Category: Health

Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round

1. Last year, after the COVID pandemic forced the closure of most public and publicly accessible restrooms across the city, advocates for people experiencing homelessness suggested a creative approach to help stop the spread of COVID: Cheap, portable handwashing sinks that could be installed in any location with access to a public water outlet.

The first Street Sink, a collaboration between Real Change and the University of Washington College of Built Environments, was installed outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District last May. The prototype consisted of a basic utility sink with a soap dispenser that drained into a steel trough filled with soil and water-loving plants.

The Seattle City Council added $100,000 to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget for a street-sink pilot project last November, hoping to capitalize on the success of the prototype and expand the sinks to neighborhoods across the city. Since then, though, the project has stalled.

According to communications between staff for Seattle Public Utilities, the Department of Neighborhoods, and street-sink proponents, the city has a range of outstanding concerns, including the environment (the soil-based system is not equipped to deal with “blackwater,” or unfiltered human waste), the weather (if left unwrapped, the sinks’ pipes may not be able to withstand a hard freeze), and accessibility (the sinks, though wheelchair-accessible, are not fully ADA compliant. Neither, for that matter, are many of the city’s public restrooms).

“It’s incredibly frustrating, because we’re getting bogged down in process instead of acting with urgency” to provide people living unsheltered with soap and water to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, said. Since the pandemic began, there have been repeated outbreaks of hepatitis A and other communicable diseases among the city’s homeless population; in the case of a recent shigella outbreak, the rise in cases coincided with the regular winter closure of public restrooms with running water. The city provides portable toilets in locations where restrooms are closed, but these “sanicans” are not equipped with sinks and often lack hand sanitizer.

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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 prototype for the Street Sink cost about $400. A more detailed budget puts the cost of each sink at just over than $750. More elaborate sinks with sewer connections or barrel collection systems would cost significantly more; last year, for example, Seattle Makers proposed a stainless-steel handwashing station that includes collection barrels, electronic sensors, a GPS connection, and components “built to withstand abuse from hammers,” for whatever reason, all at a cost of $7,250 per sink.

McCoy says $100,000 would fund the installation of 63 street sinks around the city. But the city seems unlikely to use the prototype her group designed. Instead, according to emails from the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, the city is planning to “pivot” away from the Street Sink project to a new “expanded mutual aid opportunity – the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot” that will “facilitate solutions that meet our safety and regulatory guidelines. For example, we will match sink prototypes without safety and blackwater issues to Real Change, or another implementing organization.”

PubliCola has reached out to the mayor’s office to find out more about the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot and to see if there is any timeline for the city to actually deploy the handwashing stations funded last year.

2.The Renton Chamber of Commerce issued a statement on Facebook over the weekend defending the organization and its director, Diane Dobson, against unspecified allegations of racism.

The statement read, in part, “The Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce, Diane Dobson, has been a tireless champion in standing against racism and bias. She has worked to drive diversity, equity and inclusion through numerous community events and actions aimed at addressing racism in our community. The Chamber Board of Directors unanimously stands with and supports Diane as she continues to make a meaningful, positive difference in our community and region.”

A look through the comments on the post clarifies what it’s about. During the recent snowstorm, a woman (identified in by her male companion as “Robin”) threw snowballs at the car of an Asian-American passerby and—according to the text accompanying the video he took after he got out of his car to confront her—called him a “fucking ch*nk.” In the video, posted on the Youtube channel RevealKarens, the man asks the apparently intoxicated woman repeatedly why she used that term, as she grows more and more agitated and finally says she did it because he was being “a dick.”

Eventually, according to the man’s account, Dobson came by and convinced the woman to leave. In subsequent comments on the Facebook thread, the person behind the Chamber account responded to criticism by praising Dobson in increasingly lavish terms, describing her “wonderful” work in the community and referring to “reports we have received of her donations of masks to the School District for teachers and staff and many of the front line workers in essential nonprofits as well.” The responses became so focused on Dobson, the person, rather than the Chamber as an entity that many commenters assumed that the  person posting for the Chamber was Dobson herself.

