Category: homelessness

Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter

By Erica C. Barnett

As funding runs out for JustCARE, a program that has moved more than 100 very high-needs people from tent encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels where they receive case management and services, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has made it clear that it considers one source of funding off the table: Money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which recently announced it would pay 100 percent of the cost for eligible hotel-based shelters.

“While we appreciate the work of President Biden’s administration,” city budget director Ben Noble and Office of Emergency Management director Curry Mayer wrote in a memo to council members this week, “there continues to be no option to receive 100% reimbursement of the operation and services of non-congregate shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness in King County or Washington.” In other words: The city is grateful that the new administration is offering to pay for hotels; they just don’t consider it a viable option for Seattle.

Advocates for JustCARE, which serves unsheltered people with disabling behavioral health conditions, have been arguing for months that the city should seek FEMA reimbursement for the program, whose funding from King County runs out March 15. Without funding, the program will need to “exit” 124 substance-addicted people, most of them with disabling mental health conditions, onto city streets, at a time when both homeless advocates and business boosters agree that there are an unacceptable number of tents on sidewalks and in parks around the city. 

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met.”—Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The program, which is a partnership between the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, REACH, and the Chief Seattle Club, among other groups, provides non-congregate shelter options now that the COVID pandemic has reduced capacity in congregate shelters.

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met” and going back onto downtown streets, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the center city, said earlier this week.

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Under the Trump Administration, FEMA reimbursed jurisdictions 75 percent of the cost of COVID-related expenditures, including shelter; once President Biden took office, however, that number increased to 100 percent, retroactive to January 2020, prompting cities across the country to take advantage of the new, more generous reimbursement opportunity. Shelter advocates were urging the city to fund shelter now and seek reimbursement later even when the feds were only funding 75 percent of the cost; It’s critical, they argue, not to leave any resources on the table.

“It seems clear the Biden administration is sending a signal to use FEMA; if we qualify, we just have to do the work and go through the steps,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “We are willing.”

Other cities began renting hotels on the presumption of future reimbursement shortly after the pandemic began. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have used FEMA dollars to pay for thousands of hotel rooms funded through Project Roomkey, California’s effort to bring people experiencing homelessness indoors. When the Biden administration announced the costs for efforts like Project Roomkey would be completely reimbursed by FEMA, local officials in LA called it “manna from heaven.” Continue reading “Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter”

D.C. Protest Cops Sue for Secrecy, Questions About “Shelter Surge,” and Concerns About Police Contract

Seattle Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

1. Six Seattle Police Department officers who were in Washington, DC on January 6 for the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol building have sued the Seattle Police Department and four individuals who filed public records requests with the department to prevent the department from disclosing their names. The six officers are currently under investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for their potential involvement in the attack on the Capitol.

According the complaint, which the officers filed in King County Superior Court on Tuesday, the six are seeking a temporary restraining order that would stop SPD from releasing their names and unredacted personnel files. SPD and the OPA will release their names and unredacted personnel files to the public unless they receive a temporary restraining order by February 25, the officers noted in the complaint.

“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit claims that the officers will be “targeted, harassed, subjected to violent acts or sustain other irreparable harm” if their names are made public, particularly while the OPA investigations are still ongoing.

“It is highly inappropriate for a public employer to demand that its employees disclose their attendance at a political event, and then release the identities of any employees who attended that political event to the public,” the complaint says. “Just as it would be anathema for a public employer to require its employees to disclose who they voted for in any particular election, and then disclosure that information to members of the public.”

The complaint says the officers did not take part in the Capitol attack, and that if their names come out, the officers will be “painted as ‘criminals’ or ‘extremists’ solely by virtue of their constitutionally-protected attendance at a political speech and rally.” It also argues that releasing the officers’ names may violate state law, which prohibits government agencies from disclosing records connected to ongoing investigations into violations of federal, state or local laws.

If the officers receive a temporary restraining order from the court, they will then seek a permanent injunction preventing SPD from disclosing their names in the future.

2. During a wide-ranging briefing about the hotel-based shelters Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller fielded questions from the council about the scope of the program, who it will serve, and why the mayor’s office seems so attached to partnering with a specific hotel in downtown Seattle, the Executive Pacific Hotel. The city fully rented the same hotel at the beginning of the pandemic for first responders and, when first responders didn’t use the rooms, for nurses and other essential workers. The hotel remained almost entirely vacant for the duration of the lease, which cost the city about $4 million.

Not all of these rooms will be used as shelter.

As we reported earlier this week, the announcement confirms PubliCola’s previous reporting that Chief Seattle Club will operate a shelter and rapid rehousing program out of King’s Inn in Belltown, and LIHI and Chief Seattle Club will run a similar program out of the Executive Pacific.

Although Sixkiller echoed Durkan’s announcement that the two hotels will provide 220 rooms for people experiencing homelessness, the actual number is closer to 200, because some of the rooms at both hotels will be used for case management, live-in staff, and other purposes. That’s about 100 less than the 300 hotel rooms the city announced it would provide last October, when the estimate for the hotels to open was no later than January. The city now says both hotels will open sometime in March, more than a year after the mayor declared a COVID-19 state of emergency.

“Our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”—Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

The mayor’s office has referred to the hotels as a yearlong program, but the plan includes a total of at least two months to ramp up and ramp down the programs, so the planned duration of the actual shelters is more like nine to ten months. 

The program has changed in other ways. Although the budget action appropriating city funds for the “shelter surge” explicitly said the hotel program would serve people with the greatest service needs—who happen to be the group causing the greatest “disorder” in areas like downtown and Pioneer Square—LIHI plans to serve people who can more easily transition into the rapid rehousing program that is also a key component of the mayor’s plan.

Councilmember Dan Strauss asked Sixkiller whether the program would also help “high-acuity” clients, as the deputy mayor said it would as recently as last December, when Sixkiller brought advocates from the Public Defender Association and REACH, two groups that serve high-needs unsheltered people, along with him to the council’s homelessness committee to promote the program.

“[With] all of our shelter units, we are trying to pair individuals with the housing that best meets their needs and the services that they need to be successful in making that transition from being outside and into housing and on the journey, hopefully, into permanent housing,” Sixkiller told the council yesterday, “so our goal here is sort of a ‘both, and,’ council member—both individuals who have high acuity needs as well as others.”

LIHI has indicated that at least some of the people who will move into the Executive Pacific will come from other LIHI programs; Chief Seattle Club did not return a call seeking more information about their program. Referrals will go “through” the new HOPE Team, which replaced the Navigation Team, but the exact details of how that will work and how the agencies will identify hotel clients are vague; the HOPE team does not actually do outreach, but coordinates referrals from their offices.

Sixkiller would not get into the cost of each hotel room, saying that was proprietary information until the city had inked the contracts. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that if the city spends all of the available money on these two hotels, the cost will work out to about $28,000 a bed, or around the same amount as the expansion of the JustCARE program the city rejected as too expensive.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked Sixkiller whether the “125 new shelter beds” the mayor announced this week were actually new. The two new tiny house villages were actually council additions to the mayor’s budget last year, and the WHEEL shelter opened earlier this month after the organization spent months pressuring the mayor’s office to allow them to open a nighttime shelter in City Hall, a plan the mayor’s office rejected. Sixkiller responded that he could get back to her about the “color of money” funding each part of the “surge,” prompting Herbold to respond, “This isn’t merely an academic exercise” about “the color of money” but a question of how many actually new beds will be available.

3. The Community Police Commission voted on Tuesday to approve a list of recommendations for Seattle’s upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the largest of the city’s police unions. The recommendations address both the transparency of the city’s bargaining process and the city’s priorities during bargaining.

The commission generally agreed on the transparency proposals, which included a recommendation to require the city to make public the membership of its negotiating team, its bargaining priorities, and any concessions it makes during negotiations. Commissioners also broadly supported a recommendation that negotiators try to remove the parts of the SPOG contract that allow the agreement to supersede city law; Officer Mark Mullens, the only SPD officer on the commission, was the only member to oppose that proposal.

Continue reading “D.C. Protest Cops Sue for Secrecy, Questions About “Shelter Surge,” and Concerns About Police Contract”

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Durkan Focuses on Vaccination, “Reopening Downtown” in Brief State of the City Remarks

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s final State of the City speech, delivered from the Filipino Community Center in southeast Seattle, was notable more for its brevity than its content. The speech, which clocked in at just over six minutes (more than 35 minutes less than the shortest of her other three State of the City speeches) included plenty of platitudes about Seattle’s resilience and future recovery (“we have a tough road ahead, but there is hope on the horizon,” she said), but few specifics about what the city has done and will do to ensure that recovery—for small businesses, low-income residents, people experiencing homelessness, or people impacted by systemic racism.

“Never bet against Seattle,” Durkan said. “This year, we will continue to be tested but we will begin to recover and rebuild more equitably.”

Durkan gave few specifics about how she planned to make that happen in her final year, other than widespread vaccination and economic recovery downtown.

In the coming weeks,” Durkan said, “we’ll discuss and implement plans to continue progress on” climate change, public safety, and systemic racial inequity. Including the concrete steps we’ll take together to recover and reopen downtown. Including steps we will take to improve the livability and safety of downtown.”

“We’ll address public safety,” Durkan continued, “expand alternatives to policing, and have other responses.”

Durkan mentioned homelessness just twice, both times in the context of reopening downtown. “We’ll open hundreds of shelter spaces and affordable homes to bring more neighbors inside from our streets and parks so they can get stability and services,” Durkan said. Later, she added, “We will bring more people from our parks and streets into permanent supportive housing and new 24/7 spaces and tiny homes.”

As PubliCola has reported, the city’s plan to open around 300 new hotel-based shelter beds using federal COVID emergency funds has stalled over a dispute between the mayor’s office and providers about how much each bed should cost. Even if all the new shelter beds opened next week, the grants are temporary; once the money runs out, the hotels will have to close unless service providers can come up with new funding for the beds.

No neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle merited a mention in Durkan’s speech, except as future vaccination sites. Even a press release from the mayor’s office said Durkan’s speech laid out “her vision for Seattle to reopen and recover, especially downtown.” There was a time when appearing to kowtow to downtown businesses was seen as a liability, or a sign that a politician was out of touch with people outside the city’s commercial core. In a six-minute speech from a mayor who isn’t seeking reelection, it felt like the only clear sign of where she plans to focus her attention during her last 11 months.

Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority

Image via Wikimedia Commons

1. On Tuesday, the Mercer Island City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposal to ban all “camping” in the city, including sleeping unsheltered in public places and sheltering in a vehicle overnight. People who violate the ban—anyone who remains unsheltered in the city overnight—could be jailed for up to 90 days and fined $1,000 for each violation. Any vehicle that is used for overnight shelter, including RVs, could be impounded.

At a Mercer Island City Council meeting last month, Councilmember Jake Jacobson said the proposed ordinance “addresses public safety concerns [about] people who, but for this ordinance, would be staying in public properties for an infinite period of time and certainly are in a position to be of concern to people on the island. Fear—there is fear out there, and this is a way to deal with it.”

“And if people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,'” Jacobson continued, “then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

A federal appeals court ruling, Martin v. Boise, bars cities from passing outright bans on homelessness. Instead, it allows cities to ban sleeping outdoors unless there is no “available” shelter in the area—but the definition of “available” and in the area are very much open to interpretation.

The Mercer Island proposal gets around Boise by saying that police who encounter unsheltered people may direct them to shelter outside Mercer Island but on the Eastside, since Mercer Island does not have any homeless shelters. In practice, this means one of four shelters—one for women, one for men, one for families with children, and one for youth. In exchange for these services, Mercer Island would pay a consortium of Eastside service providers a total of $10,000 a year.

The bill defines “available” broadly, allowing police to enforce the law against people who can’t be admitted to their designated shelter because of the “voluntary actions of that person,” including :intoxication, drug use, unruly and/or assaultive behavior and like behaviors.” Under proposed ordinance, for example, if a homeless man was ineligible for the lone men’s shelter because he was exhibiting behavioral health symptoms that made him “unruly,” he could be seen as refusing shelter and jailed.

If people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,’ then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes assured the council that then police were interested in helping homeless people, not further marginalizing them. “Rest assured… we won’t take enforcement action until there’s repeated issues,” he said. But Sergeant Mike Seifer, who presented the legislation to the council, noted that it was aimed at addressing a specific group of people—”about four individuals that we deal with on a very serious or consistent basis” in public spaces, plus “about six or seven that are in vehicles that are consistently coming into contact with the officers.”

One way or another, the law would allow Mercer Island police to remove those ten or so people from the island, either by jailing them in another city, such as Issaquah, or by sending them to a shelter off the island. Councilmember Craig Reynolds, who cast the lone “no” vote against the ordinance on first reading, noted that the city’s jail contracts don’t come cheap—jailing a person costs the city about $200 a day, or up to $18,000 for the maximum 90-day sentence.

2. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci  will replace her fellow Councilmember Reagan Dunn on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, as we reported exclusively on Twitter Friday.

In January, as PubliCola reported, governing board member Zaneta Reid took Dunn to task for positions he has taken on homelessness, including his opposition to the “Health Through Housing” sales tax proposal and his efforts to fund one-way bus tickets out of King County. “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan shut down the conversation before Dunn could answer. Continue reading “Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority”

Rules Aren’t Censorship, Activists Aren’t Policymakers, and Solutions to Homelessness Aren’t Cheap

1. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant learned the hard way yesterday that the standard for decorum in the state legislature is not the same as the standard in city council chambers, when state Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) cut her off during a hearing on a proposed state capital gains tax yesterday.  Frame is a cosponsor of the legislation, and the prime sponsor on a separate proposal to impose a wealth tax on the richest Washington state residents.

Legislative committees typically hold no more than one public hearing for each bill, and commenters are supposed to restrict their remarks to the legislation on the agenda during the meeting at which they’re testifying.

In her testimony, Sawant mentioned the bill number that was on the agenda before launching into testimony about wealth and income taxes in general, focusing on a theoretical preemption clause in a different bill that hasn’t even been proposed yet—a potential state payroll tax, which some advocates worry could could preempt Seattle’s own JumpStart payroll tax. After about a minute. Frame interrupted, asking Sawant to “keep your comments focused on the bill at hand, please?”

Sawant responded, “It is focused on the bill at hand” and continued reading from her speech about the payroll tax. Frame interrupted two more times as Sawant quoted from a Crosscut article about the payroll tax proposal, accused Frame of “completely suborning the Constitution,” and insisted she had a “Constitutional right” to testify on “every bill that you will talk about focusing on the wealthy and big business.” At that point, Frame cut Sawant’s mic and moved on to the next public commenter.

“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet. It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.” — Washington State Rep. Noel Frame

Sawant posted her remarks later in the day, broken up by a large pink box reading “[Censored from this point on].” The charge of censorship prompted Sawant’s fans to dogpile Frame on social media, calling her a “corporate shill” and worse. (Frame, a Bernie delegate in 2016, does not accept corporate contributions—and, again, is sponsoring measures to tax capital gains and personal wealth.)

Ironically, the city council’s own rules require that people testifying before the council limit their comments to items on the council’s agenda, a rule that admittedly tends to be more honored in the breach.

“She was coming to the committee during a hearing on a capital gains bill to talk about a payroll tax that hasn’t even been dropped yet, and she kept referencing wealth, and I was like, ‘The wealth tax hearing was last week,'” Frame told PubliCola. “It’s just a matter of speaking to the bill. It’s the same type of decorum we try to follow on the floor, and if we don’t focus on the bill at hand, we get gaveled.”

As for the issue of preemption: The capital gains tax proposal includes a clause explicitly stating that it does not preempt any other taxes.

2. The city opened two cold-weather shelters on Thursday in anticipation of freezing temperatures, bringing the city’s winter-shelter capacity to about 165 beds. (King County opened a men’s only shelter downtown that will serve another 25.)

Emergency shelter unquestionably saves lives, but it’s worth putting these temporary beds into context: The city lags far behind its own revised schedule to open up 300 federally-funded hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness, a plan the mayor’s office unveiled before cold weather had even set in last fall. Those 300 rooms are supposed to serve as a temporary way station for 600 or more unsheltered people, who the city plans to move swiftly into permanent supportive or market-rate housing, freeing up rooms for more unsheltered people.

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The mayor’s office and the Human Services Department have been reluctant to release any details about the hotel proposals or even confirm the locations of the hotels, which we’ve reported several times and which the city council has begun discussing openly. The city rejected the Public Defender Association’s proposal to use the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown for an expansion of its successful JustCare hotel-based shelter model because, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the PDA’s proposal was too expensive; the city is now reportedly in conversations with the Low-Income Housing Institute, which also responded to the city’s request for qualifications for hotel-based shelters last year.

So what, exactly, is the holdup? I asked Durkan this during a press conference on the winter weather shelters, and she responded by making a hard pivot back to the winter shelters and responding as if I had asked about them—an odd dodge, in my view, since the context for my question was the fact that 300 more people would be inside and warm right now if the hotel shelters had been opened according to the city’s original schedule.

