Category: homelessness

Early Council Budget Concerns Include Plans to Raid JumpStart Tax, Cut Pay for Human Service Providers


Chart showing growing gap between city of Seattle revenues and planned expenditures through 2026By Erica C. Barnett

In a preview of the next several weeks of budget deliberations, the city council’s budget committee (which includes all nine council members) discussed their initial questions and concerns about Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposed budget this week.

The budget would require the city council to overturn a 2019 law Harrell himself supported when he was on the council. That law requires the city to increase human service provider contracts by the rate of inflation, with the intent of providing raises to service providers that at least keep up with inflation; during the meeting when the council unanimously approved the law, Harrell said it was important to provide raises to human service providers “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship,” and sponsored an amendment codifying this intent.

The contracts that would be impacted include all the homeless contracts the city funds but that are now administered by the King County Homelessness Authority. Harrell’s proposal would amend this law to cap mandatory pay increases at 4 percent a year, or about half the current rate of inflation, meaning that as long as inflation is higher than 4 percent, human services workers would see declines in real wages year after year. Harrell’s budget cites economic hardship as the reason he is proposing the cut.

Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position. In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to “underpaid” workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

Harrell’s proposed $10 million budget increase for the KCRHA would be earmarked mostly for shelters and tiny house villages, rather than the items the homelessness agency proposed funding in its request for $90 million in additional city and county funding; that unfilled request would have funded a 13 percent wage increase for homeless service providers.

“In the entire spectrum of building this budget, this decision was particularly difficult,” city budget director Julie Dingley told the committee. “We know that human service provider workers do some of the most difficult and meaningful work in the city and that employers do not necessarily enjoy the funding needed, but unfortunately, during forty-year high inflation, the ongoing liability that the current law would require, does not match our ongoing general fund resources.”

Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position. In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to “underpaid” workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

Introducing his amendment at a full council meeting that year, Harrell said, “Some of us have been around where we’ve had real tough times, [during] a recession. While we’ve had to make tough cuts, the work [human services providers] do is so critically important that we recognize we have to preserve if not even enhance the funding” during economic downturns.

On Wednesday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, echoing comments by budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, said she was “disappointed” that the mayor’s budget would permanently cap increases for human service providers regardless of the actual inflation rate. ”

“We heard from folks this morning, nonprofit leaders, who have already passed budgets that provide a modest but essential wage increase for staff on the strength of their trust that the city was going to to follow the law and fully fund the required increase,” Herbold said. “Our intent is to advance nonprofit worker wages, not force them further behind, which I feel that this proposal does.” 

Listen to this week’s Seattle Nice podcast, where Sandeep and Erica find rare common ground in condemning pay cuts for human service providers 

As of earlier this year, the KCRHA reported that the five largest homeless service providers had more than 300 vacancies for jobs that average between $20 and $25 an hour, or between $41,000 and $52,000 a year. Increasing all human services contracts (which include more than just homeless providers) by 7.6 percent, as existing law requires, would cost about $6.5 million. As a point of contrast, Harrell’s budget includes more than $4 million for police recruitment and retention strategies, an effort to increase the number of Seattle Police Department officers that includes hiring bonuses of up to $30,000, on top of an $83,000 starting salary that rapidly increases to six figures, plus overtime, according to SPD’s recruitment page.

Bar graph contrasting low human service provider wages with the Seattle median
Image via King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Harrell’s budget proposes a second change to law that takes the opposite approach to high inflation as his proposal to cap human service contract increases below inflationary levels. This change would allow the city to use the JumpStart payroll tax fund, which is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, equitable development, and small businesses, to provide about $86 million toward filling the $140 million budget gap.

Last year, the council passed a law setting a clear limit on the use of JumpStart funds to backfill general fund shortfalls: If the general fund falls below $1.5 billion, the city can use JumpStart money for other purposes. Harrell’s budget would change that law to pin the general fund baseline to inflation, setting the floor for JumpStart transfers at a variable rate based on the current rate of inflation and allowing the city to use more of the earmarked money for non-JumpStart purposes whenever high inflation leads to economic hardship.

That money includes a presumption of $44 million in unspent JumpStart funds from this year, most of which would go toward a new revenue stabilization (“rainy day”) fund equal to 10 percent of JumpStart revenues every year; another $9 million would pay for administering the JumpStart tax itself through the general fund.

Mosqueda, the architect of the JumpStart tax, said she had questions about how the mayor is proposing to spend the repurposed tax and whether his plan aligns with the four priorities in the original JumpStart legislation.

“We have to continue, as a council, to make sure any of the higher-than-anticipated revenue that is being suggested to be used for investments into the general fund does still align with our city’s core progressive values” as well as “with the priorities this council has articulated in the past,” Mosqueda said.

“Part of the demand we all heard was, you have to tell us where you’re going to spend this [JumpStart] money. I totally agree that we need more revenue in the general fund so we can do the basic things that we need to do as a city, [but] these are commitments we have made to the people of Seattle.”—City Councilmember Tammy Morales

For example, Mosqueda questioned the mayor’s proposal to use $3 million a year in JumpStart funds to pay for 14 new positions at the city to support Sound Transit’s construction of light rail from West Seattle to Ballard, which Dingley said fits into the “Green New Deal” spending category because it involves shifting people from single-occupancy vehicles to trains.

When the council first considered the JumpStart tax, Councilmember Tammy Morales notes, “Part of the demand we all heard was, you have to tell us where you’re going to spend this money. … I totally agree that we need more revenue in the general fund so we can do the basic things that we need to do as a city … [but] these are commitments we have made to the people of Seattle” in the JumpStart spending plan itself and subsequent legislation codifying the spending categories the tax can be used for.

Chart outlining Mayor Harrell's proposed changes to the uses of the JumpStart payroll tax

Harrell’s budget proposal would also broaden the use of the JumpStart tax to allow it to fund housing for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income; currently, the tax primarily funds housing for very low-income people making up to 30 percent of AMI, a group that is not served at all by the market-rate housing market. The JumpStart tax can already pay for mixed-income housing that includes people making up to 60 percent of median, but the change would likely change the balance in favor of people making more money.

Harrell’s budget uses $20 million in unspent funds from 2022 and assumes an ongoing $10 million annual “underspend” in both 2023 and 2024; City Budget Office director Julie Dingley told council members Wednesday that she “would prefer not to have to use this kind of strategy,” but that “we feel comfortable at this point that there will be about this amount left at the end of the year” to balance the next year’s budget.

The budget also proposes using general fund dollars to continue and expand the Clean City Initiative and the new Unified Care Team, which together clean up trash, displace and relocate encampments and RVs, provide information about services and shelter beds to people being displaced by sweeps, and take residents’ complaints about encampments. The proposed budget would allocate more than $13 million to these programs, not counting the many individual line items related to graffiti cleanup, a particular pet peeve for Harrell. The budget would spend more than $800,000 on graffiti abatement, plus another $250,000 on Harrell’s One Seattle Day of Service, which includes graffiti abatement by volunteers.

Harrell’s Budget Would Move Parking Enforcement Back to SPD, Add $10 Million to Homelessness Authority, and Use JumpStart to Backfill Budget

Mayor Bruce Harrell delivers his first budget speech.
Mayor Bruce Harrell delivers his first budget speech.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s first budget proposal would use JumpStart payroll tax revenues to shore up spending for non-JumpStart programs, move the city’s parking enforcement officers back into the Seattle Police Department from the Department of Transportation, and provide pay increases to homeless service providers well below the rate of inflation.

The proposal includes an add of just over $1 million to the current $6 million budgeted for projects designed to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries in the Rainier Valley, plus “other transit-related projects that will be identified in the coming months,” according to the budget book.

In addition, the budget increases funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority by just over $10 million, or 13 percent—a fraction of the $90 million the KCRHA requested from the city and King County. The budget earmarks that funding for new shelter, such as tiny house villages. In its budget proposal, the KCRHA asked for funding for, among other things, a new high-acuity shelter for people with severe physical and behavioral health care needs, new spaces for unsheltered people to go during the day, and wage increases for homeless service providers.

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s budget proposal, also announced today, includes $89 million for the KCRHA over the next two years—a number that represents a reduction, on average, from the $49 million the county provided the authority as part of its startup budget this year. (Note: This number has been updated; because of a miscommunication with the county executive’s office, we originally reported that the additional money was for one year, not two.)

Harrell’s proposal to use $95 million in JumpStart tax revenues to balance his budget will likely come up against council opposition. The tax is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development, but was used during the pandemic to shore up the general-fund budget, with the understanding that the practice would be temporary.

It also adds $13.7 million across three departments—Human Services, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities—to maintain the Unified Care Team, which “addresses the impacts of unsheltered homelessness in the city,” and the Clean Cities Initiative, which provides trash pickup in parks and around encampments, along with graffiti cleanup and enforcement. That total includes $1 million to add six new “system navigators” to the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, which does outreach at homeless encampments before they are swept.

The proposal includes a number of cuts a budget shortfall of around $140 million. The Human Services Department will lose about $50 million in funding from one-time federal COVID grants and general fund dollars from 2022 that funded shelters, violence prevention, and food assistance, among other programs, only some of which Harrell’s budget would continue to fully fund.

The Seattle Police Department budget eliminates 80 vacant positions, for a savings on paper of $11 million, and moves spending from another 120 vacant positions to other SPD programs, including hiring bonuses and other recruitment efforts, wellness programs, and equipment, including new Tasers and $1 million for an automated gunshot surveillance system in Rainier Beach.

The primary acoustic gunshot detection system in use in the US is Shotspotter, a system that involves installing discreet surveillance microphones all over neighborhoods with high levels of gun violence. The system has a checkered history. A study of its use in Chicago concluded that it rarely resulted in the detection of actual gun violence, and could lead to preemptive police stops and searches in communities of color; last year, that city was forced to withdraw evidence based on ShotSpotter data from a murder case because the information was deemed unreliable.

A representative from Shotspotter disputes this, calling the system “highly accurate” based on an independent analysis by the firm Edgeworth Analytics.” That report, however, only determined whether the system—aided and sometimes recategorized in real time by ShotSpotter employees—accurately identified a sound as a gunshot. The Shotspotter spokesman added that the system “provides unique, reliable, and valuable evidence and expert witness testimony that has been successfully admitted in 200 court cases, in 20 states, and has survived scrutiny in dozens of [expert witness] challenges.

According to the ACLU, acoustic gunfire detection systems often send police into communities of color based on false alarms, increasing the likelihood of conflicts between cops keyed up for a dangerous confrontation and innocent people in those communities.

The Shotspotter spokesman said there is no data “supporting the claim that ShotSpotter puts police on high alert or creates dangerous situations,” and added that it simply gives police more information and better “situational awareness.”

Tim Burgess, the mayor’s chief public safety advisor, pushed unsuccessfully to set up ShotSpotter technology in the Rainier Valley back in 2014, when he was on the city council.

Although Harrell’s office has said they plan to stand up a new “third” public safety department starting in 2024, the budget does not include any specific line items for work to develop this department next year.

Transferring the parking enforcement officers from SDOT back into SPD will save an estimated $5 million in administrative costs that the city was paying SDOT as part of the transfer. It also reverses a shift in funding that advocates against “defunding” the police department have used to claim that Seattle made cuts to SPD in response to the 2020 protests against police violence.

“This may not be the PEOs’ final home,” Harrell said during his budget speech on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility that the parking enforcement officers could move to the future new public safety department.

Parking enforcement officers have complained that the move to SDOT deprived them of access to a real-time criminal database that allowed them to look up the criminal history of a vehicle’s owner before stopping to issue a ticket. The move, according to Harrell’s budget, will “eliminate the basis for PEOs’ unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints” while also restoring the city’s Office of Police Accountability’s authority to investigate misconduct complaints against parking officers.

“This may not be the PEOs’ final home,” Harrell said during his budget speech on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility that the officers could move to the future new public safety department.

Harrell’s proposal to use $95 million in JumpStart tax revenues to balance his budget will likely come up against council opposition. The tax is earmarked for housing, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development, but was used during the pandemic to shore up the general-fund budget, with the understanding that the practice would be temporary.

In 2021, the city adopted an ordinance creating a special fund for JumpStart revenues and establishing formal restrictions on the use of the tax to backfill the city’s general fund. Currently, the city can’t raid the JumpStart fund for non-general fund purposes unless general fund revenues fall below about $1.5 billion; this year, general fund revenues are about $100 million over that threshold. Harrell’s budget includes legislation, which would have to be approved by the City Council, that would lift the floor by the rate of inflation, making it easier to use JumpStart revenues for any purpose.

In a statement, City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda alluded to the kind of changes the council might consider to Harrell’s budget proposal.

“Without investments in working families and core city services, the inequities we saw prior to COVID-19 will only continue to deepen,” Mosqueda said. “With a rocky economic forecast locally and nationally, inflation rates continuing to rise, and no new federal COVID-related funding, I will be focused on strong fiscal stewardship while maintaining investments in the people and services for our City.”

The budget proposes a sub-inflationary wage increase of 4 percent for homeless service providers. Lowering wage increases for human service providers below the currently mandated rate of inflation will require a change in city law.

Although the mayor’s office is requesting an inflationary increase in the floor to use JumpStart spending for non-JumpStart purposes, the budget proposes a sub-inflationary increase of just 4 percent for homeless service providers—a total of just over $600,000 next year. Currently, the city is required by law to increase wages for all human service providers by the rate of inflation, which, this year, is around 8.7 percent. Wage increases that are lower than the rate of inflation constitute an effective pay cut. Lowering wage increases for human service providers will require a change in the law; Harrell’s budget proposes a new law setting a 4 percent ceiling on wage increases for the nonprofit human services providers that receive funding from the city.

On Monday, Harrell, along with King County Executive Dow Constantine, touted a proposal that would increase behavioral health provider wages by 13 percent. Harrell’s budget also includes recruitment bonuses for child care workers, another field that, like human and behavioral health services, has a very high rate of turnover because of low wages, tough working conditions, and a lack of real pay increases relative to inflation.

The budget now goes to the city council, whose budget committee—made up of all nine council members—will take it up starting this week. The council adopts the city’s budget annually in late November, just before Thanksgiving.

This is a developing story.

New Tax Would Fund Behavioral Crisis Centers; Things to Look for in Harrell’s Budget Proposal

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks at a press conference on a county proposal to raise property taxes to fund walk-in crisis centers
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a new property-tax levy to fund five behavioral health crisis centers across King County, along with higher wages for health care workers and the restoration of residential treatment beds that have been lost in recent years. The levy, assessed at 14.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value—about $121 for a median $694,000 house—could be on a countywide ballot in April 2023, if the King County Council approves it this year.

Currently, there are no walk-in crisis centers anywhere in King County, and the wait for a residential treatment bed averaged 44 days as of July, according to the county. Since 2018, the county has lost more than 110 residential treatment beds and is down to 244 beds countywide. “A question that doesn’t get asked enough to the person who says ‘get people into treatment,'” King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said Monday, is “‘get people into treatment where?'”

In a county with 2.3 million residents, Zahilay said, we have one crisis care facility with 46 beds”—the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center in the Central District, which only accepts referrals from police and other first responders. “If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”

The nine-year levy proposal would also create apprenticeship programs and other supports for people entering the behavioral health care field, and would “invest in equitable wages for the workforce at crisis care centers,” according to the announcement, plus mobile or co-located crisis services that would operate until the first crisis clinics were open.

“If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”—King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

It’s unclear how many people would see higher wages under Constantine’s proposal, which his office released only in summary form. Pay for behavioral health care workers is so low that many employees qualify for the same services they sign clients up for, said Kristen Badin, a crisis counselor and representative of SEIU 1199NW.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has asked the city and county to provide an additional $15.4 million to permanently service providers’ baseline budgets by 13 percent in order to increase provider wages—part of an overall budget request that would add about $90 million to the regional agency’s budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County through their annual budget process.

That process kicks off for both the city and county tomorrow, when Harrell and Constantine announce their 2023 budget proposals. On Monday, Constantine said he considered the KCRHA’s budget request “aspirational,” and confirmed that he does not plan to provide all the money the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, requested.

That budget request, Constantine said, “was essentially a statement of need, and that neither the county nor the city’s budget could support that full request.” Harrell added that “we weren’t able to meet all of the requests, but you’ll see [during Tuesday’s budget announcement] the support we have moving forward with RHA and the support we have the people on the ground doing this important work.”

2. In 2019, the City Council passed legislation requiring the Human Services Department to build a cost of living increase into all new or renegotiated contracts with service providers, based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). At the time, inflation, as represented by the increase in CPI, was modest—between two and three percent.

“I drew a line in the sand [on the use of the JumpStart tax to backfill the city budget], and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity.”—City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda.

Last year, the CPI-W increased 8.7 percent, meaning that compared to 2021, it cost 8.7 percent more to pay for the same goods and services. Any wage increase that’s lower than the CPI effectively constitutes a pay cut—something social service providers whose wages are funded by the city will likely be watching for tomorrow when Harrell rolls out his budget.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said she’ll also be watching for any effort by Harrell to transfer additional funds from the JumpStart payroll tax, which is earmarked for housing, small business support, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development. Earlier this year, Mosqueda proposed using excess payroll tax revenues to help close the budget gap; those extra revenues are projected at $71 million and $84 million in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

“I drew a line in the sand,” Mosqueda said Monday, “and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity. And part of preventing austerity is keeping our promises, [including] our promises to human service providers.”

A Homeless Activist Worked to Help Others Living in Vehicles. This Month, the City Towed Away Her Home.

The city towed Chanel Horner’s bus on September 15. Photo Chanel Horner, reproduced with permission

By Erica C. Barnett

Anyone who has watched concrete blocks sprout like crocuses in the wake of RV removals knows that under Mayor Bruce Harrell, the city has taken a newly aggressive approach toward people living in their vehicles.

Although Harrell says the city does not “sweep—we treat and we house”—the fact is that since June of this year, when the city resumed enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours, there have been about two scheduled RV sweeps every week, on top of removals sparked by complaints, criminal activity, and vehicle fires. Few of those people have received treatment (which the city does not provide) or housing. Most have either moved to another location or watched their RVs disappear on taxpayer-funded tow trucks—the last time most RV residents will see the only shelter they had.

Chanel Horner lost her home—an old bus she spray-painted with slogans like “RVLoution”—on Thursday, September 15, when a crew from the city arrived to remove it from a street in Georgetown, along with about four other RVs and three vehicles, according to the city’s September encampment removal schedule. Horner had tried unsuccessfully to order compressed natural gas from a nearby provider so she could move the bus, and the towing company she called to pull the bus across the First Avenue South bridge into South Park cited a price of $1,500.

“You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes.”

Still, Horner had strong ties with local service providers—an active member of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Vehicular Residency Workgroup, she advocates for RV residents and often helps people move—and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness said they would pay to tow her bus.

“The solution was to either get [Horner] the fuel or get [her] to a place to get the fuel, and no process that doesn’t allow those things to happen should be funded with city money,” the coalition’s director, Alison Eisinger said. “It is clearly an outrageously flawed process that allows this kind of preventable sequence of events to occur,” Eisinger added, “and everyone should be outraged about it.”

“I really thought we were going to be able to tow it out of there, right until the last minute,” Horner said. Instead, after a brief standoff, Horner left the bus behind, bringing a few personal items with her, including the ashes of her dog, who died in December.

We were sitting outside a Starbucks in Georgetown, shouting over traffic and the occasional roar of airplanes a few blocks from where Horner used to live. The site is now barricaded against future RV encampments with concrete eco-blocks, an illegal but ubiquitous tool used by business owners to prevent RV residents from coming back after sweeps. Horner said the city offered her a spot in a tiny house village—a type of shelter where sleep in small cabins and are expected to accept services and work toward housing—but she considers such offers “pretty tenuous.”

Besides, she said, “I didn’t really want a tiny home because I do believe I’m supposed to be in my bus.” According to a 2021 state supreme court ruling, people living in their vehicles enjoy certain rights under the state Homestead Act, including protection against excessive fines and the sale of a person’s vehicle to pay their debts. To Horner, though, the homestead designation has a special, additional meaning. “You don’t have to have a running vehicle to live in it. They may not be vehicles anymore, but they are still our homes. … We’re not homeless,” she added,  “until Bruce Harrell gives the order to tow our homes.”

PubliCola sent a detailed list of questions to several city departments that were involved in the Georgetown RV removal, including the mayor’s office. A spokeswoman for the mayor provided a boilerplate explanation of RV removals, which the city calls “remediations,” including several different reasons the city might decide to remove an RV.

“She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

The spokeswoman did not respond to any of our questions about the decision to impound Horner’s bus, including why her bus was a priority in the first place; whether the city considers extenuating circumstances like the fact that Horner planned to tow the bus herself; and whether the city considered it a positive outcome for Horner to lose her vehicle in exchange for a shelter offer she didn’t take. We also asked whether the city always considered it “a better outcome to move people out of vehicles and into other forms of shelter, including people who are high-functioning and don’t want or require intensive services”—again, with no response.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA, which does not directly participate in sweeps, said that “outreach providers were active in trying to find an alternative resolution” to Horner’s situation. “She is independent and worked hard to get her bus up and running, and advocates were working to assist Chanel in various ways to help her keep her home.”

In June, KCRHA announced a contract with the Low-Income Housing Institute to to set up an RV “safe lot” for up to 50 vehicles at a time, with the goal of moving people quickly out of their RVs and into “stable, permanent housing.” Horner says she has no interest in that kind of arrangement; she wants to live in her RV, in a “trailer park” with other RV residents, with restrooms, regular trash service, and a community kitchen—kind of like a tiny house village, but without curfews, check-ins, and a commitment to moving out after a certain period.

“I’m really passionate about setting up the RV park,” Horner said. “I want to start the non-movement—because we’re not moving.”

 

New SDOT Director Talks Scooters, Streetcar, and Sweeps; A Closer Look at City Grant to Social Club Harrell Headed

New SDOT director Greg Spotts
New SDOT director Greg Spotts

1. Greg Spotts, the newly confirmed director of Seattle’s transportation department, spoke with reporters Wednesday on a wide range of topics, including scooters, the proposed downtown streetcar connector, and his plan to do a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, which is currently far off track.

Spotts, who previously headed up StreetsLA, a division of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, said he was currently agnostic on both the appropriate number of scooters the city should permit and the debate over whether to revive work on the downtown streetcar, which former mayor Jenny Durkan paused during her term. As Spotts noted, scooter sharing proliferated in LA after the city decided to allow any qualified company to operate in the city, but didn’t really serve low-income areas or communities of color.

“What it produced was an overabundance of scooters in the obvious places where there’s a lot of density and a lot of money, and … very few scooters in communities of color,” Spotts said. Even with incentives for placing scooters in underserved areas, they continued to cluster in wealthy, tourist-heavy neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown LA. “So it’s not obvious how to make this public private partnership to produce all the public goods that you want, but maybe we’re in the very, very early stages of figuring that out.”

Similarly, Spotts said he might support expanding the streetcar if there’s evidence it will improve the economic climate in the areas it serves. The new downtown section of streetcar would create a loop connecting two separate streetcar lines, connecting South Lake Union to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. All three areas are already connected by frequent transit, which—along with low ridership on the existing streetcar—raises questions about whether a new streetcar segment would justify its cost, currently estimated at almost $300 million.

“There’s operational benefits, right? Instead of running two segments, running one big one,” Spotts said. “But what would push it over the top, I think, is it analysis that it could be an important catalyst for our small businesses in downtown, for our tourist economy, for our cultural institutions.”

One issue Spotts declined to address is SDOT’s role in removing homeless encampments from sidewalks; SDOT staffers (including some currently vacant positions) make up more than half the members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 70 staffers who removes encampment. (The UCT also includes six members of the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach and makes shelter offers prior to sweeps).

“At this early stage, I’m really deferring to the mayor’s office to utilize the departments as they want to for the larger policies that they’re pursuing,” Spotts said. “And I’m not looking to introduce some personal opinions into that. I’m just here to here to assist in whatever way they want us to assist.”

2. After we reported on the fact that the city awarded nearly $800,000 to a private men’s social club that Mayor Bruce Harrell chaired until late last year, we took another look at the record to see if there was any precedent for the city awarding Equitable Development Initiative dollars to any similar institution.

Over the five years the city has been making EDI awards, about three dozen organizations have received significant grants from the fund. Many of the groups that have received multiple grants are engaged in low-income housing development, create community spaces that are open to the public, or provide social or health services to particular communities.

For example, the Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown, the Rainier Valley Midwives, Chief Seattle Club, and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle have all received multiple EDI awards over the past five years. Other grant recipients in past years include Cham Refugees Community, the Somali Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and the Filipino Community of Seattle.

A few of the grant recipients provide cultural space and put on events that are open to the ticket-buying public, including Black and Tan Hall and the Wing Luke Museum. None is a private social club—except the Royal Esquire Club.

It’s unclear whether the Royal Esquire Club has sought public funding from the city in the past; we’ve requested a list of all previous EDI grant applicants through a public records request. The club, which was at the center of another controversy involving Harrell while he was City Council president, has never received an EDI award in the program’s history; the $782,000 the club will receive is more than twice its annual revenues for 2019, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.

Feds Come to Seattle to Set Up “Command Center” for Downtown Homelessness

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By Erica C. Barnett

Contractors with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened at the city’s Emergency Operations Center last week to begin setting up a formal “housing command center” for addressing homelessness in downtown Seattle, PubliCola has learned. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority requested HUD’s help setting up the command center, which agency CEO Marc Dones touted during the announcement of a public-private partnership called “Partnership for Zero” earlier this year.

HUD, which funds housing through housing vouchers and other programs, has been meeting quietly with officials from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, and officials from the city’s Human Services Department over the past two weeks. The goal, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, is to set up a “incident response system” plan for homelessness, treating it like an emergent crisis rather than a perpetual, unchanging problem.

“We’ve heard from our neighbors that we need to treat this emergency like an emergency, so that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Martens said.

The difference isn’t just semantic. “An incident command system is a management structure that can really be used to organize any big event,” from planning a wedding to planning for emergency shelter during heat and smoke, Curry Mayer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, explained. In practice, this means setting up several teams to deal with operations, logistics, planning, and administration, all reporting to a command team that runs the show and gets information out to the public and press.

“We are taking best practices learned from years of emergency housing response during disasters like hurricanes and other major displacements, and applying those proven practices to help people experiencing homelessness move inside,” Martens said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office said that although the technical assistance does not come with any new funding for housing or services, it “helps communities apply the lessons learned from other communities, including those that used a similar structure to assist people experiencing homelessness following major disasters. The duration of the technical assistance will depend on the circumstances on the ground, but it will likely last a few months.”

The team is already meeting daily to share updates on each team’s progress and challenges, the same way local agencies meet daily during short-term emergencies, like the snowstorm that shut down transportation around the city last year and left thousands of unsheltered people out in subfreezing temperatures for days.

This approach is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to homelessness, which is divided into silos such as encampment removals, emergency response, shelters, and housing. The logistics team, for example, might be in charge of figuring out ways to make permanent housing accessible more quickly, such as waiving eligibility requirements (HUD rules currently require a person to be homeless for at least a year before they’re eligible for a voucher, for example) or offering incentives to landlords to move people into apartments quickly.

“This effort will further improve coordination and speed up action, with permanent housing as the top priority,” Martens said.

Although the command center doesn’t come with additional funds for housing, multiple people familiar with the effort expressed hope that it could open the door to additional HUD funds in the future. In 2020, a McKinsey report estimated that it would cost as much as $1 billion a year to fully address homelessness in King County—more than eight times the KCRHA’s current annual budget. Mayor Bruce Harrell—whose office directed questions to the KCRHA—has indicated that he has little interest in contributing tens of millions more to the KCRHA’s budget, as the authority has requested.

The Office of Emergency Management won’t be directly participating in the command center’s operations, but they will provide meeting space and a press room for regular briefings. Because the EOC’s operations are sensitive, the question of access has been the subject of some internal debate. The building where the KCRHA is located, a former jail that also houses the county’s sobering center, and the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, were both reportedly considered but rejected in favor of the high-tech, visually appealing emergency hub.

“Authentic” Harrell Doubles Down, Public Safety Director Myerberg Reassigned, Baseless Complaint Claims PubliCola Engaged in Pro-Cop “Quid Pro Quo”

1. Mayor Bruce Harrell doubled down yesterday on comments he made during a Seattle Police Department roll call that were subsequently leaked to Jason Rantz, a host at the conservative station KTTH, telling reporters he stood by “whatever people said I said.” According to quotes from the meeting, Harrell blamed at “inexperienced” city council members, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and service providers for the “mess” the city has become—calling out the KCRHA, in particular, for “working against” Harrell by publicly opposing encampment sweeps.

“I’ve been in the city my entire life. And there’s one thing about me, is I am authentic,” Harrell said. Gesturing toward his wife, Joanne, who was standing behind him, he continued, “[I’ve] been with my best friend and wife, we’ve known each other for close to four decades. By the way, she’s a tough critic. But she’s seen me say the same things over and over and over again. So it’s time to stop playing small ball. Let’s play big ball. Let’s attack racism. Let’s attack police reform. Let’s revitalize our downtown. That’s big ball.”

Harrell declined to say whether he would actually propose defunding the regional homelessness authority, which receives the bulk of its funding, about $70 million, from the city through its annual budget process. “We’ll present our budget in a few weeks, but you will see our clear recognition of a lot of the great work they are doing,” Harrell said. “You will see continued support. What I owe to the leaders in RHA is my expectations. And I think they share my concern that we have to get this work done. … I’m still very optimistic. I’m very optimistic. But I’m not going to look at any of the work we’re doing in the city through rose-colored glasses.”

Harrell has been publicly and privately critical of the KCRHA and its director, Marc Dones—complaining publicly, for example, about the agency’s request for city and county funding that would nearly double its existing budget to fund a slew of new projects. Privately, Harrell has reportedly questioned the need for the authority, which still lacks meaningful buy-in from suburban cities and is entirely funded by Seattle and King County.

On Wednesday, Harrell said removing Myerberg from his position was just part of a six-month evaluation that involved “moving people around,” but declined to say more about what Myerberg will do in his new role. “He’s still part of our strong part of our administration and literally sits 40 feet from my desk. We’re looking forward to our continuing partnership,” Harrell said.

2. Harrell’s erstwhile director of public safety, former Office of Police Accountability director Andrew Myerberg, has been reassigned to a vaguely defined new position—”director of special projects”—where he will reportedly head up efforts to get the city out from under a consent decree between the US Department of Justice and the Seattle Police Department.

Harrell has reportedly criticized Myerberg for his lack of connection to communities impacted by police policy, such as the ill-advised decision (supported by Harrell’s other chief public safety advisor, strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess) to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” including music, smoking, and shouting, at Third Avenue and Pine St. downtown.

On Wednesday, Harrell said removing Myerberg from his position was just part of a six-month evaluation that involved “moving people around,” but declined to say more about what Myerberg will do in his new role. “He’s still part of our strong part of our administration and literally sits 40 feet from my desk. We’re looking forward to our continuing partnership,” Harrell said.

Asked what qualities he’s looking for in Myerberg’s replacement, Harrell said, “We want a person who understands constitutional policing, seven minute response times, [and is] willing to do the hard research on what’s working in other cities, issues dealing with gun regulations, just a good director of public safety.”

3. Local police accountability gadfly Howard Gale has filed a formal complaint with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission alleging a “quid pro quo” conspiracy between me (Erica Barnett) and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and/or the city’s Office of the Inspector General, which reviews police misconduct investigations to publish information flattering to the OIG and Herbold and, by extension, the Seattle Police Department.

The “whistleblower complaint” asserts that either Herbold or someone at the Office of Inspector General leaked a copy of a report to me, and only me, in advance, in exchange for my agreement to provide flattering coverage. My straightforward piece describing the contents of the external report, which included recommendations for avoiding improper certification of investigations into police misconduct, is here.

“I believe this is a clear ethical violation because it was done with the intent to avoid negative coverage for both the OIG and CM Herbold, and done for professional mutual benefit (quid pro quo),” the complaint says.

The only evidence for this utterly baseless claim is that Gale contacted nine unidentified “journalists” and “none can find any notice of the independent audit being released/available.”

The reality, as it often is with conspiracy theories, is much more mundane. The OIG released an embargoed copy of the report to a list of reporters, including me, on the afternoon of July 27, one day before the office released the report publicly.

An embargo is an agreement between journalists and a person or entity releasing information, such as a government agency or advocacy group, that journalists will get the information in advance in exchange for agreeing not to publish it until a certain time; such agreements are extremely common and allow journalists to absorb the information (for example, details in a technical briefing or lawsuit), ask clarifying questions, and write their stories before something gets released publicly. I may have been the only one who wrote about the report when the embargo lifted, but lack of coverage is not evidence of a conspiracy.

Harrell’s Parks Plan Would Nearly Double Levy to Fund Restrooms, Park Rangers, Maintenance, and More

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing next to a busy playground at Rainier Playfield in Columbia City on Wednesday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a new “phase two” plan for the Seattle Parks District that will nearly double the amount homeowners and renters pay to fund parks and community centers across Seattle.

Voters authorized the city council to pass a property tax levy of up to 75 cents per thousand dollars of home valuation in 2014; Harrell’s proposal would nearly double that amount to 38 cents per thousand dollars, for an average annual cost of just over $360. That’s more than twice the current average cost of $155 because homeowners’ property values keep going up.

The levy has to be approved by the parks district board, which is made up of the entire city council.

Peppering his comments with anecdotes about playing and coaching baseball in the field behind him, Harrell stressed the public safety aspects of his plan, which includes $3.6 million to expand city’s Park Ranger program, a largely moribund anti-crime effort that started downtown in 2008, from two rangers to 28. The plan, which would raise $115 million a year, would also fund winterization to allow more parks restrooms to stay open all year ($580,000); add five new staffers to respond to graffiti and vandalism ($600,000); add staff on nights and weekends to increase parks maintenance (“especially of restrooms,” according to a fact sheet on the plan); and open 10 more acres of parks while doing major maintenance at several community centers.

Harrell focused on the need to keep parks “open and accessible to the public for their intended use,” rather than “closed or impacted by unauthorized encampments,” and praised the Unified Care Team, which includes the Parks and Recreation workers who remove encampments from parks, for their work. “We don’t sweep. We treat and we house,” Harrell said.

As we’ve noted before, this statement is inaccurate on several levels: When the city removes encampments, it almost never refers people directly to housing, and of the people who accept referrals to temporary shelter (instead of simply moving along), fewer than half ever show up to shelter for a single night. The city also doesn’t directly provide or fund drug or mental health treatment.

Still, an increase in restroom hours and better restroom maintenance will inevitably help homeless parks users as well as those who are housed.  The city closed many public restrooms in parks and community centers during the pandemic, and many remained closed after 2020, forcing people who live in public to relieve themselves in public and contributing to outbreaks of preventable infectious diseases like shigella because closed restrooms mean people can’t wash their hands. Former mayor Jenny Durkan subsequently failed to approve and open fully funded “street sinks,” raising endless objections about placement, vegetation, water supply, and graywater disposal—and leaving unsheltered people (and everybody else) with few options to clean their hands.

The parks board will meet and take public comment on Harrell’s proposal next Wednesday.

Harrell’s Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Shows Plenty of Sweeps But Little Progress on Shelter, Housing

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell, whose macho comments to a group of cops about encampment sweeps, the regional homelessness authority, and the city council were not as private as he thought, has said he will provide unprecedented transparency into encampment removals and progress toward addressing homelessness in the city. Earlier this year, he unveiled a “data dashboard” on homelessness that turned out to be a mostly static website displaying information about where the city’s budget for homelessness goes along with general information about new housing units that will become available this year. 

The mayor’s office promised to update this “dashboard” four times a year. Earlier this month, new information appeared under a section of the site called “Bringing People Indoors”; according to the update, the city counted 814 tents and 426 RVs citywide, and made a total of 191 offers of shelter, in June, out of 616 in the second quarter of 2022.

The city’s Human Services Department, which keeps tabs on shelter referrals leading up to and during encampment sweeps, breaks down its shelter referral numbers by both total number of referrals and the number of individual people who received referrals—a smaller number, since some people get more than one referral from the city’s HOPE team and contracted outreach providers.

Assuming the numbers on the dashboard were calculated the same way, and applying HSD’s estimate that 38 percent of shelter offers during the same period resulted in a person enrolling at a shelter for at least one night, that means—very roughly—that around 72 people from those 814 tents and 426 RVs spent any time at all time in a shelter bed.

Of course, there are caveats to those numbers. The first is that the number of shelter referrals listed on the dashboard is higher, by about 150, than HSD’s citywide estimate. (We’ve contacted HSD for an explanation of this seeming discrepancy). The second is that the number of people who get shelter referrals is slippery, because it may exclude some people who aren’t registered in the regional Homeless Management Information System, which tracks unhoused people as they access various services.

The third caveat speaks to a primary issue with Harrell’s “dashboard” itself: The information is very obviously incomplete, as it was when the website first debuted. Although it purports to show both the number of “verified” tents and RVs by neighborhood, along with the number of people removed from “closed” encampments designated by dots on a map, it’s obvious that the map isn’t comprehensive (with thousands of unsheltered people living in the city, there are clearly more than 426 tents in Seattle, for example) and a closer look at many “closed” encampments provides no information about what happened to the people living there, or even the number of people who were displaced.

The site also continues to misstate the amount of money the city contributes to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, padding the city’s direct contribution, around $70 million, with nearly $50 million in federal relief dollars for a total of $118 million. Harrell used the same inflated number when talking to police, telling them (according to KTTH’s Jason Rantz, who appears to have gotten a recording from an officer), “I’m funding an organization that seems to be working against what I’m trying to do” (removing encampments) and suggesting he might consider cutting their budget this year.

KCRHA director Marc Dones— clearly a thorn in Harrell’s side, based on the mayor’s many public comments about his frustration with the agency—has asked the city to not only renew its existing budget but give the agency tens of millions more to fund new high-acuity shelter beds; purchase buildings, such as hotels and single-family houses, to serve as “bridge” housing; and open several new safe parking lots for people who live in their vehicles.

In response to our request for comment about Harrell’s biting comments, the KCRHA provided a terse statement that says a lot by saying very little. “The Regional Homelessness Authority was designed as a community-wide effort, working together with all 39 cities, King County, businesses, philanthropy, housed and unhoused neighbors, in order to implement real solutions. With our partners, we are working to create vibrant, inclusive communities where everyone has a safe and stable place to live, and we can accomplish that goal when we work together,” the statement said.

Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?

By Erica C. Barnett

Six months ago, City Attorney Ann Davison announced a new initiative that would target so-called high utilizers of the criminal justice system—people with more than 12 misdemeanor referrals in the last five years—by subjecting their actions to greater scrutiny, excluding them from community court, and keeping them in jail for months, much longer than current misdemeanor booking restrictions allow.

Since launching the High Utilizers Initiative in February, the city attorney’s office has filed charges against people on the list 82 percent of the time, compared to a 63 percent charging rate for all misdemeanor cases so far this year. In 2021, under former city attorney Pete Holmes, the office charged people meeting the new “high utilizer” standard just 58 percent of the time. The initiative was also supposed prioritize this group for mental health services and treatment.

So far, the initiative has resulted mostly in more charges for people on the list, although the city attorney’s office says additional policy proposals are coming.

“We are declining fewer cases for this population than for the overall population,” deputy city attorney Scott Lindsay said. “I think it tells us that this effort is doing exactly what Ann said it would do: For individuals who are repeatedly having a significant disruptive impact on their neighborhood, we are trying to make sure that they are not slipping through the cracks.”

The initiative also allows the city to keep people on the list in jail for longer, bypassing rules that have prohibiting most misdemeanor bookings. “When somebody has a record of 35, 40 criminal cases and then they have a new property destruction case in Ballard and they’re saying you can’t do anything about that, that doesn’t make sense,” Lindsay said.

Critics of the high utilizers initiative argue, citing considerable research, that repeatedly jailing people who are homeless and suffer from significant behavioral health conditions does not reduce crime and makes the people being incarcerated sicker and less likely to be able to thrive in their communities. Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the people on the high utilizers list “should not be subject to jail booking or prosecution for misdemeanor offenses; instead, they should be introduced to service providers who can develop community support and housing options without the hindrance and destabilization caused by repeated jailing and prosecution.”

“It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney. What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”—Anita Khandelwal, director, King County Department of Public Defense

Lisa Daugaard, co-director of the Public Defender Association, whose programs serve people involved in the criminal legal system, said creating a list of people who are frequently arrested for misdemeanors isn’t a “good thing nor a bad thing by itself. It could be helpful if it caused local authorities to come up with a plan for these people’s situation, which is highly likely in need of a plan or support or intervention.”

So far, Daugaard acknowledges, the focus has been on the enforcement side.

“If they are choosing to file against people on the list more often, to me, that means we’re not getting busy making plans proactively for people who we already know are in difficult situations,” she said. “There should be a lot of energy pushing for programming and placement options that just don’t exist for this population right now—and they would have a lot of allies.”

PubliCola obtained a copy of the most recent high utilizers roster, from July, and reviewed the recent criminal and legal histories of each of the 111 people on the list. Two things stand out right away. First, the vast majority of people on the list are either homeless or show signs of housing instability; fewer than 10 had consistent residential addresses in the Seattle area. Second, most “high utilizers” show signs of major behavioral conditions, including addiction and mental illness.

In many cases, people’s behavioral health issues were so severe that a Seattle Municipal Court judge has recently questioned their ability to understand the charges against them and participate in their own defense, a process used to determine, among other things, if a case can proceed. Nearly half, or about 54, have been ordered to undergo a competency evaluation within the last year, and 30 have been found incompetent multiple times—a high bar that requires not just a transient lack of understanding (which might be caused by drug use) but a profound underlying mental health condition.

Prosecuting such people, Khadelwal says, is pointless and counterproductive. “It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney,” Khandelwal said. “What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”

Katie landed on the high utilizers list after racking up more than two dozen separate charges in the last five years—everything from tampering with a fire alarm to vehicle prowling to pedestrian interference, for walking in the middle of busy Rainier Avenue South. She spends most of her time in Ballard, despite restraining orders and arrests and people warning her, over and over, to stay out of the area. She has a connection to the neighborhood—it’s where her family once lived, she has told officers and court officials and anyone who will listen, and where her “street family” lives now.

Mostly, Katie’s charges involve stealing from, screaming at, and harassing employees and patrons of businesses and institutions in Ballard’s commercial core, including retail stores, a car dealership, and the Seattle Public Library. Typically, she will enter a business, yell and knock things down, and run off with random items, such as pile of Starbucks paper cups a barista set outside one day. For just one person, people familiar with Katie say, her impact is tremendous; she might enter a single business multiple times a day, causing havoc and running out only to return a few hours later.

Katie has also assaulted people directly—pulling an earring off a waitress who told her to go away, attacking an employee at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, which offers daily meals from its building across from the Ballard Commons. St. Luke’s is among at least half a dozen Ballard businesses that have a no-contact order barring Katie from coming within 1,000 feet of their property—an almost unprecedented move for a church whose institutional mission includes serving Ballard’s homeless population. Earlier this year, because of her status as a “high utilizer,” she was detained for nearly five months at the King County Jail; when she got out, she went straight back to Ballard, where she was promptly arrested—not for harming anyone, but for simply being there.

This time, the city attorney’s office didn’t seek to keep Katie in jail , and she was released two days after her arrest. But her months-long stay in jail had consequences she was still living through. During that period, her name had come up on a waiting list for housing, but no one noticed; as a result, she missed a crucial deadline and fell off the list. Now, after case conferencing that included representatives from the city attorney’s office, she’s staying in a tiny house in a neighborhood across town. But she’s still barred from most of Ballard, which will make it hard for her to avoid arrest in the future.

Despite her erratic behavior, Katie has been found competent at least once, after two previous incompetency findings. Her most recent evaluation, in February, concluded that she was competent to stand trial as long as she stayed away from drugs—a conclusion that shows one of the limits of “competency” as a measure of behavioral health.

Peter, another “high utilizer” who has been found incompetent to stand trial repeatedly, most recently in July, frequents the University District, where his name is on a private list of high-impact individuals maintained by the University District Partnership (UDP), which represents businesses in the area.

“There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”—Daniel Malone, Director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Peter—also a pseudonym—has been arrested repeatedly for walking into businesses, stealing small items—a can of Campbell’s chicken and dumpling soup, an Ace bandage, a bottle of A&W root beer—and threatening employees who catch him or tell him to leave. He says things like, “If you stop me, I have a gun and I will kill you,” and “fuck you, I’ll kick your ass,” and “if you call the police, I will murder you,” according to police reports. On occasion, he’s taken a swing or tried to “head butt” a clerk. Once, he grabbed a “small pink pen knife” from a homeless woman’s cart and pointing it toward a Safeway clerk, Other than the pen knife, which he returned to the woman who owned it, police reports do not indicate that has ever been caught carrying a weapon.

Peter is also, as his many incompetency findings make clear, profoundly disabled, to the point that he’s frequently incapable of carrying on a coherent conversation. He may be “terrorizing” a neighborhood, but he’s also lost in his own delusions of money, grandeur, and persecution; it’s hard to imagine him understanding the nature of the charges against him, much less sitting still in front of a judge and testifying in his own defense.

“We have a lot of clients who are just so gravely disabled that you’re not going to get the same result if you tell them to do something” the way you would with most people, said Ailene Richard, the North Seattle LEAD supervisor for the homeless outreach organization REACH. “They’re not internalizing information in the same way. You have to ask people, what is your motivator? Why do you keep stealing things? Even to do that takes relationship building and trust building.”

The UDP participates in case conferencing—a process that involves sitting down with representatives from Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, neighborhood organizations, LEAD, REACH, and the city attorney’s office and figuring out how to address and assist people who are having a negative impact on local residents and businesses. But for cases like Peter’s, UDP president Don Blakeney says, they’re at a loss.

“What is the solution for someone who is having a negative impact on the neighborhood but is not really a great candidate for behavioral change?” Blakeney said. “Those kind of people on the list are going to be hard [to deal with]—they can’t keep impacting the neighborhood the way they do because it’s terrifying of folks who are stuck in one place,” such as behind the counter at a retail store. “If you get to a point in the neighborhood where people are doing that every day, it has a cumulative impact.”

The Downtown Seattle Association, which supported previous efforts to crack down on drug dealing and sales of stolen goods such as the short-lived Operation New Day, also supports the high utilizers initiative. But the group’s CEO, Jon Scholes, says simply arresting people and releasing them back into the community without health care and housing won’t address the impact high utilizers have on the neighborhood or help them access the services and housing they need. “There’s very few people in our constituency who want to lock up mentally ill people forever—they they want to reduce the impact [and] they want a better outcome.”

Unlike the University District and SoDo neighborhoods, which have access to case conferencing, Scholes said the city and service providers “haven’t set that kind of table with us and other [business] groups. We’ve never set aside the housing and other services that are really needed for this population. …A list is just a list if there’s no meaningful intervention that’s being offered.”

Both Katie and Peter, along with many others on the high utilizers list, are connected with case managers from groups like REACH and LEAD, which work with unhoused people facing charges and those who have co-occurring behavioral health conditions, including mental illness and addiction. But identifying appropriate housing and services for people with huge, sometimes lifelong, challenges takes time, even years, and in the meantime, the prescription from the city attorney’s office often prioritizes immediate neighborhood demands. 

And even some homeless service providers say there are times when jail is justified. Staffers for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which has provided (or currently provides) shelter or housing for many of the people on the high utilizers list, call police when a client assaults another client or threatens guests or staff—as happened earlier this month, when a man on the list exposed himself to residents and staff at DESC’s Hobson Place apartments.

“When I first heard about the so-called high-utilizers program,” Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid said, he hoped Davison’s office would “gather certain information on people who are having a high impact on the community” and “figure out how to address them in a useful way. That is not what happened. Instead, we were handed a list of people who we were told were not eligible for the primary diversion program at the court, and we were not offered a solution other than the primary solution of putting people in jail.”

“We’re supposed to [call police] not just when we’re upset at a lack of compliance or cooperation, but when it’s reached a point where we’re unable to manage the situation safely and effectively,” Malone said. “There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”

Richard said going in and out of jail all the time can cause “tremendous” harm—”jail is not a therapeutic place.” At the same time, jail can provide “a sort of break from everything they’re usually doing,” she added. “Sometimes if we’ve had trouble finding that client, that’s a way we can contact them. It is sometimes the only opportunity that we have to be able to meet with certain folks who we have not been able to find on outreach.”

Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid oversees community court, an alternative to mainstream criminal court that offers access to services such as mental health and addiction treatment, occupational therapy, and life skills classes. He says the city attorney’s office needs to demonstrate, with clear evidence, that jail is helping not just businesses and neighborhood residents but the people who are being jailed over and over again with few visible results. “If they’re going to charge these people more, they need to prove that they’re having a positive impact.” So far, he said, they haven’t done so.

Instead, Davison took action early in her term to specifically deny access to community court to anyone on the list, arguing that people who commit the same offenses repeatedly need strict accountability, not treatment and classes. Davison, and Lindsay, especially objected to the fact that community court is a “release first” model, which gives people who enter the program the benefit of the doubt instead of, as Khandelwal put it recently, keeping people in jail “simply because they are too poor to post bail.” Continue reading “Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?”