Dobson’s name has appeared in PubliCola before. She has been a vocal opponent of a shelter at the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Renton and onto city streets, blaming its homeless residents for the economic downturn in downtown Renton, and reportedly threatened to revoke an LGBTQ+ organization’s Chamber membership over their advocacy in favor of the shelter.

3. Lightning-round election news:

Brianna Thomas, a legislative aide to council president and mayoral candidate Lorena González, will make her candidacy for González’ position official later this week. (González is relinquishing her seat to run for mayor.) Thomas ran once before, in 2015, for the West Seattle council seat now occupied by Lisa Herbold. Continue reading “Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round”

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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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.

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”

City’s Hotel-Based “Shelter Surge” in Jeopardy Over Financial, Logistical Concerns

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s plan to use federal COVID dollars to move unsheltered people to hotels, then housing, has hit a serious snag—several, actually—that could put the centerpiece of the city’s planned 2021 “shelter surge” in jeopardy.

Last year, after a bruising budget season, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a $34 million plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant (COVID) grant dollars to create hundreds of new shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness, including 125 new enhanced shelter beds in traditional congregate settings and 300 hotel rooms that would be repurposed as noncongregate shelter.

According to a request for qualifications for the funding, the grant money is supposed to pay for programs that “assist those experiencing homelessness in finding safe alternatives through investment in shelters/hotels that result in permanent housing through Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing.” The idea is that homeless service providers will move hundreds of people out of encampments and into hotels, from which they’ll emerge on one of two tracks: Permanent supportive housing (for those who require comprehensive, 24/7 support) or market-rate apartments (for everyone else.)

The surge was also supposed to include 125 new 24/7 congregate shelter beds. So far, the city has only granted funding for the hotel-based shelters, and it’s unclear whether any agencies applied for the additional shelter funding.

The hotels were supposed to be up and running “beginning in December 2020.” None have opened, and a number of serious issues remain unresolved. The first is a $17,000-per-unit spending cap, established by the city budget office, which will limit what services and amenities are available to clients staying in the rooms. (The city is paying for the rooms themselves separately using the federal ESG funds.) The mayor’s office has said they expect the hotel units to turn over as people move rapidly through the hotel rooms and on to permanent housing, so the $17,000 cap is for each unit, not each client. 

From that money—a total of around $5 million, assuming the city eventually opens all 300 rooms—the service providers must pay for food, supplies, janitorial services, security, protective equipment, and salaries for the onsite case managers who will be charged with setting clients up for success in housing. So far, the city has offered contracts to two providers, Chief Seattle Club and the Public Defender Association, to run the hotels. The agencies have reportedly balked at this spending cap, which could make it difficult to provide the kind of high-touch services necessary to deal with the complex behavioral health issues, including addiction, that are common among people living unsheltered, especially those who are chronically homeless.

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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.

Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said a typical enhanced shelter or tiny house village unit costs between $16,000 and $22,000 a year. “We are in active contract negotiations with multiple providers to operate new hotel shelter units,” Lemke said in a statement. “As expected, each provider has a different proposed approach and we are working through those details now. …Program approach and associated costs are key drivers.”

The city has set aside almost twice as much money, $9 million, for the rapid rehousing component of the program, which it has dubbed “Street to Housing.” The city has picked Catholic Community Services as its rapid rehousing provider, in addition to the Chief Seattle Club’s own rapid rehousing program. The city plans to use those funds to move 231 single hotel shelter clients into market-rate apartments and subsidize their rent for up to 12 months. As PubliCola has reported, the premise behind rapid rehousing programs is that many, perhaps most, people experiencing homelessness need only minimal assistance, including rent subsidies and financial counseling, to afford an apartment.

