Category: homelessness

Woodland Park, Site of Seattle’s Largest Encampment, Now “Highest-Priority Site In the City”

Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.
Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.

By Erica C. Barnett

A large, longstanding encampment in Upper Woodland Park has now become “the highest-priority [encampment] site in the city,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, told PubliCola yesterday. Strauss and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said city officials are meeting weekly with outreach providers to come up with a strategy for the encampment, which includes about 70 tents and as many as 100 people, including some who had been living in a nearby encampment the city’s Parks Department removed late last month.

The encampment is on the city’s official “priority list” for January, a designation bestowed on encampments the city is about to sweep.

Ordinarily, when an encampment is on the priority list, a group of city outreach workers called the HOPE Team goes to the site and offers the people living there whatever shelter happens to be available. Although the HOPE Team has exclusive access to some beds that are not available to other outreach providers, there are often no more than one or two beds available across the city, and those beds may not be suitable for every person living at an encampment.

Practically speaking, it would be impossible to move everyone living in even a midsize encampment into shelter in the few days the HOPE Team usually spends doing outreach before a sweep, even if the shelter that became available that week happened to be appropriate for those specific encampment residents. As a result, encampment sweeps tend to earn their name—encampment residents describe being swept from one site to another and then swept again, moving around neighborhoods in an endless round robin of sweeps.

“The mayor is … acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.”—Jamie Housen, spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell

Strauss says the Woodland Park removal will be different. Like the recent successful effort to remove a smaller encampment at the Ballard Commons park, he said, the city will send service providers into the encampment to collect the names of everyone living there, assess their needs, and assign each person to appropriate housing or shelter as it becomes available. “Our ability to place people in shelter will depend on two things: One, throughput for people who are in shelter into affordable housing” so that existing shelter beds become available, “and then, secondly shelter expansion.”

Strauss acknowledges that the Ballard Commons was successful precisely because several brand-new shelter facilities became available all at once, creating temporary excess capacity in the shelter system so that people actually had places to go. With Woodland Park, the situation is different; it’s impossible to move people into shelter that doesn’t exist.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell is “acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.” Harrell, Housen added, “is committed to ensuring progress at the site and is doing so by engaging the City with community, providers, and stakeholders in a constructive, methodical, and effective approach that drives visible change and improved outcomes for encampment residents and Woodland Park community members as quickly as possible.”

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee said LIHI—the city’s primary tiny-house village provider—has not heard anything about a proposal for new tiny houses to shelter people living in Woodland Park. Typically, standing up a new tiny house village is a process that requires funding from the city through the budget process, which happens annually with “supplemental” budget changes every three months, followed by a request for proposals and selection process.

During a meeting of the King County Homelessness Authority’s governing board on Thursday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the biggest challenge to standing up new shelters and tiny house villages isn’t funding but staffing. Recently, they said, “we have had shelters operate overnight shifts with a single person, which is simply not advisable.” The authority’s budget, which is primarily supplied by the city of Seattle, includes funding to expand Camp Second Chance in West Seattle.

In the meantime, Strauss said during a meeting of the Greenlake Community Council Wednesday night, the city will begin working on “short-term supports like trash mitigation and hygiene mitigation. So if you see a port-a-potty go up, or a handwashing station, or a Dumpster, this does not indicate a sanctioned encampment. It is a temporary placement. It will go up and it will go down.” The specific timeline for this process, Strauss said, will be “based on shelter capacity.”

“It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice, and freezing temperatures closed in on Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in the downtown Seattle area, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The emphasis on the center city reflected an implicit assumption that most people living unsheltered in Seattle either live near the center city or could get there easily on public transit, using transit passes or the free bus tickets the city’s outreach teams distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, over in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. Since 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has run an occasional, informal shelter out of the American Legion hall on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of local unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. Initially, Hughes opened the building, which is owned by the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for unsheltered people “to get dry and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six people” would often sit under an overhang in front of the building to get out of the rain. Later, when the temperature dipped into the 20s, “I couldn’t get myself to throw them back out of the building,” so he started keeping the building open on the coldest night of the  year.

“I started it because it needed to be,” Hughes, who is 74, said. “The hall is there, not getting used, 95 percent of the time, so I decided it needed to get used.”

Ordinarily, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests a night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year was shaping up to be much the same as previous winters—until the county, city, and Seattle Times included the shelter on their official, public lists of available shelters just after Christmas.

“I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”—Keith Hughes, volunteer operator, West Seattle Veterans Center shelter

The result, Hughes said, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and suddenly I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, and SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health clinic, and Navos Mental Health [in Burien], asking if I had space in my shelter. I’m not a professional. I’m not a mental health counselor. I’m not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “being run by three people with no training, zero support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so that people would” volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances when shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations they were underqualified to deal with, including “at least one person in mental distress that was sent from another shelter” and a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who involuntarily “crapped all over the place” and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.

“Somebody brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from an abusive family—they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and a pair of pants, so they brought her in,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every single phone number I could get my hands on for, like, a women’s shelter— I only have so much knowledge about this—and nobody ever called me back.”

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically, all the city did was add me to the list of shelters out there and made my address public, which doubled the number of people that showed up,” Hughes said. “On really cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of which were being sent to me directly from mental health facilities. I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”

It’s unclear who, exactly, made the decision to list the West Seattle site on both the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s list of available shelters. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD staffer who now works as a senior advisor to the KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside downtown Seattle, and initially advocating against making the shelter location public.

“The facility didn’t report being above capacity, and was only at capacity on one night according to the census counts provided. Keeping open capacity hidden from the community seems counter to the point of opening emergency severe weather shelter.”—Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city listed the shelter after it became a “funder,” which it did by agreeing to pay Hughes’ higher-than-average utility bills during the official winter emergency—the only reimbursement the city has offered. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, which (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional staff, services, and supplies associated with the winter shelters they operated. Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the city “had to list” the shelter once it became a funder, which was inaccurate. PubliCola regrets the error.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly advertise that the shelter was open. “The shelter was listed in the broader news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) prior to HSD listing it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on 12/25, prior to HSD sharing it as well.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city wasn’t primarily responsible for making Seattle residents aware of what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, the city’s public information officers, including Franklin, directed the media to use and link to the HSD website in stories about available shelter; the KCRHA’s winter shelter blog post also directed visitors back to the city’s website. Continue reading ““It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter”

Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month

King's Inn
King’s Inn in Belltown

By Erica C. Barnett

With less than three weeks remaining before their contracts expire, the organizations that run two hotel-based shelters the city funded last year are scrambling to find housing for more than 100 homeless clients. One, the Chief Seattle Club, needs to relocate about 60 people from the King’s Inn shelter in Belltown; the other, the Low Income Housing Institute, must find shelter or housing for about 90 people still staying at the Executive Pacific hotel downtown.

Under their current contracts, which the King County Regional Homelessness Authority took over and declined to extend late last year, both hotels must empty out on January 31. (The actual contracts last another month, to give the agencies time to clean and repair any damage to the properties.) Both agencies stopped accepting new clients last year, and LIHI started moving hotel guests into other properties it operates, including tiny house villages, shelters, and permanent housing. Chief Seattle Club, meanwhile, made plans to move people from King’s Inn into two housing projects it had under development, including one, ?al?al, that was supposed to open in October.

Since then, however, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question. Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for Chief Seattle Club, described a cascade of delays that have pushed back the opening date for ?al?al again and again: Rescheduled fire inspections, the discovery of an underground conduit that upended the schedule to pour a sidewalk outside the building, interminable waits for utility hookups. “Every construction project in the city is facing delays,” Clark said.

Not every person at King’s Inn will move into Chief Seattle Club’s own housing; some will use federal emergency housing vouchers, and some will use short-term rapid rehousing subsidies; the same is true for those currently staying at the Executive Pacific, and those have stayed at both hotels in the past and moved into other shelter or housing.

Since last year, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question.

LIHI is facing similar challenges, its director, Sharon Lee, said; if several new projects where LIHI had hoped to move hotel guests aren’t finished by the end of January, “we may have to put some people in another temporary [shelter],” such as a hotel. “We don’t think that’s the best solution either—to move them from one hotel to another hotel.”

The problems LIHI and Chief Seattle Club are facing as they wind down their hotel-based shelters are only partly the result of housing construction delays. In fact, the biggest challenges were baked into the contracts from the very beginning. Former mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially resisted accepting federal COVID relief dollars to move people from the streets to hotels, agreed to a very limited hotel-based shelter program last year on the condition that the hotels would serve as way stations for people moving swiftly into housing, rather than long-term shelter. The idea was to move people from encampments to hotels to market-rate apartments, using “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between unsheltered, often chronic, homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Rapid rehousing is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds.

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is most effective for people with minimal barriers to housing and employment—those who can get jobs quickly and earn enough to afford an apartment in Seattle. It is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds. As a result, people did not tend to move from hotel rooms to apartments; instead, they ended up back on the streets, moved into other forms of shelter like tiny house villages, or stayed put. Continue reading “Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month”

Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to Retire, More Fallout From No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Deal, US Attorney Joins Davison Team

1. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg announced on Friday that he will not seek reelection in 2022, bringing an end to 37-year career in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, including four terms as the elected prosecutor.

In the 15 years since he was first elected, Satterberg has gradually shifted the attention of his office toward alternatives to prosecution. Those efforts included supporting diversion programs for people arrested for drug offenses years before a state supreme court decision overturned Washington’s felony drug possession laws in February 2021. Under Satterberg’s leadership, the prosecutor’s office also launched a sentencing review unit as part of an effort to remedy excessively long prison sentences.

Under Satterberg, the prosecutor’s office has participated in a push to scale back the use of juvenile detention in the county, relying on both diversion programs and an overall decline in juvenile crime. However, Satterberg has opposed closing down the county’s juvenile jail, and has voiced skepticism about efforts to reform Washington’s juvenile sentencing laws. In December 2020, Satterberg tried to appeal a pair of Washington State Supreme Court decisions expanding judges’ discretion to consider the age and maturity of juvenile offenders as mitigating factors when sentencing or re-sentencing them; the US Supreme Court later declined to hear Satterberg’s appeal.

Satterberg’s support for diversion programs has drawn the ire of some law enforcement allies, who blame his increasing focus on alternatives to detention for a recent rise in violent crime. But criticism has come from both sides: During the 2018 election, he faced a challenge from public defender Daron Morris, who criticized Satterberg for participating in a county-wide crackdown on sex work.

Since the start of the pandemic, Satterberg’s office has faced a backlog of felony cases fueled by court closures and staffing shortages. At the same time, law enforcement agencies across King County referred nearly a quarter fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office in 2021 than the pre-pandemic average, adding to an overall decline in the number of charges the office files each month in court.

In the final year of his term, Satterberg plans to expand a diversion program for first-time property crime felonies to serve adults, in addition to those younger than 18.

Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, announced her intention to run for Satterberg’s position in November. Manion is the first person to announce their candidacy for the office, and she follows in Satterberg’s footsteps: Before he led the office, Satterberg was the chief of staff to the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski also filed his candidacy for the position on Friday, as did Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

2. The Seattle Parks Department issued a violation and ordered re-training for the head of its encampment cleanup team after the employee approved a no-bid, no-contract deal to pay a company owned by a current city employee to remove trash from encampments, in violation of city contracting policy.

PubliCola learned of the violation from documents obtained through a records request. The notice of violation also raises questions about whether crew members for-owned company, Fresh Family LLC, paid its workers prevailing wages, a requirement for city contracts. According to a spokeswoman for the parks department, the prevailing wage for encampment cleanup crew members is $54.62 an hour; the department “is working to clarify whether Fresh Family failed to pay prevailing wages,” adding that “there was some discrepancy related to prevailing wages that SPR is working to address.”

Fresh Family’s owner, Debbie Wilson, is a former Parks Department employee who now works for City Light; the company received at least $434,000 in payments from the city over two months, according to invoices provided in response to PubliCola’s records request. The most recent invoice is for work performed on November 30, the day before PubliCola contacted Parks to ask about the company and three days before we ran a story about the unusual no-bid, no-contract deal.

Ordinarily, companies that do encampment cleanups are hired through what’s known as a blanket contract; when the Parks Department hires a company to remove an encampment or clean up garbage or other waste, they are required to choose from a list of companies that are included in this blanket contract.

The department can hire companies that are not on the list under one of two circumstances: If a contract is under $55,000 (which requires soliciting at least three bids), or if none of the companies on the list are available to do the work. Neither of these conditions were met when the city hired Fresh Family LLC to do encampment cleanup work during October and November.

According to the Parks Department spokeswoman, the department “will be providing this employee [Waters[ with a training that covers the full contracting process: vendor selection, contract creation, direct payment, coding, invoicing, and all city policies pertaining to the contracting process. This is a training that is given to staff periodically and again to specific staff when needed.”

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3. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced on Friday that she has hired former US Attorney Brian Moran to help her office process a backlog of more than 4,000 misdemeanor cases and to advise her on “near term criminal priorities.”

Former President Donald Trump appointed Moran to serve as the US Attorney General for the Western District of Washington in 2019, with support from Washington Senators Patti Murray and Maria Cantwell during his confirmation process. At the request of the US Department of Justice, Moran resigned from his post in February 2021 alongside 54 other Trump-era US Attorneys.  Continue reading “Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to Retire, More Fallout From No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Deal, US Attorney Joins Davison Team”

Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons

A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of thousands used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city
A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of hundreds used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city

1. A series of fake radio transmissions by Seattle police officers in June 2020 that described a group of armed, far-right extremists wandering through the downtown core “improperly added fuel to the fire” during a tense summer of citywide racial justice protests and clashes with police, according to Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, whose office released its investigation of the incident on Wednesday.

The transmissions were a part of a misinformation campaign conceived by Brian Grenon, then the captain of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. The transmissions came only hours after officers evacuated the precinct at the instruction of Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey. In an interview with the OPA, Grenon explained that the ruse was intended to convince demonstrators that the department had “more officers out there doing regular stuff” at a time when SPD was stretched thin. Grenon didn’t seek approval for the campaign from then-police chief Carmen Best or Mahaffey, nor did he tell his subordinate officers what to say.

The lower-ranking officers chose to describe a group of armed Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group known for street brawls that featured prominently in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last January, gathered near Seattle City Hall. In interviews with the OPA, the officers said that they had never taken part in a disinformation campaign before.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, however, that SPD has faced scrutiny over disinformation in the recent past. In 2019, the OPA launched an investigation into an officer who lied to a driver suspected of a hit-and-run; though the incident only damaged a group of parked cars, the officer claimed that the crash left a person in critical condition. Less than a week later, the driver died by suicide after agonizing over the incident, believing he had killed someone.

While Washington state law allows police officers to use a ruse while undercover, to gather information for investigations and to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.” In the 2019 case, Myerberg ruled that the officer’s ruse was not necessary or appropriate, and that it likely led directly to the driver’s suicide. SPD suspended the officer responsible for the ruse for 6 days, and Myerberg recommended that SPD begin training officers on ruses, “including when they are appropriate and when they shock fundamental fairness.”

On Wednesday, Herbold noted that SPD has yet to fully implement Myerberg’s recommendation, and said she has asked Myerberg to issue a new recommendation, specifying that officers need to document any ruses so that investigators can review their appropriateness.

Although Myerberg noted that the Proud Boys ruse likely contributed to some protesters’ decisions to arm themselves, it appears that none of the officers involved in the ruse will face discipline. Grenon and another commander who supervised the effort have since left SPD, and Myerberg held that while the four lower-ranking officers who took part in the ruse exercised poor judgment, their supervisors were to mostly to blame.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson, in response to an email from Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Vehicle Residency Outreach program

2. When new Position 9 City Councilmember Sara Nelson took her oath of office Tuesday afternoon, she emphasized her experience as the co-owner of Fremont Brewing, referring to herself as “the first small business owner on City Council since 2009.” (Jan Drago, who owned a Häagen-Dazs franchise on the Ave, retired that year).

In an email responding to a homeless service provider’s concerns about Fremont Brewing’s use of large concrete “ecology blocks” to obstruct parking on the streets surrounding its Ballard brewing facility, however, Nelson said she no longer has anything to do with the business, which she co-owns with her husband, Matt Lincecum, and could not respond to any requests for Fremont Brewing to remove the obstructions.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election,” Nelson said in an email to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, head of the city-funded Vehicle Residency Outreach program. “This is why I haven’t spoken to any reporters about this matter and why I must decline to engage in discussion with you now. For current information about SDOT’s enforcement of complaints of street use violations, I have referred inquiries to [the public information officer] at SDOT (copied).”

Kirlin-Hackett’s initial letter asked Nelson to “now abide as a sitting Councilmember [with] what the law requires; that is removing the ecology barriers that surround your brewery.” In his response to Nelson’s email, Kirlin-Hackett wrote, “I know it is a very usual thing for those elected to want to wash their hands. But it’s clear by your response you know this is a problem and violation of the law. If you read the letter from SDOT I sent, you’ll know their very problem is their inability to have the support of the Executive or Council in how to apply the law.”

Many property owners in industrial areas, including several in the blocks immediately adjacent to Fremont Brewing, have placed ecology blocks in the public right-of-way to prevent people living in RVs (which, under Seattle law, can only park overnight in industrial areas) from parking on the street. The use of ecology blocks to obstruct parking is illegal, but SDOT has not enforced the law, opting instead to send warning letters to businesses, including Fremont Brewing, that use the blocks to deter RV parking.

SDOT’s laissez-faire approach to street use has not extended to RV owners themselves; shortly before the most recent snow and ice storm, the city showed up with tow trucks to remove a group of RVs from West Green Lake Way, part of a sweep that also forced people camping in the area to move their tents to a different part of the park.

Nelson did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about what her “formal separation” from Fremont Brewing entails.

3. A Seattle police officer shot and killed a man suspected of burglarizing a South Seattle home on Wednesday afternoon after the man killed a police dog and stabbed the dog’s handler, Officer Anthony Ducre, in the face.

The dog, named Jedi, was previously at the center of a lawsuit against the city of Seattle by a woman he attacked during a training exercise in a Tukwila parking lot in January 2020. At the time, SPD was using the parking lot as part of a training course for K-9 units. Ducre was leading Jedi through the course on a long lead and lost sight of him around a corner; there, Jedi found a woman taking a break from her job in a nearby building and—acting on training—bit her leg. The woman, Valerie Heffernan, later settled with the City of Seattle for $225,000. Continue reading “Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons”

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

New Leadership on Every Floor of City Hall as 2022 Begins

1. Incoming city Attorney Ann Davison painted a dire portrait of Seattle in her official swearing-in speech on Tuesday morning, framing her plans to crack down on misdemeanor offenses as a fight to “stand up for victims” who have been unrepresented at City Hall.

“Communities are afraid to use their parks, people are afraid to walk down 3rd Avenue, and parents are afraid to send their kids to wait for the bus,” Davison said, pointing to the Seven Stars Pepper restaurant at the intersection of S. Jackson Street and 12th Little Saigon as a case study in the consequences of rising petty crime. The owner, Yong Hong Wang, warned last fall that her restaurant is on the brink of failure because customers are afraid of the ad hoc street market — a group of vendors selling everything from shampoo to narcotics — at an adjacent bus stop.

“She will lose her life savings because criminal activity has gone unchecked,” Davison said of Yong. “She should not have to pay the price.”  

Davison also raised the specter of gun violence, citing the May 2020 shooting of 18-year-old Connor Dassa-Holland in Rainier Beach. “It is the duty of the city attorney’s office to prosecute weapons charges and take guns off the streets so that misdemeanor gun offenses don’t lead to felony homicides,” Davison said.

