Category: Addiction

Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works

1. The actions of Seattle Police Department officers during the protests against police brutality in 2020 led to more than 19,000 complaints against officers and then-police chief Carmen Best, which the city’s Office of Police Accountability subsequently consolidated into just 143 cases.

Most of those cases are now resolved. About 10 are still being processed, with “completion” rates, according to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard, between 75 and 90 percent. Just three complaints remain stalled at 50 percent complete. All are from 2020, and all three name former police chief Carmen Best as a subject.

City law empowers the OPA, which is an independent office within the police department, to decide whether investigating a complaint would create a conflict of interest, which the office did in these three cases involving Chief Best. Because the three complaints would have essentially investigating the boss, OPA referred them to then-mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially wanted the Office of the Inspector General, an independent police accountability agency, to do the investigation.

When the OIG declined, the case went back to the OPA, which asked to assign the investigation to an outside agency. Instead of acting, Durkan apparently sat on the complaints against Best, leaving them to languish until her successor, Bruce Harrell, forwarded them to an outside agency. Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said the administration found out about the languishing cases in January and referred them to an external investigator late that month.

Legislation filed by city councilmember Lisa Herbold would prevent the mayor and OPA director from burying complaints against the police chief in the future by setting up a formal process, and deadlines, for the OPA to refer complaints against the police chief to an outside investigator.

Under the proposed new process, which Harrell supports, if the OPA decided a complaint against the police chief merited an investigation, the bill would require the OPA director to decide whether the complaint should be investigated by the city’s Department of Human Resources or an entity completely outside the city.  The OIG would review OPA’s recommendation and decide where to route the complaint, based on a process laid out in the legislation. The proposal would also give the OIG a stronger oversight role in complaints and investigations involving the police chief.

The first of the three cases the city failed to investigate involves Chief Best’s claim (later retracted) that armed people were running an extortion racket at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the protests. As the South Seattle Emerald reported this week, Best apparently knew the claim was a hoax when she repeated it to officers in a videotaped statement to officers working at the protests.

The second unresolved case accuses Best of lying about errors made by Seattle police and fire officials that prevented emergency responders from reaching a man who had been shot in the protest zone; Best told reporters (falsely, according to reporting by KUOW) that protesters had blocked the path of emergency vehicles, contributing to the man’s death.

The final case involves the police department’s use of tear gas against demonstrators in early June, 2020, after Seattle Federal District Judge Richard Jones granted a temporary restraining order against the department.

One goal of the bill is to “protect against any abuse of discretion that might occur if the Mayor or OPA Director are involved in the complaint or seek to conceal the complaint” in the future, according to the bill text.

A spokesperson for the OPA declined to comment for this story. The outside investigation into the three cases is reportedly wrapping up.

2. City Councilmember Sara Nelson told a constituent in an email last week that her own experience going to treatment convinced her that mandatory treatment is an effective response to homeless people who commit crimes because of their addiction—and “less expensive than most housing options,” too.

The email, which Nelson forwarded to all her council colleagues, came in response to a constituent who sent a link to a study finding that out of 160 people in an employment-based treatment program, the 131 who were required to go to treatment by a court were more likely to complete treatment than the 29 who went voluntarily.

“If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson

“I’m not surprised by its argument that mandating (or ‘stipulating’ as used in the paper) treatment is more effective than commonly thought because I’m in recovery myself and when I went to a residential treatment program, I met many people who were in treatment for the first time and only because court-ordered,” Nelson wrote, adding that about half of the people she kept up with from treatment were still sober.

“A month of private in-patient or 6 months of outpatient treatment costs about $10,000,” Nelson continued. “If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record. And treatment leads to better health outcomes than jail.” Continue reading “Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works”

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”

Harrell Says He’ll Implement Key Provisions of “Compassion Seattle” Measure, Clear Encampments

By Erica C. Barnett

At a press conference a few hundred yards from an encampment in Woodland Park on Thursday morning, mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell said that if elected, he would implement the key elements of Charter Amendment 29—the “Compassion Seattle” ballot measure. A King County Superior Court judge tossed the initiative last week, agreeing with opponents that things like budgets and land use policy are outside the scope of local ballot measures, but the campaign appealed to the state court of appeals, whose ruling could come tomorrow.

Harrell’s “Homelessness Action Plan” would require the city to spend 12 percent of its general fund on homelessness, build 2,000 new emergency housing (shelter) beds within one year, create individualized “service plans” for every person experiencing homelessness, and, as Harrell put it, “ensure that our city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, sidewalks, and streets remain open and clear of encampments.” These proposals are all identical to provisions of Charter Amendment 29, which Harrell supported.

At Thursday’s event, which was billed as a press conference but resembled a campaign rally, Harrell fielded questions primarily from a large group of supporters rather than the assembled press. “If and when you become mayor, how soon can we as Green Lake citizens expect to see these encampments gone?” one supporter asked. “I will say January or February, because I work with a sense of urgency,” Harrell responded.

“They are not mean-spirited people. They’re simply asking a very fundamental question: Can our parks be safe again? … Can our children play like they once did?”—Bruce Harrell

Another asked how he’d respond to critics who say that his plan would mean sweeping encampments without providing services. “Look at my record,” Harrell responded. “There are no dog whistles. I don’t have a dog whistle. And I say, how dare people say that, when my wife and I’ve been doing this for for 20, 30 years.”

Harrell also reiterated his proposal to create a city-run program that would give people the opportunity to volunteer or give tax-exempt donations to nonprofits working on homelessness, which he also described at a press conference outside an encampment at Bitter Lake in Mune. “Everyone can chip in—it could be clothing, it could be resume assistance, it could be anything that exhibits an effort to help the problem,” he said.

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Harrell said he understood why Green Lake residents are fed up with people living in the park, where the largest concentration of tents and RVs is located in triangle of land bordered roughly by Aurora Ave. and a portion of West Green Lake Way. The city closed the street to traffic as part of the Stay Healthy Streets program during the early months of the pandemic, and some residents blame the closure for the proliferation of tents. “They are not mean-spirited people. They’re simply asking a very fundamental question: Can our parks be safe again? … Can our children play like they once did?”

His plan for removing people from parks, however, remains vague; in response to another supporter’s question about how he would deal with “the majority of the people that are camping here [who] don’t want assistance,” Harrell said he would deal with people “on a case by case basis,” depending on their needs.

“I have the executive authority [as mayor] to direct mental health counselors and housing advocates down here, I have the executive ability to bring down individualized case management experts down here, [and] I have the ability to once again allow traffic and then have a conversation with the community to see what kinds of improvements down here can be made.”

But his promise—which would put the city at cross purposes with the new regional homelessness authority, which is taking over all the city’s contracts for homelessness-related services next year—came with a hard edge. “I just think that there has to be consequences for that kind of action,” Harrell said, referring to people who don’t accept the services or shelter they’re offered, “because many people—and I’m very close to the world of people struggling with drug and alcohol treatment, people that have challenges—many of them are in denial. Many of them do not know what they need. They just do not.” Continue reading “Harrell Says He’ll Implement Key Provisions of “Compassion Seattle” Measure, Clear Encampments”

In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession

By Paul Kiefer

After a last-minute rush to pass legislation in response to the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that rendered the existing drug possession laws void, the Washington State legislature passed new legislation on Saturday re-criminalizing low-level drug possession by making it a misdemeanor and requiring local jurisdictions to provide treatment options for drug users. The bill, ESB 5476, directs law enforcement officers to divert people who violate the new law to “assessment, treatment, or other services” for the first two violations; after the second violation, a violator can be referred for prosecution and, potentially, a fine or jail.

After making compromises to pass the bill before the final day of the legislative session on Sunday, many lawmakers are not fully satisfied with the result. But had the legislature not passed a new law regulating drug possession, some lawmakers worried that a patchwork of local policies and enforcement practices would have filled the vacuum.

The decision that precipitated the scramble to adjust Washington’s drug possession laws, called State of Washington v. Blake, ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—violated the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions.

Without new legislation to address the court’s decision, the state can’t enforce any of its existing drug possession laws. But local jurisdictions could have passed new laws if the state legislature had not acted, which could range from de-criminalizing drug possession to classifying intentional possession as a gross misdemeanor—the most severe criminal charge a local jurisdiction can impose.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The bill at the center of the legislature’s ongoing push to respond to the Blake decision began as the work of a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), who proposed that the state eliminate all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. In its original form, the bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

But in an effort to pass the bill out of the senate, Democratic lawmakers moved to re-criminalize drug possession to win the votes of some Republicans; when the bill came to a vote on the senate floor, Dhingra voted against it, arguing that it no longer reflected her goal of separating addiction treatment from the criminal justice system. Continue reading “In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession”

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

City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally

King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.

“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness. 

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.

Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”

A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.

The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets. Continue reading “City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program”

Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down

1. Prior to her State of the City remarks earlier this week, Mayor Jenny Durkan made a hot-mic comment deriding Council President (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González; the comment came during some apparent technical difficulties immediately before the livestreamed speech.

“Slow down a little bit, please,” Durkan says to someone off camera, apparently referring to her remarks on the screen in front of her. “There’s, like, all sorts of shit gone now,” she continues, laughing. “We’ll just go to the top and I’m going to, like, do the best I can.”

“If it was easy,” Durkan continues, “it’d be Lorena’s rebuttal.”

Durkan then proceeded to deliver a State of the City speech that clocked in at just over six minutes—the shortest, by far, in recent memory.

Per custom, Council President González, who announced she’s running for mayor after Durkan announced late last year that she would not seek a second term, did provide a response to Durkan’s State of the City speech. However, far from criticizing the mayor or her comments,  González actually thanked Durkan and city employees for “working hard to keep our City government running smoothly every day since the pandemic first hit our region a year ago.”

During a Town Hall Seattle forum on women in politics on Wednesday night, Durkan said she decided not to run for a second term, in large part, because if she stayed in the race her opponents would “feel like they have to be oppositional,” even if they agree with her, “because they’re running against me or supporting an opponent.”

“At the end of the day,” she added, “that was my job: Doing what was right for the city.”

Despite Durkan’s insistence that running for reelection during a crisis would elevate politics over what’s “right for the city,” campaigning for office while running the city isn’t unprecedented or irresponsible. In fact, it’s a standard part of a mayor’s job description.

2. Former city council member Tim Burgess and SoDo Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman have formed a political action committee to support an initiative related to drug use, homelessness, and behavioral health in Seattle. The new PAC, called Seattle Cares, has received an initial $15,000 contribution from the Downtown Seattle Association. Last election cycle, Burgess formed a PAC with the similarly anodyne name People for Seattle, which worked to defeat council members Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant and to oppose then-candidate Tammy Morales.

Although the committee has not filed initiative language yet, clues can be found in a poll PubliCola reported on earlier this month, which asked respondents about their support for a ballot measure that would give police additional tools to remove homeless people from public spaces, apparently in combination with some kind of behavioral health and addiction treatment funding.

The poll asked respondents their opinion of a Seattle ballot initiative that would use existing government funds to support treatment for mental illness and drug addiction while giving police more authority to “intervene” if people experiencing homelessness didn’t accept the “help” they were offered. The hypothetical ballot measure, according to the poll, would also re-establish the police-led Navigation Team, which removed encampments across Seattle until the city council eliminated the team in last year’s budget.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

It’s unclear where the funds for the measure would come from or what kind of “behavioral health” and addiction services would be offered to people experiencing homelessness. Supporters of encampment sweeps, quoted in media such as KOMO TV’s “Seattle Is Dying” series, often tout non-evidence-based approaches such as involuntary treatment for people with addiction. Burgess said Thursday that the official committee filing “was meant to comply with legal requirements but we are still debating and crafting what we might do, if anything.”

3. Speaking of polls, another poll in the field this month—this one funded by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21— asked about a potential city policy that would impose a surcharge on medical marijuana, specifically, to fund training and certification for people who sell cannabis products. The poll framed the new certification program as an opportunity for professional growth and a way of promoting equity among cannabis retailers, and tested a message positioning the surcharge as a way to fund improved service and support for medical marijuana consumers. Continue reading “Durkan’s Hot-Mic Moment, Two Potential 2021 Initiatives, and Former Sheriff Rahr Steps Down”

Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday night, after more than four hours of public testimony mostly favoring the move, the Mercer Island City Council voted to pass an ordinance barring people experiencing homelessness from sleeping outdoors or in their vehicles inside the boundaries of the wealthy suburban enclave. As PubliCola reported Monday, the new law empowers police to remove anyone living unsheltered from the island, either by driving them to shelter in Bellevue (five miles away) or Kirkland (11 miles away) or by sending them to jail in another city for up to 90 days.

PubliCola covered the public comments—which focused largely on the evergreen fear that “homeless addicts” would victimize women and children and litter the island with needles and feces—and vote on Twitter as they happened. Only one council member, Craig Reynolds, voted against the proposal, which goes into effect on March 1.

But that may not be the end of the story for Mercer Island’s homeless ban. (Local media, adopting the whimsical language used by proponents of such laws, have referred to the bill as a ban on “camping.” In fact, it prohibits anyone without housing, who are disproportionately people of color, from sleeping on the island after dark; a more apt metaphor would be a sundown law.)

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To understand the potential avenues for a legal challenge, it’s important to know a little bit about a landmark 9th Circuit District Court ruling on homelessness, Martin v. Boise, which established that cities cannot ban sleeping, sitting, or lying in public spaces unless there is adequate available shelter for people to utilize as an alternative.

“Any ban on camping in most of Washington likely can’t comply with Martin v. Boise, just by sheer numbers: How many people are unhoused in the cities versus how many shelters are available.”—ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster

Put plainly, the ruling means that cities like Seattle can’t enforce encampment bans unless there is adequate shelter available for every homeless person the city wants to remove from public spaces. The definitions of adequate and available have been a source of heated debate ever since.

“Really any ban on camping in most of Washington likely can’t comply with Martin v. Boise, just by sheer numbers: How many people are unhoused in the cities versus how many shelters are available,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said.

The next question, she said, is, “Are those shelters acceptable?” The four shelters to which Mercer Island plans to send people caught sleeping outdoors are far away, small, crowded (a particular concern during the ongoing pandemic), high-barrier, and often full; any of these factors could be used as an argument that the shelter isn’t really “available” or acceptable for a particular person. The Ninth Circuit “made pretty clear that you can’t, for example, force somebody to adhere to a religious doctrine or practice a religion to access a shelter,” or be “clean and sober,” Schuster said.

“In Washington, at least, substance use or abuse can be considered a disability” subject to civil rights protections, Schuster added—another potential avenue of attack on the ordinance, which defines substance use as one of many possible “voluntary actions” that a person can take to reject available shelter by refusing to follow whatever rules the “available shelter” happens to impose on clients. Continue reading “Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness”

After City Rejects Expansion Plan, Hotel-Based Shelter Program Seeks Path Forward

Tents along 2nd Ave. South in Seattle. JustCARE, a shelter and case management program run by the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and several other groups, moved many from the area into hotels.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city has formally rejected a proposal by the Public Defender Association to operate a non-congregate shelter at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle, telling the PDA by email that the plan—negotiated over several months—was too expensive. (The city is in the process of finalizing a separate proposal, to operate a smaller shelter out of King’s Inn near South Lake Union, from the Chief Seattle Club).

In a four-line email to PDA director Lisa Daugaard, Seattle Homelessness Strategy and Investments division director Diane Salazar wrote, “Unfortunately, your proposed cost per room does not fit within our program or budget framework for enhanced shelter beds in hotels. …Based on your proposed program cost, which is out of synch with the per room cost we provided, we will not move forward with your proposal.”

Planning for a “shelter surge,” including 300 hotel rooms and 125 new enhanced shelter beds, began last fall, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis announced a new plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to fund hotel-based shelters for ten months. The idea is to move hundreds of people quickly from unsheltered homelessness to hotels and into housing, mostly through temporary rapid rehousing subsidies for market-rate apartments. Providers submitted responses to a Request for Qualifications for the project last year.

The rejected PDA proposal would have expanded the successful King County-funded JustCARE program. The project has moved about 130 people, most of them chronically homeless and involved in the criminal justice system, directly from encampments in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District into hotels in Seattle, where they receive behavioral health care and other services.

The program, a collaboration between the PDA,  is designed to mitigate the impacts of encampments on the two neighborhoods while “addressing the overlapping realities that, due to COVID, jail bookings need to stay low, most congregate shelters aren’t viable, and local leaders have rightly pledged to stop sweeping people camping outside from one point to the next,” Daugaard said.

The PDA’s proposal to expand JustCARE into the Executive Pacific—a hotel Mayor Jenny Durkan reportedly favors because it already has a sister hotel serving as a shelter in San Francisco—would have cost around $28,000 per room, or about $11,000 more than the $17,175 maximum the city decided on late last month.

Daugaard tells PubliCola that that figure doesn’t allow the her organization to pay people “appropriate wages for this frontline work, much less “hazard pay, COVID exposure paid leave, the need for 24/7 clinical supervision, and partnering with a 24/7 safety team to deescalate issues without calling 911.”

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

According to the PDA, the city asked the agency to replicate JustCARE using federal funds, not the other way around. In an email to Diane Salazar, PDA deputy director Jesse Benet wrote, I was under the impression that the City believed in the efficacy of our model and was assured many times over by your team that it was what the City wanted to buy.”

An RFQ does not require agencies to submit a budget; the aim is to solicit proposals that meet certain terms established by the city. 

Although the city said that they were rejecting the PDA’s proposal primarily because it was too expensive, the PDA is hardly the only provider that requested more money than the city’s bare-bones budget. For example, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, whose shelter at the Red Lion in Renton Sixkiller has held up as a model for the Seattle program, requested $25,500 per unit. Continue reading “After City Rejects Expansion Plan, Hotel-Based Shelter Program Seeks Path Forward”

Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests

Image by Robert Ashworth on Flickr.

1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.

“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.

Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.

WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”

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A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.

SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.

Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”

In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.

2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”

This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.

Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Continue reading “Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests”