Category: homelessness

Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers

By Erica C. Barnett

Next week, the governing board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will vote on a proposed budget that would nearly double the amount of money the authority is requesting from Seattle and King County, which fund the authority.

Overall, the proposed $209 “base budget,” not counting $12 million in one-time COVID relief funds, would require the county and city, collectively, to contribute an additional $90 million to the regional authority, on top of this year’s total contribution of $119 million. The majority of the KCRHA’s existing funding—about $70 million—comes from the city through its annual budget process; the rest comes from the county.

Nearly 40 suburban cities, organized as the Sound Cities Association, receive services funded through the KCRHA and have seats on its governing board, but do not contribute any funding to the authority.

The KCRHA has not presented a detailed breakdown of its budget requests to each of its two funders yet, but if the money was divided up along similar lines as this year’s contributions, it would amount to about $54 million in additional funding from the city, for a total of more than $122 million.

At a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board, agency CEO Marc Dones said, “I agree that this is a hefty ask,” but added that even doubling the authority’s budget won’t fundamentally transform the homelessness system, given the scale of the need in King County. “We went into this saying, and maintain, this is not the transformational budget for us,” Dones said.

PubliCola asked the spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, county council budget chair Joe McDermott, and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, how realistic they considered the KCRHA’s request, given the likelihood of significant budget gaps this year. The city, for example, currently estimates next year’s budget shortfall at around $34 million, and has asked departments to come up with potential cuts of 3 to 6 percent.

The budget proposal includes tens of millions for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve a total of 130 vehicles at a time.

Harrell’s spokesman said the mayor’s office “is still in the early stages of evaluating this preliminary budget proposal. We look forward to working with the KCRHA and CEO Dones, as well as our partners at King County, to help develop a budget through a collaborative and iterative process. We will at the same time be considering our own budget needs, addressing a significant financial gap, and working to determine what investments will most effectively address the homelessness crisis.”

A spokesman for Constantine said the county executive’s office is “reviewing the draft budget and are in communication with KCRHA and our partners at the City of Seattle to discuss needs and realistic budget expectations, as well as potential opportunities for funding.”

Mosqueda said she had not seen the budget proposal yet, “but with Seattle currently funding 68 percent of the budget, it underscores that regional funders are necessary.”

McDermott did not respond to our request for comment.

Lewis, the council’s homelessness committee chair, said the size of the request demonstrates the scope of the need. “I don’t think, in and of itself, that the total number is an unreasonable amount of money to be asking for some of the stuff that they want to do,” he said. “But we’re already paying 70 percent of [the agency’s budget], and Seattle taxpayers are actually paying more, because we pay into the county’s contribution too.”

On Thursday, Dones told PubliCola that even if the authority factored in all the money suburban cities are spending on homelessness, there would still be a “substantial” need for more funding. Under its charter, the authority has no ability to raise taxes or require suburban cities to help fund it: “The limit of what we can do is, this is what is necessary. This is the price tag,” Dones said. The governing board, made up largely of elected officials, could, however, advocate for a new local or county tax to fund homelessness. “They can’t effectuate it, but they are the ones politically situated to call that question and to be the appropriate envoys of the discussion.”

The budget proposal includes tens of millions of dollars for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing for 345 people; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve up to 130 vehicles at a time.

Last year, the city council declined to fund the KCRHA’s request for the high-acuity shelter, citing a revenue shortfall and concerns that the authority had not coordinated their request with the city. Subsequently, King County expanded its shelter complex in the SoDo neighborhood, built with federal COVID relief funds, to include shelter for people with physical and behavioral health care needs. A  spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the $20 million would be for “new capacity, locations [to be determined].”

The 400 proposed new shelter and emergency housing beds represent just 20 percent of the 2,000 new shelter or housing beds Harrell vowed to add this year in the city of Seattle alone. Harrell’s office did not respond directly to a question about this discrepancy between the KCRHA’s proposal and his campaign promise.

Dones has advocated for emergency or “bridge” housing, which they recently described as “non-time limited housing-style options for people” moving from homelessness into permanent housing. The city began moving away from traditional transitional housing in the last decade, after a 2016 report by consultant Barb Poppe called the model “extraordinarily expensive” and the average time people stayed in transitional housing units “shockingly long.”

The agency’s analysis, in contrast, concluded that transitional housing had the lowest “cost per exit” of any shelter or emergency housing type KCRHA funds, and that tiny house villages—a type of shelter Dones has frequently criticized in the past—are the most expensive and have the longest average stay of any shelter type, with a 45 percent rate of exits to permanent housing.

The proposed budget increase would fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).

It’s unclear how the authority derived the “cost per exit” metric, which differs from more frequently uses measures such as average cost per client per year. (Asked for more details about the math the agency used and for the data underlying the numbers, the KCRHA spokeswoman said the number came from “Performance data from HMIS, funding data from our contracts database” and did not provide the data itself.)

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates tiny house villages throughout King County, disputes the authority’s metrics, saying their own analysis shows about 50 percent of tiny house residents exit to permanent housing, and that the cost of sheltering one person in a tiny house for one year comes out to just over $9,000. Continue reading “Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers”

After Threat at Woodland Park, City Scrambled for Last-Minute Shelter Referrals, Then Swept

"Park temporarily closed" sign at an entrance to Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

When the city removed a large, longstanding encampment from Woodland Park last week, elected officials announced that they were able to refer almost everyone on site to shelter, an achievement they said was only possible because of long-term efforts to identify and provide personalized outreach to the people living in the park.

“After four months of intensive outreach, we moved 85 people out of the park and into shelter or transitional or permanent supportive housing… and this is because in January, we created a by-name list, and in February, we finished the needs assessment for these folks and began moving people inside,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, said at a council meeting Monday. (The Human Services Department said the total number was 83). In a statement last week, the city said it was aware of at least 12 people who “voluntarily relocated” from the park.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, echoed this line, telling PubliCola that the city had accomplished its “goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement[—]to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were connected to the best-suited shelter and support services.”

Behind the scenes, though, the city reportedly considered aborting outreach efforts and sweeping the camp immediately earlier this month, after an outreach worker with the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team—a group of social service workers who do outreach at encampments and offer shelter referrals prior to sweeps—was threatened with a gun by someone living in the park, several people familiar with the encampment told PubliCola. The incident, which has not been previously reported, caused city and nonprofit outreach workers to abandon the encampment for several days in the week prior to its removal last Tuesday.

All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

“When we heard there were guns in the area, we had our staff step back,” said Chloe Gale, the director of the outreach nonprofit REACH, which partnered with the city to provide outreach in Woodland Park. Seattle police officers were on site when outreach workers returned. “We definitely do not request for law enforcement to go” to encampments, but “they were there, and we were willing to be there with them,” Gale said.

Housen did not respond directly to questions about the gun incident, saying only that “outreach providers and City employees who engage encampments may encounter situations that are unsafe.” Asked if Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who heads up homelessness for the mayor’s office, pushed to shut the encampment down sooner, Housen gave a one-word answer: “No.”

After the threat, efforts to find shelter options for everyone living at the encampment—including both those on the city’s “by-name list” and those who moved to the park in the months since, including the weeks and days immediately prior to the sweep—went into overdrive. All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

Debris left outside a picnic shelter after an encampment removal at Woodland Park

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, her organization was “asked to accommodate 30 people” from the Woodland Park encampment  “all at once,” and scrambled to create space in eight of its tiny house villages across the city. Four moved into LIHI’s Whitter Heights village in northwest Seattle. Another 12 went to Interbay, North Seattle, and South Lake Union, respectively. Five ended up—temporarily, Lee says—at LIHI’s new Southend Village in Rainier Beach, whose 40 slots are intended for people living unsheltered in South Seattle.

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park,” Lee said, “and we told them, no, we are not going to move everybody into Southend Village because we have a commitment to the neighborhood to take in local references.” According to Lee, LIHI held beds open for Woodland Park residents as people moved out of tiny house villages and opened up some slots by expediting some residents’ placements into permanent supportive housing. “If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”

Exacerbating the problem was the fact that, according to several people familiar with the encampment’s shifting population, dozens of people moved into the park in the weeks immediately prior to the encampment removal. Many arrived after the city swept other nearby encampments, including some who had been living in Ballard’s industrial “brewery district.” It’s common for some people to relocate to encampments the city is about to sweep in the hope of accessing resources, such as tiny houses, that aren’t otherwise available to people living unsheltered. Some may have also been encouraged to move to Woodland Park by a neighborhood resident who has been doing ad hoc outreach at the park for months.

In the end, the majority of the people who moved out of Woodland Park and into shelter—about 50—were relocated not over the three months since the city finalized its “by-name list,” but in the final week of the encampment’s existence, including 27 who moved on the very day of the sweep.

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

This raises the question: Why couldn’t the city have offered spots to people living in Woodland Park much sooner, rather than going to the trouble of creating a “by-name list” that had no bearing on the final outcome? If “restoring Woodland Park to its intended use,” as the mayor’s office has put it, was a top priority, why not move people into tiny houses or other shelter over the course of months, rather than rushing everyone out at the last minute?

According to Harrell spokesman Housen, one reason the city didn’t move faster is because people simply refused to take the shelter they were offered. “Referrals were made throughout the engagement process with the first referral taking place on January 28th,” Housen said. “While outreach providers made diligent efforts to refer individuals throughout their time at Woodland, some individuals chose to decline shelter until a removal date was communicated.”

The last-minute rush of referrals led to some last-minute chaos. “It was still a mass eviction, and things were happening at the last possible minute,” with people having to make quick decisions about whether to move across town or lose out on shelter, the neighborhood volunteer said. “If people were told they had to be out at 10 and they were given a [tiny] home at 9, some of their possessions might have ended up in a car going to the north end and they might have been in a car going to the south end.”

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park. If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

Almost everyone PubliCola spoke to about the Woodland Park encampment removal—from mutual aid volunteers and outreach workers to elected officials—said that the removal was ultimately a “success,” in the sense that nearly everyone living in the park received an offer of shelter before the dump trucks rolled in. “I think the biggest accomplishment here was not moving people inside, and was not returning the park to its intended use—the biggest accomplishment was changing how the city does business when it removes encampments,” Strauss said.

What it also demonstrates—and what previous encampment removals, such as a similar slow-motion sweep of the Ballard Commons, have shown—is that when the city decides to reserve a large number of shelter beds and resources for a single encampment, the people in that one encampment are very likely to end up in shelter. Meanwhile, thousands of other people living outdoors remain in tents, vulnerable to sweeps.

“At the Ballard Commons, with shelter expansion, we were able to move people in differently than when we have to rely on throughput” from people leaving shelters, Strauss said. “And when we’re having to rely on throughput, it also means that we’re prioritizing shelter beds for people in Woodland Park while there’s a need citywide.”

So far, both of the city’s efforts to take a “new approach to encampment removals” have taken place in wealthy, mostly white North Seattle neighborhoods where people frequently complain about encampments. Meanwhile, people living unsheltered in other neighborhoods—like the International District, where the city swept about 50 people from private property after a shooting in March—receive minimal notice and no long-term, personalized outreach before the city sends them packing.

“Why did this happen at Woodland Park?” the volunteer asked. “It happened because our neighborhood is largely white and privileged… not because these were the people who were suffering the most, but because the city wanted this park clear, so it suddenly got prioritized.”

Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax

1. Bird, a scooter provider that’s already ubiquitous in cities across the country, will soon enter the Seattle market, while Spin and the venture-backed sit-down scooter company Wheels will no longer be seen on Seattle streets. In addition to Bird, Link and Lime will continue as scooter providers in Seattle.

The Seattle Department of Transportation announced the scooter shuffle on its website last week, just weeks after publishing the results of a controversial, nonscientific survey concluding that more scooter riders are injured while riding than previously reported.

The city will also permanently permit a new bikesharing company, Veo, whose low-slung bikes have vestigial pedals but function more like a sit-down scooter, with a throttle that allows riders to propel them while using the pedals as footrests.

Seattle’s relationship with scooters (and bikesharing) has long been ambivalent. In 2020, two and a half years after banning scooters entirely, the city took a baby step forward by issuing permits to three companies for 500 scooters each. Since then, the city has expanded its scooter permits to allow each of three providers to put 2,000 scooters on the streets; Lime, which provides both e-assist bikes and scooters, has a fourth permit for a total of 2,000 bikes and scooters.

According to SDOT’s scoring matrix, Spin narrowly lost out to Bird, Link, and Lime after scoring slightly lower on two measures: Parking (which includes policies the company implemented to make sure people parked correctly and how it responded to improperly parked scooters) and “operations and equity,” which included a number of factors such as how the company responds to complaints and its efforts to place scooters in “equity areas” outside the center city, including southeast and far north Seattle.

According to the city’s scooter data dashboard, Wheels scored particularly poorly compared to other companies, including Spin, at providing equitable access to its scooters.

Veo, which operates like a scooter but is classified as a bicycle, poses what SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson calls “interesting questions” for the city. Unlike traditional scooters, Veo devices are legal on sidewalks; because they aren’t classified as scooters, they also occupy one of just three potential bikeshare permits, which could limit the number of shared e-bikes allowed on city streets in the future, if other companies decide they want to enter the Seattle market.

“The bike/scooter share landscape is very dynamic and has shifted considerably since the bike share program began in 2017,” Bergerson said, and now includes “more companies offering devices which combine some of the features of bikes and some of the features of scooters. … If this market trend continues, it may make sense to consider how to adjust our permits to reflect the changing technology and industry trends.”

2. The Seattle Public Library is ending its contract with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which for more than five years has provided a part-time “community resource specialist” to connect patrons to food, social services, and shelter, and hiring its own social service specialists.

The new hires include an assistant managing librarian at the downtown branch to oversee the work; a new social services librarian who will “work with information staff to maintain current information and contacts, coordinate the Bus Ticket program, and act as a link between our regular information services and our Community Resource Specialists,” according to library spokeswoman Elisa Murray; and two new in-house community resource specialists, including one who will focus on outreach to youth and young people.

“While this new model doesn’t necessarily provide patrons more time with on-site staff, we do think we can maintain more partnerships with this model, which we hope will lead to increased opportunities for patrons to access the supportive services they need,” Murray said.

For years, libraries (including Seattle’s) have debated whether, and to what extent, library staffers should be responsible for connecting patrons not just to library materials, but to social services and resources outside the library’s direct control. By hiring staff to oversee some of this work, SPL is making a more direct investment in the the theory that libraries can and should do both.

3. A new independent expenditure group representing marijuana retailers, called People for Legal Cannabis, just filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, reporting $16,000 in debt to the polling firm EMC Research. The group’s intent: To fight off potential legislation, first reported by David Hyde at KUOW, that would impose an additional sales tax on weed sales in Seattle. If the legislation, currently being floated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000, passes, the group could propose a referendum to overturn the law.

According to a presentation first posted on KUOW, which PubliCola obtained independently, the UFCW’s still-nascent proposal would impose a “cannabis equity tax” of 25 cents a gram on flower; $2.00 per half-gram of high-potency concentrates; and a penny per milligram of THC in everything else. The money would fund a paid “cannabis equity commission”; “workforce training” for cannabis workers; and a “cannabis equity fund” that would “prioritize the needs of those most impacted by the War on Drugs,” which locked up millions of Black and brown Americans for possessing and consuming weed. Continue reading “Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax”

Controversial Officer Gets Short Suspension for Shattering Driver’s Window; Woodland Park Sweep Houses Four People; County Councilmember Dunn Votes “No” on Choice

1. Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, dismissed most of a complaint filed by a police lieutenant against SPD officer Andrei Constantin, who deliberately shattered the window of a car parked at a gas station while the driver and a passenger were inside. Of five allegations, including charges of retaliation and dishonesty, the OPA upheld only two—failing to document the smashed window and behaving unprofessionally. As a penalty, Police Chief Adrian Diaz issued an eight-day suspension.

If Constantin’s name sounds familiar, that’s because this isn’t the first time his actions have landed him in the press. In 2020, Constantin was outed as the person allegedly responsible for an anonymous Twitter account that, among other inflammatory statements, mocked victims of police violence, including George Floyd, promoted violence against protesters, and called for donations to a defense fund for a driver who killed a demonstrator on I-5 in the summer of 2020.

Since that controversy, police accountability watchdogs have unearthed at least four other OPA complaints against Constantin, many of them containing multiple misconduct allegations, in the last five years. Many of those resulted in referrals for training rather than suspensions or more serious punishment. The complaints identified on the SPD.watch website, a joint project of DivestSPD and Tech Bloc Seattle, included: Pulling over a driver without justification, pointing a gun at him, and handcuffing him; threatening to use his Taser on a man who was not being threatening; stopping a homeless Black bike rider and detaining him for nearly an hour because he wasn’t wearing a helmet; and a use-of-force allegation that the OPA hasn’t yet resolved.

According to the OPA report on this latest incident, Constantin saw a car parked at a gas station, ran driver’s plates and determined that the title to his car hadn’t been transferred when it was sold. When Constantin approached the car, the driver, who was Latino, got back in the car and rolled up the window, according to the report. At that point, Constantin “used a hard object to strike and shatter the driver’s side window” while the driver and a passenger were inside. In his own report on the incident, Constantin withheld the fact that he had smashed the person’s window.

A disciplinary action report recommending the suspension noted that Constantin had been disciplined for misconduct twice before. “[Y]ou did not have probable cause to arrest or any basis to engage in a vehicle pursuit. Despite this, you destroyed a community member’s property,” the report says. “That is an act akin to vandalism done under the purported color of law.”

2. The site of a longstanding encampment in Lower Woodland Park was quiet and mostly empty on Tuesday afternoon, save for a group of volunteers trying to start a vehicle and push it out of the park. Piles of pallets, tarps, and trash were the only evidence that dozens of people had been living on site for months, many of them as recently as a few hours earlier.

More than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

By 2pm, workers with the city’s Parks Department had surrounded most of the former encampment site with caution tape and posted large “PARK TEMPORARILY CLOSED” signs at the entrances to the area; parks employees stationed at the east end of West Green Lake Way asked drivers entering the area where they were going.

The city has spent five months doing outreach at the park and offering shelter beds to people on a “by-name list” of those who were living on site back in February. Since then, dozens more have arrived who were not on that original list, including at least some who moved to the park because they heard it was scheduled for a sweep, effectively unlocking city services that are not available at other encampments. The HOPE Team, run by the city’s Human Services Department, has exclusive access to about a third of the city’s shelter beds, which it offers to people living in encampments in the runup to sweeps.

According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the city’s HOPE Team made 83 offers of “shelter or housing” to people living in the park, including most of the people on the original 61-person list. Seventy-nine of those offers were for shelter; just four people moved into permanent supportive housing. Other than the four housing referrals, the city does not have data on how people actually enrolled in shelter.

The goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement was to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were  connected to the best-suited shelter and support services,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. As of Tuesday morning, the city had 42 shelter beds available for those who remained on site; 27 accepted referrals, including 20 referrals into tiny house villages run by the Low-Income Housing Institute. 

As always, people who receive “referrals” do not necessarily show up and stay at a shelter, and people who enroll in a shelter within 48 hours—”enrollments,” in the city’s nomenclature—do not necessarily stay there. (More on the HOPE Team’s low shelter enrollment rate here). And media reports, like this one, that claim dozens of people moved into “housing” are, at best, misleading, since more than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

One reason the city was able to offer so many shelter beds—particularly tiny house village spots, which are in high demand—is that they reserved spots specifically for this encampment removal; the referral rate is not representative of the number of beds available to the HOPE Team on a typical night, nor is it close to the number accessible to nonprofit outreach groups like REACH, which access shelter beds through a separate pool.

According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the Low-Income Housing Institute made about 30 of its shelter beds available to people living in Woodland Park, including 16 spots at tiny house villages.

The park will be closed until next Monday, according to Housen, so that Parks employees can “focus on returning the park to its intended use (access to recreation, hosting events and sports, and sustaining critical natural area).”

3. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, currently running as a Republican against Democratic US Rep. Kim Schrier in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, cast the lone “no” vote against a resolution supporting women’s right to choose and affirming the validity of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which the US Supreme Court is poised to overturn. Even the council’s other Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, voted to support the measure after several council members, including women and gay men, spoke passionately about their support for the right to abortion as well as other rights that could be threatened if Roe goes away, such as the right to same-sex marriage.

Dunn did not explain why he voted against the measure, which “declares [the council’s] support of a woman’s right to reproductive freedom and of Roe v. Wade as settled law of the land” and asks the health department to “actively enforce” existing law regulating so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—sites run by religious groups that attempt to talk pregnant women into going through with their pregnancies.

Dunn, a moderate by contemporary Republican standards, is up against several more conservative primary-election challengers peddling conspiracy theories and touting their support for Trump. Still, his vote against a nonbinding pro-choice resolution places him out of the mainstream of Washington politics, and could alienate many voters in his district; Schrier, a Democrat, ran against anti-choice Republican Dino Rossi and won on an explicitly pro-choice platform.

Seattle Court Agrees to Exclude City Attorney’s List of “High Utilizers” from Community Court

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Municipal Court voted Friday to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—those who have been accused of misdemeanors more than 12 times in the past five years, and at least once in the past eight months—from community court, a therapeutic court established in 2020 for people accused of certain low-level crimes.

PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Monday morning.