Only a handful of gun-related crimes are misdemeanors under Washington law, including “unlawfully displaying” (or brandishing) a firearm as an intimidation tactic and carrying a concealed handgun without a permit. Davison’s office can only prosecute misdemeanors; the King County Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for filing felony gun possession charges.

Davison did not mention her office’s civil division, which defends the City of Seattle in lawsuits and advises the city council and mayor’s office as they develop new legislation.

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Davison’s tough-on-crime rhetoric prompted the city council to consider adding diversion to the city attorney’s charter duties in 2021. The council demurred in December, opting instead to require the city attorney to notify the council within 90 days of making any changes to, or eliminating, the office’s diversion programs, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion programs. Davison was critical of the reporting requirement, accusing the council (six women, three men) of holding her to an unfair standard because of her gender. Davison is the first woman to hold the city attorney’s office—a detail she underscored in her remarks on Tuesday. Her general-election opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, is also a woman.

2. Shortly after Davison wrapped up her speech, new mayor Bruce Harrell held his own ceremonial swearing-in at City Hall. In an optimistic, mostly lighthearted speech that offered few policy details, Harrell pledged to work with people who opposed his election,  and make quick progress on major issues including homelessness, health care, and the selection of a permanent police chief.

Harrell previewed a handful of upcoming executive orders and decisions, including one order that will direct the city’s public utilities “to proactively provide us information on utility shutoffs, which is often an indicator of homelessness vulnerability or human service needs.” No utility customer has lost power or water since mid-2019, thanks to a combination of legislation and a moratorium on utility shutoffs during COVID.

Asked about the practical impact of the order, a Harrell spokesman said it would identify “people most at risk of homelessness or housing instability, as those facing arrearages or utility shutoffs—enforced or not—are often those most in danger of losing their housing. So the order is focused on driving greater coordination between SPU, City Light, and Offices of Housing and Human Services to prevent homelessness.”

Alluding to the longstanding debate over police funding, Harrell said that a “safe city needs the right kind and right number of police officers.”

In his speech, Harrell also vowed to review barriers to affordable housing construction, such as reducing permitting delays—a common obstacle that can add thousands to the cost of housing construction. During his campaign, Harrell made it clear that believes dense housing should be confined to specific areas (the longstanding “urban village” strategy), but reducing barriers to development is a pro-housing step—as is Harrell’s appointment of Marco Lowe, a City Hall veteran who worked for mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn before taking a position at the Master Builders Association, where he advocated for pro-housing policies.

Harrell, responding to a reporter’s question, said he would not immediately launch a national search for a permanent police chief, instead giving interim Chief Adrian Diaz “real measurement criteria by which I can see what he’s doing” before deciding whether to “lift the ‘interim’ or do a national search” at some point before the end of March.

Alluding to the longstanding debate over police funding, Harrell said that a “safe city needs the right kind and right number of police officers.” Deputy mayor Monisha Harrell, who served as the interim police monitor overseeing the federal consent decree, will oversee policing policy for Harrell’s office and will play a key role in determining what the administration believes “the right number” is.

3. After weeks of behind-the-scenes drama, the city council elected District 5 Councilmember Debora Juarez the first Indigenous council president on Monday. (Backstory here). The council also approved a new list of committees and committee chairs that reflects the relative power (and individual interests) of the eight other councilmembers. (Council presidents, who oversee the business of the legislative branch, generally don’t take on high-profile committees). Continue reading “New Leadership on Every Floor of City Hall as 2022 Begins”

Council Chooses Juarez, Library Explains Systemwide Closures, “Seattle Nice” Debates Durkan Legacy

1. District 5 City Councilmember Debora Juarez will serve as the next city council president, PubliCola has learned, after an intense and unusually public campaign for the position.

In addition to a lobbying campaign by Juarez’ supporters (including the leaders of a dozen Native American tribes), the Seattle Times weighed in on Juarez’s behalf, arguing for Juarez over her chief rival for the position, District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, on the grounds that Juarez would strip Herbold of her position as chair of the council’s public safety committee. (The Times’ editorial board, which usually talks about “the council” as an undifferentiated mass, seems to believe that  Herbold is far to the left on police funding; in fact, she fought consistently for reductions to the budget cuts her colleagues proposed).

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. In the past, council presidents have used the role to represent the interests of the council in negotiations with the mayor’s office, to mixed success. The usually low-profile job typically goes to a senior council member.

2. Seattle Public Library branches, which were supposed to serve as places where people could get warm during the cold and snow emergency last week, were mostly closed last week. Over the course of a weeklong emergency, the entire library system shut down for two full days because of weather (in addition to previously planned closures on Christmas and New Year’s Days), and opened between 9 and 12 of its 27 branches during the other four days of the emergency.

“It requires a certain number of staff in certain job classifications to safely and effectively open each branch, and we need to feel confident that those staff can make it in to work and make it back home safely,” SPL spokeswoman Laura Gentry said. “[W]hile we can change an employee’s work location, we cannot change their scheduled shift or their job classification. Contractually, we also cannot ask someone like a Security officer to staff our Circulation desk, or ask a Children’s Librarian to shovel and de-ice our walkways.”

While library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers.

Both these examples are fairly implausible; a more likely real-world scenario would be one in which several library staffers of various classifications showed up to open a branch’s doors during a weather emergency, leaving libraries without a full complement of job classifications but enough to open safely at a time when most housed people were stuck at home. The lack of a children’s librarian or circulation desk staffer at any given branch would be significantly less urgent if the library decided that, for just a few days during a temporary weather emergency, the primary purpose of library branches was to give unsheltered people a to get warm.

This kind of flexibility might be rare for a government agency, but it isn’t impossible; for example, while library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers—duties for which the city offered between $150 and $250 in bonus pay.

In recent years, physical public library buildings have become havens for unhoused or unsheltered people who are not allowed in most other indoor public spaces during the day; during severe weather, libraries are among the only places unsheltered people (or those staying at nighttime-only shelters) can come indoors.

The issue of whether library workers should have to deal with homeless people has been a subject of debate in practically every major city, but the question of whether they do have to deal with homeless people has long been resolved; if you work in a public-facing role in a public library system, you will encounter unhoused and unsheltered people. In fact, “experience working with people who are unstably housed and/or with individuals who have mental health challenges” is one of the “desired characteristics” for entry-level positions at the Seattle Public Library.

3. If you haven’t tuned in yet to Seattle Nice, the new half-hour podcast where political consultant (and my longtime pal) Sandeep Kaushik and I spar about local news and politics (with producer David Hyde as moderator), this week’s episode, in which we discuss the legacy of ex-mayor Jenny Durkan, is a great place to start.

How did Durkan do on homelessness, COVID response, police accountability, and transparency? Find out what we have to say on those subjects and more and subscribe so you won’t miss a single week.

—Erica C. Barnett

King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments

1. King County Public Health will not provide routine COVID-19 tests for people who enter temporary winter shelters during the cold-weather emergency, a spokeswoman for the department told PubliCola. Instead, the department will test shelter guests when a shelter provider calls to report having two or more guests or staff with “COVID-like illness,” or one or more confirmed COVID cases, and will direct people to isolation and quarantine sites if they test positive. The county will also do contract tracing when there’s a confirmed COVID case at a shelter site.

“Public Health does not have the staffing capacity to provide proactive, daily testing at each of these sites,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said. “As we do for all other homeless services sites in King County, if a shelter has staff or residents who appear to have COVID-like illness, our homeless services support team will provide on-site testing and consultation to help control any potential COVID spread.”

When the department gets word of a possible COVID outbreak in any homeless shelter, including winter emergency shelters, “Our testing team calls the shelter to discuss the individual symptoms to determine if it is likely COVID-like illness, in addition to providing ASAP guidance on steps to take to limit spread, and then (assuming team believes it is COVID-like illness), our team visits to conduct on-site testing for all staff and residents who agree to be tested,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said.

The spread of the omicron variant has been startling, with positive rates at some testing sites nearing 50 percent. That’s for the general population; people living in crowded congregate settings, such as bare-bones mass homeless shelters, are even more at risk. Cole said the health department is not currently experiencing a shortage of rapid COVID tests.

