By Erica C. Barnett
A sanitation company owned by a recent city of Seattle employee has received a growing share of the city’s contracts for encampment cleanup and removal work this year, eclipsing other longtime contractors to become the largest recipient of city contract hours for this work. [Update: Debbie Wilson is no longer employed by the city, according to Seattle City Light.]
The company, Fresh Family, is owned by a former Parks Department maintenance employee who until recently worked as a customer service representative for Seattle City Light, Debbie Wilson. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Fresh Family received nearly half a million dollars from the city even though it had no formal contract, which the Parks Department chalked up to an error: According to Parks, someone misread a form identifying the company as a woman- and minority-owned (WMBE) company, misreading “B” (for “Black”), in a column labeled “ethnicity,” as “B” for “Blanket contract.”
Fresh Family is now one of nine contractors on the city’s blanket contract for various kinds of encampment cleanup work, and one of two contractors—along with Cascadia—primarily responsible for encampment removals and litter removal.
It’s unusual for someone who works for the city to simultaneously hold a major city contract—in this case, one so closely tied to a department where the company’s owner used to work. Although Wilson left the city at some point last year, Fresh Family began receiving lucrative work from the city while she was still an employee—work that continued after she left her hourly customer service job at City Light.
PubliCola has asked how much Fresh Family has received from the city under its formal contract, which began last November, and will update this post when we have more information. In 2022, when it lacked an official contract, Fresh Family charged the city $110 per hour for each of its employees.
Over the last several months, department records show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
A review of the weekly “snapshots” for the city’s Clean City work, provided to PubliCola by the Parks Department, indicates that Fresh Family has become the chief contractor for encampment cleanup work. The Clean City Initiative is a joint operation overseen by the Parks Department, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities, but Parks heads up most of the work because most encampments are located on Parks property.
Over the last several months, the snapshots show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
For example, on a typical day in January, Fresh Family had nine crew members and four trailers doing encampment removal for the Parks Department encampment sites, while Cascadia had two crew members and one staffer working on a Parks-led crew. (Separately, SDOT routinely used four Cascadia staffers and two trailers to respond to encampments located in city rights-of-way). By the end of March, the Parks Department had bumped up its use of Fresh Family by another 50 percent, sending out 11 Fresh Family crew members with five trailers every day while keeping Cascadia at the status quo of two crew members and one trailer.
Encampment cleanup work often involves what the city calls a “litter pick”—driving along a prescribed route and picking up trash and debris at encampments along the way. Sometimes, crews are merged to do cleanup as a group—on a recent day, for example, seven Fresh Family crew members and two trailers were assigned to a single 13-stop route.
A spokeswoman for the Parks Department said the company “is not the primary contractor of the department, and we work to distribute work evenly amongst all approved contractors.”
In response to a question about whether Fresh Family is providing a superior or cheaper service compared to other contractors on the city’s list, the spokeswoman said, “The City retains the right to choose providers based on our approved lists and operational needs and both Cascadia and Fresh Family are on our approved contract lists providing similar services.”
14 thoughts on “Company Owned by Recent City Employee Is Largest Recipient of Encampment Cleanup Contracts”
The city of Seattle accidentally hired a company for an inordinate amount of work and their response was they made a mistake and didn’t realize it was owned by a white guy rather they thought it was owned by a black guy…. Funny how no one is calling that comment and thought process racist or discriminatory when it clearly is. Whatever happened to hiring the most efficient and cost effective company based on their performance?
The company, Fresh Family, is owned by Debbie Wilson, a black woman. The stated confusion from Parks was that an employee had misunderstood a B in a form as meaning blanket contract, rather than Black.
Separately, The policy around hiring minority and or woman owned business is to address the pervasive problem that occurs in many cases where contracts are awarded to white guys because they are more familiar to the people in power, and are unfairly seen as more capable by default, due to systemic racial bias.
No, it is owned by a black woman, but someone mistakenly read the b for black as b for blanket contract.
But of course, if we cared about sense and efficiency, we wouldn’t be evicting encampments
Great article. You would think this would be a scandal. Unfortunately in Seattle it is not.
We’re the city where even the KC homeless authority goes unquestioned.
I attended a paid workshop on undoing institutionalized racism- offered by KCRHA- and it was some of the most tone deaf, trauma-uninformed, historically inaccurate religious material I’ve ever sat through. It was as if I was in a vacuum filled with mud, showing up, ready to do work and was just covered in the breakout room’s unmediated vitriol. It was impossible to walk away with 1)anything except negative feelings and 2)so many questions about what’s going on with this government entity. The workshop mod even invalidated my experience.
It was bizarre. I gotta agree with you here.
You mean where Mayor Bruce Harrell goes unquestioned.
King county RHA makes mistakes, but this isn’t one of them
Phenomenal scoop, Erica. GREAT WORK!
Just us homeless helping to “create jobs” for a thriving economy.. All those encampment sweep employees will probably do business in Seattle…😂
I’d be interested in the money trails of not only this situation but also the funds source for the initial Wilson acquisition of this claimed 42 yr old company in service to what appears to be exclusively Seattle.
Good grief! Does the corruption never end??? $110/hour for these folks when some of the people in the encampments are there because they have no money? Why aren’t we hiring them and paying them a lot less, but still enough to enable them to secure housing. And the response, if correctly stated, that “The City retains the right to choose providers based on our approved lists and operational needs and both Cascadia and Fresh Family are on our approved contract lists providing similar services,” is just the kind of high-handed tone that should be getting the speaker fired! Who hires these people and keeps them on? Why are we, the people paying for this crap, being cheated by these corrupt entities, and why aren’t our elected officials putting an immediate stop to it?
Hiring the homeless and paying them to clean up their own never ending mess would add an hilarious additional level of shadiness to the homeless industrial complex.
Yeah, the idea that homeless people could show up on time to job for more than 2 days in row is far fetched and dishonest. If these people had jobs, well, more than likely there wouldn’t be homeless, or at least not homeless for long. There’s the myth of the working homeless… but that’s a myth. People living in tents can’t take care of themselves… they can’t even pick up the trash around their encampment, so the tax payers have to hire somebody else to do it.
Well, let’s be real here – the $110/hour probably covers equipment, trucks, dumping fees. And, I certainly wouldn’t want to be among the muck, needles, and who knows what in the homeless encampments. Good for her for providing this service to the community and starting her own business. If she had to keep her day job while it got started, so be it!