Category: Health

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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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.

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.

Records Shed Light On How Much City Overpaid for “First Responder” Hotel

By Erica C. Barnett

The Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle is currently serving as a temporary shelter for vulnerable homeless people, under an $3.1 million contract with the Low-Income Housing Institute. (The remainder of the contract, $5.2 million, is to rent the hotel itself for about 10 months.)

But before it was a shelter, as PubliCola has reported, the hotel had another contract with the city, providing isolation and quarantine rooms for first responders, health care workers, and a handful of homeless service providers).

The three-month contract benefited the hotel to an almost comical degree: Instead of renting out rooms individually, the city agreed to pay the hotel’s owner, Vancouver-based Executive Hotels and Resorts, full price for all 155 rooms.

Now, records the city provided in response to a PubliCola records request shed additional light on how much the city (and, ultimately, the federal government) overpaid for the rooms. In one representative four-week period, from March 23 to April 21, the hotel was occupied for a total of 127 room-nights (a room-night is one room occupied for one night), at a cost to the city of $332,440, or the equivalent of $2,618 per room, per night. Rooms at Executive Hotels’ flagship hotel in downtown Vancouver are currently available on Expedia for $144 a night.

Overall, the city ended up spending about $1.9 million on the initial, three-month contract for all 155 rooms. We’ve reported before on how empty the hotel was during the early going; now, the newly available invoices reveal that the hotel remained largely empty throughout the three-month contract, peaking at an rate of no more than a dozen or so occupied rooms per night.

The invoices do not reveal precisely how many people were in the hotel during any specific period; however, they do show how many meals the city paid for in each billing period, which can serve as a proxy for the number of rooms that were occupied in any period and for how many nights.

But the city wasn’t just paying for empty rooms; it was paying an increasing price for those rooms every month.

In the early days after the hotel opened, the city paid a flat $45 fee for three meals a day, so the number of meal payments equaled the number of guests. Later, when it became clear that not everyone was eating all three meals at the hotel, the city started paying $15 per meal instead.

In April, when the city was paying for three meals a day, the total number of room-nights was 188—an average of about six people per night, or the equivalent of just over one night of a totally full hotel.

The number of meals increased slightly in May, when the city started paying for each meal individually instead of all three at once, to 611 meals total; however, even assuming that each of these meals represents a person who ate just one meal on-site per day, that still works out to fewer than 20 guests per night, or about four nights during which the hotel was full.

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But the city wasn’t just paying for empty rooms; it was paying an increasing price for those rooms every month. For the month of April, for example, the city paid the Executive Pacific $332,440 for the hotel’s 155 rooms; a month later, the exact same rooms cost the city $556,708. The reason? The rates increased as summer approached, in keeping with the start of the usual tourist season. Of course, there were no tourists in 2020. According to the contract, signed last March, the monthly price for the entire hotel ranges from $222,000 in January to $794,000 in August.

In August, one month after the city paid the final $851,918 invoice on its three-month contract, the hotel submitted two new bills for the use of its rooms by Seattle police and fire personnel. The total bill: $1,580.

According to Melissa Mixon, a spokeswoman for the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), “the contract was negotiated and agreed to at the very beginning of the pandemic when the City had limited information about the duration, level of impact, and longevity of the pandemic” and when dozens of city workers had contracted COVID-19.

In August, one month after the city paid the final $851,918 invoice on its three-month contract, the hotel submitted two new bills for the use of its rooms by Seattle police and fire personnel. Between July 12 and August 8, three people stayed in the hotel. The total bill: $1,580.

Mixon said the city had no idea at the time when the pandemic would end or if tourism would recover quickly. The Executive Pacific, she said, was the only hotel that was “willing to partner” with the city that also had an appropriate HVAC system and individual restrooms so that people who had been exposed to COVID could quarantine if necessary.

Given the stigma around COVID-19 when the outbreak was still unfolding, not very many hotels were interested in partnering,” Mixon said. “Given the still unknown properties of the virus and public sentiment at the start of the pandemic, by agreeing to house COVID positive or exposed individuals we recognized the hotel’s ability to rent rooms to regular guests was severely impacted both by potential liability for an unknown duration.”

The final indication of how much the city overpaid for the Executive Pacific is what happened after the initial contract ended and the city began contracting with the hotel for individual rooms. In August, one month after the city paid the final $851,918 invoice on its three-month contract, the hotel submitted two new bills for the use of its rooms by Seattle police and fire personnel. Between July 12 and August 8, three people stayed in the hotel. The total bill: $1,580.

“Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division

1. Last year, the city council set aside $100,000 in the 2021 budget to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective.” The idea was to rapidly install dozens of sinks in public places around the city where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands, a simple way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis and COVID-19.

As PubliCola reported back in February, the sink program has since stalled, as several city departments that answer to Mayor Jenny Durkan have raised concerns about runoff from the sinks going into planters rather than storm drains (will children eat the soil?), whether the pipes will function in cold weather, and ADA compliance—a concern that apparently does not extend to many of the city’s existing public restrooms.

Now, after the Clean Hands Collective has gone through another round of design in collaboration with the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities, the city has decided to open the whole process up for bids by any group that wants to apply. The rebranded “Seattle Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program” now includes an additional $50,000 for “waste prevention solutions focused on food and other materials.” According to the city’s handout on the two “innovation areas,” food waste prevention proposals could include things like “sharing, reusing, repairing, and repurposing.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources.” —SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register

We think it is important to provide a fair and equitable process for distributing funds and ensure the public receives the greatest benefit for its funding,” said Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. The city is holding an informational webinar for groups interested in applying on (UPDATED) April 22; Register said eight groups have signed up so far and “We are excited to see what community groups propose!”

The additional process means it will be even longer before sinks are available for people to access running water, something that has been necessary since pandemic-related shutdowns began more than a year ago. Street sink proponents—whose initial demonstration sink, outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District, opened almost a year ago—are starting to wonder if the mayor’s office is actually interested in helping homeless people wash their hands.

“Some of these arguments are arguments against hygiene services” in general, said Real Change policy director Tiffani McCoy. “One of them was, ‘We’re worried about vandalism and feces being spread around.’ That’s an argument against any hygiene model.”

SPU spokeswoman Register said the city is “eager to partner with community to provide hygiene options for the public that meet health, safety, and accessibility requirements, and that the new application process “helps guide applicants through these public health requirements to ensure their designs are meeting community needs.”

McCoy and others familiar with the meetings between the Clean Hands Collective and the city said one suggestion from the city was something proponents referred to as “Purell on a pole”—which is exactly what it sounds like. If the problem is disposing of the water, the argument went, why not just get rid of the 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.

Although street sink proponents pointed out that people experiencing homelessness have expressly expressed a need to wash their hands under running water, not squirt them with sanitizer (nor is sanitizing a best practice when water is available), the idea refused to die and is, according to Register, “not off the table.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources,” Register said.

Ironically, “theft of hand sanitizer” was one of the reasons the city was initially reluctant to provide portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness when the pandemic began.

2. The city’s Parks Department removed a small encampment in the dugout at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle Friday morning, after identifying the site as a “high priority location for engagement,” according to a joint statement from Parks and the Human Services Department provided to PubliCola Thursday. (The statement was identical to the response sent to at least one city council member who also asked about the sweep).

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said six people at the site received referrals into the Executive Pacific Hotel, about five miles from the site, from REACH, and “one individual voluntarily left the area.” The five men, all of them Spanish speakers, “were provided Uber rides to the hotel,” Mundt said.

It’s unclear why the city decided to prioritize Rainier Playfield specifically. On Thursday evening, the park was full of people playing tennis and football, walking dogs and strollers, and using every corner of the park. The dugout is tucked away at the edge of the park and no tents or trash were visible.

The city is also reportedly planning three more encampment removals in the coming weeks—a sign that sweeps, which had largely paused during the pandemic, are ramping up again in response to neighborhood complaints. The upcoming locations for encampment removals are: Miller Park on Capitol Hill (on or around April 13), Gilman Playground in Ballard, and the University Playground near the University District.

The city also recently removed tents at Fourth and Yesler, where, according to HSD, they were blocking access to the sidewalk. People living unsheltered downtown are reportedly being channeled into City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse, which is so crowded now that it resembles a densely packed shantytown, with dozens of tents instead of permanent structures. The city provides three portable toilets to serve all the people living in the park.

Efforts to provide places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands—a basic need that has been largely unmet throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to stall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and executive departments have raised objection after objection to proposals to create a street sink program that would help prevent the spread of disease.

3. Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s longtime advisor on homelessness, will take over as interim deputy director of the Human Services Department overseeing homelessness after the current deputy, Audrey Buehring, departs for a job in Washington, D.C. next week. Continue reading ““Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division”

“Every Community Should be Using FEMA Dollars” for Hotel-Based Shelter. So Why Isn’t Seattle?

Andreanecia Morris, executive director, HousingNOLA

By Erica C. Barnett

JustCARE, the pioneering program that has moved about 130 high-needs people off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District and into hotels, got a reprieve from King County this week that will allow it to continue operating through June. According to King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton, the county will provide $5 million for JustCARE and a smaller program run by the Public Defender Association, Co-LEAD Burien.

PDA director Lisa Daugaard says the “survival funding” from the county will allow JustCARE to “retain some of our existing rooms, and [let] us use a hotel the County has leased to replace some others.” But, she said, “the real impact of the JustCARE model is that we keep making new hotel placements for people still on the streets” in Pioneer Square and the CID. “Our ability to make new hotel placements has been paused for two months, and the current County rescue package will provide very little room to place new people.”

As one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”

Local advocates and city council members have asked the mayor to open hotels to unsheltered people who are at risk to COVID infection due to age or underlying health conditions, such as addiction, using federal FEMA dollars that are set aside for this purpose. Durkan and her budget office have responded by providing long lists of objections to the idea, and by arguing that FEMA does not pay for any kind of “services” at the hotels it does fund—only the cost of basic room and board.

As PubliCola has reported, this is not the experience of other cities that have used FEMA funding for hotel-based shelters and services; FEMA does not fund non-shelter services such as individual case management or counseling, but it does fund the costs of running a shelter, such as shelter staff. Cities across California, an early adopter of the hotel-based shelter model, have received reimbursement for the vast majority of services they provide to the thousands of formerly unsheltered people who have been staying in hotels since the pandemic began.

On Tuesday, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition held a panel discussion that provided important national perspective on Seattle’s reluctance to fund any hotels using FEMA-reimbursable dollars. From New Orleans to California, the common theme was that the process of seeking FEMA reimbursement (which was at the heart of many of Durkan’s objections) was well worth the lives that were undoubtedly saved by bringing people indoors. And, as one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”

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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.

Ann Oliva, a former HUD staffer who is now a fellow at the Center on Budget and Police Priorities, said that “every community should be using their FEMA dollars to support … a non-congregate sheltering approach”—and seeking additional federal money to pay for the small percentage of services that FEMA won’t pay for. “What’s important for you all to think about,” she told the local leaders and service providers on the call, “is how you can us either CARES Act [dollars] or these new resources coming thru the [American Rescue Plan Act that was announced last week to ensure that you have the money you need” to fund supportive services such as case management. Continue reading ““Every Community Should be Using FEMA Dollars” for Hotel-Based Shelter. So Why Isn’t Seattle?”

Fizz: Homeless Authority Tries Again, Election Update, and a Double Standard on FEMA Funding?

Local government loves a flow chart. This one outlines the process for hiring a director for the county homelessness authority.

1. In a process that remains opaque to the public, the implementation board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which includes advocates and representatives of local organizations and people with lived experience of homelessness, voted unanimously to hire New York City-based consultant Marc Dones as head of the authority. 

The decision came after a meandering discussion last week about how to move forward after the hiring committee’s first pick, Regina Cannon from C4 Innovations, turned down the position. Dones, who led the process that resulted in the authority’s current structure, was the second runner-up.

Although Cannon did not, as some on the board had suggested she might, appear before the board to explain why she didn’t take the job, she did talk to individual board members. Harold Odom, a Lived Experience Coalition member who was also on the hiring committee (which otherwise consisted mostly of representatives from Seattle, King County, and suburban cities), said Cannon told him the new CEO would need to be committed to “building community” by finding common ground among all parts of the region, and would need to have some experience with housing, not just homeless services.

To read between the lines: One issue Cannon reportedly raised when declining to take the job was that the region is extremely balkanized between Seattle and its suburbs, which often disagree with the city’s (and King County’s) approach to homelessness. This, arguably, is the problem underlying this entire project. The biggest challenge for the agency, as it always has been, will be crafting a united regional approach to homelessness that incorporates the views and preferences of the suburbs and unincorporated King County as well as Seattle. Whether this is even possible remains an open question.

Dones has not said publicly whether they will take the position, but it seems unlikely that the board would have voted unanimously to hire him without having some inkling of whether he would accept.

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has raised numerous logistical objections to requests that the city open hotel-based shelters for vulnerable unsheltered people as part of its pandemic response, claiming, among other objections, that FEMA’S documentation requirements are “onerous” and that FEMA does not provide reimbursement for any human services. As turns out, the Durkan administration did seek FEMA reimbursement for a hotel last year—one that sat mostly empty while thousands of people slept in tents or in overcrowded shelters in the early days of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the city persisted in seeking full reimbursement for the entire, mostly empty hotel.

The hotel was the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and it was supposed to serve as temporary housing for first responders who needed a safe place to isolate while they helped respond to the pandemic. Instead of renting individual rooms as needed, the city leased the entire hotel—155 rooms, every night, for three months. When only 17 people stayed in the hotel, total, during the first month of the lease (averaging nine days per stay), the city expanded eligibility to other kinds of essential workers, which added another handful of previously ineligible guests.

At the time, it seemed possible that FEMA would only pay for about $325,000 of the cost of the hotel because it was mostly unused. Nonetheless, the city persisted in seeking full reimbursement for the entire, mostly empty hotel. According to a spokesperson for the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, the city has submitted a request for $1,931,060, “and we are awaiting approval.”

The Executive Pacific will also be the site of a hotel-based shelter the city plans to open late this month using money from a federal Emergency Solutions Grant. In the seven months after the Executive Pacific’s initial $2 million, three-month contract ran out, according to FAS, the city spent $12,641 on rooms in the same hotel—a quarter of one percent of the monthly cost.

3. This is the current list of declared candidates for mayor and city council, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, but the final list will almost certainly include many additional names. Those could include former council member Bruce Harrell (perpetually said to be announcing soon), onetime mayoral candidate and former state legislator Jessyn Farrell (ditto), and Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller.

New names of note on this list include both viable candidates— activist and attorney Nikkita Oliver, who ran for mayor in 2017 and just joined the race to fill citywide position 9, being vacated by Lorena González—as well as those that merit the adjective “perennial,” such Nazi-saluting public commenter Alex Tsimerman, who has been repeatedly banned for city hall for disrupting council meetings.

Not yet on the city’s list, but certainly approaching perennial status, is North Seattle activist Kate Martin, who has registered to run for Position 8, held by Teresa Mosqueda—twice. She has also registered to run for mayor.

Martin has run for local office twice before, in 2013 and 2019. (In 2016, she ran an unsuccessful but well-funded initiative to build an elevated park next to the remains of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.) Tsimerman has run for local office in every election year since 2015.

Mayor’s Office Says Hotel Shelter “Service Costs Are NOT Eligible” for FEMA Funding; Shelter Providers, and FEMA Guidelines, Disagree

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council continued to seek clarity on why Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has not sought to fund hotel-based shelters with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which recently announced it will reimburse the cost of such shelters, with exceptions for non-shelter services such as case management, at 100 percent. (Previously, FEMA reimbursed for 75 percent of eligible costs, but President Biden increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to January 2020).

As PubliCola has reported, the City Budget Office, which answers to the mayor, sent a memo to the council late last month outlining a series of objections to funding hotel shelters using FEMA money. Most of the objections related to administrative headaches and hurdles associated with applying for funds. However, the memo also claimed that FEMA “is not paying for any services,” and that such “services” at shelters typically cost between $18,000 and $25,000 a year.

Deputy mayor Tiffany Washington reiterated this point in an email to members of the city’s volunteer commissions this week that explicitly said PubliCola’s reporting was “inaccurate and misleading.” (We stand by our reporting.) “While facility costs (the actual hotel rooms) and operations costs (like security, cleaning, and meals) are eligible, service costs are NOT eligible,” Washington wrote (emphasis hers), and reiterated the $18,000 to $25,000 figure.

Reimbursable items, according to FEMA’s guidelines, include “shelter management,” “health and safety,” “medical staff” “personal assistance service staff,” and other “support services” needed to operate a shelter. 

In fact, FEMA’s own guidelines for non-congregate shelter options during COVID lay out exactly which “shelter services” the agency covers, and they are not limited to “the actual hotel rooms” and operations costs associated with running a bare-bones hotel. (As a city council staffer put it Tuesday, “just leaving them there without any interactions and just dropping a meal off now and then” does not constitute a shelter).

Accordingly, reimbursable items, according to FEMA’s list, include “shelter management,” “health and safety,” “medical staff” “personal assistance service staff,” and other “support services” needed to operate a shelter.

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee tells PubliCola this shouldn’t be news to the city; FEMA has already paid for multiple tiny house villages and one enhanced shelter facility that LIHI opened in response to the pandemic, “and there were only a small number of items that they didn’t cover.” (This was during the period when FEMA only reimbursed 75 percent of costs.) Among the items FEMA covered, Lee said, were “office supplies, education expenses, client assistance… all operating costs, and the rest of the staff” who were not engaged in direct case management.

Case managers and behavioral health counselors also make up only a small minority of the staff that will be working at one of the hotel-based shelters that city plans to open using Emergency Solutions Grant (that is, non-FEMA) funding later this month.

According to Chief Seattle Club operations director Virgil Wade, the shelter CSC will operate at King’s Inn in Belltown will have between 10 and 13 staff, including three case managers, to “monitor and assist the clients” living in “about 60 rooms” at the 66-room facility. Consistent with LIHI’s experience operating shelters for people vulnerable to COVID infection, the majority of staff fall under the categories the FEMA guidelines define as reimbursable, assuming all other conditions are met.

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, FEMA has already paid for multiple tiny house villages and one enhanced shelter facility that LIHI opened in response to the pandemic, “and there were only a small number of items that they didn’t cover.”

Like other service providers we’ve spoken to, LIHI’s Lee said it’s unclear to her why the city hasn’t gone after more FEMA funding for these services at other kinds of shelter, such as hotels. “We’ve been urging the city and other jurisdictions to make better use of FEMA, but we do know that there’s some hesitancy,” Lee said.

Asked about FEMA”s list of reimbursable services, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas responded by reiterating that the city is seeking reimbursement for “eligible items like meals and security” at other shelters, but not “behavioral health, case management, and mental health.” This does not, unfortunately, answer the question about FEMA’s list of reimbursable services that are not on this concise but ill-defined list.

Formas added that the mayor’s office doubts that every single client being sheltered by the Public Defender Association’s JustCARE program—in the news lately because its funding from King County runs out in less than two weeks—would be considered vulnerable to COVID under FEMA’s standards for reimbursement. That’s a matter of debate on which the mayor’s office and service providers have taken different sides, with the mayor’s office using it as one of many reasons not to try for federal funds and service providers urging them to do so. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Says Hotel Shelter “Service Costs Are NOT Eligible” for FEMA Funding; Shelter Providers, and FEMA Guidelines, Disagree”

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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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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.