In response to a followup question, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said, “the City is working to implement the shelter surge program and is in active negotiations with hotels and service providers.” (In addition to the Executive Pacific and potentially LIHI, the Chief Seattle Club plans to open a shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown.) “The significant change in weather had us redirect some resources towards emergency weather response but we plan to announce our new partnerships soon.”

Neither council member backed down or gave ground when neighborhood activists tried to goad them (“I can already hear the snarky comments about how it’s called the HOPE Team because you hope they’ll do something!” one man guffawed) and both stayed on message

The delay, which was going on long before yesterday’s cold snap, likely comes down to two issues: Cost and capacity. Every provider who submitted a bid to operate a hotel-based shelter proposed a plan more expensive than the city’s original $17,000-per-bed spending cap. And every provider in the city is stretched thin, as HSD interim director Helen Howell noted in her remarks at Wednesday’s press conference— for example, the city is relying on groups that don’t ordinarily operate emergency shelters, like LIHI, to staff the winter-weather shelters. To run a successful hotel-based shelter program, agencies will either have to hire more staff (which increases) or spread themselves even thinner (which can decrease service quality.)

The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel plan would have entailed moving existing DESC clients from a congregate shelter at Seattle Center rather than taking on a whole new group of residents. The city rejected it as non-responsive because, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, it did not bring a new set of unsheltered people into the shelter system. Continue reading “Rules Aren’t Censorship, Activists Aren’t Policymakers, and Solutions to Homelessness Aren’t Cheap”

Customer-Only Rail Restrooms, Women’s Groups Denounce Fain Appointment, and WHEEL Shelter Finds a Home

1. The leaders of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Washington State Democrats, and several other statewide organizations have signed a letter calling for former state senator Joe Fain’s resignation from the Washington State Redistricting Commission.

Fain was appointed to the five-member commission, which will redraw Washington’s congressional and legislative boundaries, by senate minority leader John Braun of Centralia. 

In 2018, a former city of Seattle employee, Candace Faber, said that Fain had raped her after a reception in Washington, D.C. several years earlier. Although the allegations eventually led to a state senate investigation, the investigation was dropped after Fain lost his reelection bid to Democrat Mona Das. Two months after leaving office, Fain was hired as head of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him. If Fain remains on the commission, they say, he should have no in-person access to staff, other commissioners, or members of the public, and all his communications should be supervised by an outside party.

“Lack of action on behalf of the Commission would normalize sexually predatory behavior and set a dangerous precedent that sexual assault accusations are not taken seriously by Washington State officials, further discouraging others who may experience similar incidents from bringing forth their own experiences,” the letter concludes.

2. Last week, Sound Transit’s ridership experience committee agreed to a new public-restroom policy that will, if implemented, add a total of seven new restrooms to the agency’s commuter and light rail system once it is fully built out decades from now. Three of those would be in Seattle—in Ballard, the Chinatown/International District, and Seattle Center.

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

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

The new criteria the board will use to determine which stations get restrooms were based on what’s in place in other systems, but it’s important to note that these criteria are a decision, not an inevitability. Stations with restrooms will be those that have more than 10,000 boardings a day and where five or more different transit routes converge; additionally, Sound Transit staff has recommended, every rider should be able to access a restroom within a 20-minute ride from any point within the system. This set of rules leads to restrooms outside the downtown Seattle core, where there happen to be a large number of people living unsheltered without easy access to public restrooms, and at the new suburban hubs.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them. Calling them “paid toilets” might be more accurate.  One can easily imagine a scenario in which a rider who is just outside the two-hour window when tickets or passes are valid finds herself locked out of the restroom at her destination.

3. The women’s homeless shelter provider WHEEL, whose request to open a nighttime-only shelter at City Hall was rejected last month, will have a new home starting this week: First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has also housed the city’s navigation center and other shelter providers over many years. The new space, which WHEEL is opening with city support, will have space for up to 60 women.

As PubliCola reported last month, WHEEL’s women’s shelter is low-barrier, meaning that the group accepts women in any condition and those who don’t do well in structured programs. The group had been trying to find a space since November to supplement its existing shelter at Trinity Episcopal Church near downtown, whose nightly capacity has been cut in half by COVID bed spacing requirements.