2. The Seattle Police Department has referred roughly one-quarter fewer cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes and child abuse unit this year than it did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The drop in the number of felony cases that SPD referred to the prosecutor’s office dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic. In May 2020, the office received 30 felony sex crimes cases from SPD; in June, the office received fewer than half that number. While the number of monthly referrals has fluctuated since then, the average over the past eighteen months has fallen to 19 cases, compared to an average of 26 cases per month before the pandemic.

While a reduction in SPD’s ranks after two years of high attrition—and the resultant transfer of many SPD detectives, who are responsible for criminal investigations, to patrol units since last fall—may contribute to the decline, the trend is not limited to Seattle. At a presentation to the mayors of the largest South King County cities earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office presented data showing a widespread decline in the number of felony cases referred to their office from police departments across the county. The police departments of Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn, for instance, have referred nearly 30 percent fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office since the start of the pandemic.

Other reasons for the shift may include a decline in the number of people reporting sex crimes and child abuse. PubliCola has reached out to SPD for comment.

3. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced another round of leadership appointments on Wednesday, including the sister of police-violence victim Che Taylor, a leader of King County’s No Youth Jail movement, a former state legislator and Seattle Port Commissioner, and a reality-TV producer. Continue reading “King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments”

Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week

Seattle Center Exhibition Hall | TeenTix

By Erica C. Barnett

With freezing weather and possible snow in the forecast for the coming week, the city will make about 200 emergency beds available for single adults living unsheltered to come inside. The temporary shelters will be at two locations: The Compass Housing Alliance day center at 210 Alaskan Way S (80 beds) and Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall at 301 Mercer St (between 100 and 130 beds). There are currently no plans to open City Hall, which has historically served as severe-weather shelter, or other city locations, such as community centers or the Seattle Municipal Tower.

The emergency shelters will open at 7pm and close at 7am, despite the fact that daytime forecasts call for sub-freezing weather throughout the day from December 26 through the end of the year. A daytime warming center at the Seattle Center Armory building is currently supposed to open at 10am, and the Compass building is open to clients during the day. UPDATE December 24: The city announced that several more warming centers will be open during the day for the duration of the declared winter weather emergency; information and hours are available on the city’s website.

Otherwise, the city is encouraging people living unsheltered to go to public libraries, which are open various hours (and not at all on holidays.)

Families with children who need shelter from the cold should call the King County emergency family shelter intake line at 206-245-1026.

The city’s emergency winter shelter protocols call for emergency shelter to open whenever the forecasted temperature is 25 degrees or less for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulates on the ground, which is known as a “Phase II” winter weather event. A Phase III event—requiring “prolonged emergency response,” potentially including shelters in community centers and other city buildings—is the same as a Phase II event, plus a snow accumulation of six inches or more.

Historically, the city has opened emergency shelters before the city reaches these thresholds, which haven’t been updated for more than 20 years; last year, when PubliCola asked about the 25-degree threshold, HSD told us that changing the criteria (and thus opening emergency shelters in slightly less harsh subfreezing temperatures) would have cost implications. According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the city has two contracts for emergency shelter this year—one with Compass, and one with the Salvation Army. Each is required to offer 15 days of 24-hour shelter per year; we’ve asked HSD for more information about why each agency is only offering shelter for 12 hours a day.

In years past, the city’s temporary emergency shelters have not always filled up despite the cold. The group primarily responsible for going out to encampments and identifying people who are at risk of dying if they stay outside in freezing weather (and transporting them to city-funded shelters) is the HOPE team, a group of Human Services Department employees who offer shelter and services to people living in encampments the city is about to sweep. During a major snowstorm last February, according to Mundt, the team transported a total of 40 people to shelter.

Health One, the Seattle Fire Department team that responds to non-emergency crisis calls, won’t be mobilized until December 27 because of staffing shortages; when they do, according to SFD spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley, their job will be to “reactively and proactively respond to distribute supplies (food, hand warmers, blankets, etc.) and offer transport to severe weather shelters.” Continue reading “Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week”