Category: homelessness

Renton Council Tries Land Use Maneuver to Evict Red Lion Homeless Shelter

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday night, the Renton City Council held a meeting to discuss “emergency” legislation that was apparently so urgent, not even the groups that advocate for the people most impacted by the legislation were aware it was happening until a few hours before the meeting got underway.

The legislation: A zoning bill that would effectively force 260 formerly homeless people who have been living at a Red Lion in the city south of Seattle onto the streets in the middle of a global pandemic.

The city of Renton has been fighting to evict the hotel’s current occupants—former clients of the overcrowded downtown Seattle shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center— since shortly after they moved in nine months ago. Arguing that DESC was not operating a hotel but a “deintensification shelter,” which is not a permitted use on the Red Lion site (or anywhere in Renton, for that matter), the council issued a code violation against the hotel in June and ordered DESC to move out. That battle has been winding its way through the courts ever since.

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The council’s latest legislation would explicitly require the Red Lion to close its doors to shelter clients six months after the new law goes into effect, most likely around June 7. It also makes it impossible for a similarly sized shelter to open in Renton, by limiting all future shelter uses to 100 beds beginning on that date and imposing new requirements on homeless services that advocates say would be nearly impossible to meet.

“When you talk about having to pass this ordinance on an emergency basis, I wonder what that emergency looks like compared to the emergency of COVID-19, the emergency of homelessness, and the emergency of racism in our communities,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger told the council, during a public comment session that lasted for nearly an hour. Noting that there are now at least 400 fewer shelter spaces in King County than there were before the pandemic, Eisinger added, “every single bed, every room, is helping keep the spread of COVID down and is helping [save] people’s lives.”

The legislation would ask homeless service providers to ensure that clients use specific routes when traveling through Renton; order them to monitor the behavior of homeless people in public spaces around the city, such as parks, libraries, and transit; and make them legally responsible for the behavior of former clients they exclude from their facilities for behavioral or other issues.

Proponents of the legislation, such as Renton Chamber of Commerce director Diane Dobson, accused DESC’s homeless clients of causing crime and disorder in the city, saying that the number of 911 calls in the general vicinity of the hotel had gone up since its 230 residents moved in nine months ago. Dobson went so far as to suggest that the real victims of the whole situation were shopkeepers who are “losing a part of their soul” when they have to remove homeless people from their stores and kick sleeping people out of their doorways.

But forcing people from the Red Lion onto the streets of Renton seems unlikely to reduce their impact on the city. And at least one study, as well as compelling evidence from DESC clients themselves, have demonstrated that giving unsheltered people a safe, private place to stay doesn’t just benefit their physical and mental health—it also reduces their impact on the surrounding community. Continue reading “Renton Council Tries Land Use Maneuver to Evict Red Lion Homeless Shelter”

Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out

1. On Tuesday morning, the Seattle City Council’s legislative department provided a copy of their newly finalized $3 million contract with Freedom Project Washington to PubliCola. The Freedom Project will oversee King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance research project, which is working on a plan to allocate about $30 million in city funding through a participatory budgeting process next year. Freedom Project Washington is expected to subcontract with other nonprofits to run parallel research projects, but the city has yet to publish the names of the other subcontractors.

The contract has been months in the making. KCEN began laying the groundwork for a Black-led research project to determine the city’s public safety priorities before the council funded the work through its midyear 2020 budget balancing package passed in August. The group launched the Black Brilliance Research Project in September, spending their own reserves while waiting for the arrival of city dollars; since then, KCEN has fielded nine research teams to conduct interviews, surveys, and community meetings. KCEN has not responded to questions for more details about the community meetings and interviews.

Freedom Project Washington has close ties to KCEN—its executive director, David Heppard, has been a regular speaker at the group’s online press conferences—but it was not the city’s first choice of contractor. The council and KCEN originally planned to contract with the Marguerite Casey Foundation but decided to go with the Freedom Project because the Freedom Project, which has been a fiscal sponsor of other nonprofits in the past and has previously received city contracts, could get up and running more quickly. Freedom Project Washington will process payments and expenses on KCEN’s behalf; in return, KCEN will manage the “day-to-day operations” of the Black Brilliance Research Project.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

The only window into how KCEN plans to spend $3 million on community research is their “Blueprint for Divestment/Community Reinvestment,” a document released last summer that includes KCEN’s own recommendations for city policy and budget priorities and a tentative budget for the Black Brilliance Research Project. As PubliCola reported in August, that budget allocated only around $1 million to pay research staff, though senior KCEN researcher LéTania Severe later said that the group intends to hire as many as 133 staffers over the coming year.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

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KCEN has not clarified how those resources would be allocated, nor whether and how their budget has changed to reflect tightening restrictions on in-person gatherings like community meetings. The contract with Freedom Project Washington does not include any directives about how to spend the contract dollars, so the project’s budget items will be decided by Freedom Project Washington and KCEN.

According to the contract, KCEN is expected to present their work plan and a preliminary report on their community research projects, including digital documentation of “community research that was presented as visual/performing arts, spoken word, etc.,” to the council in November, though the group’s opportunities to present at a council briefing before the end of the month are dwindling.

A final report on their “findings and recommendations for [a] participatory budgeting framework and mechanisms” informed by “community dialogues” is due in the first quarter of next year.

2. Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan will leave the city at the end of the year, to be replaced by former deputy Human Services Department director for homelessness Tiffany Washington. PubliCola broke the story on Twitter Monday morning. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out”

City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council adopted a 2021 budget today that reduces the Seattle Police Department’s budget while funding investments in alternatives to policing; repurposes most of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million “equitable investment fund” to council priorities; and replaces the encampment-removing Navigation Team with a new program intended to help outreach workers move unsheltered people into shelter and permanent housing. 

And although council member Kshama Sawant, who votes against the budget every year, decried the document as a “brutal austerity budget,” it contained fewer cuts than council members and the mayor feared they would have to make when the economy took a nosedive earlier this year. 

The council received two major boosts from the executive branch this budget cycle. First, the council’s budget benefited from a better-than-expected revenue forecast from the City Budget Office that gave them an additional $32.5 million to work with. And second, Durkan expressed support for the council’s budget, portraying it as a compromise that preserved all of the $100 million she had proposed spending “on BIPOC communities,” albeit not in the form she initially imagined. This show of goodwill (or political savvy) from the mayor signaled a sharp turnaround from this past summer, when she vetoed a midyear spending package that also included cuts to police.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes the council made to the mayor’s original proposal. 

Seattle Police Department

The council’s budget for police will be a disappointment to anyone who expected the council to cut SPD’s funding by 50%, as several council members pledged last summer at the height of the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May. Council members acknowledged that the cuts were smaller and slower than what protesters have demanded but said that the City is just at the beginning of the process of disinvesting in police and investing in community-based public safety. 

“Our goal is not about what the golden number of police officers is in this moment,” council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) said. “It’s about shifting our vision of what public safety is into the hands of community-based responses in those instances where those kinds of responses not only reduce harm but can deliver community safety in a way that police officers sometimes cannot.” 

Council member Tammy Morales (South Seattle), who acknowledged earlier this month that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle,” said that in her estimation, “increasing police staffing wrongly presumes that they can fill the roles” of the “nurses and support staffers and housing specialists” that the City plans to hire in the future.

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Although the 2021 budget does cut police spending by around 20%, the bulk of that reduction comes from shifting some police responsibilities, including parking enforcement and the 911 dispatch center, out of the department. The rest of the cuts are largely achieved through attrition — taking the money allocated to vacant positions and spending it on other purposes. 

For example, the council’s budget funds a total of 1,343 SPD positions next year, down from 1,400 in Durkan’s budget, for a total savings (including a last-minute amendment adopted Monday) of just over $8 million. That money will be removed from the police department and spent on future community-led public safety projects, which will be identified by a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now.

At Monday’s council briefing meeting, some council members expressed hesitation about a last-minute amendment from Mosqueda cutting an additional $2 million from SPD’s budget, noting that the department now predicts it will be able to hire more than the 114 new officers it previously projected for next year. And at least one council member found it odd that the number of SPD employees the amendment predicts will leave next year — 114 — is exactly the same as the number of new hires predicted in the mayor’s budget, for a net gain of exactly zero officers.

“The fact that we are anticipating 114 attritions seems a little cute to me, to be honest, given that the number [of hires] in the [mayor’s] staffing plan … is 114,” Herbold said during the council’s morning briefing. “It just feels like it is an attempt to respond to the call for no new net officers and it confuses the situation, I think.” In the end, only Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, voted against the cuts.

Community Safety

The council’s budget puts $32 million toward future investments in community-led public safety efforts that would begin to replace some current functions of the police department, such as responding to mental health crises and domestic violence calls.  Continue reading “City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety”

Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos

1. PubliCola has learned that the city is in conversation with the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel to provide temporary housing to hundreds of unsheltered Seattle residents using federal COVID relief dollars. The hotel is one of at least two in or near downtown Seattle that the city hopes will serve as way stations between homelessness and permanent housing. The city has pledged to fund as many as 300 hotel rooms for 10 months; the plan is to move people quickly from living on the street to either permanent supportive housing or market-rate apartments, using temporary “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office would not confirm that the Executive Pacific, which has 155 rooms, is under consideration for the program. “The City is in negotiations with a number of hotels and it would be premature to announce any possible locations as that may impact those ongoing negotiations,” Durkan’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, said. 

The city contracted with the Executive Pacific early in the pandemic to provide rooms for first responders. As PubliCola reported, most of those rooms remained vacant while shelters continued to operate at full or nearly-full capacity.

2. At a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board last week, representatives from the Hawkins Company, a recruiting firm hired to help identify a director for the new agency, said they they expect to start “preliminary candidate screening” by early December, with a goal of narrowing the list down to between 5 and 8 candidates by the end of the year. The official application period ends in less than two weeks, on December 4.

Given the high qualifications for the position, and the challenges of running a joint city-county homelessness agency with dozens of constituent cities with competing views about homelessness, it seems likely that the Hawkins Group could face some challenges in recruiting 5 to 8 fully qualified candidates for the position. Since the city of Seattle and King County itself are the most prominent partners in the new authority, I reached out to the offices of Mayor Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine for comment.

“We are confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Constantine’s office did not respond. Hightower, speaking for Durkan’s office, said the mayor is “confident The Hawkins Company will present an initial pool of five to eight qualified candidates” and that Hawkins is “well on their way to the goal.” Hightower noted that Hawkins recruited the executive director for the LA Homeless Services Authority, and reminded me the “the Mayor is part of a group of decision-makers” at the county authority. However, Durkan and Constantine, as the executives of the county’s largest city (and the biggest financial contributor to the authority) and the county itself, are indisputably the most prominent of those decision makers.

3. Throughout the budget process that wraps up this afternoon, freshman city council member Alex Pedersen has promoted an anti-development agenda that will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to his 2019 campaign. And although most of the slow-growth amendments, provisos, and statements of legislative intent Pedersen proposed this year didn’t pass, it’s worth taking a look at them together to imagine what their impact would have been if they had. Collectively, Pedersen’s proposals would have placed significant new process barriers in the way of housing in Seattle, including new reporting requirements, new fees, and new regulations making it harder for land owners to remove trees on private property. 

Here are just a few of the land-use amendments Pedersen proposed as part of this year’s budget process. Except where noted, these measures did not make it into the final budget. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Downtown Hotel May House Homeless; Mayor Bullish on Homeless Agency Hiring; a Look Back at Pedersen’s Provisos”

Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department

By Erica C. Barnett

The cessation of open warfare between Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council over the 2021 budget doesn’t make for the most dramatic headlines (see above), but the detente between the two feuding branches could mean a budget compromise that won’t end in another spate of open warfare.

The council’s budget proposal makes dramatic cuts to Durkan’s proposal to designate $100 million in funding “for BIPOC communities,” fulfills the city’s 2019 promise to invest proceeds from the the sale of publicly owned land in South Lake Union into housing and anti-displacement programs, and cuts the size of the police department by about 20 percent, with a commitment to spend the savings from those reductions on community safety projects through a participatory budgeting process, which the budget also funds.

On Monday, Durkan issued a statement praising the council’s budget for “continuing that historic $100 million for communities through slightly different community-led processes.” This was a departure from Durkan’s previous position on the council’s spending priorities. Last month, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions about the racial equity implications of Durkan’s $100 million plan by suggesting that the council’s own spending proposals, including plans for COVID relief, participatory budgeting, and police department cuts, had not gone through a proper vetting to see if they truly benefited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.

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If you enjoy the work we do here at PubliCola, please help us KEEP IT GOING by donating a few bucks a month or making a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by check at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked about this seeming contradiction. Durkan responded that while she hasn’t read all of the council’s budget amendments, “my read on it is that they are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” Durkan said she was “disappointed” that the council wasn’t spending even more on BIPOC added, given a new revenue forecast that adds more than $32 million to the 2021 budget.

“I’m very hopeful that when we come out of this, and when there’s a final budget, that we actually have a path forward that makes real on the commitment that we will invest generational investments in the city of Seattle” over the next 10 years, she said.

The council’s proposal is still a recessionary budget. Instead of massive spending increases, it reprioritizes limited dollars, in ways that advocates for sweeping, immediate change may find frustrating. But it also puts significant leverage in the hands of the community groups leading the process of participatory budgeting, and promises significant funding for that process.

“They are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” — Mayor Jenny Durkan, referring to the city council

In reporting on the council’s previous budget discussions, I’ve talked about many individual, one-off budget changes council members are proposing—from an analysis of “transportation impact fees” levied on new housing to funding for energy efficiency audits to the restoration of the city’s nightlife advisor position. This post will look at a few high-takes, big-ticket spending areas, including investment in community-led alternatives to police,

Major cuts to the mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative

As I mentioned, the council’s budget chops $70 million from the mayor’s $100 million fund to pay for future investments in BIPOC communities. That money would be redistributed as follows:

• Durkan’s budget “abandoned”—and yes, that’s the technical term—$30 million that she promised last year for affordable housing and efforts to prevent displacement in gentrifying areas. The money came from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, and was key to getting anti-displacement groups like Puget Sound Sage not to protest the sale. The council’s budget restores this money to its original purpose.

• The Human Services Department would get $10 million to distribute to community organizations “to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.” The council allocated this money in 2020, but the city didn’t spend it, and Durkan zeroed it out in her proposed budget.

• Another $18 million would go toward the participatory budgeting project that the council began funding in 2020, which I’ll discuss separately in a minute.

• The remaining $12 million or so would replenish the city’s emergency reserve fund, which Durkan’s budget almost zeroed out (see graph above); restore funding for a restorative pilot program in schools; and restore funding for community-based alternatives to policing, among other smaller-ticket items.

As for the $30 million that remains out of the mayor’s initial $100 million: That money would still get allocated, through a process that would still include the mayor-appointed Equitable Communities task force, but only after the city council approves the spending plan.

Participatory budgeting

A total of $30 million, including the aforementioned $18 million, would fund community safety projects chosen through a participatory budgeting process; these projects would replace some functions (such as responding to crisis calls) that are currently performed by SPD. Continue reading “Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department”

Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution

Image via King County Elections

1. As the federal government and state police prepare for possible civil unrest on Election Night, the city of Seattle says it does not plan to physically open its Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates emergency response during crisis situations and extreme weather and public health events.

However, the Seattle Police Department has restricted time off for officers who may be deployed to respond to demonstrations during the week following the election, and the city has sent information to businesses in neighborhoods where protests are common, such as  Capitol Hill, about “how to prepare and secure their employees and customers as well as their property to mitigate the impact of broken windows and graffiti, should that occur,” according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

As of November 1, 72 percent of ballots sent to registered voters in King County (and nearly 75 percent in Seattle) had been returned. Although Washington state votes by mail, the county has opened seven voting centers where people can vote in person until 8pm on election day, including two in Seattle.

Durkan’s spokeswoman said SPD “does not have any intelligence to indicate that there will be large-scale demonstrations on Election Night or the days following. Our partners at King County Elections have not reported any threats or security issues at any ballot boxes. As such, the SPD and Seattle Fire Department’s planning is for contingency purposes only, and does not indicate that there will be demonstrations or unrest.”

City council member Tammy Morales formerly introduced her proposed alternative to Durkan’s proposed replacement for the Navigation Team, called the HOPE Team, last week. The five-member team would be a scaled-back, service-focused version of the Outreach and Engagement Team proposed by Durkan and council member Andrew Lewis last month—a team that would itself be a kind of scaled-back Navigation Team, one that would put the members of the recently disbanded Navigation Team to work in new roles “coordinating” the work of the city’s contracted outreach providers.

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This ad-free website is supported ENTIRELY by generous contributions from readers. At a time when real local news is more threatened than ever by declining revenues and the growing spread of misinformation, PublICola is a trusted source of breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter.

If you enjoy the work we do here at PubliCola, please help us KEEP IT GOING by donating a few bucks a month or making a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by check at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

During the council budget hearing on Friday, Lewis suggested that the differences between his plan and Morales’ were minor, but said he wouldn’t co-sponsor her proposal “because of my involvement in a parallel process.” Last week, Morales told PubliCola she believes the language in Lewis’ proposal is still “vague” enough to allow members of the larger team to do direct outreach. “I think we need to leave that work to the service providers—to the folks that are out there every day and understand the importance of developing relationships,” Morales said.

The HOPE team would include a team manager, a liaison to coordinate with other departments like Seattle Public Utilities, which manages the “purple bag” encampment trash pickup program, one data analyst (read more about why one data person may not be enough for a team dedicated to coordinating outreach and shelter referrals here), and two “provider and neighborhood liaisons” who would work with King County Public Health and providers to “provide reasonable notification of a[n encampment] removal and time to plan and implement the relocation.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution”

Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime

Screen shot from “Seattle Is Dying”

1. Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral public safety advisor whose report on “prolific offenders” featured prominently in the viral “Seattle Is Dying” video, published a broadside against city council member Lisa Herbold yesterday on the website of a new political nonprofit called Change Washington. In the piece, Lindsay accuses Herbold of sneaking legislation into the 2021 budget that would  “create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes” and “negat[ing] the majority of Seattle’s criminal code.”

Change Washington was incorporated at the end of 2019. Its principals are former state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Democrat from Medina who caucused (and voted) with Republicans; Sally Poliak, a “centrist Republican” political consultant in Seattle; Steve Gordon, a Republican donor from Pacific, WA who runs the anti-tax group “Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State“; and former Zillow executive Greg Schwartz, who left the company last year vowing to focus his energy on “Seattle’s chaotic streets and government.”

In his post, Lindsay refers to himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool blue Democrat.”

Lindsay’s claims about legalizing crime come from an extremely broad reading of a draft bill crafted with input from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and posted on the website of the King County Department of Public Defense. Lindsay appears unaware that these groups participated in the drafting of the bill, and even claims that they have never expressed any support for its basic concepts. And despite Lindsay’s claim that Herbold is using an elaborate “backdoor” strategy to “[keep] the proposed legislation almost entirely hidden from the public,” Herbold has not actually proposed any legislation. Council staffers are still working on a draft, one of many bills the council will propose as part of the budget process.

Nor would the bill Lindsay incorrectly identifies as Herbold’s actually legalize crime. Instead, the county public defenders’ draft proposes several new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder. Among other (welcome) changes, the bill would prevent prosecutors from throwing a person with untreated mental illness in jail because he broke a store window during a psychotic episode, or pressing charges against a hungry person because he stole food. It would not create a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who commits a crime and then claims to have—as Lindsay glibly puts it—”depression, anxiety, etc.”

Herbold says it’s high time the city reconsider its approach to offenses that result from poverty and lack of access to health care and housing. “As we’ve seen in the massive national and international protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it is past time that we reexamine our systems which often perpetuate homelessness and economic instability,” she says. “The City currently spends approximately $20 million a year on incarceration, which is known to significantly increase the risk of housing instability and homelessness.” The council will discuss the proposal at its budget meeting Wednesday.

Lindsay’s arguments will almost certainly find purchase in right-wing talk radio and on TV chat shows whose ratings depend on keeping audiences in a perpetual state of fear. There will always be a large contingent of people, even in liberal Seattle, who don’t believe that crimes that result from poverty or untreated mental illness really exist. To these people, Lindsay’s assertion that defendants would only have to “claim drug or alcohol addiction” or fake a mental illness to evade justice will make sense. It’s easier to believe in a world where shady defense attorneys argue, as Lindsay predicts they will, that “drugs are a ‘basic need” for someone with a substance use disorder” to than to consider the possibility that throwing people in jail for being addicted, mentally ill, or poor doesn’t actually work.

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2. After the city council passed legislation establishing a new “outreach and engagement team” to coordinate the city’s response to unauthorized encampments, you might think Mayor Jenny Durkan would be thrilled. After all, the team keeps most members of the Navigation Team on the city payroll, while leaving the question of what, exactly, the team will do.

Instead, the mayor responded to the 7-1 vote by reigniting the debate over the council’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, which Durkan vetoed (unsuccessfully) after the council voted to eliminate the Navigation Team. In a statement Monday night, Durkan characterized the council’s vote as a decision to “restor[e] funding for the Human Services Department to coordinate homelessness outreach” and called the legislation “similar to previously proposed legislation negotiated in August” that would have kept the Navigation Team intact.  Continue reading “Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime”

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

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During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization

Two city commissions have called on Mayor Jenny Durkan to resign, and at least one more is considering it.

1. On Wednesday, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission—one of five volunteer city commissions that deal with the rights of marginalized groups—voted narrowly to demand Mayor Jenny Durkan’s resignation, joining the Human Rights Commission, which made a similar demand earlier this month.

In a letter outlining the reasons for their decision, the commission said the mayor had failed to take meaningful action on police violence and accountability; had continued to remove encampments without providing unsheltered people with adequate places to go; and had “repeatedly undermined the budget proposals supported by Black communities,” by, among other things, using JumpStart payroll tax revenues that were already allocated to COVID relief and housing for vulnerable communities to pay for a new $100 million “equitable investment” fund to be spent based on recommendations from a mayor-appointed task force.

The letter notes that deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan was dispatched to speak to the commission to make the case for Durkan, as she did earlier this week at the Women’s Commission when it considered a similar move. According to the letter, Ranganathan told the commission that the mayor does not have direct authority over police actions (such as the use of tear gas against protesters) and that she supports a regional payroll tax, just not the local payroll tax the council already passed. (She made similar arguments at the Women’s Commission meeting Monday night).

“Mayor Durkan’s role is to serve as the executive for Seattle and not as a lobbyist in Olympia,” the letter says. “Ultimately, Mayor Durkan’s opposition to the Jumpstart legislation disempowered the process taken to get there, which included months of work from Black communities, Indigenous communities, other communities of color, labor, and many more to find a way to fund affordable housing.”

The mayor appoints nine members of the Human Rights, LGBTQ, and Women’s Commissions. All three commissions have numerous vacancies and expired seats, but there is currently no major imbalance between council-appointed and mayor-appointed board members on any of the three commissions.

Durkan is up for reelection next year.

2. As we’ve reported, the city council, mayor, and homeless advocates have been working toward a tentative agreement on a new approach to unsheltered homelessness—one that could include dismantling the Navigation Team and creating a new process where unsheltered people move quickly through hotel-based shelters and into new permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rental subsidy.

The mayor’s budget allocates nearly $16 million to lease 300 hotel rooms for six months, which works out to about $5,300 per room, per month, and about $9 million for rapid rehousing dollars to serve up to 230 households (which works out to an average per-household cost of about $3,300 a month).

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“I’m guardedly optimistic,”  Alison Eisinger, the head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told PubliCola. “I have some hope that there are folks [at the city] who recognize that requiring people to move, without addressing the state of homelessness, was never effective before COVID and is completely deficient now.” 

One element of the plan that has gotten little attention so far is that it would be extremely short-term. Funding for the hotel would run out after about 10 months—right around the 2021 election, if the city started leasing the hotel rooms at the beginning of next year. The extra funding for rapid rehousing would also come from temporary COVID relief dollars that expire next year. The upshot is that if the city wanted to rent the 300 hotel rooms and continue the rapid rehousing expansion after the one-time runs out, they would have to find a new source of funding for both. Continue reading “Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization”

The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward

Seattle Police Department officers—identifiable as members of the Navigation Team by their khaki pants‚look on during an encampment removal in Ballard earlier this year.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis introduced a proposal that would restore funding for outreach to homeless encampments and lay the groundwork for what Lewis described as a new city “unsheltered outreach and response team” that would replace the controversial Navigation Team.

The surprising part is that the council and mayor’s office worked together on the legislation. 

It’s a whiplash-inducing turn, given the mayor’s vehement opposition to the council’s efforts to dismantle the team and spend the savings on outreach workers. But it isn’t entirely unexpected. For weeks, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller has been working with council members and service providers to craft a new approach, one that may be at odds with the mayor’s own personal views about how to tackle unsheltered homelessness.

To recap: Late last month, Durkan’s office sent a scorched-earth letter to the council informing them that, in response to their budget direction, she would immediately disband the Navigation Team and suspend the city’s outreach and engagement efforts. In a statement, Durkan said that the city’s Human Services Department “will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions.” Indignant council members responded that they had never suggested eliminating outreach altogether, and in fact had allocated $1.4 million specifically for that purpose—but that Durkan had declined to spend it. The mayor’s office contends that this money never existed, since using it would require laying off staffers who work on 

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Since then, deputy mayor Sixkiller has been attempting to mend fences with the council and homeless advocates, by quietly working with council members Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Lisa Herbold on the compromise proposal Lewis introduced on Monday. That plan includes a new team inside the city’s Human Services Department that would serve as a kind of coordinating body for nonprofit outreach providers’ work in the field, plus funding for those outreach providers to expand their work. (The exact extent of the internal team’s coordination role, and their authority over the work of city contractors, remains unclear).

The goal of the new joint effort would be twofold: improving safety and safety and hygiene at existing encampments, and moving unsheltered people quickly into permanent housing. By utilizing new hotel-based shelters and triaging people quickly into services, case management, and appropriate housing, the new approach could, in theory, house a lot more people than the old approach of sweeping encampments and providing shelter referrals to their displaced residents.

That’s the plan, anyway. But there still are plenty of potential pitfalls and points of contention. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward”