Category: homelessness

City Attorney Filing, But Also Diverting, More Cases; City’s Shelter Enrollment Rate Remains Low

City Attorney Ann Davison

 

1. City Attorney Ann Davison’s office released a detailed report this week confirming what PubliCola reported earlier this month: In the first six months of 2022, her office has filed charges in only about half of the criminal cases it has considered, declining to pursue charges at a rate similar to that of her predecessor, Pete Holmes. Between 2017 and 2019, Holmes’ decline rate ranged from just over 40 percent to just under 60 percent, only slightly lower than Davison’s.

Between January and June, the city attorney’s office declined about 51 percent of cases. That number includes cases from a backlog left after Holmes left office, which resulted from a combination of failure to file cases prior to the pandemic and an increase in unfiled cases in 2021, when the Seattle Municipal Court was not operating at full capacity due to the pandemic.

Excluding those cases, Davison’s decline rate was lower (46 percent between January and March and 41 percent between April and June), but without more details about what cases the office considered from the backlog, or what cases came in between April and June, it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions from that comparison.

Digging into the numbers in the report, the rate of domestic violence cases that the office declined has risen steadily over the years, and remains high under Davison (over 60 percent) so far; one reason for this, according to the report, is that domestic violence victims often don’t want to file charges against their abusers. Assault, property destruction, and harassment topped the list of domestic violence cases where no charges were filed.

The report shows that Davison’s office has resolved cases using diversionary programs, such as community court, mental health court, and the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, at least as often as her predecessors, diverting hundreds of theft, assault, trespassing, and other cases to therapeutic courts or social services.

Davison’s office did file charges in a much higher percentage of new non-domestic violence and non-traffic criminal offenses (those committed in 2022) than Holmes—around half in the first quarter of this year and 37 percent in the second quarter. If that trend continues, it will mean that Davison is choosing to pursue charges against more people accused of crimes like assault, theft, and trespassing, which are often crimes of poverty.

 

Ann Davison portrait

Perhaps most interestingly, the report shows that Davison’s office has resolved cases using diversionary programs, such as community court, mental health court, and the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, at least as often as her predecessors, diverting hundreds of theft, assault, trespassing, and other cases to therapeutic courts or social services. Overall, Davison referred about 750 cases to community court, more than 600 to LEAD, and about 180 to mental health court.

Earlier this year, Davison sought, and received, authority to deny access to community court for the 100 or so people on her “high utilizer” list, which includes people with more than 12 cases (not charges) in the past five years. The city attorney’s office really is treating this population differently: In contrast to their overall approach, the office has filed charges in 82 percent of cases involving this group, a decline rate of just 18 percent.

2. The latest quarterly report from the Seattle Human Services Department on the work of the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) Team shows an uptick in the number of people who received referrals to shelter from the HOPE Team and actually enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and stayed for at least one night. The HOPE Team does outreach at encampments, primarily the city’s regularly updated list of encampments it plans to sweep.

Between April and June, 173 people went to shelter based on a HOPE team referral, amounting to 41 percent of the total number of people who received at least one referral. (Overall, the team made 458 referrals, including multiple referrals for some individuals). Put another way, that means about 58 people went to shelter on HOPE team referrals every month last quarter. The numbers are approximate, because some people who enroll in shelter choose to remain anonymous, making them harder to track.

Those numbers, while they represent a slight improvement, continue to reveal that the majority of shelter referrals don’t result in shelter enrollments (and shelter, of course, isn’t housing)—people are getting referral slips but aren’t using them. This can happen for a variety of reasons: Leaving an encampment for shelter can involve a long trek across town, along with tough decisions, such as whether to leave an established street community or abandon a pet.

Notably, the second quarter of this year also included the removal of a large encampment at Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell identified early on as one of the top priorities for his administration. As we reported at the time, the city asked the Low-Income Housing Institute to set aside dozens of spots in tiny-house villages—a desirable, semi-private shelter type that has a very high enrollment rate—for people living in the park. Out of 89 shelter referrals at Woodland Park, 60 were to tiny house villages.

The city also made a special effort to ensure that people forced to leave during the high-profile removal, offering direct transportation to shelters for everyone who received a referral, which likely boosted the overall enrollment rate. PubliCola has asked HSD how many of the 173 enrollments between April and June came from Woodland Park and will update this post when we hear back.

Council Considers Using Excess JumpStart Revenues to Patch $141 Million Budget Hole

Before and after: The growing budget shortfall at the city.

By Erica C. Barnett

City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said yesterday that she would propose using JumpStart payroll tax revenues to supplement the city’s general-fund budget for the fourth and fifth years in a row, after the City Budget Office released new projections of a growing budget shortfall through the next five years. Between 2023 and 2026, the city now projects an average budget gap—the difference between revenues coming in and expenditures going out—of $142 million, on average, including a $141 million budget gap next year.

JumpStart—a payroll tax paid by the city’s largest employers on the salaries of their highest-paid workers—has consistently produced more revenue than originally anticipated. Since it went into effect in 2021, the tax has paid for COVID relief, housing, small business support, and to top off the general fund. Mosqueda’s proposal, which hasn’t been formally drafted, would use JumpStart revenues in excess of the city’s original 2020 projections to backfill the general fund in 2023 and 2024; currently, the city projects those excess revenues at $71 million and $84 million, respectively.

“This is just a 2023-2024 option. This is not a stopgap measure; this is a temporary use because that additional source of progressive revenue has not been passed and we need to prevent austerity while maintaining the city’s commitment to the JumpStart spending plan.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

“The broad coalition that proposed JumpStart always intended to avoid austerity, and we can do both the spend plan as codified in 2020 and potentially find some short-term solutions for addressing the shortfall,” Mosqueda told PubliCola on Wednesday. In the meantime, she said, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office is convening a new progressive revenue task force to consider other locahoul revenue sources. The original progressive revenue task force, which recommended a payroll tax in 2018, also said the city should consider a local estate tax, a tax on excess compensation, and a tax on real-estate speculation, among other options.

“This is just a 2023-2024 option,” Mosqueda said. “This is not a stopgap measure; this is a temporary use because that additional source of progressive revenue has not been passed and we need to prevent austerity while maintaining the city’s commitment to the JumpStart spending plan.”

In addition to new revenues, the city could be looking at cuts to departments, including the elimination of some positions that have been vacant but funded in the budget for long periods. Advocates for reducing the Seattle Police Department’s budget aren’t likely to see much trimming in that area, though; the last time a council member (then-council president Lorena González) proposed reducing SPD’s budget by eliminating unfillable positions, the council voted it down.

At the same time, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is primarily funded by the city, sent a budget proposal to the city and county earlier this year requesting $90 million for new programs, on top of the $119 million that it currently receives from the city and county. If the city funded this extra spending proportionally to its current contribution ($70 million in 2022), that would amount to an additional $60 million in city spending.

Harrell has expressed frustration publicly about the KCRHA’s budget, and has reportedly wondered aloud privately what the agency is doing with its money. Efforts to stand up a program to “navigate” people off the streets of downtown Seattle by placing them in shelters or housing, launched with a one-time infusion of private money earlier this year, are going slowly, with one of the program’s high-profile leaders leaving the agency after just three months in June. In February, KCRHA director Marc Dones said one of the goals of the initiative was to reduce the number of people living unsheltered downtown to around 30, or “functional zero,” in as little as 12 months.

When PublICola asked Harrell about KCRHA’s big budget ask back in June, he said the agency seemed to “approach the budgeting process as, ‘in a perfect world, this is what [we] could do.’… But at some point, I need you to do the hard work, which is tell us exactly what you need. This is not a negotiate, ‘you go high, I go low,’ process.”

Harrell will send his proposed budget to the council on September 24.

Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban

exterior of Union Gospel Mission, downtown Seattle

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit that runs shelter and feeding programs and provides supplies to people sleeping outside, sued to evict one of the homeless women living at its Re:Novo transitional housing building in West Seattle at the height of the pandemic, arguing that the group was exempt from local renter protections because their work helping and housing homeless people is “incidental” to their primary mission—proselytizing and promoting “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Last week, a state appeals court rejected the last of UGM’s arguments against Re:Novo resident Rebecca Bauer, whom the organization started trying to evict in March 2020, shortly after the state and local eviction moratoriums began.

The ruling, which prevents UGM’s eviction motion from showing up in tenant screening reports, concludes UGM’s two-year-long effort to evict Bauer, and contrasts the nonprofit with other religious housing and shelter programs operating in Seattle, such as Catholic Housing Services and Mercy Housing, which complied with the state and local bans on evictions during the pandemic. The group can seek to evict Bauer in the future, but has not tried to do so since last year.

Bauer moved into Re:Novo in July 2018, after moving to Seattle from Minnesota. She found out about the program from UGM’s Hope shelter in Kent. When she asked about the program, she told PubliCola “they said, ‘This is a Christian program,’ and I was like, ‘Hold up, first of all, I’m not a Christian,'” Bauer said. “And they told me, ‘that’s no problem.'”

In its formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed)), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans.

Bauer moved in to her new apartment—a $500-a-month “apodment” style unit that shared a kitchen and common area with four other rooms—in 2018, but didn’t sign her housing agreement until the following year. That agreement, amended by a staffer to exempt Bauer from program requirements like mandatory church attendance and religious counseling, was at the heart of UGM’s case to evict her. It says the length of the Re:Novo program is “one to two years … decided on a case-by-case basis for each resident.”

Re:Novo’s rules go far beyond a typical shelter or housing program. In addition to a ban on alcohol and “addictive drugs” (a category that, for UGM, includes medication to treat opiate addiction as well as poppy seeds) Re:Nov bans women living at the building from having any sexual relationships, watching movies rated PG-13 or R-rated movies, participating in “occult activity,” and leaving their rooms without “proper clothing,” including “bras underneath their clothes.”

The program also requires residents to attend services at Trinity West Seattle, a conservative church that believes in heterosexual marriage, with the wife serving in “submission” to her husband, as the only “normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women.” Bauer said that on several occasions, a program staffer asked invasive questions about her dating life, implying she was a lesbian. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined to take up UGM’s appeal in a discrimination case filed in 2017 by a lawyer the group refused to hire after discovering he was in a same-sex relationship.

The eviction notice came at a difficult time for Bauer. Since moving to Seattle, she had started to get back on her feet. With the help of the YWCA, which featured her as a speaker at its annual luncheon in 2019, she got her license as a certified nursing assistant and went to work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle, “which I loved because it was something new. I had always worked in nursing homes, and [the VA] was completely different. It was so exciting.”

Then COVID hit. Bauer got sick, landing in emergency room three times, and on March 30, 2020, UGM told her she had to be out by May. Their initial explanation was that she had failed to comply with program requirements by leaving her room at least once to cook food while she was sick and waiting for her COVID test results, putting the safety of other residents at risk.

Later, in a formal eviction notice, the group argued that Bauer had overstayed her “lease” (the program agreement Bauer signed), and that, as a church, they did not have to abide by either the state or Seattle eviction bans. UGM’s eviction motion also claimed that Bauer was rude to staff, moved to a downstairs unit without permission, and left a stove burner on, and that her behavior ultimately forced UGM to abandon the entire half of the building where Bauer lived, leaving several units vacant. 

Rebecca Bauer’s program agreement exempted her from requirements that she attend church and participate in counseling—two issues Union Gospel Mission would later bring up when seeking to evict her.

These conditions, UGM argued, constituted an “imminent threat” to the health and safety of other tenants and staff, one of the only explicit exemptions to the city’s eviction ban.

UGM did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement responding to PubliCola’s questions about the lawsuit, UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor focused on Bauer’s alleged health and safety violations.

“The entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.”—UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor

“The Mission offered multiple times to help relocate Ms. Bauer to a more suitable housing situation, which she repeatedly declined,” Taylor said. “Most of the participants in the Re:novo recovery program are highly vulnerable, often fleeing domestic violence or recovering from addiction and susceptible to relapse. Ms. Bauer’s conduct put others at risk and the Mission felt that legal action was the only remaining option for protecting other program participants.”

Although Bauer vehemently denied all of those charges, both in court and in a lengthy conversation with PubliCola—in particular, she said her housing manager told her she could move into a unit another woman was vacating if she helped to clean it out—UGM didn’t actually make the “imminent threat” argument a centerpiece of its lawsuit.

Instead, they argued that they didn’t have to comply with the eviction bans because the housing UGM provides is just “incidental” to its central purpose of “proclaim[ing] the gospel and love of Jesus Christ to women.” As UGM attorney Nathaniel Taylor put it in his argument before a King County Superior Court judge last year, “the entire institutional purpose of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a religious message. It is not to provide housing.” Continue reading “Union Gospel Mission Sought to Evict Woman at Height of the Pandemic, Arguing It Was Exempt from Eviction Ban”

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.

City Sweeps RVs During Heat Wave While Urging Housed People to Take Cool Showers

A group of RVs and vehicles has been parked next to the train tracks south of downtown throughout the pandemic, long enough to be visible on Google Maps.

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of RVs and other vehicles had mostly disappeared from the SoDo street where they’ve been parked for more than two years on Tuesday, after a last-minute push to get everybody out before city workers showed up at 9am to clear the area. By 9:30, as the heat rose into the 80s, the street was cordoned off with “Street Closed” sawhorse placards and a few eco-blocks—heavy concrete blocks businesses use to prevent people from parking on public streets—had already appeared.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said that between July 8 and this morning, 20 people living in their vehicles at the site had accepted offers of shelter, which means a shelter bed was available and they said they were willing to go. The city does not ensure that people who get referrals to shelter actually get there, and although Seattle does pay for Lyft rides, that practice is problematic, making underpaid rideshare drivers responsible for people who may be in crisis.

Anti-sweeps advocates called on Harrell to postpone the removal until after this week’s anticipated heat wave (as I write this, it’s 93 degrees), but Housen said the “RV remediation,” along with an encampment removal near Woodland Park later this week, is actually in the best interest of the unsheltered people being displaced.

“Someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

This week, the City will complete two RV remediations and one encampment removal, with the aim of addressing the public health and safety concerns at those sites while helping those experiencing homelessness get indoors, into shelter, and out of the heat,” Housen said. “No additional encampment resolutions will be conducted during the elevated heat event, but shelter referrals to get people into cool and safe places will continue.”

But most of the people living along 3rd Avenue S. just moved elsewhere; according to a staffer for City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district (D2) includes SoDo, they included at least two people with major medical needs—one with congestive heart failure and one with terminal cancer—that can’t be accommodated in a traditional shelter.

In a statement, Morales called Tuesday’s sweep a sign of the “continued failure of our city response to addressing the root causes of homelessness” and noted that despite the efforts of service providers, “there were not enough shelter options to move people into today despite the extensive outreach that took place this month.”

According to an internal presentation by Harrell’s office earlier this year, there are, on average, between two and five shelter beds available each night across the city, a number that is similar to previous estimates from the Human Services Department and shelter and service providers.

Alison EIsinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was irresponsible to displace dozens of people in the middle of a pandemic and during a heat wave. “High temperatures make it worse for people on the ground, and make it harder for staff to bring water, cooling supplies, and health care to people they can no longer locate. That’s not just bad policy, that’s wasteful, cruel, and ineffective policy,” Eisinger said

Responding to the Harrell Administration’s comment that shutting down a longtime RV encampment would get people “out of the heat,” Eisinger added, “I just learned that someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”

In her statement, Morales said that despite repeated requests, Harrell’s office has not provided them with information about encampment removals in advance.

People who need to escape the heat, including people experiencing homelessness, can go to community centers, libraries, and malls during the day; for housed people, the city suggests “moving to where it’s cooler to sleep more comfortably” and taking a cooling shower.

City Auditor Recommends Tracking Progress on Encampments—Not Just Encampment Removals

By Erica C. Barnett

The City Auditor’s Office—a small office that churns out reports and recommendations about how to improve city programs and policies—issued a report this month titled, self-summarizingly, “The City of Seattle Should Use a Data Dashboard to Track its Progress in Addressing Unsanctioned Encampments.” The report is part of an ongoing series of audits that began in 2017, when Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked the auditor to start tracking the work of the Navigation Team, ex-mayor Jenny Durkan’s encampment cleanup crew.

Through that work, the report says, the auditor’s office discovered that the city “was not systematically tracking the kind of data that would aid City leaders, stakeholders, and community members in understanding whether conditions related to encampments were improving or worsening over time. In previous reports we found that many important data, ranging from daily shelter-bed availability to trash accumulation, to the number of 24-hour bathrooms, were not being tracked over time.”

But wait, you may be wondering—don’t we already have a city homelessness dashboard? Well… kind of. The “One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan” website Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out in May does include some dashboard-like elements, such as a bar graph showing the number of shelter referrals the city makes each month and a map identifying some of the encampment sites the city had identified and “closed” by mid-May. But the city plans to update the graph and map only quarterly, and the map is incomplete; many dots indicating closed encampments say “no outreach data available,” and huge swaths of the city, including the University District and Rainier Beach, appear to have no encampments at all.

“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress.”—City Auditor David Jones

City Auditor David Jones said his office began working on its latest report before the Harrell administration came into office. “We do recognize that their dashboard is a work in progress,” Jones said. “We don’t want to jump in on something that’s just been put out there that hopefully will be improved over time and added to and changed in response to needs and critiques.”

The audit report suggests collecting (or compiling existing) data in three key areas: 1) the lived experience of people in encampments, including measures like  and physical and mental health; 2) public health indicators, such as the amount of trash and the number of needles at known encampment sites; and 3) measures of how well the system is performing, such as shelter acceptance rates and the availability of restrooms with running water. By tracking key metrics over time, the report says, the city could start to get a better handle on which strategies are working.

“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress,” Jones said. Even though external factors, like the pandemic or the economy, can have outsize effects on some measures of progress, like shelter availability, a dashboard “at least would give you some sort of yardstick. …Are there fewer fires? Are there fewer people who are unsheltered? Is there a shorter time which people are receiving cervices? It at least gives you some sense of how you’re doing and if we’re moving in the right direction.”

A spokesman for Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said the report “provides a good starting point for these discussions,” adding that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is responsible for the region’s overall homelessness response.

The KCRHA, which collaborated on the auditor’s recommendations, did not respond to requests for comment. In his letter, included in the report, Harrell did not respond directly to any of the recommendations. Instead, he noted that “a lot has changed” since the auditor’s office began their work, including the new administration and the transfer of homelessness contracts to the KCRHA. Continue reading “City Auditor Recommends Tracking Progress on Encampments—Not Just Encampment Removals”

Labor Fizz: Homelessness Agency Workers Unionize, State Vaccine Requirements Go Above and Beyond, City Accuses Parking Officers of Bad-Faith Bargaining

1. Employees of the King County Homelessness Authority have joined the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17)—the first step toward negotiating a contract that will establish mandatory standards for wages, hours, and working conditions at the agency, which has about 75 employees. The KCRHA, which oversees contracts with nonprofit homeless service providers around the region, has been operating without a union since last year.

KCRHA evaluation and analytics coordinator Claire Guilmette, who led the push to unionize, said she’s optimistic that the union will be able to reach an agreement quickly and collaboratively with KCRHA director Marc Dones, who will be on the other side of the bargaining table. Both non-managerial employees and some supervisors will have union representation; the state Public Employee Relations Commission is currently considering the agency’s argument that two employees, intergovernmental affairs manager Nigel Herbig and Dones’ executive assistant, Katherine Wells, should be excluded from the bargaining unit.

In a statement, Dones, who has expressed support for unionization in the past, said, “Our people are our greatest strength and we will continue to support our employees with what they need to be successful.” KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the agency could not comment on current organizing efforts. In response to PubliCola’s question about whether KCRHA has a human resources department, Martens said, “We do indeed,” but did not provide a list of employees in this department. The agency’s staff list is no longer available on its website.

PROTEC17 organizer Jessica Olivas said KCRHA’s employees are “extremely mission-driven,” sometimes to the detriment of advocating for themselves. “I’m actually happy that they took a step back and said, We deserve a voice on the job to help retain and recruit staff, and that’s what’s best in helping to advance their mission,” Olivas said.

As we reported last month, a number of high-level staff have left the agency in recent months, including peer navigator program director Dawn Shephard, senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, special assistant Naomi See, and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer.

2. Earlier this month, Governor Jay Inslee announced a new COVID-19 vaccination policy that will require all state employees to be not just vaxxed and boosted but up to date with current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, now and in the future, beginning next July. The new mandate goes beyond what the city of Seattle and King County require; for city and county employees, “fully vaccinated” means having received an initial one- or two-shot course of the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

A spokesman for the state Office of Financial Management, which will be responsible for drafting a formal policy and negotiating with the unions that represent state employees about that policy, said that after July 1, 2023, “employees would need to be up-to-date on any recommended COVID-19 shots/boosters,” subject to bargaining with the unions that represent state workers. PubliCola has reached out to the Washington Federation of State Employees for comment on the new requirements and will update this post if we hear back. 

CDC recommendations change periodically and are different for people of different ages. Currently, for example, the CDC recommends that everyone 50 or older get two booster shots. In a proclamation last year, Inslee defined “fully vaccinated” the same way the oity and county do: One full course of a single vaccine, with no booster requirements.

The complaint alleges that the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild bargained in bad faith with the city by proposing a one-year extension to its existing contract that the union knew its members would reject

3. Last month, we reported that the city’s parking enforcement officers filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to a system that provides instant information about vehicle owners, such as whether they have a warrant and for what offense, when the officers moved out of the police department and into the Department of Transportation. Three months later, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG) filed a second complaint related to union participation on a special safety committee.

As that complaint moved forward, the city filed its own Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the parking enforcement officers’ union—an unusual step, since most labor complaints are made by employees against their employer, not the other way around. Continue reading “Labor Fizz: Homelessness Agency Workers Unionize, State Vaccine Requirements Go Above and Beyond, City Accuses Parking Officers of Bad-Faith Bargaining”

Council Could Place Ranked-Choice Voting On Ballot; Ballard Commons Still on Slow Track to Reopening

Ballard Commons
Ballard Commons

1. On Tuesday, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is expected to introduce legislation that would put ranked-choice voting—a type of election in which voters rank candidates according to their preference—on the November ballot alongside an existing initiative, I-134, that would allow voters to choose as many candidates as they want, a process called approval voting.

When presented with a validated initiative proposal, the council can put the measure on the ballot as-is, pass it as law themselves, or place an alternative measure on the ballot alongside the original initiative; if they put two measures on the ballot, the one that receives the most votes above a majority wins.

Ranked-choice voting, or instant-runoff voting, has been implemented in cities across the country, though in a slightly different form; in places with partisan like New York City, voters from each party use ranked choice voting to choose one person to move forward to the general election. In Seattle, which doesn’t have partisan elections, the top two candidates in the primary move forward to the general. Approval voting, in contrast, has only been implemented in two places in the US: Fargo, ND, and St. Louis, MO.

Advocates for ranked-choice voting argue that it elects leaders who are more representative of the general electorate. According to Fair Vote Washington spokesman Ben Chapman, ranked-choice voting produces “more civil, more issue-based campaigns, more voice for the voter and better representation for previously underrepresented communities.”  Advocates for approval voting say their system gives a fair chance to candidates who tend to languish in a winner-takes-all system where voting for the candidate you really like can feel like “throwing away your vote.”

Cannabis store owner and former city council candidate Logan Bowers, a member of the Seattle Approves campaign, says the council should put Initiative 134 on the ballot as-is, without introducing a second measure that would impose a totally different system. Under its ethics rules, the council is not allowed to discuss I-134 (or any alternative) publicly until it starts formally considering legislation to put the proposal on the ballot, which it will do next week. Because of the ethics constraint, Lewis declined to comment on his potential competing initiative.

Bowers says the council is rushing through an alternative measure without giving it the kind of scrutiny approval voting received through its campaign and signature gathering process. “I don’t think they need to rush this; they should just let approval voting go through or not, and they can always [put forward] another proposal later,” Bowers said. “We shouldn’t push this through as a two-week summer project.” Chapman counters that ranked choice voting is already a “known quantity” in use in more than 50 places across the US. “We don’t want Seattle voters to be an experiment,” Chapman said.

2. Since last December, the Ballard Commons—a 1.4-acre park surrounded by apartments and kitty-corner from the Ballard library— has been closed, its skate bowl, spray park, and grassy fields just out of reach behind the tall metal fence that has kept unsheltered people from setting up tents in the area for the last seven months. 

In a memo to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office April, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation recommended “fully reopening the park by summer,” but added that they recognized “we cannot be successful without strong, sustained support of the obstruction process” by the city’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 60 Parks, Department of Transportation, and Human Services Department employees that is in charge of removing encampments, including those that obstruct the use of public spaces.

The memo went on to recommend fully reopening the park by Memorial Day, with assistance from the Unified Care Team to “implement the… obstruction [removal] process.” Continue reading “Council Could Place Ranked-Choice Voting On Ballot; Ballard Commons Still on Slow Track to Reopening”

Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments

1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.

“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”

Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable. 

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.

Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.

2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association

The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”

By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges. 

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare,” Daugaard said. “That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.” Continue reading “Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments”

New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said the “eco-block strategy” referenced in the second column “is related to the City’s response to the eco-blocks placed in the ROW by others.” Eco-blocks are cheap concrete blocks businesses use to prevent RVs from parking on public streets; placing them in the public right-of-way is illegal but the city does not enforce this law.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration drafted a new “sidewalk strategy” for homeless encampments earlier this year that would have empowered the city’s new Unified Care Team, bolstered by Seattle police, to require anyone living in a public right-of-way in Seattle to move with just two hours’ notice, PubliCola has learned.

In January, Harrell’s strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess sent a memo to King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones titled “A New Approach to Tent Encampments on Sidewalks and Other Transportation Rights-of-Way.” In the memo, which PubliCola obtained through a records request, the new administration outlined a zero-tolerance strategy toward people living on sidewalks, in which “[c]ampers that remain will be given two hours’ notice to leave” to leave. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, along with King County Regional Homelessness Authority “outreach teams will offer services as appropriate, but these services will not be a prerequisite before asking campers to clear the public space,” the memo said.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen told PubliCola the sidewalk plan was never implemented. “Instead, the Mayor’s Office focused on streamlining City efforts through the launch of the Unified Care Team,” a group of employees from several city departments who are in charge of “”address[ing] the impacts of unsheltered homelessness in the city,” Housen said. But the administration’s dramatic acceleration of encampment removals, and its decision to focus first on reducing the number of people living on downtown sidewalks to zero, echo these early policy discussions.

In addition to the memo shared by Burgess, PubliCola has obtained a PowerPoint presentation created by administration officials earlier this year describes the downtown “Partnership for Zero,” which aims to eliminate encampments downtown by relocating people to appropriate shelter or housing, as the administration’s “safe sidewalk plan.” Harrell “wants to address obstructions in the right of way ASAP,” according to the presentation.

A separate set of presentations and internal memos, obtained through the same records request, reveals another aspect of Harrell’s approach to encampment removals that the administration has been reluctant to describe publicly: An “encampment scoring system” that allocates “scores” to encampments based on a set of criteria, including violent incidents, fires, proximity to parks or children, and sidewalk obstructions.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen described the scoring system as only one part of the mayor’s encampment prioritization strategy. “The scoring system is the building blocks for encampment prioritization,” Housen said. “The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”

A PowerPoint presentation dated 6/21/22 but presented to Harrell, according to internal emails, on April 19

The “Sidewalk Strategy”

In a memo from late January titled “Tent Highlights,” the Harrell administration outlined the basics of a new strategy to “[e]nd tent encampments on sidewalks and transportation rights-of-ways… a step that is essential to the economic recovery of the downtown and our neighborhood business areas.”

“City staff, including specially trained police officers, will be present when campers are notified that they must relocate,” the memo continues. “This is a harm-reduction approach, meaning campers will be asked to leave/relocate so the space remains clear and accessible by all.”

Dones expressed concerns in their comments on the memo about the possibility that the city would start sweeping downtown sidewalks before the KCRHA could implement its business-funded Partnership for Zero strategy. This strategy, which is still getting underway, aims to provide intensive case management by dozens of “system advocates” who will fan out across downtown and attempt to place everyone living in the area into appropriate shelter or housing, leaving downtown effectively encampment-free.

I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable…  and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“This seems like something that would be more successful if implemented completely after [the Partnership for Zero] drawdown phase is complete. Because then it’s about keeping sidewalks and right of ways clear,” Dones commented. The two-hour rule, Dones added, “feels difficult to enforce. How will people be made aware of the shifting rules? I would also extend the initial timeline so that when it’s announced people have X amount of time but then in the future they have Y amount of time.”

Reflecting on their comments on the memo last week, Dones said, “I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable…  and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.” 

“Some of this sounds like what would make sense for implementation after [the “drawdown” phase of Partnership for Zero], as we’re talking about maintaining functional zero,” Dones added. “Then we could have that conversation about how we want to maintain spaces where people are not encamped, but the reason they’re not encamped is because we’re actively [housing or sheltering] them in real time.”

Housen, from the mayor’s office, said the city “stands in partnership with the KCRHA, King County, and We Are In in our support of Partnership for Zero. We look forward to the ramp up of that project and opportunities to work in alignment and coordination with the RHA towards the goal of the project.”

Asked how maintaining a visible police presence during encampment removals represented a “harm reduction approach,” Housen reiterated the city’s position that “activists and protestors” pose a threat to workers during sweeps and that police—who only began are necessary to “ensure that all people onsite, including City workers and encampment residents, are safe.”

Prioritizing for Sweeps

In addition to obstructions on sidewalks—the basis of the early “sidewalk strategy”—the mayor’s office established criteria for deciding which encampments to remove. During a recent press event, both Housen and Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington declined to describe any of the criteria in detail, but emphasized that they were “objective”— in other words, “you don’t get a higher rank because 20 people called” to complain, Washington said.

An internal presentation on the prioritization system, distributed in April, but bearing the official date June 21, 2022, says the Unified Care Team prioritizes shootings, fires, and major obstructions, followed by issues like trash; proximity to parks and places where children or elderly people congregate; and places where tents pose a visual obstruction to drivers.

According to Housen, the “scoring system” in the presentation represents “the building blocks for encampment prioritization. The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”

Image from city presentation on encampment prioritization, showing an example of a high-ranked encampment at Sixth and Cherry.
Image from city presentation on encampment prioritization, showing an example of a high-ranked encampment at Sixth and Cherry.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to release its own set of criteria for prioritizing encampments for outreach and offers of shelter or housing next week, which will differ somewhat from the city’s criteria. “We talk about encampment resolution, not removal, and resolution for us is everybody actually came inside,” Dones said. “We are not in favor of a displacement-based strategy, and we will engage over whatever period of time is necessary to get everybody into a real placement—not a referral, a placement.”

Overall, though, Dones said the Harrell administration’s prioritization scheme is about “85 percent consistent with how the authority is going to view prioritization,” including the emphasis on violence at encampments. “We agree with that prioritization,” Dones said, and “in our work, we have a corresponding section that looks at violence—things like physical assault, potentially nonphysical assault, verbal abuse, etc. between campers, ranging between simple assaults all way up to shots fired, and ranks those things with different weights.” Continue reading “New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans”