Category: Guest Contributor

Seattle’s Vehicle Impoundment Policy Betrays Contempt, Not Compassion, for Those Living Homeless

By The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett

In January 2023, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced that addressing homelessness in King County would cost about $12 billion and require “tens of thousands more units of housing.” Local officials immediately balked. Two earlier plans to address homelessness were unable to address homelessness successfully, so why should the region spend billions more?

But the alternative, especially for people living in vehicles, has been increasingly onerous and cruel.

This past summer, I filed public records requests with the city of Seattle for all vehicle impounds between January to May 2023. I filtered these impounds to include only that were most likely to be vehicles used as residences: RVs, Campers, Detached Trailers, and Buses, and found that 1,441 of these four vehicle types were impounded over just five months.

The four most common impound reasons included, in order of severity, were: Violations of the city rule requiring vehicles to move every 72 hours, improper licensing (such as expired tabs), having a detached trailer, and parking in prohibited areas, such as residential neighborhoods and retail zones.  The list justifying impounds also included another 17 violations, such as: Parking too close to a sidewalk or a stop sign; blocking a trail; determined to be junk; illegal blocking, such parking in front of a hydrant; parking in a loading zone; improper curb orientation; double-parking; and parking in an intersection, all as determined by a parking enforcement or police officer.

When the KCRHA has to use its limited funds, which come largely from Seattle, simply to keep people cast to the streets by impounds alive, that money is wasted and success continues to elude us. People will blame the regional authority, when in fact, it is as much the failure of every city to address their frequently punitive control of the streets.

The city does not offer people shelter prior to any of these impounds, since in every case, their owners are violating some law. Yet in my view, this appears to constitute a violation of Martin v Boise, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruling that requires cities to offer shelter before they order anyone living in homelessness to move from a public location.

Why are so few people who are swept while unsheltered—and living in a vehicles counts as unsheltered homelessness, according to HUD—not offered shelter? The city may well argue that Martin does not apply to vehicle residents since the ruling says nothing about people living in vehicles. Maybe more compelling is that there is nothing close to an adequate amount of shelter available. And for people living in any vehicle other than a passenger car, leaving their vehicle for a single bed in a shelter—basically all that is ever offered—is nonsensical.

This shortage of shelter spaces also impacts the formal process the city uses for responding to vehicle residents who are asked to move by the Unified Care Team, which carries out the city’s formal Remediations, Relocations, and Removals program. Under this program, staff from the Human Services Department are required to offer shelter to every unhoused person who must move. Vehicle residents who decline shelter and cannot move have their vehicles impounded.

But even if the city offers some kind of shelter in every case—which some city-funded outreach providers dispute—if the people living in a vehicle are: 1) a couple; 2) pet owners; 3) with children; 4) trans; 5) and so on, there often are no appropriate shelters.

During 12 years of outreach in Seattle to those living in vehicles, I’ve seen that funding is only half the answer to addressing homelessness. Yes, money is needed to provide services and such. Yet elected officials also control the streets and all the public terrain where homeless persons encamp—the other half of the reality of homelessness. By enforcing laws to impound vehicles where people are living, the city is imposing brute force in the form of sweeps, setting back efforts to assist those living homeless to move toward stability.

Elected officials may well balk at the overall cost of addressing homelessness. But the hidden impounds I’ve described have a cost as well. When the KCRHA has to use its limited funds, which come largely from Seattle, simply to keep people cast to the streets by impounds alive, that money is wasted and success continues to elude us. People will blame the regional authority, when in fact, it is as much the failure of every city to address their frequently punitive control of the streets.

In Seattle, there was a better agreement from 2011 to 2020, through the Scofflaw Mitigation program initiated by the Mike McGinn administration. The 2011 Scofflaw Ordinance, which allowed the city to boot and impound vehicles if their owners had four or more unpaid tickets, threatened an enormous escalation of impounds. We in the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness approached the mayor and jointly formulated a partnership with parking Enforcement and the Municipal Court.

The group we formed was, and is, called the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, and for more than 10 years it kept impounds from tickets in the single digits. The current administration ended the program in 2022. Now, 1,441 impounds have occurred in just five months.

The agreement was that parking enforcement would inform us when any vehicle was close to accumulating four tickets, putting it at risk of impound. We would then do outreach to address the tickets and provide whatever the person needed to get their vehicle moving again. The group we formed was, and is, called the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, and for more than 10 years it kept impounds from tickets in the single digits. The current administration ended the program in 2022. Now, 1,441 impounds have occurred in just 5 months, from violations the administration has deemed impound-worthy.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who during World War II sought to halt the harm in Germany, described the attitude of the nation’s leaders, which also spread among many of the German people, as “a contempt for humanity.” Does this describe some of the attitudes we who are housed have toward those unhoused? Does it describe some of the attitudes of those we’ve elected to govern? Do we have a collective “contempt” for the unhoused?

Key questions for our future include: Can we suspend law enforcement long enough to help the vulnerable? Can’t we do better for our vulnerable neighbors than “sweeps?” Are we half-hearted?

These are questions for jurisdictional leaders and for all of us who vote for them. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has stated it is against sweeps as a tool for addressing homelessness. Why? Because it wastes precious money, and because too many people are dying. But the authority cannot change exacting harm via the law without elected leaders putting unhoused people first, or at a minimum, setting aside “contempt.”

The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett is the director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, in residence at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.

Help Our Neighbors—Vote Yes on the Seattle Housing Levy!

ʔálʔal, the Chief Seattle Club’s Housing Levy-supported building in Pioneer Square, provides supportive housing, health care, and services to more than 2,700 people a year.

By Derrick Belgarde and Brett D’Antonio

Seattle is in the middle of a housing crisis, and we need to act! Every day, more and more families are struggling to make ends meet or forced to move out of the city. This housing affordability and supply crisis is complicated, but Seattle has a proven tool that will allow us to rise and face it: The Seattle Housing Levy. We must renew the levy this November.

The housing levy has generated affordable housing solutions across the housing continuum since 1986. For almost 40 years, the levy has built more than 12,000 units of affordable housing across the city of Seattle and created 1,000 homeownership opportunities—housing more than 16,000 people overall.

The people who benefit from the housing it provides are nurses, grocery store workers, bus drivers, and other working people this city depends on every single day. More housing means more families can afford to live where their kids go to school; more housing means more opportunities for working people to thrive.

The rental assistance component of the levy will help an estimated 9,000 people. The homeownership component will create 360 affordable homeownership opportunities. And the prevention component will help keep thousands of renters and homeowners from becoming homeless due to eviction or foreclosure.

The levy has made a huge difference in Seattle, including through Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County. Habitat’s mission is to build a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live. It is because of the levy that we can build more homes and support Seattleites like Amber, a Habitat homeowner in our Capitol View community and a cultural worker in Seattle. Before moving into her home in Capitol Hill, she faced rising rents and the possibility of having to leave. Now, she owns her home in Capitol Hill and has stability and peace of mind. The levy lets us make more stories like Amber’s possible.

When renewed, the levy will invest $970 million in creating and preserving at least 3,500 affordable homes and stabilizing 4,500 low-income families and individuals. The rental assistance component of the levy will help an estimated 9,000 people. The homeownership component will create 360 affordable homeownership opportunities. And the prevention component will help keep thousands of renters and homeowners from becoming homeless due to eviction or foreclosure.

Investing in housing is also critical to Seattle’s racial equity goals. In a landmark 2022 report, the state Department of Commerce and state Homeownership Disparities Workgroup found only 49 percent of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) households, and only 31 percent of Black households, own their homes, compared to 68 percent of white households. A history of redlining, land appropriation, racially restrictive covenants, and other discriminatory practices has led to these disparities.

To help right these historical wrongs, we need to invest in affordable housing of all types. The levy allows us to create new homes for first-time homebuyers as well as working, rent-burdened households that are spending more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. Affordable housing projects, such as Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal  in Pioneer Square, which includes 80 units of low-income housing with wraparound services, are concrete examples of rental housing solutions that work.

The Seattle Housing Levy is a commitment to housing our people with the kind of love, compassion, and dedication that will transform lives and begin repairing the traumas of previous generations.

As affordable housing developers and providers, we work to build homes for everyday people, because when you provide a home to someone you change the world. Let’s make the right choice. Choose housing; vote yes on Proposition 1 by November 7.

Derrick Belgarde is the Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club. Brett D’Antonio is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties,

As the Workers Behind the KCRHA’s Abandoned Partnership for Zero Program, We Were Betrayed. And So Were You.

Editor’s Note: As part of its privately funded Partnership for Zero effort to end visible homelessness in downtown Seattle, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority hired several dozen “systems advocates” with personal experience of homelessness to help to hundreds of people living unsheltered downtown navigate the byzantine homelessness system and access resources and housing. The initial idea was simple: The systems advocates would get to know people living downtown and work to overcome their barriers to housing, rapidly connecting them to either permanent supportive housing or subsidized, private-market apartments and helping them sustain that housing.

The homelessness authority revamped the program several times over its first year, changing the systems’ advocates roles and creating geographic “zones” within downtown in an attempt to address smaller, more manageable areas one at a time. But the authority never came up with a sustainable long-term funding source for the program, assuming—despite warnings from existing service providers and outside experts—that it would be able to rely on a novel use of an existing Medicaid program to pay for ongoing operations.

Last month, the KCRHA shut down the program, laying off dozens of systems advocates, including many who were recently homeless. Some had moved to Seattle from other cities or given up their housing vouchers to take jobs at the agency, and are now facing the possibility of becoming homeless again. This piece is by a group of system advocates who reached out to PubliCola to tell their story.


As former Systems Advocates for the recently shuttered Partnership for Zero program, we have been deeply disappointed in and betrayed by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, as have all of you.

While much has been made of us being hired because of our lived experience of homelessness, the majority of us also had years of direct homeless service and community-building experience and were considered some of the best in our field, which is why we were chosen for this team. We were tasked with building a trauma-informed, holistic approach to deal with one symptom of the systematic economic and social abandonment of Seattle’s poor and working class. All of us signed on to spend five years of our lives building this approach. We left stable jobs and some of us traveled across the country to participate.

From day one, however, our team was undermined by a constant barrage of consultants and bureaucrats, most of whom had spent years failing up the ladder within the Homeless Industrial Complex. Our program was stalled for months at a time by indecisive management more concerned with pleasing politicians than fulfilling our mission.

