, outreach, trash cleanup, or other resources to the encampment on the grounds that it is on school district property, not the city’s.

The school district property is directly next to a Seattle Parks property where other people also live in tents. Staying on the other side of this invisible line has protected encampment residents from city-led sweeps, but it has also meant that the city has refused to help the people living there. The city’s HOPE team (formerly the Navigation Team) has exclusive access to a large percentage of the city’s limited number of enhanced shelter beds and hotel rooms, which they offer to residents of encampments the city is about to sweep.

The mayor noted, without using his name, that former Seattle Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta—who helped establish the city’s rules for removing encampments—is now head of operations at the school district, and suggested that the district, as a “a billion-dollar organization with funds and resources,” ought to be able provide the same kind of services as the city and remove the encampment.

“The school district needs to step up, and we are there to help and assist them, but they cannot shirk their obligations and duties for school properties,” Durkan said. 

Of course, the purpose of the school district’s billion-dollar budget is to educate the city’s 54,000 public school students, not to pay for human services or encampment sweeps.

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2. In response to concerns from cities that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might fail to reimburse them for some of the costs of non-congregate shelters, such as hotels, that President Biden committed to fully fund as part of the federal response to COVID, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) added $10 million to the state’s supplemental budget to provide jurisdictions with an extra layer of assurance.

As we’ve reported, FEMA has committed to pay 100 percent of eligible costs for non-congregate shelters, including both facility costs and services involved in running the shelter itself. The city of Seattle has resisted seeking FEMA funding to stand up or pay for hotel-based shelters, arguing that no services are covered and suggesting that this form of federal funding is a risky proposition.

“A variety of local communities were concerned about taking the risk on non-congregate shelter that they would be fully reimbursed by the federal government, including communities like Seattle and King County,” Macri said.

Other cities have also been reluctant to take FEMA dollars, but for a different reason: If a small town spends $500,000 up front on a shelter and doesn’t get reimbursed (or if the money is slow to arrive), that amount could break their budget. “Obviously, from the statewide context, they’re the most well-resourced, with the ability to take the risk, and I thought, if Seattle and King County are worried, what about other municipalities?” Macri said.  The new funding—$4 million this year and $6 million in 2022—would provide a backstop.

FEMA’s guidelines say that hotel-based or other non-congregate shelters must be up and running by June 30 to be eligible for reimbursement. Seattle’s plans to open a third hotel-based shelter (in addition to the two it recently opened, which are funded through non-FEMA sources) have reportedly stalled because the city has had trouble finding a site or provider to run the hotel. The mayor’s office and Human Services Department did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

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