Category: homelessness

The Council Just Created a Blueprint for Defunding the Police, but Mayor Durkan Isn’t On Board

By Erica C. Barnett

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

The city council’s budget committee approved package of cuts to the Seattle Police Department budget that would reduce the department’s size by about $3 million, representing around 100 positions, this year;, remove police from the Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized homeless encampments; and start the city on a path to fund new approaches to public safety that don’t involved armed officers. Most of the proposals aren’t direct budget cuts—which the mayor could simply ignore—but budget provisos, which bar the executive branch from spending money in a way other than how the council prescribes.

The council also voted narrowly to dismantle the Navigation Team itself, by laying off or transferring not just the 14 police officers on the team but the system navigators, field coordinators, and other civilian staff who do outreach to encampment residents and remove litter, sharps, and debris. (Those positions would be replaced by contracted service providers, which is how encampment outreach worked before the city brought it in-house last year). And they agreed in principle to $17 million in funding for community organizations, including $3 million to start a participatory budgeting process for 2021. 

Other cuts would eliminate the mounted patrol, cut SPD’s travel budget, eliminate the school resource officer program, and reduce the size of the public affairs department. Some of the 2020 reductions would be achieved be through attrition—eliminating vacant positions or not filling positions when officers leave.

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Another amendment, adopted 5-4, would reduce this year’s pay for SPD’s 13 command staff to the lowest rate allowed in their designated pay bands, a cut that would save around half a million dollars between September and the end of the year, according to sponsor Kshama Sawant. If the cuts were annualized, they would reduce the command staff’s pay by an average of $115,000 a year; police chief Carmen Best, who makes almost $300,000 a year, would see her salary cut to $171,000,.

In response to the council’s vote, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan called the council’s proposal “unattainable and unworkable.”

“[With] a few hours’ discussion and without consulting the Chief of Police, City Council has voted to reduce the police force by 105 this year, cut the Chief’s salary by 40 percent, and eliminate the City’s team of specially trained social workers that conduct outreach and address encampments and RVs that pose significant public health and safety concerns,” the spokesperson said. 

The council is assuming that layoffs would have to be bargained with the police union and couldn’t occur until at least November, so the savings from cuts would work out to a higher dollar amount next year, when they would, in theory, be annualized. According to council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, the cuts and transfers the council is proposing this year would amount to about $170 million in 2021, or about 41 percent of the police department’s budget.

“[With] a few hours’ discussion and without consulting the Chief of Police, City Council has voted to reduce the police force by 105 this year, cut the Chief’s salary by 40 percent, and eliminate the City’s team of specially trained social workers that conduct outreach and address encampments and RVs that pose significant public health and safety concerns.”—Statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office

Taken together, the council’s amendments lay out a path forward for future cuts, and a commitment to reinvesting programs guided by the principles of community groups like the Decriminalize Seattle coalition. It’s important to know, however, that while the council can tell the mayor how it wants her to spend the budget, she is generally free to ignore their direction. (See, for example, the administration’s reluctance to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to provide hotel rooms and assistance to people living outdoors during the pandemic, or to pay for mobile showers for which funding was allocated last November)

In acknowledgement of this power differential—and the fact that labor negotiations may take longer than three months—each of the provisos includes a caveat ensuring that officers will still get paid if the city fails to reach agreement on specific layoffs by November, when the council majority wants the cuts to go into effect. “In every single one of the provisos that reduce spending … the council acknowledges that the chief may realize reductions differently than what the council is proposing,” public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said. “These provisos are our recommendation for how to achieve the reductions based on the advice that we’ve received that make it more likely that we will be successful in bargaining.”

Across administrations, mayors and councils tend to bicker along predictable lines: The executive branch dismisses the council as ill-informed and naive, while the council accuses the mayor of obstructing progress and ignoring their directives. But the enmity between the two co-equal branches has reached a level under Durkan that many longtime city hall staffers call unprecedented.

Yesterday, for example, Durkan and Best called a press conference to condemn the council’s proposals, one of several they’ve held throughout the council’s budget process. During their prepared remarks, the mayor and chief suggested that cutting the police department would create a “gap in service” for people calling to report major crimes like burglaries and rapes, and accused council members of wanting to lay off officers “by race” because the usual order of layoffs would mean cutting the newest, most diverse cohorts of officers first.

“The mayor does not agree with the city council and a majority of the people of Seattle who believe that we need to substantially reduce the size and scope of the police department, and as a result she is spreading misinformation and fear about what the council intends to do in order to undermine our genuine efforts to transform comm safety in our city.”—Council president Lorena González

The council maintains that the police chief could go to the Public Safety Civil Service Commission to request out-of-order layoffs, but the mayor has argued this wouldn’t be practical on a mass scale. “For over a month, the Chief and Mayor have received guidance from labor relations and law that out-of-order layoffs are unlikely to be finalized in 2020, and will therefore not result in 2020 budget reductions,” the mayor’s spokesperson said.

Council president Lorena González said today that she was “disappointed” that “our labor relations division, which lives in the executive department, [is being] utilized in a politically motivated fashion to advance the goal of never seeing layoffs of badge and gun jobs at the Seattle Police Department.” González suggested the real issue is that Durkan “does not agree with the city council and a majority of the people of Seattle who believe that we need to substantially reduce the size and scope of the police department, and as a result she is spreading misinformation and fear about what the council intends to do in order to undermine our genuine efforts to transform comm safety in our city.”

The council’s unanimous vote for one of the most impactful pieces of defunding legislation—an amendment directing the chief to issue “immediately issue layoff notices” to 32 sworn officers—can be seen as an effort to show a unified front. Or it could be a sign that the often-divided council is in genuine agreement on an approach to defunding SPD. Some of the most surprising remarks this afternoon came from council member Alex Pedersen, whose house has been targeted by protesters urging him to support the goal of defunding SPD by 50 percent. Addressing police officers directly, Pedersen said, “I appreciate the good work so many of you do. At the same time, you’re asked to do too much. You’re sent into complex situations that other professionals in our community might be better equipped to handle.

“You’re also part of a system born out of racism,” Pedersen continued, “and despite progress and reforms, that institutional racism of police departments here and across the nation continues to have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color. By rethinking what public safety really means, by centering Black and Indigenous people and people of color, by taking a thoughtful approach, we can seize this historic opportunity to disrupt institutional racism and achieve real community safety.”

City Considered, and Rejected, “Voluntary Relocation” Policy for Homeless Encampments

An encampment on South King Street, just prior to removal. Within days, tents had popped up a block away on South Jackson Street.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group of Human Services Department staffers and Seattle police officers that removes homeless encampments from parks and other public spaces, considered formally adopting a new policy under which homeless people removed from one location would be told to “voluntarily relocate” to another spot, either “self-selected” or identified by the city, internal memos and emails obtained through a records request reveal.

The discussions took place in April, as HSD, the parks department, and the mayor’s office discussed how to deal with an encampment near the Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that is perennially full.

In an April 16 memo to deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, HSD director Jason Johnson laid out a plan in which the Navigation Team would “encourage and support individuals residing on the [Navigation Center] stairs to accept shelter resources or to voluntarily relocate to a wide stretch of sidewalk at S Dearborn St & 10th Ave S.”

Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The site was chosen, according to the memo, because it was wide enough to allow some pedestrian access, close to a proposed hygiene station, and accessible for emergency and sanitation workers. (Other emails indicate that the Navigation Team also considered identifying “a large parking lot that people can be directed to camp in” after being removed from around the Navigation center). In an email to Navigation Team members and HSD staffers expanding on the memo, Navigation Team director Tara Beck indicated that people living in encampments slated for removal would be told to “self-select areas to relocate to”—a more politic way of saying, “Move along.”

Before the pandemic, the Navigation Team removed dozens of encampments every month, avoiding a legal requirement that they provide advance notice and offer shelter and services to every encampment resident by designating most encampments as “obstructions,” which are exempt from those requirements.

Since mid-March, in recognition of the fact that moving people from place to place could accelerate the spread of the virus, the team has only conducted a handful of large-scale encampment removals. After each such operation, the city has said that every unsheltered person remaining at a location on the day of a swee received a legitimate offer of shelter that was accessible and appropriate for their specific circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s an easily observable fact that encampments tend to come back after they’re removed, a sign that people either aren’t actually showing up in shelter or aren’t staying there.

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The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets within the current shelter system. Moreover, by conceding that the best they are able to offer many homeless people is a different camping spot, the city would have also had to acknowledge that it would rather have people living in tents on sidewalks during the COVID-19 pandemic than offer them space in vacant motel rooms, as many other cities across the country—but not Seattle—have done.

Ultimately, the city decided not to adopt the new “voluntary relocation” policy. According to HSD spokesman Will Lemke, in the case of the Navigation Center encampment, HSD “opted to offer shelter and service rather than suggest that people move nearby.” But the discussions that took place back then shine a light on the city’s early thinking about how to deal with encampments at a time when they are temporarily unable to simply declare encampments “obstructions” and remove them.

The tension over how to deal with the 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle—a number that could soon swell as unemployment benefits dry up and eviction moratoriums end—isn’t going to let up. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive referral rights to most of the 95 new shelter and tiny house village beds that opened in response to the pandemic. If encampment removals start up again in earnest, those 95 beds won’t just be inadequate—they’ll be overrun.

As the pandemic drags on into its seventh month, the city is actually preparing to close shelters at community centers that were originally opened as “redistribution” sites for existing shelters where conditions were too crowded. Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets

One place they won’t be moving is to the enormous “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Sixkiller said was coming back in April. The tent was supposed to provide shelter for up to 250 clients of the Salvation Army, which is currently operating shelters out of City Hall and in Seattle Center.

Documents obtained through a second records request show the enormous cost and size of the tent, which would have been provided by Volo Events, “a leading producer of live events and experiential marketing agency” and cost nearly $1 million—just for the tent—for two months. The 30,000-square-foot tent was going to be set up inside another structure—most likely Memorial Stadium.

Seattle Police Chief to Mayor: Take Cops Out of the Process for Diversion Referrals

LEAD has identified a number of potential clients for its COVID-era hotel-based program living in tents along 2nd Ave. Ext. S.

For months, the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which has pivoted during the COVID pandemic to a hotel-based model (called Co-LEAD) that connects unsheltered people to resources, have been unable to enroll living in encampments in Seattle, although they have had success in Burien and with people leaving the King County Jail. The reason for the lengthy delay is that the Seattle Police Department, which serves a gatekeeper role for most LEAD functions, has not signed off on the list of people LEAD wants to enroll. As a result, dozens of hotel rooms that could shelter new LEAD clients have been sitting empty for months while LEAD has waited for SPD’s approval.

SPD isn’t happy with their role in this process, either. Last week, Police Chief Carmen Best joined the chorus of advocates asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to remove police from LEAD referrals and let LEAD enroll clients directly. In an email to Durkan’s homelessness advisor, Tess Colby, Best wrote:

“I’m interested in reconsidering the requirement that police OK every referral to LEAD and Co-LEAD services. These services are needed throughout our community, and it doesn’t seem sensible to require us to approve it before people get the help they need.

“In any event, due to staffing pressures and COVID-19 health constraints, we aren’t likely to be able to prioritize this for the indefinite future. But beyond that, this is the type of work most people in Seattle think the police don’t need to take the lead on. I’d appreciate seeing this change.

“Currently, we do not have the capacity to keep the level of response that we would like toward the LEAD program based on the current environment.

“I’m sure you understand the complexity and gravity without further explanation, but call me if there is a question.”

During last week’s budget committee meeting, council public safety chair (and longtime LEAD ally) Lisa Herbold said she was drafting a budget proviso to withhold funding for LEAD if police approval continues to be required for enrollment in the program.

LEAD began as a pre-arrest diversion program for people involved in low-level drug and prostitution crimes—to “interrupt the flow of people at  mass scale into jails and prisons and courts, and instead connect them to really high-quality care,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard says. Over time, though, the program evolved to the point that police are no longer needed to “intercept” potential clients, and in fact can be an impediment to enrolling people in a low-barrier, trauma-informed social service program.

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In the COVID era, Daugaard says, police “just don’t have the bandwidth to play that [gatekeeping] role at the volume that would be required, and to create that bandwidth, they would have to move in the exact opposite direction as the community conversation [about defunding the police] would suggest, which is to have more police involvement for no other reason than the system’s own needs.”

Mayor Durkan has consistently opposed LEAD’s requests for additional funding and authority. During the most recent budget cycle, Durkan declined to provide LEAD with the funding the program needed to fulfill an expansion mandate from the city, then, after losing that budget battle withheld the additional funding for months, leaving LEAD without a contract well into the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the mayor has continued to quietly stymie the program, declining to approve a list of people living unsheltered in Pioneer Square for the program. Instead, the city provided a months-old old list of so-called “prolific offenders,” whose current locations are unknown, and gave LEAD permission to enroll those people in the new COVID-specific program.

The mayor’s office did not respond to emails sent Wednesday and this afternoon. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.

“We Just Can’t Do It.” Seattle Debates Moving Homeless People From Hotels Back to Mass Shelter

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, is insistent: The 200 or so men and women living in a Red Lion hotel in Renton since the COVID-19 pandemic began can’t go back to DESC’s main building downtown—not now, not ever.

“We definitely can’t just take all of those people and move them back to the main shelter at the end of August,” when the contract for the Red Lion ends, he says. “We just can’t do it.” DESC’s congregate shelters, which provide basic shelter in bunk beds for 383 people, serve some of the most medically vulnerable men and women in the city, and are “not in keeping with public health guidelines for [bed] spacing” during the pandemic, Malone says.

DESC hopes to purchase three motels, each with about 130 rooms, to permanently shelter those 383 people, and to put the Morrison Hotel—the historic Pioneer Square building that houses the organization’s main shelter, along with 190 units of permanent supportive housing—to other uses. If funding for this plan doesn’t come through, Plan B is returning about half of those people to reconfigured shelters at higher cost per bed than motels.

“We definitely can’t just take all of those people and move them back to the main shelter at the end of August. We just can’t do it.” —Daniel Malone, Downtown Emergency Service Center

“On a per-person basis, you’d end up spending a lot more to reuse the older facilities, because you’d have fewer people in them— and then, of course, you’d have just far fewer beds,” Malone says.

Several other shelter providers have moved people into hotels in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Salvation Army and Catholic Community Services. These groups will face a similar debate when funds for hotel rooms start running out.

COVID-19 outbreaks within the homeless population have been most common in mass shelters where people sleep a few feet apart and share common areas, restrooms, and other facilities. According to the King County Public Health department, which monitors an incomplete list of about 50 shelters around the county, most reported cases of COVID-19 among the county’s homeless population have occurred in congregate shelters, bolstering the argument for individual rooms. And with the World Health Organization reporting that COVID-19 can spread through the air in indoor settings, the argument for eliminating mass shelters, like the ones the city of Seattle has opened in community centers and public buildings to “de-intensify” existing shelters, is compelling.

City council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said last week that she was “frustrated” that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s request for federal funding for COVID-19 response did not include funding for additional beds in non-congregate settings, such as hotel rooms or dorms. Instead, the requests so far would pay for existing shelter beds that were funded through the original 2020 budget, which is facing significant midyear cuts.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

“I didn’t think we could be any more clear, from the council’s perspective, that non-congregate settings are a priority for us,” Mosqueda told city budget director Ben Noble during a briefing last week. “About three weeks, ago I said from the conversations that we were having with people who are providing direct services to the houseless, they are very fearful that they are just weeks from where the long-term care facilities were in the very beginning.

“What other types of funding are we looking into to create non-congregate shelters?” she asked “I’m still frustrated that we don’t have that answer from [the Human Services Department.”

Durkan has resisted proposals to fund non-congregate shelter options like hotels during the pandemic, despite ample evidence that not only do separate spaces prevent COVID-19 from spreading but have tremendous physical and psychological benefits to people accustomed to fighting over space, food, and showers in overcrowded congregate settings. (The Red Lion, for which the city provides some funding, has not had a single case of COVID-19).

“If the question is what happens in two or three months, more people will be alive [because] fewer people will have contracted COVID. Quite literally, that is how we will save lives.”—City Council member Teresa Mosqueda

“I think we need to be conscious of the sustainability of whatever system we set up,” Noble said last week. “The COVID pandemic isn’t going to disappear by any means… and I think there are difficult decisions to be made about how well we can manage some level of congregate shelter … versus moving folks singularly into non-congregate settings, and part of that is making sure we have sufficient and robust testing in these settings.”

“If the question is what happens in two or three months, more people will be alive [because] fewer people will have contracted COVID,” Mosqueda shot back. “Quite literally, that is how we will save lives.”

Malone, from DESC, says that for the hundreds of people who are supposed to leave their hotel rooms at the end of August, the future remains “very uncertain.” He’s hopeful that the county, which secured the hotel for DESC in the first place, will come through with some capital and operating funding for their longer-term proposal, and has shown the city some preliminary figures for what it would cost to operate both the motels and mass shelters at half their previous capacity.

“There are lots of people from different quarters who are enthusiastic about this idea, and that makes me think we would have a shot at pulling the resources together,” Malone says. “I just don’t feel the door is shut on this.”

“Pursuing this strategy of going to individual rooms is the way to go,” he continues, “and even if we got to the end of this epidemic in the future, that would still be a better way to do it.”

Homelessness Report Highlights Inequities, Growth In Chronic Homelessness In King County

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Last year, when King County’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless population indicated a slight dip in the number of people counted in the shelters and on the streets, Mayor Jenny Durkan celebrated the news, crediting the city’s work adding shelter and expanding the Navigation Team, among other actions, for the apparent 5 percent decline in unsheltered homelessness. Three-quarters of that decline was attributed in the report itself to the redefinition of “shelter” to include tiny house village encampments, which moved a number of people from the “unsheltered” to the “sheltered” column even though their living situation stayed the same.

This year’s one-night count showed a slight increase in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness throughout King County, with the biggest increases in Seattle and Southwest King County. The new total estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness represents a five percent increase over last year. A separate survey, which had fewer participants than in previous years, provided demographic data and information about why people became homeless, information that the county’s “Count Us In” report extrapolates across the entire homeless population.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Now for the caveats. Every point-in-time count is just that—a count of how many people volunteers were able to identify on a specific night in January, a time when the number of people seeking shelter is higher and when the number sleeping outdoors fluctuates widely based on the weather. The night of the count, January 24, was extraordinarily rainy, with 1.14 inches of rain compared to no rain the previous year. Probably as a consequence, the number of people found living in abandoned buildings increased dramatically, from 140 to 662; the report notes that “The combined totals (of abandoned building count and street/outside count) are notably similar across the years.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

The number of people counted also depends, in part, on the number of people walking and driving around the county and counting them. This year, about half as many volunteers showed up for the count as did in 2019, and about 25 fewer guides with lived experience of homelessness. The report attributes this decline to the weather and a shooting downtown that occurred less than two days before the count.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

Another factor that makes the January count an incomplete guide to current homeless numbers is the fact that it took place before the COVID-19 crisis, which created unprecedented unemployment throughout the region. Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) shows a steady increase in the number of people seeking homeless services through the end of March, when 13,238 households (which can include multiple people) sought services, a 29 percent increase over January. Losing a job is the most common reason survey respondents gave for becoming homeless (16 percent); another 8 percent said they became homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent. 

“Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.” — Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club

The county could not offer HMIS data after March, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially—especially after moratoriums expire. Leo Flor, the director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said Wednesday that “rent-burdened” households—renters who struggle to pay rent from month to month—will be hit especially hard by both the economic downturn and the eventual termination of financial assistance that is currently helping them make ends meet.

“If that assistance were to cease” in the absence of replacement income, “we would see a lot of additional people moving from rent-burdened to homelessness.” In other words: If people who are living on cash or rent assistance (or not paying rent at all during the eviction moratorium) don’t find jobs by the time that income runs out, we’re going to see a lot more homeless people on our streets. This is supported by the fact that “losing a job” was the most common reason people reported becoming homeless, followed by alcohol or drug issues, mental health problems, and an inability to afford rent.

People sleeping outdoors or otherwise unsheltered increased in every part of King County except North and Southeast King County, with the largest percentage increases in Northeast King County (69 percent) and East King County (32 percent), followed by Seattle at 5 percent.

People who identified as Black made up 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the latest count, which uses numbers from a separate survey—this year, of 832 homeless adults and youth) to extrapolate demographic data across the entire homeless population. (The people conducting the one-night count do not approach people or note their apparent genders or races.) That’s a decline from last year’s number, 32 percent, but still extremely disproportionate in a county where Black people make up just 7 percent of the population.

The proportion of Native American/Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, spiked from 10 to 15 percent of the people surveyed, and 32 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness, a prevalence that’s 15 times higher than the number of Native people in the county. Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, attributed the increase to better data collection this year, including the fact that Native service providers have been increasingly involved in data collection. (Prior to last year, no Native organizations were involved in collecting data.)

“Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.” — King County DCHS Director Leo Flor 

“Because of our efforts to collect more accurate data related to American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing homelessness, we believe we are getting closer to truly understanding the scope of the work ahead,” Echohawk said in a statement. “Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.”

King County’s survey also include a multi-race category, which dilutes the racial data.

This year’s report also shows dramatic increases in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness (from 2,451 to 3,743) and in the percentage of those individuals who were unsheltered (from 3 to 29 percent), along with an increase in the number of homeless individuals (70 percent of them women) fleeing domestic violence. The report attributes these upticks,  in part, to better data collection. But the number of women experiencing homelessness, both in general (41 percent) and in subcategories like youth (47 percent) and people living in vehicles (56 percent) suggests that the face of homelessness is increasingly female—a fact that doesn’t fit with the most common stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why. The report didn’t ask women and men separately why they became homeless, an oversight that makes it hard to extrapolate why women become homeless from this report.

The number of people who are chronically homeless (a group that is much more likely to be unsheltered than people who have been homeless for shorter periods) increased more than 52 percent this year, to 3,355, and the rate of reported psychiatric disorders also spiked sharply. (The term “chronically homeless” refers to a person who has been homeless for more than a year, or for more than four times in the last three years, and who suffers from a chronic physical or mental health condition, including serious mental illness or addiction or a physical disability.)

Flor, the DCHS director, noted Wednesday that the two trends are closely related. As the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness increases, he said, “we would expect that the number of psychiatric conditions would increase as well. Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.”

In her statement about this year’s results, Mayor Durkan emphasized the county’s move to a regional approach to homelessness rather than one centered on City of Seattle resources. “While many individuals[‘] last stable home was not in the City of Seattle, our city continues to serve the most vulnerable in our region,” Durkan said. “Our regional homelessness investments must include an immediate and direct response to any crisis of housing stability, connecting people with the services they need, in their community wherever they are across the county.”

After the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015 (a year that, like previous years and all the ones since, ended with more people experiencing homelessness than ever), cities, counties, and service providers should be adopted the mantra that homelessness should be “brief, one-time, and rare.” This year, not only did the rate of chronic, long-terms homelessness increase, so did the percentage of survey respondents who said they had been homeless for one year or more.

Seattle has tried focusing on “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers, pivoting to heavy investments in emergency shelter, and now joining forces with the county and suburban cities to try to agree on a single regional solution to homelessness. Perhaps next year’s count will begin to reveal whether this latest shift will actually yield results.

Kent Motel Meant for Isolation and Quarantine Sits Empty As Homeless Numbers Rise

As King County released the latest one-night count of people experiencing homelessness, which showed a significant increase in showing a significant increase in unsheltered homelessness across the county, a motel in Kent that could temporarily shelter dozens of people sits empty. The 84-room formre Econolodge, which the county purchased in March to serve as an isolation and quarantine site for people with confirmed or potential COVID diagnoses who lack a safe place to isolate, is one of four such sites; just two, in Issaquah and North Seattle, are currently operating.

At a briefing Wednesday, King County Department of Health and Community Services director Leo Flor said the county was keeping the motel “warm”—that is, empty and ready to accept new guests—in order to quickly accommodate new isolation and quarantine patients if COVID numbers rise dramatically or in case of a maintenance failure at one of the other sites. “I do not think that we are through with this COVID-19 emergency,” Flor said. “We certainly know in the fall that we need to be ready to provide larger numbers of isolation and quarantine rooms if they become necessary.”

In outlining the post-COVID future of shelter, Flor acknowledged that all the available evidence shows that moving from a shelter to a hotel room can lead to enormous improvements in people’s mental and physical well-being. When DESC shut down its crowded, chaotic downtown shelter and moved those clients, along with others, to a vacant Red Lion hotel in Renton, clients saw dramatic improvements in behavioral health conditions, a surprising outcome I wrote about in May. The privacy and dignity of a private room “in and of itself [causes] a transformation,” Flor said. “Sleeping in a bed, in a place where you feel safe… really seems to be good for people’s health. And the lack of those things seems to be bad for people’s health.”

Flor acknowledged, in a roundabout way, the fact that even a temporary homeless shelter would run into a buzz saw of opposition from local officials. The city, just south of Seattle, has consistently fought proposals for shelters and homeless services; outreach workers in the area say that when police roust unsheltered people and tell them to move along, they sometimes hand out flyers directing people to shelters in Seattle.

“The facility was put into action under a public health rationale, and cities have a role in permitting and in regulating the types of facilities that are within their boundaries, particularly when we are not in emergency situations,” Flor said. “There’s a number of regulatory regimes that are governing what we might be able to do with particular facilities, and then [we have to consider] the importance of strong partnerships with cities.” The county is in the process of developing a framework for a new regional homelessness authority in which suburban cities like Kent will have outsize influence over policy while contributing nothing financially to the new agency.

After a patient left the Kent isolation and quarantine facility without medical authorization and boarded a Metro bus, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said her “nightmare” had come true. (The patient’s test results were negative.) Ralph opposed locating the isolation/quarantine site from the moment it was announced, telling the Seattle Times, saying that COVID-19 might be used as “a pretext for the siting of a longer term homelessness or quarantine facility in Kent.”  The city tried, and failed, to get a restraining order preventing the county from using the motel as an isolation site.

The county’s latest point-in-time count, conducted in January but just released yesterday, found 11,751 people experiencing homelessness in King County. The report noted that this probably represents an undercount of unsheltered people because it was unusually rainy on the night of the county, so it was harder to count people sleeping in vehicles or find those who had taken refuge in abandoned buildings. The number of unsheltered people counted in Southwest King County, which includes Kent, was 1,115—a 3 percent increase over last year’s count.

City-Funded Downtown Hotel Housed 12 People a Night While Thousands Slept in Tents and Crowded Shelters

In his budget presentation last week, Seattle budget director Ben Noble include a slide indicating that the city planned to spend (and seek reimbursement for) more than $3 million on hotel rooms for “essential workers,” plus $325,000 for rooms for “first responders,” during the COVID crisis. The line items represent the maximum cost to rent out the entire downtown Executive Pacific Hotel for three months.

As I’ve reported, the likely total cost is somewhat lower, because for three months, the hotel has been sitting virtually empty.

How empty? Well, about a month ago, the city was concerned enough about the fact that almost no first responders were staying in the rooms that they expanded the criteria for hotel stays to include “essential workers,” including health care workers and a handful of homeless service providers. Since then, the numbers have inched up—slightly. According to the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, during the three-month duration of the contract, the hotel logged 1,156 bed nights, which each represent a person occupying a room for one night. Put another way, the hotel had, on average, 12 guests per night—and 143 empty rooms.

The city could not, of course, have anticipated that the need for COVID first responders would flatten so quickly along with the curve of infections, or that so few firefighters and police would want or need to self-isolate in a downtown hotel. But the city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

Mayor Durkan, when pressed, has said that the city is paying for hotels—for example, they’re contributing to the cost of the Red Lion in Renton that the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been occupying for months. But she has doggedly resisted calls to move people from ad hoc mass shelters the city set up to respond to COVID—most of them bare-bones facilities with cots set up six feet apart—into hotels inside the city. And she even put roadblocks in front of a program that would move people from encampments to motel rooms that, like the Executive Pacific, are already paid for and sitting vacant.

The city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

I sent the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department a list of questions about the city’s long-term plans for people staying in “redistribution” shelters (temporary spaces in city-owned buildings where people can sleep six feet apart). I included a list of locations that I was especially curious about—high-volume shelters that have been moved to places like Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, and the city’s community centers.

The city responded by saying, essentially, that they still haven’t determined exactly when people will be moved from the current temporary shelters, or to where. “These conversations… are underway,” HSD spokesman Will Lemke said. Lemke added that HSD is “working with Public Health, DCHS, and agency partners to develop a strategy for addressing both short and long-adjustments needed to operate the homeless response system in light of COVID-19.”

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If you think of the current shelter system as fundamentally broken, and COVID as not just a crisis to respond to but an opportunity to rethink shelter (and other systems) as a whole, then it’s disheartening that the city is still thinking in terms of “adjustments” to respond to COVID rather than thinking of the pandemic as a chance to make wholesale changes. The Red Lion offers a promising example. After it opened, residents who were used to staying in DESC’s overcrowded, dirty, chaotic downtown shelter exhibited fewer behavioral problems, got in fewer fights, and used fewer substances—simply because they had privacy, a shower they didn’t have to fight for, and some space to relax.

DESC director Daniel Malone has said he hopes the agency never has to reopen the downtown shelter, a plan that will require the agency to purchase motels for long-term use. But Lemke’s comments (which represent the perspective of the mayor’s office), and the city’s history of pouring money into a shelter system that people experiencing homelessness consider alienating, traumatizing, and inhumane, suggest that other shelters may go back largely to business as usual unless the city council, or a groundswell of political opposition to warehouse-style shelters, intervenes to push the city in a different direction..

The total cost to rent the Executive Pacific Hotel, FAS spokeswoman Melissa Mixon says, will likely be closer to $2 million rather than $3.4 million, since the hotel gave the city a break on taxes and the city did not end up paying for many meals. Empty rooms don’t eat. What’s impossible to know is how much money the city might have saved in the long run by turning those empty rooms into shelter for people experiencing homelessness and working intensely to ensure that they had a place to stay when they left. Those aren’t the kind of calculations that Seattle, as a city, is good at making.

As Seattle Reopens, the City Faces Tough Questions About Its Response to Homelessness

The crisis of homelessness, which exists alongside and intersects with the issue of police violence and the tendency by government to insert cops into situations where their presence exacerbates tensions or just isn’t needed, has fallen below the fold over the past few weeks, but the crisis continues.

Last week, the county and city held the second monthly meeting of the new county-run regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to take over the duties of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division by the end of the year. Although they mostly just discussed the process for selecting a firm to come up with a list of candidates for “CEO” of the authority (“CEO” being the universal new term for public servants employed by the government, apparently), there were tensions over whether the input of the “lived experience” members of the authority’s governing board—all of them people of color—was being taken seriously.

Here’s a roundup of some other homelessness-related news that has slipped below the radar in the past few weeks.

• The city’s Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed. This dramatic discrepancy was first reported by writer Guy Oron on Twitter. In April, I requested the same information Oron received through his press release; the city notified me that the records were available last week, but has not yet produced them, despite the fact that I paid for them three days ago and have followed up with two emails without any response.

HSD did not respond by press time to questions, sent early Monday, about the difference between the numbers the city gave me back in March and the actual number of “obstruction” removals. When official numbers have proved to be inaccurate in the past, the department has generally responded by saying that their early numbers were “preliminary” and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed

It’s important to note that there would be no discrepancy between the numbers HSD initially pushed out and the actual numbers if HSD hadn’t chosen to push out the narrative that they had slowed down encampment removals in response to the pandemic in the first place. By claiming that the Navigation Team had only removed 15 encampments in March, HSD was trying to promote the narrative that they had dramatically reduced the number of sweeps they conducted in the early weeks of the pandemic before suspending them completely on March 17. As the agency put it on March 17: “Since the beginning of March and in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Navigation Team has primarily focused on conducting outreach. … Since March 2, there have been limited Navigation Team removals.”

Even accepting that the original number of 15 was preliminary, the actual number of removals was not “limited” in comparison with the Navigation Team’s track record during previous months. Extrapolated out to cover the month of March, 60 removals between March 2 and March 15 represents a higher rate of removals than what the Navigation Team reported in its most recent quarterly report—120 per month, versus just 101 per month in the last three months of last year. (For obstruction and hazard removals only, March was on track for 114 removals against an actual average of 97.) In other words, not only did the Navigation Team not slow down encampment sweeps in early March, it appears to have accelerated them.

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has shifted to doing “obstruction” removals almost exclusively; these do not require advance notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

• Another narrative that both HSD and the mayor’s office have pushed is that the Navigation Team has had an extraordinarily high shelter “enrollment” rate since the COVID-19 epidemic began. According to several separate posts on HSD’s website, “Preliminary data shows approximately 70% of all referrals the Navigation Team has made citywide since mid-April arrived and enrolled at these new shelter resources.”

This success rate, which deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller also touted during a tense city council meeting about legislation that would have reined in the Navigation Team’s powers, is the inverse of the team’s usual enrollment rate, which is less than 30 percent. This rate only reflects the percentage of people who “accept” offers of shelter and then follow through; those who aren’t interested are not counted in these percentages.

HSD acknowledges that the high enrollment rate is related to the fact that people living at the Commons encampment were offered guaranteed spots in highly desirable new enhanced shelter beds or spots in tiny house villages reserved specifically for the Navigation Team. The city has created fewer than 100 new shelter beds during the COVID crisis, and those are now full. When I asked HSD what the “preliminary data” have to say about the shelter enrollment rate from sweeps that took place after the city announced its 70 percent success rate, a spokesman said HSD couldn’t provide preliminary data for those removals because people at those encampments were referred to available shelter beds all over than town, rather than funneled into brand-new beds created for that purpose, making them harder to track in real time.

Fair enough. Or it would be, if HSD and the mayor’s office hadn’t repeatedly brought up the 70 percent rate specifically as evidence that the Navigation Team works and should not have its power to sweep encampments during the pandemic restricted by law in any way.

The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration

• One reason you’re reading about referrals to shelter, rather than temporary housing such as rooms in hotels, is that the city has been extremely reluctant to provide hotel vouchers for people living in encampments—to the point that dozens of hotel rooms are currently paid for but sitting empty because the city has repeatedly declined to approve people living in tents during the pandemic for the program.

Asked why the city has continued to put people into mass shelters, where COVID is more likely to spread, instead of hotels as King County has done, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office responded, “Through the City’s contracts, 318 unique individuals have been supported at various hotels, including the Red Lion in Renton. The initial costs are estimated to be $764,670 and are ongoing. These individuals were formerly staying at programs operated by DESC and Catholic Community Services.” I reported on the county’s efforts to move shelter residents into these hotels last month.

• The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration, both the Salvation Army and the VA have confirmed. The relocation, according to a VA spokesperson, was possible through a CARES Act provision that allows agencies like the Salvation Army to ask for a higher per diem for certain veteran clients, which has provided enough funding to put them in a hotel instead of bunk beds. Salvation Army spokeswoman Lora Marini Baker says the move is temporary, but there is no current end date for the arrangement.

• Finally, check this space for an update on the future of shelters in Seattle. During the pandemic, cities and states across the country turned to hotel rooms as a safer alternative to congregate shelter, giving people experiencing homelessness a rare opportunity to experience privacy, security, and an actual bed, and to escape the hectic chaos of a typical shelter. As cities open back up, they face a choice: Whether to reopen mass shelters, which are often traumatizing and dehumanizing, or find a way to provide some of the dignity and privacy of hotels to people without permanent homes.

In Seattle, where the city is already beginning to add people to shelters that were “de-intensified” to reduce COVID transmission, the city seems poised to return to the previous system, with the possible exception of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown shelter. I’ll be reporting more on this subject soon, so stay tuned.

Program to Move Unsheltered People Into Hotels Stymied Again as Police Turn Attention to Protests

Police face off against protesters during Weller Street encampment removal last month.

Despite significant progress late last month, the Public Defender Association has been stymied once again in its efforts to move homeless Seattle residents with criminal justice involvement into empty hotel rooms it is currently renting for this purpose—this time, because the Seattle Police Department stopped actively participating in the PDA’s Co-LEAD program, less than one week after the city gave the go-ahead for the PDA to start enrolling clients.

Co-LEAD is an offshoot of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, an arrest-diversion program run by the PDA in partnership with Seattle police. Created specifically for the COVID crisis, Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, gift cards, and services to clients who would otherwise be living on the street and committing crimes of survival, such as shoplifting and selling drugs.

The PDA had hoped to expand the program, which has been accepting clients from Burien and the King County Jail for months, to Seattle, starting with a large encampment on Second Ave. Ext. S. in Pioneer Square. Last month, PDA deputy director Jesse Benet told me the group had identified about 15 people living in the encampment who qualified for the program, and was just waiting for final approval from the city to enroll these new clients and move them off the street.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Instead, the city has given its approval to enroll between ten and 15 completely different people, identified long before the COVID crisis, whose whereabouts are currently unknown—a group of so-called “prolific offenders” who, according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, “voluntarily admitted their involvement in committing low-level crimes” and were deemed eligible for the program.

The issue with enrolling new clients, according to the mayor’s office, is that SPD has “ceased regular operations since May 30,” when protests against police violence began in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, so no one has been available to approve clients identified since the pandemic started.

The mayor’s office says the police department should be able to “restart the referral process in the coming week.” It’s unclear exactly what that means; SPD itself did not respond to a request for comment.

Part of the encampment on 2nd Ave. Ext. S.

PDA director Lisa Daugaard said she’s disappointed that Co-LEAD, which started enrolling clients in Burien two months ago, has not made similar headway in Seattle. “We have a team of anti-racist, trauma-informed people with a great deal of lived experience and a lot of skills and compassion, ready to respond to the kind of public safety and public order issues that everyone seems to agree the police shouldn’t be asked to intervene with, and we are not able to move forward in Seattle,” Daugaard said.

“We have only received permission to try to find ten people” identified months ago, she added. Those people could now be anywhere, including out of state.

Meanwhile, the crisis of homelessness becomes more visible on streets like Second Ave. Ext. South, where the encampment has only grown and become more disorderly since LEAD started screening potential clients last month. The conditions on the sidewalk could make the encampment ripe for removal by the Navigation Team, which has continued to conduct occasional sweeps during the pandemic. The PDA tried to convince the city to let it enroll clients in Co-LEAD before the Navigation Team’s three most recent encampment removals, but was unsuccessful each time.

The role and makeup of the Navigation Team—which, under Mayor Durkan, has expanded to include a larger number of police officers every year—is now in question, with city council members drafting legislation to remove police from the team. Homeless service advocates and providers have long argued that human service and social workers, not armed officers, should be responsible for outreach to people living in encampments.

Protests like the one that took place during a recent sweep of South Weller Street, where demonstrators crowded against police barricades set up to keep them from entering a public street, now look like eerie precursors to the much larger protests against police violence that began less than two weeks later. Fundamentally, both groups of protesters were posing the same question: Do we need police to ensure public safety? And if not, what nonviolent alternatives might take their place?