Davison asked the court to intervene on her behalf in late April, after community court judge Damon Shadid (one of seven municipal court judges, and the only one who handles community court cases) declined her request to immediately bar “high utilizers” from community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors (a category that excludes more serious crimes like assaults, domestic violence, and DUI) are automatically eligible for community court, which gives defendants access to services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. People can only go through community court four times; after that, they have to go through mainstream court, which frequently convicts defendants but does not jail them beyond the time they have already served.

The King County Department of Public Defese analyzed the “high utilizers” list and found that most were homeless or had undergone competency evaluations, an indication of behavioral health disorders.


In meetings between the court and Davison’s office, Shadid had proposed putting off a decision about “high utilizers” until July to allow parties to court deliberations, including the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), to come up with a plan for this group that went beyond jail and traditional prosecution. 

In a statement, Davison said she was pleased that the court agreed to her request. “Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” she said. “The best venue to ensure appropriate accountability and community safety is in Seattle Municipal Court and my team will continue to engage service providers to address underlying behavioral health needs. Addressing the impacts of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”

Davison has not proposed any additional spending on behavioral health care, which is mostly funded by the county, not the city. An analysis of Davison’s “high utilizer” list by DPD showed that the list consists primarily of people who are unsheltered or have been through a court-order evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial, a sign of extreme behavioral health issues that are most effectively addressed with health care and treatment, not jail.

DPD director Anita Khandelwal said community court came out of a collaboration between the municipal court, the previous city attorney, and her department, with the goal of charting “a new path for people accused of misdemeanors in Seattle that would reduce the harm of the criminal legal system and quickly address the needs of vulnerable members of our community. While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney.”

Traditional prosecution and jail, Khandelwal continued, “takes far more time, is very expensive, and fails to produce meaningful results. The City Attorney has produced no data—and I have seen none—that shows that the traditional criminal legal system is effective in changing behavior. Instead, it means people who have significant unmet needs will continue to cycle through a system that we know to be expensive, ineffective, and racially disproportionate.”

In a statement, the municipal court judges said they agreed to the changes Davison requested “in an effort to work collaboratively” with her office and “in the interest of preserving Community Court as an option to address many non-violent misdemeanor cases.” Later, the court amended the judges’ statement (which we quoted on Twitter) to read, “The Community Court agreement already provided the judges with discretion to screen defendants out of Community Court. The changes approved last week will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible.”

As a partner in community court, Davison has the ability to withdraw the city from the court, effectively shutting it down. This gives her office considerable leverage in negotiations over court rules, including which defendants are eligible.

Community court, the judges noted in their statement, was established as a corrective to a system in which people are already being released onto the street (instead of jailed) and are often hard to track down for court appearances specifically because of “housing insecurity, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address.”

The County’s Annual Homeless Estimate Won’t Include A Physical Count This Year. Here’s How It Will Work.

Slide from a recent presentation on how the homelessness authority will use interviews and statistical analysis to estimate and characterize King County’s homeless population.

By Erica C. Barnett

Later this week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is expected to announce the results of the process iabot’s using this year in lieu of the traditional point in time count of the region’s unsheltered homeless population—historically, an in-person count in January whose results have always been considered an undercount, combined with interviews at homeless service providers and shelters to gather “qualitative” data about people’s day-to-day experience of homelessness.

Over the years, the count has incorporated various methods to estimate the unsheltered population (such as assumptions about the number of people occupying tents and cars) and has used statistical methods to extrapolate demographic and other information from interviews with 1,000 or more individuals.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires agencies like KCRHA to conduct a “point in time count” of their unsheltered populations every two years. The KCRHA initially planned to opt out of the mandatory count this year, but announced in mid-December that HUD had given them an exemption from its usual requirements, allowing the authority to replace an in-person count with a statistical extrapolation from interviews with unsheltered King County residents conducted over several weeks. As a result, the final “point in time count” number won’t come from a point in time, nor will it represent an actual count.

The process the KCRHA selected, called Respondent Driven Sampling, had two stages. First, volunteers and outreach workers went out to places where people are living unsheltered, such as encampments, to interview people and recruit them to distribute coupons to people in their networks. People who completed an interview received a prepaid $25 debit card and their own set of coupons, each redeemable for a $25 debit card for each recruit who participated in an interview. Those recruits, in turn, would get more coupons to distribute. Through successive waves of recruitment, the system is designed to reach people with no obvious connection to the initial group of recruits.

A spokeswoman for the authority said new approach enabled KCRHA to “capture people’s stories the way they want them to be told. This is not a knock on previous methods; but it is a different approach that allows for rich data collection, honors people’s experiences, and builds relationship with community.”

“Because interviewees identified the next set of interviewees, this helped us interview people we might not otherwise have been able to engage with, including people who are less service-connected,” KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said. The approach, developed in the 1990s, has been used to reach people in “hidden” populations, such as male drug users who have sex with men, in sociological studies ever since.

The benefit of respondent driven sampling, according to University of Washington assistant sociology professor Zack Almquist, who recommended RDS to the authority and helped develop its approach, is that it captures groups that don’t show up with traditional sampling methods, such as random-digit dialing. 

The KCRHA’s researchers started with a large group of “seeds,” Almquist said—the original group of recruits who went out and recruited people in their social networks—with the goal of reaching a broad sample of unsheltered people. Then they sat down with them for in-person interviews at nine designated “hubs” around the county, asking them how they first became homeless, where they currently sleep, and other probing questions about their personal and family history and experience being homeless. Two of the hubs were in Seattle—one in Georgetown and the other on Aurora Avenue N—and the other seven were scattered across South and East King County; the furthest east was in North Bend and the furthest south was in Auburn.

The questions are similar to, but far more detailed than, the VI-SPDAT—a staccato, yes/no list of questions that homelessness agencies across the country are phasing out because it leads to racially biased results. Earlier this year, the KCRHA began using COVID vulnerability criteria (a list of conditions the agency can verify without talking to a person directly, such as age, race, and pregnancy status) in lieu of the VI-SPDAT—in part, the agency said, because the VI-SPDAT’s questions were potentially retraumatizing and invasive.

Martens said the combination of RDS and in-depth interviews enabled KCRHA to “capture people’s stories the way they want them to be told. This is not a knock on previous methods; but it is a different approach that allows for rich data collection, honors people’s experiences, and builds relationship with community.”

Some members of the KCRHA’s governing board have raised concerns about the authority’s methods and called the process rushed and mysterious. Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, who sits on the KCRHA’s governing board, recently said the KCRHA had given her “no clue what was going on” with the interviews, and Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, also on the board, questioned the authority’s choice of “hub” locations and the decision to limit interviews to business hours.

The method has its critics, who question whether statistical extrapolation, based on interviews with a small subset of the homeless population, can produce an accurate estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in an area or characterize the conditions under which they live.

“In the past, the reason we did the point in time count the way we did is that we went to people where they were—we didn’t expect them to have to travel or get transported or find a location,” Birney said during a March board meeting, when the KCRHA was in the middle of doing interviews. “I’m a little curious about bringing people to a hub, what kind of disruption that creates.”

Respondent-driven sampling has its critics, who question whether this kind of statistical extrapolation, based on interviews with a small subset of the homeless population, can produce an accurate estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in an area or the characterize the conditions under which they live.

Academic critiques of the approach have focused on the fact that people experiencing homelessness often have loose and transitory social ties, making their social networks unreliable; the likelihood that “coupons” redeemable for money or goods (like the $25 debit cards) end up being used as a form of currency or in violation of the rules set for recruitment; and that “hub” sites aren’t equally accessible for everyone, both because of physical distance and because more marginalized or vulnerable people are less likely to go to an official government interview site.

The list of questions the interviewers asked are extensive, and not everyone answered all of them; some people responded to most of the questions, but wouldn’t answer questions about their social network and were excluded from the data, according to Almquist. The result is that although the authority initially said it would base its count on around 1,000 initial interviews, they ended up with a usable sample of between 550 and 574 people. “People had to answer questions about their social network, because respondent driven sampling relies on us knowing about” the people survey respondents interact with and “weighting the population based on their network properties,” Almquist said—factors like the number of people a person says they know and how well they know them.

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee earlier this month, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said the authority was planning to do a “Phase 2” of the surveys, which would add to the qualitative data portion of the count—the kind of information the county used to gather by going to homeless service providers and talking to people who showed up to access services. Continue reading “The County’s Annual Homeless Estimate Won’t Include A Physical Count This Year. Here’s How It Will Work.”

Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022

Chart showing HOPE team shelter enrollment rates over timeBy Erica C. Barnett

A review of six months of data from the HOPE Team—the team of Seattle Human Services Department staffers who do outreach and offer shelter to people living at encampments the city is about to remove—shows that only around 36.5 percent of people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up to that shelter and stayed there overnight. This number represents a 23 percent reduction in referrals from the 47.7 percent enrollment figure HSD reported in March.

The enrollment rate for the first two months of 2022—in winter, a time when people are typically most likely to move indoors—was even lower, just 33 percent. That means that out of every 100 people the HOPE team referred to shelter, fewer than a third actually showed up and stayed the night.

HSD provided its data in response to a records request from PubliCola.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department said the numbers they provided are lower than the true enrollment rate, because about a quarter of people who use homeless services have opted out of he the county’s Homeless Management Information System, which means that their identities are anonymous and can’t be tracked. For example, one shelter whose residents came exclusively from HSD referrals, Rosie’s tiny house village in the University District, had an official enrollment rate of just 52 percent, even though all 36 units were full.

However, the numbers HSD provided, which represent data from September 2021 through February 2022, are directly comparable to the 48 percent figure HSD itself reported for 2021. Both PubliCola’s numbers and HSD’s earlier report represent a straightforward comparison of referrals to confirmed enrollments, without factoring in people who have opted out of the county’s tracking system. For this reason, the more recent numbers—both the 36.5 percent enrollment rate for the last four months of 2021 and the 33 percent enrollment rate for early 2022—represent an apples to apples comparison to HSD’s own published figures.

The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 shelter beds, or about a third of all shelter beds in the city; those beds can only be filled by the HOPE Team, which leads to a shortage of beds for other providers trying to find beds for clients who are actively seeking shelter, as opposed to those who happen to be in the path of an upcoming sweep. Between September 2021 and March 2022, the HOPE Team made 533 referrals to 20 shelters, including the now-closed Executive Pacific Hotel. Of those 533 referrals, just 195 resulted in someone staying at a shelter overnight.

Within the numbers, patterns emerge. In general, tiny house villages—private mini-shelters that are among the most desirable forms of shelter currently available in King County—had a much higher enrollment rate than congregate shelters: Three of the four highest-performing shelters on the HOPE Team’s list were tiny house villages. (I’ve excluded the unspecified category “enhanced shelter,” which accounts for 32 referrals and 10 enrollments, and any shelter that had fewer than 10 referrals over six months from this list.)

However, all three tiny house villages that had higher-than-average enrollments had one thing in common: They all opened during the six-month period the data encompasses. Friendship Heights, a tiny house village on Aurora that had the highest enrollment rate at 59 percent, opened last December; Rosie’s Village in the University District, with a 42 percent enrollment rate, opened last November; and the Interbay Tiny House Village, with a 47 percent enrollment rate, expanded to add 30 new units in November.

Similarly, the Benu Community Home—a men’s shelter with dorm-style rooms in the Central District—opened in November and had an enrollment rate of 50 percent.

As we reported in March, shelter referrals and enrollments went up in 2021 because hundreds of new permanent housing and shelter beds came online all at once, adding new supply to the shelter system that was immediately filled by people being removed from high-priority encampments. A separate report from City Council’s central staff revealed that nonprofit service providers requested shelter for their clients four times more often than the city provided a referral, meaning that the vast majority of people seeking shelter were unable to find it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the shelters with very low enrollment rates had a few things in common: Three of the four are basic shelters or “enhanced” shelters that offer services but little privacy. The other is Lakefront Community House—an enhanced shelter with single and double rooms in a former drug treatment center run by the Low-Income Housing Institute in North Seattle. Continue reading “Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022”

City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps

Tents and other items on the ground during a recent encampment sweep at City Hall
The city put up signs announcing this encampment across from city hall would be removed at 6am, giving residents less than two hours’ notice.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s Human Services Department has asked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to modify its contracts with  outreach providers (including the city’s largest outreach provider, REACH) to require them to show up and offer services to unsheltered people up to the day their encampments are swept.

REACH does not have a strict policy against showing up before encampment sweeps; instead, they make decisions on a case by case basis, REACH director Chloe Gale said. In 2019, the group decided to withdraw from the Navigation Team, a group of police and city outreach workers that used to be in charge of encampment removals, because of concerns about their ability to build trust with clients while appearing to participate in sweeps.

UPDATE: On Friday, a spokeswoman for the KCHRA told PubliCola the authority “confirmed with the City that we are not making any contract modifications.”

In a message to council members, the department said that its HOPE Team—a group of city staffers that connects people whose encampments are about to be swept to beds in shelters to which the HOPE Team has exclusive access—is “often the only entity on site that’s willing to make shelter offers and connections during the posting period (i.e., the time between a site being posted and the time of the removal).”

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor “support[s] providers offering outreach and service connections to encampments before the day of removal.”

UPDATE: On Friday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said in an email to homeless service providers that “despite what you might have seen in [PubliCola’s] recent article” (the one you are currently reading), “KCRHA has not received any requests from the City of Seattle that would change our shared approach to outreach responsibilities.” The Human Services Department confirmed its request for contract changes, provided the request to PubliCola in full, and explained the intent of the request in more detail in an email, and PubliCola stands by our reporting.

REACH and other outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

In recent years, the city has largely abandoned the previous practice of providing 72 hours’ notice before it removes an encampment, a timeline that gave encampment residents time to move into shelter or relocate their tents. Instead, the city designates encampments as “obstructions,” a broad term that can be applied to any tent in any public space, and removes them with little or no advance notice.

This is not the first time the city has attempted to include a requirement to participate in sweeps in its contracts with outreach providers; former mayor Jenny Durkan made a similar attempt last year, but ultimately backed down after some nonprofits said they would refuse to sign contracts that included this stipulation.

Outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “While the funding for these contracts continues to come from the City of Seattle, the oversight of contracts, and the ability to modify those contracts, now live with KCRHA. We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

Responding to questions about the city’s request during the council’s homelessness committee meeting Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the authority had not “entered into any conversations at this point around modifying contracts with providers. What we are discussing at this point is working to support humane responses to folks that are at our prioritized encampments”—that is, encampments the city prioritizes for removal.

HSD spokeswoman Stasha Espinoza said HSD “has yet to request RHA’s assistance with making outreach available on the day of a removal, and that in for now, “HSD has asked their System Navigators”—the HOPE Team’s outreach workers—”to make offers of shelter prior to and during a removal. This includes transportation to a shelter if such services are requested.” Continue reading “City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps”

Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase”

1. On Tuesday, the city council will impose new restrictions on construction or alterations at two historic landmarks: The Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union, and an early-20th-century houseboat known as the Wagner Floating Home.

One building that won’t be getting new protections—at least, not yet—is a one-story former bank building near downtown that, for more than a decade, has housed a drive-through Walgreen’s store. Fifteen years ago, the Seattle landmarks board granted landmark status to the building, which has a handsome facade on one side but is otherwise unremarkable. In its “statement of significance,” the landmarks board seemed to struggle to explain why, exactly, the building on Denny Way—one of multiple copies around Seattle of a building designed by a different architect—merited extraordinary protection. Among other points largely unrelated to the 1950 building itself, the board cited the defunct bank’s connection to the city’s logging history and the Denny Regrade, the history of drive-through banking in the US, and the “unprecedented freedom” of mid-century Modernist style.

It doesn’t take much for a building to win landmark status in Seattle; a building is only required to be at least 25 years old and meet one of a list of criteria that includes being “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation” or being characteristic of an area.

Landmarks status usually leads to limits on the demolition of, or changes to, buildings; the Walgreen’s building is unusual in that 15 years have passed since it first received landmark status. During a meeting of the council’s neighborhoods committee two weeks ago, an attorney with McCullough Hill, representing Walgreen’s, explained that protections would result in profits for the company, which could sell off the development rights for the site. This “transfer of development rights” would allow another developer add density elsewhere while preserving a one-story, car-oriented building in the middle of one of the city’s densest neighborhoods.

Committee chair Tammy Morales decided to delay imposing controls on the building, saying she was “just trying to understand what the benefit for the city is” of protecting the one-story Walgreen’s. We asked a similar question on Twitter. In our highly nonscientific poll, 89 percent opposed protecting the former bank. The committee will take up the landmarks question again at its next meeting on May 14.

2. Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell used as the backdrop for his campaign vow to remove troublesome encampments, is still the site of a large encampment, several months after Harrell initially told neighboring residents it would be removed. The delay has allowed the city to use the same deliberate approach that was largely successful in relocating most of the people living at the Ballard Commons, which the city closed and fenced off last December. City Councilmember Dan Strauss and advocates for unsheltered people have been championing this approach, even as sweeps have ramped up dramatically since Harrell took office.

According to outreach workers and advocates who have been working with encampment residents over the past several months, the city has worked effectively to find shelter or temporary housing for several dozen people living at the encampment. As they did at the Commons, outreach workers with the nonprofit REACH and the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team created a list of 61 people living at the encampment in February and began working to move people on that list off site. At the same time, the city’s Parks Department set up portable toilets and started removing trash—two key factors that reduce the amount of visible garbage and human waste, which result when people don’t have places to throw stuff away and relieve themselves.

Data show that between September and March, just 196 of 534 people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up at shelter within 48 hours and stayed for at least one night—an enrollment rate of less than 37 percent.

The result, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, has been “at least 30 referrals to shelter or housing,” including three housing referrals and 26 referrals to enhanced shelter or tiny house villages, in addition to 10 people who have “voluntarily relocated from the park” and are presumably living unsheltered elsewhere.

A spokesman for HSD said outreach “efforts will continue over the coming weeks in an attempt to resolve this encampment through outreach strategies alone.” However, advocates working at the encampment note that unsheltered people have continued to move to the area since February, when the city created its list; as a result, the encampment is scarcely smaller than it was when the city’s outreach efforts began. (The HSD spokesman notes that the city has referred at least five of the new people to shelters).

“We’re seeing people get into at least transitional shelter or tiny houses,” a neighbor who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment told PublICola. “We wish there were more staff to do [outreach and placements] and, really, more resources behind it.” Continue reading “Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase””

Homelessness Authority Budget Debate Raises Old Questions About Power of Elected Officials

Chart of King County Regional Homelessness Authority budget scheduleBy Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority agreed earlier this month to a last-minute schedule change that will give its governing board, which includes elected officials from across the county, 12 days to look at its proposed 2023 budget before it moves forward to Seattle and King County budget writers next month. The changes came after several governing board members raised questions about a proposed timeline that gave the governing board no direct say in the budget process.

Originally, the authority planned to have its implementation board approve the budget, and transmit it to the city of Seattle and King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—in mid-April. This board, which includes members of the Lived Experience Coalition and homeless advocates, is authorized to consider the proposed annual budget and raise questions or ask for changes.

The authority later pushed that timeline up to mid-May, with approval by the governing board in June. Under either schedule, the implementation board would have a very short period to debate or “develop and recommend” the budget—one of its main duties under the agreement that established the KCRHA—and the governing board would have had to approve (essentially rubber-stamp) the budget after it went to the city and county, the two entities that actually fund the authority.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, both on the governing board, raised concerns about the schedule; because neither city contributes to the KCHRA’s funding, the governing board meeting will be their only formal opportunity to weigh in the budget. Approving or amending the budget is “the only job that we have,” Backus said at a recent governing board meeting, “and so allowing us time to provide adequate attention to the documentation that we receive is critical.”

Elected leaders at the county and suburban cities pushed for more power and won that battle. Now many of those same leaders, sitting the governing board itself, want to exercise their authority—as do Seattle officials who were initially on the opposite side of this debate.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold also argued the governing board should get more time to review the budget before forwarding it to the city and county for approval. “It seems like we should get the recommended budget earlier, so that we have some time to have a real discussion … and have the chance to ask questions and understand the strategies and outcomes that the budget will be supporting so that we can best champion the budget request when it comes time” to fund the authority through the city’s budget process in the fall, Herbold said.

The council, which approved joining the authority on an 8-1 vote in 2019, originally wanted to give the governing board significantly less power than it now has—preferring an earlier proposal for structuring the authority, drafted largely by current KCRHA director Marc Dones in their role as director of a consulting firm called the National Innovation Service, that would have essentially required the governing board  to rubber-stamp decisions made by a separate “steering committee” made up of experts on homelessness. The idea behind the original proposed structure was to “insulate” the authority from political influence by elected officials.

Elected leaders at the county and suburban cities pushed for more power and won that battle. Now many of those same leaders, sitting the governing board itself, want to exercise their authority—as do Seattle officials who were initially on the opposite side of this debate.

One thing that has changed since 2019 that could be contributing to that impulse is that the KCRHA’s first budget did not go smoothly. Last year, some council members felt blindsided by the KCRHA’s request for $26 million in additional funding to build a new downtown shelter for high-acuity clients and hire 69 specialized case managers called peer navigators. Although Seattle increased its contribution to the KCRHA substantially—to around $100 million—the council declined to fully fund the new requests, asking the authority to come back with a more detailed plan for them to consider. Instead, the KCRHA got funding from private companies for the peer navigators, and the county announced it was funding a high-acuity shelter in SoDo earlier this year.