We were also forced to waste three weeks trying to resolve an “encampment” at Occidental Park, where no people actually camped, because the mayor wanted to put in an ice skating rink; another four months navigating clients who mostly came from outside downtown Seattle from hotels into housing; and the last two months resolving another non-encampment at a dog park in Belltown so the hip restaurants across the street could sell overpriced biscuits and $8 tacos without having to gaze upon the results of decades of bad public policy. These were our assignments, instead of working in the four actual encampments we had repeatedly identified as good candidates for a housing-first approach.

Some of us would not have pursued this job, as this layoff has put several of us in a position to be homeless again ourselves. This action by management has resurfaced feelings of instability in our own lives, and most certainly in the lives of our clients

In addition, it is shameful that the equitable wages that we received for our skilled and challenging work have been cited as part of the reason for the closure of this program. Our original mandate was to do housing navigation and stabilization, which is normally the work of two separate full-time positions; later, the KCRHA expanded our jobs to include outreach as well, even though the authority is already paying longstanding and skilled organizations to perform that work.

At the end of the day, King County and the city of Seattle got a steal, off our backs. We cannot expect to break the cycle of homelessness by supporting anything less than an equitable wage for the people who do this work. That brings us to KCRHA’s labor practices. We were hired as full-time, permanent employees. Our program was never described as a “pilot” in our hiring paperwork, job descriptions, or any of the founding documents. The first time we heard the word “pilot,” or any official word about the precariousness of Partnership for Zero funding, was when KCRHA management decided to discontinue our team.

Some of us would not have pursued this job, as this layoff has put several of us in a position to be homeless again ourselves. This action by management has resurfaced feelings of instability in our own lives, and most certainly in the lives of our clients. KCRHA has also stalled union negotiations for the entirety of our team’s existence and is now pleading poverty in a transparent attempt to avoid paying out our sick and vacation hours, while simultaneously hiring nearly a dozen new administrative and management staff in the last two months.

The first System Advocates were not hired until June 29, 2022, and the program was not at functional capacity until late October of last year. In the short time we were allowed to work toward our mission, we were able to permanently house hundreds of people. We count this as a great success. Compared to downtowns in other major cities, our work has been some of the best in the country. If even 40 percent of the people we were able to put in rapid rehousing are allowed to economically and socially stabilize, taxpayers will save more than the cost of the program in carceral and medical costs alone, as well as reaping the benefits of a healthier society.

We could’ve done much more if our program was given the chance. But the KCRHA is clearly not living by its founding ideas of creating a homeless response system that centers the needs and voices of the unhoused. Instead, the agency seems intent on becoming yet another bureaucratic barrier to getting people housed. We expected more, and the staff, our unhoused neighbors, and the people of King County deserve better.

Could You Go a Week Without Driving?

Tanisha Sepúlveda (center) and other Empower Movement members at a walking/rolling event. Also pictured:Disability Rights Washington’s Anna Zivarts and former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. McGinn now serves as the executive director of the pedestrian advocacy organization America Walks, which is coordinating the Week Without Driving challenge.

By Tanisha Sepúlveda

What would you do if you didn’t have your car, and you had to go a Week Without Driving? How would you get to work, go to the doctor, bring home groceries, or visit friends and family? How much would this cost you—in time and in money? For nearly one-third of the US population, these questions are everyday experiences we must navigate.

As a power wheelchair user living in West Seattle, I rely on my wheelchair and public transit when getting to and from places. I am fortunate to live in a city with public transit, although accessing the transit is where it can become difficult. Many sidewalks don’t have curb cuts, or turn into dirt paths, or run into roads without notice. This forces me to backtrack or go onto the road. I have had people yell at me that it’s “not safe,” but they don’t understand if I get thrown off the sidewalk into traffic because there’s a tree root or an uneven piece of sidewalk, it is even less safe for me and oncoming traffic.

Many of our nation’s nondrivers are people of color, immigrants, people in poverty, and people with disabilities. This includes young people, people who have aged out of driving, had their license suspended, or cannot afford the financial burden of owning and operating a vehicle. We live in cities, suburbs, rural areas, and small towns. In all these places, there are gaps and barriers that make it difficult for us to get where we need to go. 

Many other obstacles exist for those with and without disabilities when trying to access transit. A lack of light and shelter at a bus stop, or along the way, can be unsafe. The risks increase for those who are hard of hearing or low vision. Crosswalks that do not have physical and audible crossing signals to alert the people crossing pose a danger, especially in busy streets. Overgrown hedges from people’s properties blocking access to the sidewalk. Infrequent bus routes and lack of bus stops, especially outside of the city, can limit users from accessing opportunities for education, work, housing, and more. 

I would like to invite and encourage you, along with policymakers, public officials, and transportation leaders, to participate in the 2023 Week Without Driving challenge taking place October 2nd-8th. The challenge is simple: Participants can get around however they want but they cannot drive themselves. This applies to all activities—not just work commutes. 

This isn’t a disability simulation or a test of how easily you can find alternatives. It is far easier to give up your keys if you can afford to live in a walkable area well served by transit or can outsource your driving and delivery needs to other people. Also, having to drive during the challenge does not signify failure. The goal is to consider how someone without that option would have coped, and what choices they might have made. 

We need decision-makers to understand these barriers so they can understand how their decisions impact the public transportation system—and, ultimately, the quality of life for nearly one-third of our population. Participating in the Week Without Driving can be a life-changing event. It teaches participants what it’s like for people who have no choice but to navigate our inadequate transportation system daily. Every day, people with disabilities rely on walking, rolling, public transit, or asking or paying for rides. Understanding how these options work or don’t work for us is a matter of racial, economic, and disability justice.

Tanisha Sepúlveda is an architectural associate for BCRA, and a program coordinator for Empower Movement, a coalition of BIPOC and disabled mobility advocates supported by Disability Rights Washington and Front and Centered. As a power wheelchair user since 2010, Sepúlveda recognizes the lack of accessibility in the built environment and advocates for equitable access to transit and housing, with a focus on sidewalk repair and maintenance. 

Guest Editorial: Stop Treating the Chinatown/International District as a Talking Point

By Asian Pacific Americans for Civic Engagement (APACE) PAC

The Chinatown/International District is hurting. The recent vandalism of the Wing Luke Museum showed that anti-Asian hate is alive and well. The cancellation of the CID Night Market was a blow to our small businesses, still struggling after the pandemic.

Yet many in the media and positions of power (or seeking power) have been using the CID—which spans Chinatown, Filipino Town, Japantown, and Little Saigon— to advance their personal agendas and platforms while conveniently forgetting to advocate for resources and care the neighborhood so desperately needs.

To those who wish to effectively lead or to media personalities who want to cover the challenges our home is experiencing, we call on you to do better by embracing the difficult work and truly advocate with us: not press conferences, not media stunts, not using the neighborhood as a wedge issue.

To many, the neglect of the neighborhood or its use as a talking point to justify systems that often oppress and marginalize poor, non-white, or limited English proficient people might seem like a new dynamic, but the history of the CID shows otherwise.

Our beloved neighborhood, a cultural home to many, has also been a home for other groups, including Seattle’s Black community and tribal communities. Throughout the neighborhood’s history of being one of the few areas where non-white communities could reside, it has been serially overlooked, under-resourced, and neglected. At the same time, the CID has routinely been treated as a “convenient site for services” that would never land in a wealthy, white neighborhood.

Decades and generations of failed pro-carceral, pro-police state, pro-NIMBY political ideology—working to protect wealthy (and white) neighborhoods from disruptions to “neighborhood character”—have worked to produce safety and economic opportunity that centers some and fails many others—especially neighborhoods like the CID, because of who lives there or calls it home. Ignore the non-stop local media and conservative politician talking points about “public safety.” The CID is much more than what these individuals and institutions would want you to believe to support their agenda.

Our predecessors were resilient in the face of intense legal and de facto discrimination, as well violence from the state and from xenophobic homesteaders, and it shows in the richness of the neighborhood.

It is home for many of us across the broad Asian and Asian-American diaspora, who have memories of walking up and down Jackson Street or King Street or Weller Street with our family and friends, eating the foods that evoke powerful, cherished memories.

It is where we can hear our home languages, where our elders and younger generations have found community despite being unwelcome, treated as perpetual foreigners, and targeted with violence.

We’ve had enough of leaders using the CID when it’s convenient—to prove their community credentials, as a sad story to be gawked at, or when it serves a political agenda.

In July, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the CID one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, citing the history of displacement and gentrification in the neighborhood. Across the country, other Chinatowns have disappeared or are disappearing. To prevent that from happening here in Seattle we must put progressive, community-centric values into policy and program interventions that start upstream. It is essential to pair that long-term work with an immediate urgency to stand up and increase the availability of services that truly meet the needs of the neighborhood.

To meet the public safety needs in a way that can genuinely move the needle, we cannot and must not replicate the pro-carceral positions of the past (and current day). Insisting that “more police is the answer” has not been effective at reducing harm or safely de-escalating people in crisis safely. Policies of the past merely shifted the visibility of people in crisis while ignoring the causes of abject poverty in our communities or ignoring people suffering from substance use disorder or mental illness. Community trust in policing is critical to public safety, and in light of recent headlines, this trust is delicate at best.

One example of what collaboration can look like? After the 2021 Atlanta Spa shooting that targeted Asian women and businesses caused a national wave of concern and anxiety of being further targeted for violence by AANHPI communities, Seattle City Hall directed resources to enhance public safety via community-led resiliency and safety initiatives in partnership with the CID. This shows a different way is possible.

We’ve had enough of leaders using the CID when it’s convenient—to prove their community credentials, as a sad story to be gawked at, or when it serves a political agenda. It’s time for leaders to commit to working with nonprofits and community members supporting the neighborhood to address systemic inequities, co-design strategies and solutions, and move the neighborhood to long-term vibrancy and prosperity. This is love for the CID in action.

Human Services Professionals Help All of Us. It’s Time to Pay Them What They’re Worth.

Comparison of wages across industries, showing 37% wage gap for nonprofit and human services workers and 30 percent wage gap for human services workers
Image via UW Wage Equity Study

By Michelle McDaniel, Janice Deguchi, Jen Muzia, and Amarinthia Torres

If your children have attended child care or after-school programs, if you’ve accessed a food bank, or if you are a renter (or a landlord) who received rental assistance during COVID, your life has been touched by a human services professional. Human services professionals support Seattle’s human infrastructure. They work in child care, emergency shelters, food banks, family centers, home visiting programs, senior centers, and youth development programs. And their pay is so low that, too often, they can’t afford to stay in these jobs.

Sustaining our human services infrastructure requires compensating human service workers equitably, in alignment with the difficulty and responsibility of the work they do. City officials and nonprofit leaders agree that wages for human service workers do not reflect the education required, difficulty, or value of their work. These are workers who hold college and advanced degrees, speak multiple languages, and often share the lived experience of the people they serve. It is shameful that human services professionals are often paid so little that they qualify for the support programs they administer.

How far behind are human services wages? A 2022 City of Seattle-funded study conducted by the University of Washington School of Social Work found that King County human service workers are paid at least 37 percent less than workers with comparable skill sets in other industries. The report provides irrefutable evidence that human service workers—who are disproportionately women and people of color—are significantly underpaid for the essential work they perform.

The primary near-term recommendation in the report is an immediate seven percent increase to all city of Seattle-funded human service contracts, which represents the minimum level of investment needed in the short term to address high rates of turnover and align human service worker pay with the rest of the labor market

Low wages result in high turnover and vacancy rates, which are preventing human service nonprofits from being able to fulfill their mission. From early learning classrooms unable to open to delayed affordable housing projects, low wages are preventing human services providers from hiring the staff to implement critical community services.

By funding the study on wage equity across industries, the city of Seattle has already taken a meaningful first step toward addressing the crisis in human service worker pay. The report provides a number of evidence-based recommendations that the city can implement now to begin closing the gap.

The primary near-term recommendation in the report is an immediate seven percent increase to all city of Seattle-funded human service contracts, which would enable nonprofit service providers to increase their employees’ pay across the board. This represents the minimum level of investment needed in the short term to address high rates of turnover and align human service worker pay with the rest of the labor market. This increase needs to be funded in addition to inflation adjustments already guaranteed under city law.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold has introduced a resolution that would put the council on a path to adopting this set of recommendations in the coming years. We urge supportive community members to send a message to their council members supporting this legislation at this link.

Over the next few years, the city of Seattle has an opportunity to build on these investments and support the substantial wage increases recommended by this report. We call on City leaders to work in concert with other public and private funders to identify revenue necessary to pay the full cost of providing essential, life-saving human services to all Seattle residents.

Michelle McDaniel is CEO of Crisis Connections and Co-Chair of the Raising Wages for Changing Lives campaign.

Janice Deguchi, is Executive Director of Neigohborhood House and Co-Chair of the Raising Wages for Changing Lives campaign.

Jen Muzia is Executive Director of the Ballard Food Bank and Co-Chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.

Amarinthia Torres is Co-Director of the Coalition Ending Gender Based Violence and Co-Chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.

Moving Beyond Possession and Public Use: Let’s Be the City That Makes Real Progress on the Drug Crisis

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson; City Attorney Ann Davison

By Lisa Daugaard

Seattle can continue to lead the country toward a productive approach to substance use and related problems. This is true no matter what happens when the City Council votes next week on a proposed ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen and supported by City Attorney Ann Davison, creating gross misdemeanors under the Seattle Municipal Code for drug possession and public drug use.

If the ordinance is defeated, its proponents are still correct that we need far more urgency in responding to the drug crisis playing out throughout the city. If it passes, its opponents are still correct that the answer to drug-related problems does not generally lie in jailing and prosecuting people for substance use. Whatever happens next week, the work before us is the same: Take the field-leading models our community has devised to foster recovery for people who are most marginalized and exposed to the legal system, and secure the resources needed for those models to have their full impact.

When responding to problematic drug use, we cannot be satisfied with engagement for its own sake. As necessary as overdose prevention and reversal and preventing disease transmission are, they are not sufficient. We have to tackle how people are living, not just prevent deaths.

As a community, we have long known and broadly agreed on what can work well to respond to individuals who use substances in a problematic way: engagement without judgment; pre-booking diversion and pre-arrest referrals to intensive case management; well-designed low barrier interim and permanent housing options for those who are living unsheltered, as well as long-term case management for people whose use is related to complex trauma and lack of other support systems.

These approaches have been branded under names such as LEAD, Housing First, JustCARE, and harm reduction, but they all share elements of evidence-based, well-researched, trauma-informed care strategies and behavior change theory. Indeed, experts in our midst have quietly been teaching other communities how to implement these approaches, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.

Seattle led the nation in reducing arrests, jail bookings, and prosecutions for drug possession long before the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision. The fact that there is an ordinance authorizing arrest, jail and prosecution for an offense does not dictate that it be used in a stupid, counter-productive, and evidence-defying way

What we have never done is bring these approaches to scale. Despite a unanimous City Council resolution in 2019 committing Seattle to make LEAD diversion resources available in all appropriate cases, current funding limits require turning down the majority of appropriate referrals. Nor have we complemented this approach with the housing and income supports many people need to make real breakthroughs. CoLEAD and the JustCARE model, funded by temporary COVID relief dollars, began to fill that gap over the last few years, but their future is uncertain as federal relief funding recedes.

It is absolutely true that, all other things being equal, court cases and criminal charges tend to impede recovery, for complex reasons including stigma, collateral consequences, the challenge of making it to court, and the difficulty of making even well-intentioned lawyers into trauma-informed practitioners. Jail and the inherent trauma it represents, including lack of physical autonomy for people who have often been physically abused, almost always impedes recovery. These should not be the primary strategy or the first resort in our response to problematic drug use. Those objecting to the new proposed ordinance are right to raise these issues.

Yet Seattle led the nation in reducing arrests, jail bookings, and prosecutions for drug possession long before the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision. The fact that there is an ordinance authorizing arrest, jail and prosecution for an offense does not dictate that it be used in a stupid, counter-productive, and evidence-defying way. We made enormous progress as a community, and developed a consensus approach to these issues, while there was still a valid felony drug possession law in place across the state that was fully available to local officers. Police and prosecutor discretion—and the support of city and county public officials and law enforcement leaders—meant that, while the authority to jail and prosecute existed, it was rarely used.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has prioritized action on conditions downtown and in the Chinatown/International District, oversees the Seattle Police Department, and has gone out of his way to make clear that he has no intention of arresting, jail or referring drug users for prosecution. And the authors of the new proposed ordinance making drug possession and public use a local crime were not even proposing criminalizing simple drug possession in Seattle until Governor Jay Inslee pressured the legislature to pass a law creating these crimes statewide. It’s regrettable that lawmakers removed the option of local choice, which would have resulted in de facto legalization of possession and private use in Seattle and King County. But it’s worth recalling that, before Inslee’s choice drove us down this road, Davison, Nelson, and Pedersen, to their credit, were championing only a very narrow role for the legal system.

We can use best practices with or without the proposed law. In six months, for example, it will be far more important whether the multi-partner Third Avenue Project is still going on—and the 400-plus people who use drugs, live unsheltered, and are having a problematic impact in the Third Avenue corridor received supportive housing and intensive case management— than whether there is formal jurisdiction for the City Attorney to prosecute these two, of many, offenses that people who use substances often commit.

Drug possession and public use are now gross misdemeanors across the state—including in Seattle. Nothing local officials can do now can formally decriminalize either. It’s evident that some local leaders feel that taking an enforcement role completely off the table sends a message that serious drug issues are unimportant or low priority, and it’s also evident that other local officials cannot stomach any steps that formally invoke the prospect of criminal system consequences for what are fundamentally health and wellness issues.

It’s important to recognize that defeating the ordinance would not in itself represent a progressive approach to drug issues. Let’s fight hardest for what will matter most: whether we actually mobilize the community-based care approach that most people in Seattle support, go and get our people, demand the housing and income support that people need to recover, and provide the wrap-around care without which there is nearly zero chance for stabilization and healing. As it stands, regardless of whether this ordinance passes, we aren’t close to scaling the plan we need—even though we know exactly what it is.

Lisa Daugaard is the Co-Executive Director for Purpose Dignity Action (PDA) (formerly the Public Defender Association), a longtime drug policy reform organization that provides project management for local LEAD diversion initiatives, technical support for other jurisdictions implementing pre-booking diversion models, and partners on the JustCARE and Third Avenue Project initiatives.

The 2023 Housing Levy Renewal is Meeting The Moment

An overview of the Seattle Housing Levy renewal plan, via City of Seattle

By Patience Malaba and Jane Hopkins, RN

Nearly every day, our organizations hear from workers, employers, and housing providers about the tremendous need for more housing options across Seattle. Just how big is the need? The Washington State Department of Commerce just released new projections that the city will need about 112,000 new units over the next 20 years.

To get there, we’ll need to maximize all the tools in our toolbox. The good news is that there is momentum. The state legislature went big and bold for changes that will make an impact, by investing in the housing trust fund and adopting reforms that allow more missing middle housing around the state.

In Seattle, these improvements work in concert with a proven housing program that is up for renewal this year: The seven-year housing levy. Mayor Bruce Harrell released his levy proposal in March and the city council is leading a process to place it on the ballot this November.

For nearly four decades, the housing levy has been our city’s voter-approved funding source to build and maintain thousands of units of permanent, affordable homes for vulnerable and low-income residents. It is an unparalleled success story—not only supporting the construction of housing, but providing assistance to seniors to mitigate displacement, emergency rental funds to prevent homelessness, and targeted homeowner support to address inequities and build generational wealth.

The proposed $970 million levy package builds on this record of accomplishment, and is supported by a diverse coalition of leaders and stakeholders who have been rethinking how we leverage levy funds to meet urgent needs while better coordinating with other funding sources. Our shared goal and commitment has been to partner with the mayor and city council to present voters with the best possible levy proposal this November, to make the largest—and most lasting—impact on the diverse housing needs of our communities.

The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.

First, we must expand our commitment to the basics: Thousands of units of affordable homes for low-income, working, and vulnerable families and individuals. These include new construction, restoration and preservation of existing buildings, and purchase of buildings to maintain or improve affordability.

Second, we need to emphasize the importance of permanent, supportive housing solutions for people we are helping back into stable housing or those at risk of slipping into homelessness. Levy funds have, and must continue, to be part of the larger solution as we address the acute and individualized needs of people experiencing mental health and addiction crises. The next levy should build upon proven and cost-effective staffing and housing programs that restore lives. This includes both the physical residences and the staffing needed to keep people housed and on pathways to stability and recovery.

A third critical element is maintaining funds for emergency rental assistance—making sure a low-income worker who loses a paycheck or has an unexpected medical bill doesn’t lose their home, resulting in greater downstream costs and trauma. These simple and proven programs to prevent eviction and homelessness are essential to community stability and economic independence.

Finally, our levy renewal should continue progress in addressing past inequities that have led to lower rates of homeownership for communities of color, and greater rates of displacement and gentrification in historically redlined neighborhoods of Seattle. Thoughtful investments in down payment assistance, home repair, and other programs not only allow families to place and maintain roots in our city but provide for future generations to achieve goals of homeownership and financial equity.

Seattle voters have demonstrated a commitment to affordable housing again and again, dating back to our first housing levy in 1986. But we are not taking this commitment for granted. Voters need to know that the investments they approve are making an impact at a scale that makes a significant difference. The levy is not a cure-all for every housing need facing our city, but it is an integral part of the solution and must expand to continue serving as the foundation for a broader set of investments.

Now, with the need greater than ever, it’s critical to unify  around a bold vision for affordable housing. We look forward to building on this record of success with a 2023 levy renewal that meets this moment and provides a foundation for the future.

Patience Malaba is the Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium, a 200-member association of affordable and low-income housing developers, providers, and advocates.

Jane Hopkins, RN, is the President of SEIU 1199NW, a union representing nurses, care providers, and other healthcare professionals.

We Must Support People Who Use Substances, Not Punish Them. Here’s How.


Harm reduction includes widely accepted approaches such as needle exchanges and more recent innovations like fentanyl testing strips. Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Susan E. Collins, PhD

Editor’s note: This Tuesday, the Washington State Legislature will convene in a special session to pass a new drug law, after a 2021 state supreme court decision known as Washington v. Blake effectively decriminalized drug possession. The legislature passed a temporary law re-criminalizing drugs until July 2023, expecting to pass a more comprehensive drug law during the legislative session that just ended; when legislators failed to reach an agreement, Gov. Jay Inslee called a special session to deal with Blake.

After decades of the failed and costly war on drugs, we have collectively learned that we cannot punish and incarcerate people into sobriety and wellness. And in the wake of the 2021 Washington State Supreme Court Blake decision, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure recovery, not punishment, for people with substance use disorders by using the evidence-based tools of harm reduction.

However, more punitive measures are currently gaining traction, as state legislators and local government officials consider making public use, drug possession, and/or failure to comply with sobriety-based treatment punishable with jail time and fines.

Why? Some argue jail time can serve as a wake-up call. But recent studies have shown incarceration is associated with worsened physical and mental health, including increased drug use. And it can be deadly: Washington state has the fourth highest jail mortality rate in the country. Due to stronger opioids like fentanyl, jail time can also set people up for overdose. That’s why, in Washington state, people who get out of jail have a risk of overdose death that is at least 16 times higher than for everyone else.

We talk about how to be safer and healthier, even if patients continue to use, and we track metrics to show incremental positive changes. Our studies show this approach to be engaging and effective.

Once we learned these old ways were hurting and not helping, my colleagues and I at the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center at the University of Washington started to ask people who use substances how we could do better. They told us to meet them where they are and not require them to get sober to get help. They wanted to learn, step-by-step, how to reduce substance-related harm and improve quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities. This is called harm reduction.

After spending the past 15 years testing such approaches, here’s what our research and clinical group has found.

Our evaluations of law-enforcement assisted diversion showed that diverting people away from jail to harm-reduction case management and legal assistance was associated with 60 percent lower recidivism, reduced legal and criminal justice system use and costs, and greater likelihood of obtaining housing, employment and legitimate income.

Another successful community-level intervention is providing Housing First, or immediate, permanent, low-barrier housing and supportive services that do not require sobriety to help people meet their basic needs. Contrary to some people’s initial fears, our research has shown that providing Housing First does not “enable” substance use. Studies of Housing First here in Washington State show that it is associated with long-term reductions in alcohol use, alcohol-related harm, and use of jail and publicly funded healthcare. These findings have held in rigorous tests in other parts of the world as well.

Low-barrier shelters, which provide safer-use equipment and spaces, are another effective way to reduce harm. Our evaluation showed this approach did not increase substance use. In fact, people staying in the low-barrier Navigation Center in Seattle were 23 percent less likely to report any alcohol or drug use for each month after their move-in date. Instead, this approach was linked to better general health and a stronger commitment to protecting self and others through safer use.

In another approach, harm-reduction treatment, which can include counseling alone or combined with medication, clinicians set aside a demand for sobriety and instead ask patients, “What do you want to see happen for yourself?” We talk about how to be safer and healthier, even if patients continue to use, and we track metrics to show incremental positive changes.

Our studies show this approach to be engaging and effective. Over 90 percent of those approached have accepted help. We have also seen use and substance-related harm cut in more than half. And even though this harm-reduction treatment approach doesn’t require sobriety, positive urine tests for alcohol decrease as well because some patients decide to get sober after all.

In the case of one client, it took a year and a half to stop using, but even before then, he was reducing his use, recovering from depression, and rebuilding a relationship with his family after 5 years of prison and unsheltered homelessness. He sent me a picture of him and his family at Disneyland, captioning it with “It took a village. But harm reduction worked for me. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy.”

At this watershed moment, let’s remember to support and not punish people for having a substance use disorder. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s what works.

Dr. Susan Collins codirects the Harm Reduction Research & Treatment Center at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The center receives no funding from the tobacco, vaping or pharmaceutical industries. She also is a professor of psychology at Washington State University. The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and not the positions of the University of Washington or Washington State University.

As a Firefighter, I Oppose Criminalizing “Interference” with Seattle Fire Department Personnel

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC by SA 3.0 license.

By LéTania Severe

The Seattle City Council is considering legislation to protect firefighters responding to emergencies, making it a crime to physically interfere with them as they try to provide aid.

This proposal, which would expand the existing law against “obstructing” police officers to include Fire Department personnel, will not only fail to protect firefighters, it will make things worse for them and the communities they serve—particularly the Black community members who face disproportionate arrests and prosecutions under the existing “obstruction” statute.

How do I know this? For the last five years, I have been a firefighter/EMT for Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, giving me a front-row seat to the challenges of the job.

While my firefighting work is in Pierce County, I currently live and rent in Seattle’s District 2. I also have a PhD in Sociology and have spent the last 17 years researching homelessness, housing, and criminal legal system policy in Seattle and the broader region. I am Black, queer, and nonbinary, and I co-led the Black Brilliance Research Project, funded by City Council to answer questions around how we build community safety and community health. These experiences have equipped me to assess the current bill before City Council and compel me to speak out against it.

Firefighters are called to respond when people are having their worst day. Firefighters remind each other about this often. It helps ground us so that we don’t take people’s behavior or words personally. As firefighters, we work for the people. We don’t force our service onto people; that’s not our job. We ask them why we were called and what they need.

​​Firefighter work is stressful and grueling. I can tell you from experience that 24-hour shifts do not result in us showing up to calls with our best selves. Being woken up in the middle of the night to answer the community’s call for help when you are already sleep-deprived is demanding and keeps firefighters in a heightened “fight mode” for the entirety of our shift.

These conditions are among the biggest challenges we face. But the proposal before the council, which criminalizes community members for interfering with firefighters, does nothing to address the stress and impact on our bodies caused by our work.

The proposed legislation does nothing to address any of the underlying reasons that trigger the need for an emergency response. In fact, our community has seen money moved out of these areas of upstream intervention in order to put more money into policing the results of these failures.

Sometimes as firefighters, the stress we shoulder aggravates the situations we enter. In my experience, these are the times when we experience “obstruction” from the patients we serve. For example, impatient firefighters sometimes wake someone up from an overdose too fast by administering Narcan too quickly. In these situations, the person’s body will react with shock and confusion. That person should not be blamed for their body’s response. When we arrive on a call to an individual experiencing a mental health crisis, we should hold them in grace as we focus on helping them move through it and then do our best to address the root causes of that crisis.

Other examples of our own stress as firefighters aggravating the situations we enter include firefighters escalating stressful situations instead of showing compassion and using de-escalation skills; firefighters taking a patient’s refusal of services personally and attempting to force their services on a patient who does not want it; and firefighters not respecting the agency of patients

This bill doesn’t address any of these situations. Instead, it makes things worse by criminalizing the very communities we are called to serve.

We all know that firefighters are often called to intervene because of bigger system failures. Indeed, the proposed bill’s language acknowledges as much: “[I]t is well known that the challenges faced by all our public safety employees at the City of Seattle have increased with the rise of the opioid epidemic, economic uncertainty, and multiple public health crises – COVID, mental health, and substance use.”

And yet the proposed legislation does absolutely nothing to address any of the underlying reasons that trigger the need for an emergency response. In fact, our community has seen money moved out of these areas of upstream intervention in order to put more money into policing the results of these failures. This bill, which expands expensive and harmful criminal legal system responses to social problems, continues the same pattern.

This bill claims to “give our fire department employees in the line of duty an additional tool for their personal safety and the ability to secure the scene of a medical health response or fire response, particularly in the case of bystander intervention while firefighters and paramedics are providing aid.”  But this legislation won’t actually prevent “bystander intervention,” because it relies on the police to respond and arrest only after an alleged interference. This bill does not deter anything. Instead it will make things worse by criminalizing behavior that can be better mitigated by addressing root causes. 

What could a better bill do? 

A better bill would move funding for addressing overdose calls from SFD and SPD to community members instead. Bystanders safely administer Narcan in the field every single day. They save lives and they do so compassionately, because unlike firefighters, they often know the person, or the person is a member of their community.

It is well established that firefighters and police officers are extremely ill-equipped to meet the needs of community members experiencing a mental health crisis. I have never received good training on responding to calls in which individuals are in mental health crises and I’d bet that Seattle firefighters haven’t, either.

The common denominator between overdose and mental health calls is that they require an immense amount of patience. When fire departments are understaffed, patience goes out the window. Again, this bill does not address this problem. There are many things that can improve our job, such as more training, more staffing, better schedules, addressing system failures, more tools to regulate our nervous systems on shift, de-escalation training, Narcan administration training and mental health crisis response training.

What if rather than expanding a system that causes harm, we actually focused more on assessing which social safety nets have utterly failed the folks who need us? What if we moved funding out of SFD and SPD to empower community members to respond to mental health crises?  What if we actually committed to addressing the root causes?

I suspect we will be told that addressing root causes is impossible given Seattle’s budget deficit. But it’s never too late to reallocate funding from our bloated punishment budgets (police, courts, and prosecutors) toward making firefighter jobs and our community safer. If the City Council cares about firefighter safety and community safety, they will vote NO on the current obstruction bill, and fund community response instead.

LéTania Severe PhD (they/them) is a Black, queer, non-binary researcher and firefighter who organizes with Seattle Solidarity Budget, a cross-movement coalition of over 200 organizations, fighting for a city budget that divest from harmful systems like police, courts and jails and reinvests in meeting community basic needs including housing, transportation, climate change resilience and more. LéTania is also a coordinator for Seattle’s new Community Response Network, which trains community members to respond to emergencies in their own communities.