The people who provide rapid rehousing tend to disagree with this optimistic assessment. They say the clients who do best in rapid rehousing are the ones who have just become homeless, who are already employed or  recently lost a job, and who don’t require intensive case management or other services, such as mental health or addiction treatment. People with addiction, untreated mental illness, or other temporarily disabling conditions often need more than a short-term financial boost, but don’t require the comprehensive, long-term services offered in permanent supportive housing programs. There simply aren’t many programs for people who fall into that gap.

Another issue with the hotels the city has chosen is that the rooms are not set up for long-term residents. Neither of the two hotels the city is currently considering—King’s Inn, a block away from Amazon headquarters, and the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown—offers in-room kitchenettes or microwaves, meaning that the providers will have to either purchase microwaves so people can heat up food they bring in (impossible in the case of the Executive Pacific, whose wiring is apparently too old to withstand microwaves in every room) or pay for catering at significant expense.

Additionally, the Executive Pacific is in the middle of downtown, and offers no common area for residents to gather, making it likely that they will congregate outside and contribute to the sense of “disorder” that causes business groups and law-and-order activists to call for crackdowns. Both hotels are clearly better than nothing, but they need to be places people want to stay. It’s unclear the city is setting either up for success.

Ultimately, the question the city has to consider is this: What is the point of these new shelters, and is a program that skimps on direct services while investing lavishly in a market-based solution likely to lead to that result?

If the point is to simply create the appearance of responding to the homelessness crisis  during a global emergency that—like Durkan’s term— will have largely ended by the time the grant runs out, then limited-service shelters that spit chronically homeless people into the private market may do the trick. But if the goal is to actually move people facing complex, persistent challenges into housing where they will thrive, it will take more than a single “shelter surge,” and very likely more than a few thousand dollars a person, to get there.

The mayor’s office will provide a “Status Update on 2021 Homelessness Investments” at the city council’s Homelessness Strategies and Investments meeting today, Wednesday, at 2pm.

Public Restroom Closures Coincide With Shigella Outbreak Among Seattle’s Homeless

Plus election speculation and news from City Hall.

1. As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the one-year mark, the city of Seattle has decided to keep some restrooms in parks and other public spaces open over the winter so that people who might ordinarily use restrooms in fast-food restaurants or libraries can have more places to go.

As PubliCola reported last month, the city’s Parks Department says it has no choice but to close certain parks restrooms down during the winter months because their plumbing can’t withstand freezing temperatures. The department provided PubliCola with a list of all the restrooms that are currently closed, either for winterization or for other reasons, such as fires, vandalism, or structural damage.

The upshot: Of more than 130 restrooms operated directly by the city, and not counting restrooms in library buildings or shelters operated by nonprofit providers, more than 60 are currently closed. Of those, fewer than half have been replaced by what the city euphemistically calls “sanicans,” better known as portable toilets, and only a relative handful of which include a place for people to wash their hands after doing their business.

In Judkins Park, near PubliCola HQ, a lonely pair of portable toilets that replaced two multi-stall restrooms looked the worse for wear this weekend, as did toilets placed in nearby Sam Smith Park. The official restroom map maintained by the city’s Human Services Department lists two open restroom buildings and a 24-hour “sanican.” Other restrooms that only have portable toilets, according the Parks Department’s list, show up on HSD’s list of open restrooms, as do many non-city restrooms that are open limited hours, such as Immanuel Community Services (open from 8 to 2 on weekdays) or are only accessible to certain groups, such as the women-only day center at Mary’s Place.

The result is that—like last year—the city’s list of “open” restrooms overstates the actual number of restrooms that are open, accessible, and safe, not to mention clean.

2. Limited-access day centers, the five library branches (of 27) that allow walk-in restroom use, and portable toilets with handwashing stations are certainly better than nothing. But during a pandemic, when people experiencing homelessness have less access than usual to basic hygiene, portable toilets without toilet paper or a sink invite the spread of disease. Last month, King County Public Health issued a warning about an outbreak of Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. According to the county, “the [Shigella] germs can spread when someone with Shigella does not wash their hands well after using the toilet then contaminates objects, food or water.”

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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.

Since the end of October, Public Health has received 61 reports of Shigella, 46 of those after December 14. Of that total, the vast majority—47—occurred among “people who reported experiencing homelessness or unstable housing or who accessed homeless services,” a spokeswoman for Public Health told PubliCola. Because these numbers only reflect reported cases, the true number is undoubtedly higher.

According to King County’s info page, simple “handwashing with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself and others against Shigella infections.” Many homeless people lack this option, and we’re seeing the results.

3. Lorelei Williams, the deputy director overseeing capital projects for the Seattle Department of Transportation, is leaving the city after more than 16 years to take a job with WSP, a mega-engineering firm that has many current contracts with the city, including a contract to monitor the structural integrity of the West Seattle Bridge. Williams will be WSP’s Pacific Northwest Transportation Business Line Leader.

According to an SDOT spokesman, Williams “has not had any role in selecting WSP or overseeing their contracts” for SDOT. She’ll be the second high-ranking SDOT staffer to make the jump to the engineering firm in recent years, after Mike Terrell left his position as deputy director in charge of capital projects and roadway structures to take a job at WSP in 2018. Although city rules bar certain high-ranking employees from lobbying elected officials for three years after leaving the city, there are no rules prohibiting city employees from taking jobs at firms that compete for city contracts.

4. Although conventional wisdom has it that King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is running for reelection this year, has a lock on the position, one name keeps coming up as a potential challenger: Washington State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34). Nguyen won his senate seat in 2018, defeating Constantine’s deputy executive, Shannon Braddock. He did not return a call seeking comment about whether he’s running.

Unclear if Cops in D.C. During Riot Will Face Discipline; Council Weighs in on Cuba; Mosqueda Aide to Run for Mayor

1. Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz held a brief press conference on Wednesday afternoon to address both his announcement last Friday night that two SPD officers were present in Washington, D.C. on the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol and a spike in homicides in Seattle in 2020. As PubliCola reported on Friday, the department learned that two of its officers were in D.C. through a photo posted on social media; Diaz placed both officers on administrative leave while the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigates whether they were involved in the attack on the Capitol.

According to Diaz’s statement Monday, another officer reported the pair to their superiors, and the photos reached Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations Tom Mahaffey and Diaz by last Thursday. Diaz said he didn’t immediately terminate the two officers because “participating in a political event on their own time, out of uniform, violates no policy or law.”

In response to questions Monday, Diaz said that he will immediately fire the officers if the OPA investigation finds that they “participat[ed] in altercations with Capitol Police” or violated federal law.

The OPA also opened an investigation into Solan’s tweets last Friday. SPD has disciplined officers for social media posts in the recent past; last January, then-police chief Carmen Best fired Officer Duane Goodman for Instagram posts attacking Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and “illegal immigrants.”

Diaz said he didn’t immediately terminate the two officers because “participating in a political event on their own time, out of uniform, violates no policy or law.”

Halfway through his prepared remarks, Diaz pivoted to the subject of the surge in homicides in Seattle in 2020. According to year-end statistics, homicides rose by 61 percent from from 2019—from 31 to 50, the highest number in 26 years. Of those, 60 percent involved a gun, compared to 66 percent in the previous year. Half of all victims were Black, and most were men between the ages of 18 and 49. According to Diaz, last year saw an increase in domestic violence homicides in the city and a decrease in homicides in which the victims were unsheltered.

2. During Monday’s city council briefing, several council members added their voices to calls for Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president Mike Solan to resign after he took to Twitter last week to assert that members of the “far left” and Black Lives Matter activists were involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday. Mayor Jenny Durkan, former Seattle police chief Carmen Best and frequent department ally Scott Lindsay publicly called for Solan to apologize or resign on Friday evening.

In her comments at the start of the council briefing, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed to Solan’s lengthy record of inflammatory public statements and suggested that SPOG members should consider recalling or censuring Solan. “This is not the person I believe should be leading the guild during challenging times,” Herbold said, “and I hope members of SPOG agree.”

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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.

Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Andrew Lewis made more direct calls for SPOG to remove Solan from its leadership, with Lewis arguing that Solan “has done nothing to advance the cause or the issues of that union or the quality of support of workers in that union.” And Councilmember Alex Pedersen connected Solan’s comments to the upcoming contract negotiations with SPOG, which will begin sometime in 2021. 

We will all agree that Officer Solan’s remarks and their implications are reprehensible and untrue, but also that there is a need to revamp an inflexible, expensive and unjust police union contract,” Pedersen said. “The current president of the police union has, in my view, disqualified himself to a fair partner to negotiate that contract.”

3. Also at today’s council meeting, council members Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant introduced a resolution calling for collaboration between US and Cuban scientists and urging Congress and the incoming Administration to end the United States’ economic blockade against its southern neighbor. Citing reports from Cuban authorities, the resolution reads, “Cuba’s free community-based healthcare system, unified government approach, and robust biopharmaceutical industry have enabled the country to effectively deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.” Continue reading “Unclear if Cops in D.C. During Riot Will Face Discipline; Council Weighs in on Cuba; Mosqueda Aide to Run for Mayor”

2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of efforts to shelter people in some of the city’s thousands of empty hotel rooms, the closure of public restrooms during the COVID pandemic, or the delayed transition of city homelessness services to a new regional agency, read on.

City OKs Hotel Shelter

After staunchly resisting requests from advocates and service providers to fund and facilitate non-congregate shelter in hotels, the city reversed course this fall, agreeing to use federal dollars to fund a 10-month pilot program that will place several hundred people in hotel rooms. The plan, shepherded through by deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller earlier this year, is to move people through the hotel rooms and into regular apartments through short-term “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

The Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services will be the service providers at the hotels the city will soon announce it is renting as part of its 10-month hotel-to-housing program, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.

The city has not announced which nonprofit agencies will receive the contracts or which hotels they’ll be renting with federal relief dollars, but PubliCola has learned the names of the three agencies and one of the hotels. The Public Defender Association, which provides hotel rooms and case management to unsheltered people through its existing Co-LEAD and JustCares programs, and the Chief Seattle Club will provide services at the hotels, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown and at least one smaller motel.

Catholic Community Services will serve as the rapid rehousing provider, connecting shelter residents to housing in market-rate (non-subsidized) apartments by providing short-term (up to one year) housing assistance.

Restroom closures

At the beginning of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population faced an elevated risk of exposure not just to COVID-19, but to other communicable diseases such as hepatitis A, because the closure of public buildings and retail businesses greatly diminished their access to restrooms and running water. According to the city auditor, the number of public restrooms available to people experiencing homelessness was already inadequate before the pandemic.

As we documented throughout the spring, the city itself exacerbated the problem by shutting down or failing to reopen dozens of public restrooms, then claiming that they were actually open and providing a map directing people to restrooms that weren’t actually available. In our review of 27 restrooms the city claimed were open to the public at the end of March, eight were closed and locked.

Support PubliCola

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

Eventually, the city did reopen many of the restrooms it shut down (although most library and community center restrooms remain closed), and it slowed down the barrage of press releases touting wide availability of restrooms for unsheltered people. Restroom access after hours remains a major problem, as does access to potable water, but things are better now than they were in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.

As winter approaches, many public restrooms will be shut down again, although many that were subject to “seasonal closures” last year (those at beaches and parks that don’t get much winter traffic) will stay open. According to Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, many of the city’s park restrooms were built more than 70 years ago and have pipes that can’t withstand winter weather. Schulkin provided a list of nearly 30 parks restrooms that will be closed for the winter, including Alki Playground, Greenwood Park, Little Brook Park, and others across the city. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces

L-R: The Gateway Park North site, the Georgetown Tiny House Village, and the future dog park site at the Georgetown Flume

by Erica C. Barnett

This is a story about a new park for people, a proposed park for dogs, and how confusion among at least four city departments has left more than a dozen people living in RVs and trailers in a state of limbo, living on disputed territory amid neighbors—including a permitted tiny house village—who want them gone.

It’s also, inevitably, a story about homelessness: A reminder, in a city where people without permanent places to live are routinely swept from place to place, that even the urgency of a global pandemic has not produced lasting solutions to a problem that is currently more visible than it has ever been. Because while the city’s policy of removing people from public spaces based largely on neighborhood complaints has subsided in the past year, that short-term reprieve hasn’t been coupled with enough new shelter or housing to get more than a few hundred of Seattle’s growing homeless population indoors on even a temporary basis.”

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land.” Greg Ramirez, board chair, Georgetown Community Council

The story begins, as a lot of stories about homelessness seem to, in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the Seattle Parks Department is just starting construction on a new park facing the Duwamish River across from Boeing Field. The Gateway Park North project will improve and provide better access to a tiny piece of riverfront land that’s partly occupied by the out-of-commission Georgetown Pumping Station.

Since March, the city tacitly allowed people living in RVs, cars, and trailers to occupy the site, which is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. In early December, however, the department put  up signs announcing it was about to start work on the new park and warning RV residents that they needed to be gone by the following week. REACH, the nonprofit that had been doing outreach to the vehicle residents for the last eight months, worked quickly to figure out where the residents wanted to go and how to get them there; since many of the RVs had been sitting in place for longer than usual, 11 of them no longer ran.

“We talked about who needed to move and asked them, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’,” said Dawn Whitson, a REACH case manager who works in Georgetown. “They had already identified the site—the Georgetown Flume.”

Support PubliCola

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

The Georgetown Flume—so named because it was the site of a flume that transported water from the Duwamish to the Georgetown Steam Plant, which closed in 1975—is another disused property a few blocks north of the pumping station site. Seattle City Light owns the land, but plans to give it to the Parks Department in exchange for a street vacation (the permanent closure of a public street) on property it owns in SoDo. Street vacations require some kind of public benefit; hence the trade to Parks. The plan is for the property to become a dog park for the surrounding neighborhood.

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land,” Greg Ramirez, the board chair for the Georgetown Community Council, said. “We want to assist these individuals to find a better location, but this is not it. The flume is not that spot. Gateway Park North is not that spot.”

“If the city is going to pay for [RVs] to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go?”—Dawn Whitson, REACH

Georgetown is already the site of one longstanding tiny house village run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which the community council and other local groups initially opposed but which, according to Georgetown Tiny House Village Community Advisory Council chair Barbara Grace Hill, has since become “a big part of the neighborhood.” (According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, “we are on record supporting the dog park.”)

The issue, Georgetown residents say is that nobody at the city asked them what they thought of the idea. This, they say, is part of a pattern that has included not just the tiny house village but the proposed relocation of an overnight sobering center into a historic building in the neighborhood core—a proposal that would have put the sobering center far away from other city services. “It’s been a pattern with the city,” Hill said. After a neighborhood lawsuit helped sink the sobering center proposal, “it was like, again, ‘Would you please communicate with us? Would you please let us know what’s going on?'” Continue reading “Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces”

These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

Due to the popularity of closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars—and opening it for walking, biking, and rolling only, as SDOT did during the recent Thanksgiving weekend and over the summer: one mile of the northern portion of Lake Washington Blvd from Mt. Baker Park to Stan Sayres Memorial Park will be a no-car zone this Friday, December 18 through January 3.

Apparently, the popularity of these closures is causing some angst. People who oppose closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars took their case to the joint Board of Parks Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee meeting last Thursday night.  At the online meeting, SDOT floated the concept of making some of 2020’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-and-bike-only streets permanent. Lake Washington Boulevard isn’t currently under consideration for permanent closure, but SDOT’s anxious critics, intent on nipping the idea in the bud, pointed out that the vaunted Olmsted Brothers originally designed Lake Washington Boulevard for cars. Specifically, they said, for “recreational…pleasure drives.”

I love it when city officials are able to turn original intent arguments back against NIMBYs, and Parks Commissioner Tom Byers did just that. Byers, former deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, pointed out that the typical car speed when the Olmsteds designed the boulevard was 12 mph. Today, it’s 25 mph. (Seems more like 30 or 40 if you’ve ever been biking there and had a car up in your business, but still.) For the past decade, the city has traditionally closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on Sundays during summer months. 

This past summer, responding to people’s need for daily recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods during the pandemic, SDOT restricted car access on 26 miles of neighborhood streets, creating bike-and pedestrian-friendly zones known as “Stay Healthy Streets” to create more room for people to walk, bike, and roll while maintaining at least six feet of distance from others. SDOT also teamed up with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department for four additional miles of closed streets (I consider all these open streets), near Alki Point, near Green Lake, in Goldens Gardens Park, and along Lake Washington Boulevard, to expand park footprints. SDOT called these park-adjacent no-car zones “Keep Moving Streets.”

SDOT is now surveying the public to decide where to make 20 miles of these car-free streets permanent. It’s all part of the department’s pedestrian-centric response to the pandemic, which also now includes 150 sidewalk, converted parking spot, and street permits that neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants have used to set up outdoor seating. That popular program, known as “Safe Starts,” has been extended through October 2021.

In the first installment of this column a couple of months ago, I wrote about all these programs combined, arguing that the ad hoc emergency response was energizing Seattle’s neighborhoods and providing a surprise opportunity to rethink how our city should be planned and zoned.

The notion of re-upping the Lake Washington Boulevard car-free pilot as a pedestrian and bike thoroughfare (thanks for bringing it up, guys!) is a prequel to the overdue debate over reallocating public right-of-way. It’s time to retrofit our growing city to human scale.

Support PubliCola

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

SDOT’s idea isn’t about tradition. It’s about change. And ultimately, that’s what Byers’ “12 mph” quip was getting at.

“I’m really excited about the future potential of these streets,” Seattle Parks District Oversight Committee member Deepa Sivarajan seconded.

Sivarajan, a policy manager at Climate Solutions by day, went even further. “Let’s not prioritize historical intent and historical preservation when thinking about these streets,” she said. “A lot of historical preservation in Seattle tends to preserve an era that was de facto segregationist. Thinking about the historical intent of a ‘driving street’ is not the biggest factor we should be considering.” Sivarajan argued that the city should consider equity above original intent, and her own priorities seemed to also include health and safety; she cited collisions and pollution as something the Olmsteds didn’t consider when designing boulevards for “pleasure drives.”

Sivarajan’s social justice angle served notice on the opponents of SDOT’s potential plan. In addition to the goofy original intent talking points, the preservationists had also been arguing that closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars would be unfair to communities of color who, they claimed without presenting data, rely on the boulevard to access the city and parks from the Rainier Valley and beyond.

Opponents of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard also got an earful from Parks Commissioner Dennis Cook, who’s African American. “I’ve walked the lake [for] many, many, many years,” he said. “During the pandemic, I’ve seen more people of color walking Seward Park than I have in the last five to ten years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful to see because people are out there greeting people and their neighbors, and it’s building community.” Cook noted that the area in question is in the 98118 ZIP code, where the population is 25 percent African American. Seattle is 7 percent Black overall.

Continue reading “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

Election Speculation, Sweep Scheduled for Cal Anderson Park, and Sad News at the Seattle Indian Center

1. As speculation ramps up over who will jump into the race for mayor next year, a number of good and not-so-good rumors have come across Fizz’s radar. Here’s a look at the list of potential and supposedly potential candidates, in what we believe is the current general order of likelihood.

Decent Bets

City council president Lorena González. (González didn’t respond to a text sent last week but her name was on the shortlist of candidates even before Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she wasn’t running for reelection.

Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller. (Asked if he’s running, Sixkiller—who helped craft a compromise homelessness plan for 2021—responded, “Since the Mayor’s announcement last week I, like many others, have started thinking about the various ways I can contribute to the City and its future. But for now I’m focused on the important work of advancing Mayor Durkan’s agenda while overseeing a number of the City’s daily operations and engaging with our residents and businesses about ways we can support them as part of the City’s ongoing response to COVID-19.”)

Former mayoral candidate and state legislator and current Civic Ventures staffer Jessyn Farrell. (Farrell did not respond to a request for comment).

Former state legislator and current Grist executive Editor Brady Walkinshaw. (Walkinshaw did respond, but didn’t say whether he’s thinking of running.)

Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk didn’t respond to our email but has reportedly been talking with consultants.

Unlikely

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who would not confirm anything specific, was reportedly wavering on whether to run for reelection to her current seat this year, much less run for mayor. Word is that she has decided to run for a second term.

Scott Lindsay, the former Ed Murray advisor who now writes reports calling for a crackdown on homeless people in public spaces, has been making a lot of public appearances lately (most recently on KOMO 4’s second installment of the “Seattle Is Dying” propaganda series), but he says he’s “still looking” for “a ‘back-to-basics’ Obama-Democrat candidate who has a serious plan to address our city’s homelessness and public safety challenges” to emerge. “[S]adly, it’s a tough political environment for anyone to want to throw their hat in the ring,” Lindsay said.

Support PubliCola

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. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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 and exclusively 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.

Not Gonna Happen

A grab bag of names are on this list, including people who are unlikely to run and a number who said explicitly that they aren’t running. Deputy mayor Mike Fong and former council member (and, briefly, mayor) Bruce Harrell are on this list, along with former council member/mayor Tim Burgess (who told us he isn’t running, and that “it’s time for younger leaders to emerge”), county executive Dow Constantine (who just announced his bid for reelection and told employees of the county’s executive department last week unequivocally that he isn’t running), and United Way of King County director Gordon McHenry.
McHenry’s name has been floating around for the past week or so, but United Way King County spokesman Cesar Canizales told PubliCola, “Gordon is not running for public office. He is committed to the United Way of King County’s mission and he has no intention of running for public office whatsoever. He has given us 100% assurance, unequivocally that he’s not running.”

2. Several dozen people living in tents at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill got notice this week that the city plans to clear the park on Wednesday morning, in preparation for the “reopening” of the park. Cal Anderson has been at the center of protests against police violence since June. Seattle Police Department officers have cleared the park several times before—including in August, when several activists occupied the shelter house in the middle of the park—but this is the first time campers have received prior notice, according to an encampment resident.

“They have never given us notice before—they’ve just sort of shown up at five or six in the morning and announced it,” the resident, who said their name was Mud, said. “They don’t like us to be prepared, and I don’t know how they do it, but they usually catch us when our guard is down.”

It’s also the first time, to PubliCola’s knowledge, that the city has orchestrated an encampment removal during the pandemic without the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and social workers who were responsible for removing encampments until earlier this year. The city council disbanded the team as part of the 2020 budget rebalancing package in August. The Parks Department, which already has the authority to remove encampments on its own, plans to orchestrate this one with backup from SPD. 

The city has mostly suspended encampment sweeps this year in light of an explicit CDC recommendation that cities allow unsheltered people to “remain where they are” to prevent the spread of COVID.

The Parks Department says they need to remove the encampment to reopen and reactivate the park, with programming that will include “music, art, community volunteer events, and ongoing offering of social service supports to those in need,” according to a spokeswoman for the department. Continue reading “Election Speculation, Sweep Scheduled for Cal Anderson Park, and Sad News at the Seattle Indian Center”