Category: Health

Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz (Photo: Paul Kiefer, PubliCola News)

By Paul Kiefer

By next summer, Seattle’s emergency call dispatchers may have a new crisis response team at their disposal. The new unit, called Triage One, would be housed within the Seattle Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health program and tasked with responding to some crisis calls that don’t clearly involve a medical emergency or criminal activity.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan debuted the proposal at a press conference on Friday morning alongside Councilmember Lisa Herbold and the heads of the Seattle Police and Fire Departments, and the newly created Communications and Community Safety Center (CSCC).

The goal of the Triage One team, said Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, is to reduce the city’s reliance on police officers as the default crisis responders. Diaz pointed to “person down” calls—calls about people either asleep or unconscious in public—as an example; at the moment, SPD treats those calls as high-priority, which involves dispatching at least two officers to respond as quickly as possible.

Durkan said the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours.

“But a majority of ‘person down’ calls are because someone’s experiencing addiction or a health crisis, and when SPD responds, officers still need to call another agency [for a more appropriate response],” Diaz said. Instead, the city could rely on an unarmed team to respond to those non-criminal emergencies and call for medical assistance, police backup, caseworkers, or other responders after taking stock of the situation.

Triage One would rely heavily on Seattle’s 911 dispatch center, which is now part of the CSCC. According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, the unit would function as an extension of the dispatch center itself. “911 has always been in a pinch to, in a minute to 90 seconds, decide what’s happening and how to deploy resources to help,” he said. “We see the Triage One system as a way to extend the time available to figure out how to get someone [in crisis] the services they need.” Meanwhile, the CSCC is developing a standardized list of questions for dispatchers to ask 911 callers, ostensibly to streamline emergency calls.

At the moment, the program is still only theoretical; the details of the Triage One team, including its size, makeup, and cost, won’t be resolved until the project receives approval and funding from the city council, Durkan said. She added that the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours. Continue reading “Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team”

Wading Pools Closed, Cop Who Used Facial Recognition Software Gets Slap on Wrist, Durkan Orders City Workers Back to the Office

1. In addition to shutting down the spray park at the Ballard Commons—a story first reported by My Ballard on Friday—the Settle Department of Parks and Recreation confirms that 11 of the city’s 22 wading pools will also be closed all summer due to “budgetary and staffing impacts from the pandemic,” according to a spokeswoman for the department.

The Ballard spray park is located in the middle of a large encampment that has persisted despite sweeps by the city and the repeated installation of hostile architecture designed to deter sitting and camping at the Ballard library branch next door. “Because of health and safety concerns of Seattle/King County Public Health and our own Safety Office regarding ongoing encampments and other activities at Ballard Commons Park, we regretfully decided not to operate the spraypark there this summer,” the Parks spokeswoman said. “No other SPR sprayparks are closed this year.”

During last week’s historic heat wave, city-run options for people living unsheltered to escape the weather were limited to some library branches, a handful of senior and community centers, and a cooling center at Magnuson Park. Amazon opened its own headquarters as a cooling center for up to 1,000 people last Monday, but required ID at the door—something many unsheltered people don’t have.

2. Interim Seattle Police Chief issued a one-day suspension for a South Precinct detective who used an unapproved and controversial facial recognition technology to search for suspects in criminal investigations.

According to Office of Police Accountability investigators, Detective Nicholas Kartes opened an account with Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in the fall of 2019.

Over the following year, Kartes used the program to search for suspects in ten SPD cases and approximately 20 cases from other law enforcement agencies. His searches returned one match—a possible suspect in a case under investigation by a different agency—though Kartes didn’t keep records of his searches or inform his supervisors that he was using the software. Kartes told investigators that he had informed his counterpart at the other agency that the found the match using Clearview.AI; he did not know whether his counterpart used the evidence to bring charges.

In 2020, the office investigated Kartes for using a personal drone to take photos of the house of a suspect in an ATM theft investigation, and for suggesting that his colleague lie about the source of the photos.

Kartes argued that facial recognition software like Clearview.AI doesn’t qualify as “surveillance technology,” as defined by the surveillance ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council in 2018, because the ordinance only addressed technologies used to track the “movements, behavior or actions of identifiable individuals.” SPD policy doesn’t prohibit officers from using facial recognition technology; in fact, SPD’s policy manual is silent on the issues raised in the surveillance ordinance.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg concluded that Kartes hadn’t clearly violated any law or department policy, though he advised Diaz and the City Council to close the loophole as quickly as possible. Instead, Myerberg ruled that Kartes violated SPD’s professionalism policies.

This is not Kartes’ first brush with the OPA over the issue of surveillance. In 2020, the office investigated Kartes for using a personal drone to take photos of the house of a suspect in an ATM theft investigation, and for suggesting that his colleague lie about the source of the photos. In that case, Kartes told investigators that he was unaware of the surveillance ordinance, though after he familiarized himself with the law, he argued that his use of a drone to photograph the outside of a house wasn’t technically “surveillance” as defined in the ordinance.

“We know that while many of you have grown accustomed to teleworking during this time, in-person interactions are important to our work culture and employees’ wellbeing by creating opportunities for relationship building, collaboration, and creativity,” Durkan wrote.

Instead of disciplining Kartes, Myerberg recommended that SPD send a reminder to officers about the contents of the surveillance ordinance and directed Kartes to receive re-training. By the time Kartes received retraining from his supervisor, the OPA had already begun investigating his use of Clearview.AI.

3. Now that the state is officially out of COVID lockdown, Mayor Jenny Durkan wants city employees to come back to the office. In an email to city staff on Friday, Durkan said that all employees will “return to the office in some capacity” by September 12, unless they get special approval for an alternative work arrangement (AWA, because everything has to have an acronym) from the city. Continue reading “Wading Pools Closed, Cop Who Used Facial Recognition Software Gets Slap on Wrist, Durkan Orders City Workers Back to the Office”

Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat

Entrance to the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Credit: Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday morning, Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) staff covered part of a window at the entrance of the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County in an attempt to lower the heat inside on a day when outside temperatures peaked at 82 degrees.

But people incarcerated in the TRU say they spent the worst of the past week’s heat wave—including a high of 111 degrees in Monroe on Monday—in sweltering cells with no air conditioning and few chances to cool down, while prison staff had access to air-conditioned offices when temperatures rose into the triple digits.

The newly covered window, they said, was too little, too late. But few of those living in the unit are confident that prison administrators are planning ahead for another heat wave. “These are only going to get more common,” said David, a prisoner in the TRU who spoke with PubliCola on Wednesday. “And it’s pretty clear that [the DOC] won’t be prepared for the next one.” (PubliCola is using David’s first name only to reduce the risk of retaliation).

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According to DOC Communications Director Jacque Coe, only a handful of units in the state’s nine prisons west of the Cascades have air conditioning systems. All units in the three state prisons east of the Cascades are air-conditioned.

The temperature control systems in other units in western Washington vary from prison to prison, and even from unit to unit. At the Monroe complex, only the two units reserved for inmates with severe mental illnesses have air conditioning.

But the TRU—a unit that houses over 800 people, including some who are elderly or have chronic illnesses—is only outfitted with vents that pump air from the unit’s roof into common spaces and cells, as well as a pair of ceiling fans on both floors of the unit.

“When it got well into the triple digits,” David said, “all that system did was pump in hot air.” David, who suffers from a heart condition, added that he spent the weekend struggling to breathe and battling dizzy spells.

Another person incarcerated in the unit told PubliCola that temperatures in the TRU’s common areas rose above 100 degrees, in part because prison staff didn’t cover the skylights in the prison’s community room. In the cells on the second floor, residents claimed that temperatures reached over 110 degrees.

With indoor temperatures climbing, people living in the TRU struggled to find relief. DOC administrators loosened a handful of rules: Inmates were allowed to partially cover their cell windows and wear wet towels, and guards allowed people to spend up to an hour in two air-conditioned cafeterias before sending them back to their cells. (A kitchen was also available as a cooling station). On the prison yard, staff set up ‘misting stations’—small tents outfitted with sprinklers—where people could briefly find shade during their recreation time in the early afternoon.

But David and two other men incarcerated at the TRU said prison administrators could have done far more to keep prisoners healthy during the heat wave. One prisoner told his wife in an email that prison staff didn’t lower the temperature of the unit’s “scalding hot” showers to serve as a cooling station; instead, many of the men went without showers over the weekend. Others who spoke to PubliCola said guards restricted their access to the unit’s ice machine. Continue reading “Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat”

“Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

Drive through Seattle’s industrial areas—Georgetown, South Park, parts of Ballard, and SoDo—and it’s hard to miss them: Bulky, horizontal concrete blocks lined up like giant Legos along the sides of the street, preventing large vehicles from parking by the roadside.

At Third and Brandon in Georgetown, around the corner from the headquarters of the LGBTQ+ health care organization Lifelong, a row of bright-white barricades prevent any vehicle longer than a passenger van from parking on the street. Along a quiet, wide stretch of road near West Marginal Way in South Park, graffiti is just starting to pop up on an older, graying line of blocks set a dozen feet apart across a chain-link fence from a modern apartment building.

The blocks, known as “ecology blocks” because they’re made of waste material that concrete producers would otherwise throw away, are there to prevent large vehicles—primarily RVs—from parking in front of businesses. They started proliferating in industrial areas, which are the only areas where Seattle allows RVs to park overnight, during the pandemic, when the city suspended rules requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours.

Equinox Studios owner Sam Farrazaino, who says the blocks have given his neighborhood the feel of a “war zone,” has installed a number of the blocks around land he owns in Georgetown, although he says he used his “eco blocks” to “define parking” for his business, painted them to make them more attractive, and did not put them in the public right-of-way. “It’s a complicated… debate,” said Farrazaino, who described a rat infestation on a lot surrounded with RVs that made the ground look like “a moving carpet.” On the other hand, he said, “We keep pushing people around and saying we solved the problem, but the end result of the people with the power and land being able to push out that people that don’t have power and don’t have land is terrible.”‘

Although most of the debate about unsheltered homelessness centers on people living in tents in so-called “unauthorized encampments” (in Seattle, there is no other kind), about a quarter of people living without shelter in the city live in RVs, which are only allowed to park overnight in industrial areas. The city dedicates few resources to helping this group, who are often seen as less vulnerable than tent residents and are unlikely to “accept” the city’s offers of shelter, because even so-called enhanced shelters, which are open during the day and allow people to bring their partners and pets, provide less privacy and autonomy than the most rundown RV.

Years of efforts by advocates and city council members to create “safe lots” for RV residents have been unsuccessful, thanks largely to neighborhood objections that have made it difficult to site lots for ordinary cars and trucks, much less RVs. And while the city council recently allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds could create safe parking spaces for between 20 and 30 RVs, that represents a tiny fraction of the need; according to the most recent count of homeless people in King County, nearly 1,000 people were living in RVs, and vehicular homelessness expert Graham Pruss, an academic researcher who has advised the city on the needs of people living in vehicles, says the true number is likely much higher.

“The reality is that the people who live in the vehicles and the people who own the businesses who are angry about the vehicles are all subject to the same problem: There is not a private place for the person who lives in that vehicle to park, and if they don’t have a place to park, they are forced to occupy that public street,” Pruss said.

Compounding the conflict, the city has used laws and informal policies, such as “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs, to push RVs deeper into nonresidential areas, usually far away from frequent transit lines, hygiene centers, and agencies that provide resources like job assistance and addiction treatment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would stop enforcing the 72-hour parking rule so that people could work from home; one year later, she announced she was reinstating the regulation, forcing people who had been living in one place for a year or more to get their vehicles in working order or risk losing them. 

Homeless service providers say the suspension of the rule had positive effects for vehicle residents, who didn’t have to deal with the daily stress of finding another place to park. “It was nice for them to have a reprieve where they didn’t have to move every 72 hours, where they could be in place and connect to service providers from one location and get more accomplished,” said Rebecca Gilley, the SoDo outreach coordinator for the homeless outreach group REACH. 

But it also led to increased conflicts with nearby business owners, who complained that people occupying space on the street were making it impossible for customers to park, committing crimes, and causing unhealthy and unsanitary conditions around their vehicles.

“There were folks who were here for a year and a half, blocking the whole sidewalk on both sides and blocking part of the travel lanes with all the stuff they had accumulated” around their RV, Farrazaino said. “If it was a house and the living conditions were the same as these, the county and the city would have shut it down and condemned the house.”

Placing ecology blocks or boulders in the public right-of-way without permission, as many businesses have done, is illegal under city law; theoretically, anyone who does so can be fined up to $4,000 for each individual violation.

The problem is, the blocks are cheap to put in place and expensive to remove. Farrazaino said he paid about $20 apiece for his ecology blocks, which he bought from Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel in Ballard. The biggest expense, he added, was moving them. “We drove back and forth to Salmon Bay with a big rental truck to get the ones we have here,” Farrazaino said. “It’s just a matter of moving them around with a forklift that can handle it.”

Removing the blocks would require the city to devote money, manpower, and storage space to addressing the problem, plus enforcement to ensure the blocks don’t come back. “Part of the challenge is that each ecology blocks weighs 1-2 tons, and more blocks continue appearing in new areas,” Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. “Removing these massive obstructions is costly and our employees are busy completing important work to maintain our streets and infrastructure.”

Mariajose Barrera, who owns Mose Auto in Georgetown, said she installed ecology blocks near her business because of “the garbage, the nuisance, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampments.” For example, she said, someone parked a large box truck outside her auto shop for several weeks and was using it to hold stolen goods; more recently, someone broke into her shop and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools.

“We’ve been working to be able to have parking for our own businesses and kind of deter people from long-term parking, because the garbage, the nuisances, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampment—it’s really rough.” Barrera said. Seattle Public Utilities provides garbage pickup and sewage pump-out services to some RVs through its RV remediation and pump-out programs, but the utility can’t serve every site, so garbage, sewage, and gas and chemical spills remain persistent problems.

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“Unfortunately, we’ve had set up these eco blocks because we’re not getting any other help from the city,” Barrera continued. “It’s unfair—we all work for our stuff and for these people to just come in take whatever they want, whenever they want, without any accountability is not okay.”

Part of his frustration, Farrazaino said, stems from the fact that the city has pushed people living in RVs into industrial areas, which make up just 12 percent of the city’s land. Gentrification in places like SoDo and industrial Ballard, where breweries and retail storefronts are overtaking traditional industrial businesses, has constrained options for vehicle residents even further; you’re less likely to get hassled or swept if you live next to a steel fabrication plant than in front of a popular bar. The result is more conflicts between RV residents and businesses in places like Georgetown and South Park, and the proliferation of barricades to keep them from coming back.

“SoDo is pushing everyone down here [to Georgetown] because they have a [business improvement area] and money to hire security,” Farrazaino said. A business advocacy group might give Georgetown or South Park more clout with the city; Erin Goodman, the director of the SoDo BIA, has pushed the city to crack down on RVs from the area for years, arguing that the presence of people living in vehicles has contributed to crime and filth in the area. Continue reading ““Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness”

Parking Enforcement Stays at SPD For Now, Memo Outlines City’s Objections to Street Sinks, Cops’ Vaccination Rate Remains Unknown

1. The Seattle City Council voted Monday to keep the city’s parking enforcement unit in the Seattle Police Department until September, approving an amendment to legislation moving the 911 call center and parking enforcement from SPD to a new Community Safety and Communications Center. Their hope is that that the unions representing the parking unit’s management and rank-and-file will use the next three months to resolve their disagreements about which city department should absorb parking enforcement.

Last fall, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold proposed moving the unit to the CSCC in response to lobbying by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild, which represents the unit’s roughly 100 rank-and-file members. Nanette Toyoshima, the union’s president, told PubliCola in October that she hoped to give parking enforcement officers a larger role in the city’s efforts to civilianize public safety.

At the time, other council members didn’t oppose the move. But Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe, and parking enforcement unit management argued that parking enforcement would operate more efficiently in SDOT than the new community safety unit. In a letter to the council in April, Zimbabwe argued that transportation departments manage parking enforcement in other cities, including Denver and Houston, and said SDOT is better prepared to absorb parking enforcement than the still-untested CSCC.

Zimbabwe’s arguments, and lobbying by parking enforcement management, convinced Council President Lorena González, who is now the council’s most vocal supporter of moving the unit to SDOT. But Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who has communicated with leadership in both unions, urged the council to delay moving the unit out of SPD until parking enforcement management and officers can reach an agreement about which city department would make a better home for their unit.

“It is always hard for us as a pro-labor council when two members of our broader labor family have a disagreement,” he said during the council’s weekly briefing on Monday. “I think this would benefit from additional time to better understand a way to resolve this equitably and without dividing the labor community.”

The 911 call center will still move to the CSCC by June 1.

2. On Monday, Seattle Public Utilities provided responses to a list of questions posed by Councilmember Lewis about a long-delayed program to provide temporary handwashing stations while public buildings are closed due to the pandemic. The council provided $100,000 for public sinks last year in response to repeated outbreaks of communicable diseases among people living unsheltered, who have had little access to soap and running water since businesses and public buildings closed their doors in March 2020.

The memo includes photos of a sink that was vandalized, with the warning, “Durability and vandalism resistance is critical. Extreme vandalism should be expected in most locations.”

In the memo, SPU reiterated their many objections to a proposal by the Clean Hands Collective, including the fact that it is not technically ADA-compliant, uses hoses instead of direct sewer connections to provide water, and have hookups that are vulnerable to freezing in the winter. “These sinks cannot legally operate from approximately October through April,” the memo says, because they filter graywater through soil.

“The design requirements, considerations, City procurement requirements and technical challenges SPU discussed with proposers at technical assistance sessions and with the committee are the same standard SPU as a regulated and regulating agency must adhere to,” the memo continues. “They are also intended to ensure that public expenditure is geared towards ensuring quality functioning, healthful, and accessible solutions that meet the needs of the community they are designed to serve and the outdoor conditions into which they are deployed.”

The memo includes photos of a sink that was vandalized, with the warning, “Durability and vandalism resistance is critical. Extreme vandalism should be expected in most locations.”

Some of the diseases that have spread through homeless encampments during the pandemic include hepatitis A and B, shigella, and cryptosporidiosis; the latter pair of diseases can cause major gastrointestinal symptoms such as extreme and constant vomiting and diarrhea. Such diseases are spread mostly through fecal-oral transmission, which is easily preventable through handwashing.

The city has opened a handful of its own sinks around the city, some of which are operated by a foot pedal. Unlike the proposals the city has received, which are wheelchair accessible but not fully ADA compliant, foot-operated sinks are not usable by many people with disabilities.

3. As the Seattle Office of the Inspector General begins a new investigation into a surge of complaints about unmasked police officers, the Seattle Police Department’s compliance with public health recommendations is under a microscope.

But while SPD can require masks, they can’t track how many Seattle police officers are vaccinated; according to the department, unless the city requires all city employees to get vaccinated, SPD can’t ask its officers about their vaccination status. Continue reading “Parking Enforcement Stays at SPD For Now, Memo Outlines City’s Objections to Street Sinks, Cops’ Vaccination Rate Remains Unknown”

County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks

1. During a campaign debate sponsored by the King County Young Democrats on Saturday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), had a testy exchange about the issue of corporate PAC contributions.

It started when Nguyen said he didn’t accept any money from “corporate PACs.” Constantine said he was “interested to hear [Nguyen] say that he doesn’t take corporate PAC money,” given that he has received thousands of dollars from political committees for credit unions, health care, dentists, beer and wine distributors, and auto dealers, as well as individual lobbyists from industry groups. “I’m fine if you want to say  you’re not taking any corporate PAC money, but just make sure that you actually weren’t taking corporate PAC money, which you clearly were,” Constantine said. 

Nguyen, sputtering a bit, responded, “I’m happy to explain the difference between an association and a PAC … and in fact, if that’s the bar, then if you did the same thing, then that’s totally fine. So feel free to do the exact same thing that I am doing, that’s totally fine.” 

Later, Constantine brought up the PAC issue again, Nguyen responded: “Are they PACs? Were they PACs?”

“Yeah,” Constantine replied.

“They’re not. So look again. Look again,” Nguyen said. “They were associations… not the corporations themselves. But if you think that’s an issue, do the same. I’m happy to have you follow my lead, so don’t take corporate PACs and call it good.”

For the record, both candidates have accepted money from PACs, although Constantine—as the more established candidate—has accepted more. Nguyen’s PAC money came during his run for state senator in 2018.

SeattleMakers’ street sink model.

2. Six months after the city council allocated $100,000 to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective,” Seattle Public Utilities has finally chosen two vendors to receive the money.

Slightly more than half, $60,000, will go to the Clean Hands Collective, an organization founded by Real Change that includes landscape architects and public health experts; the rest, $40,000, will go to SeattleMakers, a South Lake Union “makerspace” that designed a prototype “handwashing station” at an estimated cost of $7,250 per unit—about ten times the price of Clean Hands’ Street Sink. According to SeattleMakers’ website, the city reached out to them to design the sink. Continue reading “County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks”

Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack

1. The city’s removal of a small encampment near Reuben’s Brews in Ballard, part of several scheduled encampment sweeps this week, cleared a sidewalk in front of one business while, less than a block away, other people living in other tents were left alone for now. The city, as we’ve reported, is increasing the pace of encampment sweeps to previous, pre-COVID levels, using a reconfigured and renamed Navigation Team (now known as the HOPE Team) to do outreach and tell people about available shelter beds before they have to leave.

The city prioritizes encampments based on a number of factors, but one is “emergent complaints” from businesses and housed neighborhood residents who contact the city.

Ballard is full of encampments, because Ballard is full of people who have nowhere to live. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the city “requested that outreach efforts… intensify this week with the goal of getting all who are onsite situated into shelter and on a path towards a permanent housing solution,” which suggests that the city has sufficient, desirable shelter and “permanent housing solutions” for everyone who is willing to accept its help.

This, of course, is not true. Although the city has now separated the work of the renamed Navigation Team from actual encampment sweeps (which are performed by Parks cleanup crews), the effect of doing outreach (or, controversially, directing nonprofits that serve specific subpopulations to do the work for them) prior to a sweep, the result is still that people pack up and leave because they know a sweep is coming.

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill.”

Some do go into shelter (the HOPE Team has exclusive access to a large number of beds that aren’t available to other outreach teams); according to the mayor’s office, the outreach provider REACH offered shelter to eight people remaining onsite, and two “accepted shelter referrals.” (Referral “acceptance” is not the same thing as checking in to a shelter.)

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill. A referral indicates that an individual experiencing homelessness has accepted an offer of shelter and they have been connected to an open shelter resource. The majority of these referrals have been into new hotel-based shelter resources.” 

Those resources consist primarily of about 140 beds at the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel. (Another hotel, King’s Inn, is for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals and is currently full.) As of January 2020, there were at least 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County.

The actual selection of a new Public Health director, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

2. King County Public Health Department director Patty Hayes announced her retirement this week after seven years in the position; Dennis Worsham, the director of the department’s Prevention Division, will be her interim replacement. The county also announced an advisory committee of stakeholders that will “inform the process for recruiting and selecting the next permanent director.”

The actual selection, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

Constantine has been lauded for the county’s timely, prudent public health response during the pandemic, thanks in huge part to the now nationally-recognized leadership of public health officer Jeff Duchin.

The same can’t be said of Durkan, who spent millions renting a hotel for first responders that stood empty while homeless people languished in encampments and crowded shelters; belatedly rented two shower trailers at an astronomical cost while King County deployed similar units at a fraction of the cost; closed restrooms throughout the city and replaced them with unsanitary “sanicans”; delayed the deployment of sinks for people to wash their hands, arguing that “Purell on a pole” could serve the same purpose at lower cost; and resisted providing hotel rooms for people living unsheltered, despite ample evidence that private rooms improve public and individual health for people experiencing homelessness.

PubliCola asked the health department about the timeline for choosing a new director; James Apa, a spokesman for the department, said that’s up in the air, but that the committee should interview finalists “by the end of the year.” Since the mayoral election is November 3, I asked whether the mayor-elect will have a role in the selection process between their election and when the new mayor takes office next January. Apa responded, “We’ll have a better sense of timeline when recruitment begins, and that will determine who’s involved in decision-making.”

3. The Freedom Foundation, an anti-union, anti-government, anti-tax group whose tactics include lawsuits, public relations campaigns, and pressure tactics to convince workers to leave their unions, has turned their sights on MLK Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Nicole Grant, urging union members to “stop supporting Nicole Grant” by opting out of their union membership. Continue reading “Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack”

Fake Anti-Homeless Signs in Ballard, Public Health Says City Shouldn’t Cram People Back Into Shelter, and More

What size shovel would it take to yank these babies out?

1. The city has begun the process of closing down temporary “redistribution” shelters that opened last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a 130-bed shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. The Human Services Department, which reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, has asked DESCo begin the process of moving the people living at Exhibition Hall to other shelters, with the goal of emptying out the building the end of June.

The city hopes to move many of the Exhibition Hall residents to DESC’s existing Navigation Center, a 24-hour mass shelter in Pioneer Square that has been operating at reduced capacity throughout the pandemic, with about 36 people sleeping in communal rooms that used to shelter 85 a night.

However, after a recent site visit, representatives from the King County Public Health department recommended against “adding more residents to the communal sleeping rooms at this time.”

In a report on the visit, the health department’s Health Engagement Action Resource Team (HEART) noted a number of worrying conditions at the Navigation Center, including poor ventilation, lack of soap and hand sanitizer in restrooms, and bed spacing didn’t leave much room to squeeze more people in. Among other issues, the team noted that the windows in sleeping rooms didn’t open; air purifiers were sitting in storage; some exhaust fans weren’t working; and “[s]everal hand sanitizer and restroom soap dispensers were empty.”

Note: Good handwashing is far superior to using hand sanitizer,” the report noted, in a section that was both bold and highlighted. (Quick, someone tell Mayor Durkan!)

A spokesman for the public health department confirmed that the department “did not recommend that DESC immediately increase capacity [at the Navigation Center] before implementing the team’s recommendations, which the organization and the City of Seattle are reviewing.”

Ultimately, the decision to add more beds to the Navigation Center is up to DESC and the city; last week, DESC director Daniel Malone told PubliCola that additional beds were “desired but not yet possible due to [the] pandemic.”

In addition to figuring out how to increase capacity for existing clients at Exhibition Hall, the Navigation Center is a receiving site for the city’s HOPE Team (formerly known as the Navigation Team), which provides shelter referrals at “high-priority” encampments targeted for removal by the city. Even at full, pre-COVID capacity, the Navigation Center only had 85 beds, so restoring it to full capacity won’t provide enough spaces for everyone at Exhibition Hall and new referrals; other Exhibition Hall residents will be distributed to shelters around the city, as well as a new, county-funded hotel that will reportedly be announced soon.

2. A row of “No Camping” signs along Northwest 52nd Street in Ballard may express the city’s overall sentiment toward people living in tents and vehicles—as we’ve reported, the city has begun ramping up encampment sweeps as businesses and schools reopen. But they aren’t official, the Seattle Department of Transportation confirms.

It’s unclear who placed the blocks or signs in the right-of-way, or whether the two apparent acts of anti-homeless vigilantism are related.

The first indication that the signs are fake is their jarring design: Unlike the city’s parking signs, they’re brown with white lettering, with red “no” signs over images of a tent and an RV. The second sign is that where you would expect to see a phone number for the city, the signs list the website for their manufacturer: An online service called SmartSigns.com.

Meanwhile, less than a block away, on 14th Ave. NW, a series of “ecology blocks”—large concrete blocks ordinarily used to build retaining walls—have been moved into an area marked for one-hour parking, physically preventing both people living in vehicles and any other driver from using the parking spaces.

It’s unclear who placed the blocks or signs in the right-of-way, or whether the two apparent acts of anti-homeless vigilantism are related.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Transportation said they were not aware of the unauthorized signs and anti-parking blocks, and noted that the signs “are not enforceable by the Parking Enforcement group.” The process for removing the signs is lengthy and involves identifying the person who installed them and sending them a letter “requesting the removal of the unauthorized objects,” the spokeswoman said. SDOT did not explain why they can’t simply go out and remove the signs and blocks, which are on city right-of-way.

Council member Dan Strauss told PubliCola he has heard that homeless people “think that they will get housing if they come to Ballard”—a reference to the fact that, according to providers, people sometimes come to encampments that are scheduled for sweeps because the city’s HOPE Team has exclusive access to some of the most desirable shelter beds.

3. The unauthorized signs are about two blocks from Gilman Playfield, where the city removed dozens of people and tents in response to neighborhood complaints earlier this month. It’s even closer to two encampments on the city’s “priority” list for removals this week—one in front of Reuben’s Brews on 14th, and another along 8th Ave. NW between NW 46th and 47th Streets.

On Monday, District 6 city council member Dan Strauss, who represents the area, told PubliCola he has heard from multiple service providers that homeless people “think that they will get housing if they come to Ballard.” Continue reading “Fake Anti-Homeless Signs in Ballard, Public Health Says City Shouldn’t Cram People Back Into Shelter, and More”

Inslee Issues Pro-Housing Partial Veto; Another Avoidable Outbreak Preempts Planned Sweep; Affordable Housing Data Supports Single-Family Upzones

1. An important follow-up story to our Olympia coverage: On Thursday, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed several sections of a supposedly pro-accessory dwelling unit bill that ADU advocates convinced him failed the smell test. A pro-affordable housing coalition starring the AARP, Sightline, the Sierra Club, and the Washington State Labor Council, initially supporters of the legislation, wrote Inslee a letter after the session ended telling him the bill would actually end up being detrimental to the pro-housing movement.

PubliCola wrote about this bill all session, noting that housing development antagonist State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), the House Local Government Committee chair, derailed the bill with, among other objections, odd complaints about “profit tourism” (a scary-sounding, but frankly meaningless epithet).

State Sen. Marko Liias (D-32, Edmonds) originally passed the bill on the Senate side, but by the time it came back from the House, thanks to Rep. Pollet and Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), the legislation was watered down to the point that the affordable housing advocates felt compelled to send their letter urging Inslee to veto major portions of the bill, including provisions that gave cities veto power over ADU mandates.

Inslee’s message was clear: Let’s actually do something to create more affordable housing stock.

Now that the governor has weighed in, I’ll be working to pass an even stronger bill in 2022.

After Inslee’s partial veto, Liias told PubliCola:

“We need more housing options. Renters and homeowners both benefit from ADUs. I was disappointed in the House amendments. Now that the governor has weighed in, I’ll be working to pass an even stronger bill in 2022.”

A key piece of Liias’ bill did survive Inslee’s pen, a section that prohibits local rules barring non-related people (such as roommates) from sharing housing.

2. A new outbreak of an unspecified gastrointestinal illness temporarily halted a planned sweep at a homeless encampment near White Center this week, after King County Public Health recommended strongly against uprooting people with severe symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that cities refrain from sweeping encampments during the pandemic, because redistributing large numbers of people throughout cities causes an obvious risk of community transmission. But the city has begun ramping up sweeps of homeless encampments in recent months anyway, citing the need to keep parks and playfields safe and clear for kids going back to school, among other justifications.

“In general, we recommend taking into account potential communicable disease risks if there is a plan to move an encampment where there is either an active disease investigation or an active outbreak.”—King County Public Health

A spokeswoman for the public health department, Kate Cole, said the county is trying to figure out what pathogen is making people at the encampment sick. There have been several reported outbreaks of shigella among homeless people in the last year; the disease spreads rapidly when people lack access to sinks with soap and running water, which the city, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, has been reluctant to provide.

“In general, we recommend taking into account potential communicable disease risks if there is a plan to move an encampment where there is either an active disease investigation or an active outbreak,” Cole said. “We understand there are many health and safety factors that play into the City’s decisions about moving encampments and we maintain regular coordination with the City to address these complicated situations.”

The city identifies a list of “priority” encampments each week and directs outreach providers to offer shelter to people living at these sites before removing them. In addition the the White Center encampment, the city just placed encampments in Ballard and on Capitol Hill on its priority list.

3. We’ve got some more data to help put the city’s recent Mandatory Housing Affordability report in context. Last week, you’ll remember, we added some initial context to the report: Based on the total affordable housing dollars generated by development in the 6 percent sliver of the city’s single family zones that the council upzoned in 2019, it appeared that those areas were producing more funds for affordable housing than expected. Continue reading “Inslee Issues Pro-Housing Partial Veto; Another Avoidable Outbreak Preempts Planned Sweep; Affordable Housing Data Supports Single-Family Upzones”

City Says It’s Too Risky to Turn On Drinking Fountains, First-Time Candidate Sees Fundraising Surge, Capital Gains Tax Passes

Freeway Park water fountains. Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Seattle Public Utilities confirmed that the city has only turned on 10 public water fountains downtown (and is working to repair a handful of others in the area), leaving the rest of the city’s public drinking fountains out of service during a pandemic that has greatly reduced access to clean drinking water for people experiencing homelessness.

According to a joint response to questions provided by the Parks Department and SPU, King County Public Health only asked the city to turn on its downtown fountains and “did not recommend turning on the rest of the city’s drinking fountains. Currently they are providing additional guidance about the rest of the city’s drinking fountains, and we will continue to follow their guidance.”

A spokesperson for King County Public Health said that in fact, the health department did ask the city to turn on drinking fountains citywide in response to an outbreak of shigella in late 2020 (which we covered here.) However, the spokesperson said, “When we talked to SPU and SPR about turning on the drinking fountains, they expressed concerns as to how many drinking fountains were fully functioning and the logistics involved in providing routine maintenance and cleaning.”

“Therefore,” the spokesperson said, “we recommended they use a phased approach to turning on the drinking fountains, starting with the drinking fountains in downtown Seattle.

“We’ve seen success in the downtown drinking fountains having been turned on and are now exploring with SPU/SPR having them turn on drinking fountains in additional parts of the city.”

The CDC guidelines the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

Public Health director Patty Hayes told the Seattle/King County Board of Health earlier this month that providing access to potable water was one of the health department’s “top priorities,” along with providing access to soap and running water for people to wash their hands, water bottles, and other items. Thirst leads people with no other options to drink water from unsanitary sources, which leads to outbreaks of communicable diseases.

The Community Advisory Group of Seattle/King County Healthcare for the Homeless has been beating the drum about drinking water since the beginning of the pandemic, when they noted in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan that “[w]ithout access to clean drinking water, many of our unhoused population are drinking non-potable water which can lead to other public health crises such as the proliferation of Hepatitis A and giardia.” Since then, those concerns have been borne out over and over again.

Asked why the city hasn’t turned on its public drinking fountains outside downtown, Parks and SPU wrote, “SPU and SPR have been following the CDC guidance for drinking fountains safety during the pandemic that recommends cleaning them between uses, and turning them off if this is not possible.”

The CDC guidelines at the link the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

The only reference the CDC guidelines make to shutting down drinking fountains comes in a section about large public events. That section says that event planners should “[c]lean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the venue at least daily or between uses as much as possible—for example, door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, grab bars, hand railings, and cash registers.” If drinking fountains, “cannot be adequately cleaned and disinfected during an event,” the guidance continues, event planners should “consider closing” them.

2. Andrew Grant Houston, a first-time candidate who wants to defund the Seattle Police Department, build 2,500 “tiny houses” for people experiencing homelessness, and institute rent control, is currently in second place in the mayoral fundraising race, after a $129,050 contribution drop last week brought the campaign’s total fundraising to $266,758, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. The vast majority of that—$214,050, according to the city—came in the form of democracy vouchers, a form of public campaign finance in which voters receive $100 to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice.

Financial momentum like that is unusual for a little-known candidate without connections to the city’s political establishment; it’s also exactly what the democracy voucher program was designed to promote. PubliCola asked Houston why he thought so many people were giving to his campaign. Houston told us he credits his consultant, Prism West, and a strategic plan that places the campaign on track to max out its primary-election vouchers by the end of this week. Under the city’s election law, mayoral candidates can redeem a total of $800,000 in democracy vouchers—half in the primary, half in the general.

Houston said he wasn’t surprised by the haul. “I knew it was going to happen at some point,” he said. “I am someone who is focused on not just hiring the best people, but also really being committed to understanding how we meet our goals.”

That strategy, Houston continued, has included a lot of (masked, socially distant) in-person canvassing, with a focus on several key issues. Police defunding, for example, is a polarizing issue but one that Houston says galvanizes people to give. “Being very clear about defunding the police to invest in community really resonates with people—either you’re for it or against it, and people who are in the affirmative [tend to give],” he said.

According to the PDC, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk is the only mayoral candidate who has raised more than Houston; her latest total, according to the PDC, is $297,072.

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3. Senators passed the the state’s first-ever capital gains tax (SB 5096) on Sunday, the last day of the session, after rejecting the bill the previous Thursday. The bill would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains above $250,000, subject to some exemptions, raising more than $400 million in its first year. The bill passed on the same narrow margin as the initial vote in March, 25-24.

Before the state can begin collecting the tax, it will have to face a near-certain legal challenge from business groups. (Republicans have said they will not file the lawsuit themselves but expect an outside organization to do so._ While Republicans want the tax stopped, they fear that if the state supreme court rules that the capital gains tax is constitutional, it will open the door for a state income tax.