By Erica C. Barnett
The Burien City Council voted Monday night to take King County up on a six-month-old offer to provide $1 million and 35 Pallet shelters, voting 4-3 to accept the money and locate the temporary shelter on a vacant lot owned by Seattle City Light. The late-night vote, which came almost literally at the 11th hour, just barely met the November 27 deadline set by King County for Burien to or lose the funding, provided through a federal ARPA grant.
The Burien council has been debating what to do about the encampment, whose residents the city has repeatedly swept from place to place, since March. In September, the council prohibited homeless people from sleeping outdoors at night; that ban goes into effect on December 1.
The money will be administered through the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which will choose a shelter provider through a competitive bidding process that, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, typically takes about three months. The Low-Income Housing Institute, a nonprofit that operates many tiny house villages around the region, has sent its chief strategy officer, Jon Grant, to testify in favor of the agreement at recent Burien City Council meetings, but Grant said the shelter and housing agency has not decided yet if they’ll bid on the project.
Asked about next steps, KCRHA, King County, the city of Burien, Seattle City Light, and the Seattle Human Services Department all gave different versions of the same response: They’ll have to meet and hammer out the details, so stay tuned.
One of the most important of those details is a lease between KCRHA and the city of Seattle for the use of City Light site, which a City Light spokesperson said “has not yet been negotiated [or] received.” Burien city manager Adolfo Bailon has declined to answer Burien council members’ questions about the site, claiming it would be premature to provide details before the council approved the plan to put the shelter at that location.
According to a spokesman for the Seattle Human Services Department, if the city receives a formal proposal from KCRHA, “HSD will work with KCRHA and the City of Burien to discuss next steps including potential terms and costs associated with use of the site.”
Last week, the council deadlocked over the City Light location and another potential shelter site in Boulevard Park, a low-income neighborhood near SeaTac Airport. Monday’s meeting was a hail-Mary, and a bit of a fluke: At the end of last week’s meeting, just three council members voted to support Councilmember Cydney Moore’s motion to hold one last meeting to discuss the offer, but because three others abstained (with Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling voting “no”), Moore’s motion passed.
Councilmember Stephanie Mora—who said last week that she would not attend Monday’s meeting because she doesn’t think the government should play a role in addressing homelessness—attempted to enhance this language with an amendment saying no one could enter the site if they were “under the influence” of drugs or alcohol.
Proponents of the Boulevard Park site argued that it had plenty of access to services and food thanks to the presence of two bus lines and a nearby Dollar Tree. Opponents countered that the site was poorly served by transit, lacked access to services, and would subject tiny house village residents to particulate and noise pollution from planes overhead. The council had already voted against allowing the shelter on a piece of city-owned land in downtown Burien, which would have given residents access to homeless services, multiple bus lines, and several full-service grocery stores.
The City Light site, Moore noted Monday, was a “compromise” between a piece of city-owned land in downtown Burien that the council had previously rejected and the Boulevard Park location, which came with its own significant baggage. Councilmember Hugo Garcia, who supported the original downtown Burien site, said the council majority’s proposal to put the shelter in a low-income, majority-minority neighborhood “smacks of white supremacy.”
“I personally don’t feel that this is necessarily ideal, but in the spirit of compromising to find something that we can move forward with I am willing to accept these terms,” Moore said.
The “terms” Moore was referring to included a stipulation that residents can’t drink alcohol or use illegal drugs on site or in the surrounding neighborhood, among many other parameters. Councilmember Stephanie Mora—who said last week that she would not attend Monday’s meeting because she doesn’t think the government should play a role in addressing homelessness—attempted to enhance this language with an amendment saying no one could enter the site if they were “under the influence” of drugs or alcohol.
Although Mora’s amendment passed, the KCRHA, not Burien, will actually set the terms of its request for proposals for the site, and it’s extremely unlikely that the KCRHA, the city of Seattle, or any homeless service provider would agree to such stringent terms.
In an email to city manager Adolfo Bailon last Wednesday, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig attempted to explain this—noting, for example, that while KCRHA can set broad parameters for shelter providers, such as “congregate or noncongregate,” shelter providers have the authority to establish their own rules. LIHI and other shelter providers do ban drug and alcohol use at some of their locations and have behavioral codes of conduct, but they don’t restrict access to shelter based on whether a shelter resident is “under the influence”—a standard that could require drug testing every person entering a site.
After this year’s elections, the Burien City Council will have a five-member supermajority of members who support the city’s hard-line approach to homelessness. King County’s money will run out in a year, but it’s likely that additional funding will materialize if the shelter is successful and the next council doesn’t oppose keeping the shelter open.
A poison-pill amendment, also by Mora, that would have shuttered the shelter as soon as the million dollars ran out, effectively barring outside funding for the shelter, failed.
Grant, of LIHI, said his agency “would need to see the details before deciding to move forward with an application”; their questions, he said, include when the program would end and whether LIHI would be required to use the Pallet-branded shelters that were part of the county’s initial offer, or if they could bring in their own stick-built “tiny houses,” which are larger and more homey than Pallet’s utilitarian sheds.