Category: housing

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.

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.

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• 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.

Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate

If you’re looking for a takeaway from this Wednesday’s nearly six-hour hearing on legislation that would place some limits on the city’s authority to displace homeless people from encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Nothing is going to change. Representatives from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration made it abundantly clear, loudly and repeatedly, that the mayor does not consider policies governing encampment sweeps to be a matter that can be legislated under any circumstance, and that now is also not the time for discussing non-legislative solutions, such as changes to the administrative rules governing encampment sweeps in general.

Not that they would be likely to consider changes to those rules anyway—in the view of Durkan and her Human Services Department, the Multi-Disciplinary Administrative Rules, or MDARs, allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments without any prior notice, outreach, or offer of services in almost any circumstance involving one or more tents in a space that could theoretically be accessed by the public. Some of these encampments block sidewalks and entrances to public buildings; in non-pandemic times, these present a clear-cut case. But the Navigation Team also uses the “obstruction” exemption to remove tents tucked into remote areas of public parks, along unpaved, gravel-covered roadway shoulders, and in other areas that aren’t generally used by the public but are technically public spaces. In the fourth quarter of last year, 96 percent of encampment removals were exempt from notice requirements because the Navigation Team deemed them to be “obstructions.”

The mayor holds the cards here; because the proposal is emergency legislation, it requires not only seven council votes but her signature to go into effect.

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Senior deputy mayor Mike Fong began the executive branch’s assault on the legislation Wednesday by expressing incredulity that the city council was trying to prohibit the police from responding to crime in encampments, to prevent the public health department from addressing COVID outbreaks, and to make it impossible for private property owners to report people for trespassing. In fact, the legislation still allows sweeps in many circumstances, including threats to public health and public safety, and trespassing remains illegal.

Specifically, the bill, sponsored by council member Tammy Morales, defines the “extreme circumstances” the Durkan Administration alluded to when it “suspended” encampment removals in March, allowing sweeps when encampments are blocking sidewalk access or access to a building, when an encampment poses a public health or safety threat, or when an encampment poses a threat to infrastructure (for example, if people were lighting fires at the base of a bridge). The restrictions would end when Durkan declares the COVID-19 state of emergencybover, or at the end of the year, whichever comes first.

Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller  followed up by claiming that since the beginning of the pandemic, t the Navigation Team had placed hundreds of people “into shelter.” In fact, by the Navigation Team’s own admission, only 29 percent of encampment residents who “accepted” referrals actually spent a night in shelter in the fourth quarter of last year. The Navigation Team says this percentage has increased dramatically during the pandemic, but the city has not provided information about how many people actually ended up in shelters after the last two sweeps in the International District, despite multiple requests.  While the Navigation Team gets exclusive access to some beds, shelters have been fuller than usual because of the pandemic, and the reason “new” beds become available is because people leave, not because they are housed.

Finally, police chief Carmen Best recited a litany of the worst things that SPD has ever uncovered at encampments, going back to 2017, including sex trafficking, a man eating a sandwich full of maggots, and a laundry list of illegal items, including “meth, heroin, pills, machetes, swords, stolen property, guns,” and knives. If we allow encampments to exist, Best was arguing, all these horrors will continue “under cover, so to speak, the cover of the tents.” If we sweep the encampments out of existence, those crimes will disappear. Get rid of the tents, and the people sitting around exhibiting grotesque signs of mental illness will be cured or disappear.

None of these arguments hold water. Most of the crimes Best was describing, including drug dealing, gun and knife violence, and sex trafficking, happen more frequently in homes and inside buildings than they do in encampments; it is not the type of structure or kind of community a person lives in that causes crime, and Best presented no evidence that people living in tents are either inherently more criminal or more likely to commit the kinds of crimes she listed than people living in houses, apartments, or yurts.

Moreover, as council members pointed out, displacing an entire community because a few people living in that community are committing crimes, including serious ones, does not make any of those people safer. In general, sweeping encampments leads to people being dispersed into the community, which is what happened last week And removing dozens of people over the crimes of a few is not an approach police take to crimes that occur in any other setting. Police carried out a drug sting earlier this month that involved arrests at four tents, an apartment, and a house. Notably, no one called for removing all the other tenants from the apartment building, or for demolishing the house and tossing its contents in a dump truck. But that is routinely what happens at encampments, and the city argues‚ as Best did on Wednesday, that it’s for the good of their “vulnerable” residents. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate”

Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps

Bundling up items to drag outside the police barricades during an encampment removal on South Weller Street last week.

More than six weeks after the Seattle-based Public Defender Association launched its Co-LEAD program in Burien, the diversion program has come home to Seattle and began serving five homeless clients last week. Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, case management, and other basic supports to people experiencing homelessness who have been in the criminal justice system and lack legal options for making money during the COVID-19 pandemic. After launching the program in Burien in April, the PDA had hoped to enroll some of the people who were dispersed throughout the city during several recent encampment sweeps, but were unable to do so because the city moved ahead with the removals before Co-LEAD case workers could identify and enroll new participants.

Since announcing the “suspension” of encampment removals except in the most “extreme” circumstances, Mayor Jenny Durkan has overseen three major encampment sweeps, removing dozens of tents from three locations in Ballard and the International District. The latest two removals were last week.

The city says it did weeks of prior outreach at every encampment it has removed during the pandemic, a claim that some people living in the encampments contradicted. On its blog and in a series of bellicose Twitter posts, HSD said that 63 people were referred to shelter during two encampment removals last week, and claimed that “some campers admitted” to showing up from somewhere else on the morning of the sweep just to get shelter referrals. HSD has not responded to questions about how many of those people actually showed up at shelter, how many people simply dispersed before the morning of each sweep, and how many people who showed up at shelter are still indoors.

“Programs such as Co-Lead should be provided two weeks to offer motels to the homeless at South King; consequently, we are willing to allow the South King encampment removal to be delayed until Sunday, May 31st.” —Letter from Interim CDA, Chinese Information and Service Center, Friends of Little Saigon, SCIDPDA, CIDBIA, The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, APICAT, Kin On, and Helping Link/Mot Dau Noi to Mayor Jenny Durkan before two encampment removals in the Chinatown International District last week

Despite calls from advocates and the city council to move people living outdoors into individual rooms, as the CDC recommends, the Durkan Administration has continued moving people into mass shelters and tiny house villages, saying that people are more at risk living outdoors than they are living in congregate settings. (Generally speaking, the CDC disagrees.) People living at the Ballard Commons were removed on May 4; the camps on South King and South Weller Streets, in the International District, followed on May 20 and May 21, respectively.

Twice in a row, Co-LEAD has hoped to move at least some displaced encampment residents into blocks of hotel rooms it has reserved around the Seattle area, but has been unsuccessful.

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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.

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In Ballard, the PDA was unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was swept.

In the International District, where LEAD again offered to enroll people in Co-LEAD and move them to hotels, the program actually had the support of neighbors who wanted the two encampments gone. In a letter to Durkan, nine organizations in the Chinatown International District, including Interim Community Development Association, asked the mayor to “bring all possible resources to bear to serve the needs of the people living unhoused on South King and South Weller, preferably sheltering these individuals in permanent or transitional housing, which includes motel/hotel/quarantine sites” before doing the sweeps.

Continue reading “Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps”

As County Opens More Non-Congregate Shelter to Prevent Spread of COVID, City Plans to Remove Two More Encampments

Nearly two years after King County first announced that it planned to open a modular shelter for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property in Interbay, the

project is almost ready to open for a new purpose: Providing non-congregate shelter for between 45 and 50 homeless men over 55 from the St. Martin de Porres shelter, run by Catholic Community Services. The modular buildings, which are essentially trailers with windows, fans, and high-walled cubicles to provide privacy and protection from disease transmission between the four men who will share each unit, were originally supposed to be dorm-style shelters housing up to eight people on beds or cots.

The project, which will include eight individual showers, 10 single-stall restrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, and a community room with a meal delivery area, cost $7 million, up from a 2018 projection of $4.5 million. Operating the site will cost around $2 million a year.

“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus”—King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County has focused much of its response to homelessness during the COVID emergency on moving people out of mass shelters—where, County Executive Dow Constantine pointed out Thursday, “we’re likely to have runaway infections before you know it”—and into individual hotel and motel rooms or other non-congregate temporary housing.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID emergency unless they can offer each person “individual housing,” not space in congregate shelter, to prevent the virus from spreading. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the federal guidance says.

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“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus,” Constantine said. “We continue to test [people living in] relocated shelters who are in hotels and would be in facilities like this, and we are finding very little if any transmission of the disease.” At the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is serving as temporary housing for people who had been staying in the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s main shelter in downtown Seattle, 177 people have been tested for COVID-19; zero have tested positive.

The city has focused its response to homelessness on adding more congregate shelter spaces so that people living in mass shelters can sleep further apart, and on providing referrals to shelter for people at the encampments it removes, which the city says are limited to those that cause a public health or public safety risk. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan took issue with the notion that the city and county had adopted different approaches. “There is no ‘or’ here,” she said. “We are taking every approach we can and adding significant additional financial resources from the city to make sure that we are bringing as many people inside as we can.”

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” —Centers for Disease Control

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers, has removed at least two large encampments in recent weeks—one outside the Navigation Center shelter in the International District and one at the Ballard Commons park. In both cases, the city said the encampments posed a public safety and health risk, because people were congregating in violation of state and city orders. In the case of the Commons, the city said that a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 17 homeless people in the Ballard area endangered the safety of people living in and around the park.

“The CDC guidance made very clear that our number one priority would be outreach to people experiencing homelessness, to provide them hygiene, to provide them information, and to try to bring them inside,” Durkan said. “But if there are areas where there is a public safety or public health [issue], we will try to mitigate against that threat.”

The city has said that there were beds in enhanced shelters (24/7 shelters with amenities such as case management and the ability to stay with partners or pets) available for every person living at the Commons, although the city’s official count of 40 residents is significantly lower than estimates provided by both people living at the site and by homeless service providers at the Bridge Care Center across the street. “Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside,” Durkan said.

“Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside.” —Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan 

Next week, the Seattle Human Services Department’s Navigation Team will remove two separate encampments in the International District. On two recent visits to both sites, I counted a total of at least 80 tents, the vast majority of them on South Weller Street between 12th Ave. S. and S. Dearborn St. Durkan did not respond directly to a question about whether the city had sufficient enhanced shelter beds for 80 people. “We will continue to do our best, and we will make offers to everybody who we try to relocate. We want to put compassion first but it has to work with the policy of public safety and public health in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

The Public Defender Association has offered to place people displaced when the city removes encampments in hotel rooms through its new Co-LEAD program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by providing case management and temporary non-congregate housing during the COVID crisis. The city did not take them up on their offer, although Durkan has signed off on the program in principle and name-checked it during Thursday’s press conference. Given that the International District encampments are scheduled for removal starting next Tuesday, it appears unlikely at this point that the people living in these encampments will be candidates for Co-LEAD either.

Hotel-Based Intervention Program Will Expand to Serve Seattle’s Homeless Population

Tents line a street in the International District on Saturday, May 9, 2020.

The Durkan Administration, which has been reluctant to spend city resources putting homeless people in hotels, has signed off on the expansion of the Public Defender Association’s new Co-LEAD program, which provides hotel rooms, case management, food, cell phones, and other necessities to people experiencing homelessness in King County, to include the city of Seattle. Co-LEAD is an expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for people involved in low-level criminal activity, and is aimed at reducing criminal activity at a time when legal options for making money are scarce and setting clients up for success once the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed.

Co-LEAD started last month in Burien, where LEAD partnered with local police to identify people living in parks without access to basics like food and toilets, and now serves people exiting the King County Jail system. The program has secured about 50 hotel rooms in three cities, including Seattle.

The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was removed.

The program targets people who need case management and who are also at risk of ending up in jail without intervention—people like those who were living at the Ballard Commons, where the city removed a large encampment two weeks ago. Participants get temporary hotel rooms, access to gift cards for basic needs, help with housing searches, and physical and behavioral health care through an in-house provider.

One goal of the program is getting people connected to services. Another is simply getting them through the COVID-19 crisis—something that’s hard enough to do in a private house, much less a crowded shelter with limited or no access to entertainment . Something as simple as access to television can make a huge difference in a person’s mental health during lockdown, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says. “There’s no question that that’s  a stress alleviation tool that we’re all using right now,” and it’s especially helpful “for people with anxiety and certain mental conditions that respond well to distraction,” Daugaard said. 

The program isn’t meant to be long-term, nor is it for everyone—a misconception that LEAD has had to combat in Burien, where word of mouth created excess demand for the program.

“It’s not a come-one, come-all program—it needs to have a targeted population,” said PDA deputy director Jesse Benet, who set up Co-LEAD over three weeks. “The whole goal is to get people to shelter in place in hotels, to support them while trying to figure out a longer-term plan.” For example, Co-LEAD case managers might help people get their federal stimulus checks, connect them with medical care and treatment programs, and getting them back on Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program, Benet said. 

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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.

The PDA had hoped to offer Co-LEAD as an option to people living at the Commons, but were unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp—which had been a target of frequent neighborhood complaints, an online petition, and a sensationalistic story on KOMO TV—was swept. However, the city did agree last week to partner with the program in the future, which could lead to hotel room placements for some of those living in crowded outdoor conditions in Pioneer Square or near the Navigation Center in the International District, where a large encampment now stretches along the length of S. Weller St. 

Many homeless service providers and advocates have pushed for hotels as an alternative to crowded shelters at a time when COVID continues to spread rapidly in the community. But they’ve also started asking what comes next. Providers have long argued that crowded shelters are inhumane as a long-term solution to homelessness, but the Seattle area has failed to invest in sufficient housing to get its 12,000-plus homeless residents out of shelters and off the streets. Hotels could be part of the solution.

Certain aspects of a hotel-based approach to homelessness would have to be worked out, including which hotels, how they’d be funded, and who would work there (regular hotel staff? Homeless service providers? A combination of both?) But Daugaard says she can imagine a future in which governments fund hotels as a interim step between homelessness and housing even after the immediate COVID emergency is over. “Hotels, to me, are the game-changer,” Daugaard said. “In a landscape where a pure lack of units is the main barrier to a housing-first strategy for alleviating mass homelessness, suddenly there may be much closer to enough units, at least as a bridge to a more permanent plan,” while potentially helping hotels and hotel workers as well.

The Seattle City Council will get an overview of the Co-LEAD program at its 9:30 am briefings meeting tomorrow.

As COVID-19 Rages, Cities Struggle to Move People from Shelters into Safer Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square.

This excerpt is from a piece I wrote for Huffington Post, where you can read the entire story.

Ordinarily, the atmosphere in the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter in Seattle was just this side of chaos. During the day, men and women crowded into the community room and hung out in a narrow corridor known as the “bowling alley,” arguing, sleeping and jockeying for space.

At night, the clients settled into metal bunks without pillows or sheets, trying to sleep through the sounds and smells of dozens of other people all around them.

These days, though, the space is quiet. Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC began reducing capacity, and in early March, the city moved the remaining 129 residents to an exhibition hall near the Space Needle. One month later, King County moved them to a Red Lion hotel in Renton, a suburb just southeast of Seattle. The move gave them access to real beds, private showers, and three meals a day ― amenities that were unimaginable before COVID-19.

For some, it’s the first time they’ve slept in a bed, in a room with four walls and a door that locks, in years. The difference, both physically and psychologically, is profound. “Staying at the shelter downtown, you’re always at risk. People are stealing from you. There’s junkies shooting up by you. People just want to attack you,” said Michael C., who asked HuffPost to use his first name and last initial only to protect his privacy. “And here it’s a safe place.”

“I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Dan Williams, DESC’s shelter operations manager, said that after staying in the hotel for just a week or so, Michael was unrecognizable ― so much so that Williams followed him down the hallway when he walked in one day, thinking he wasn’t supposed to be there.

“To see this individual, compared to the way that I knew him a month ago, I didn’t know who he was,” Williams said. “His whole presentation was different. He felt comfortable to shower, because it wasn’t in this group setting where anybody could blow through that door at any second.”

Marcus M., another resident who asked to use his first name and last initial only, said the biggest difference is that he doesn’t have to fight for space or deal with the constant threat of confrontation. He would normally sleep in the shelter’s day room because he found the cavernous bunk room too noisy and chaotic. In the hotel, “I can lay on a queen-size bed. I can relax. I have the opportunity to work on myself, recalibrate, and have some perspective.”

Across the country, local governments are engaged in a debate about the most effective way to shelter people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Some have moved people to larger spaces, such as rec centers and convention halls, where they can sleep farther apart in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Other places, including Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco, have also begun moving homeless people into hotels, usually focusing on those who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable.

“What he needed was to be treated with dignity. That was it. And congregate homeless shelters do not do that.”

It’s not just about what’s safer. At the core of the debate is the question of cost ― hotels are generally more expensive than shelters ― and what it will mean when the pandemic is over.

Shelters have problems that extend beyond the spread of COVID-19. If it turns out that cities could have mobilized quickly to house people all along, it may be hard to justify putting people back in shelters once the immediate crisis is over.

For now, cities are beginning to move toward a hotel model for housing people. But many have struggled to do so efficiently. In late March, the city of San Francisco announced that it would open the George R. Moscone Convention Center as a shelter for 400 people, with mats placed six feet apart and divided by lines of tape ― an arrangement that opponents derided as an indoor concentration camp.

After a week of protests from homeless advocates and city supervisors, the city switched gears, downsizing plans for the shelter and committing to moving more unsheltered people into hotels to meet physical distancing directives. On April 10, the city publicly acknowledged a major COVID-19 outbreak at the Multi-Service Center-South Shelter, the largest shelter in the city.

San Francisco counted more than 17,000 people experiencing homelessness last year using a new method that more than doubled the 8,000 found in the most recent traditional one-night count. Mayor London Breed said in early April that the city would secure 7,000 hotel rooms as temporary shelter, and on April 15, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance directing Breed to increase that to 8,250 hotel rooms. Breed refused to sign the ordinance, saying it didn’t “acknowledge the challenges of operating these sites.”

As of late last week, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco said that fewer than 700 homeless people had moved into hotels. At a press conference last Wednesday, Breed said that “it’s difficult to project a timeline” for moving more people into hotels.

“We can’t fight a plague while exempting more than 10,000 people from any ability to stay inside and protect themselves,” said Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In Seattle, where dozens of COVID-19 cases have been linked to homeless shelters, Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted the idea of leasing or buying hotels for homeless residents. The city government is separate from that of King County, which contains Seattle and which has invested in hotel rooms like those at the Red Lion.

Durkan spokesperson Ernesto Apreza says the Federal Emergency Management Agency would only reimburse the city for hotel rooms for people who have been exposed to COVID-19, are over 65, or are otherwise vulnerable. “FEMA requires most sheltering support to be in a congregate setting,” Apreza said.

In fact, numerous states have already requested, and some have received, reimbursement for hotel rooms for the general homeless population, not just those who are “vulnerable.” In Connecticut, where FEMA already expanded reimbursement once to include domestic violence victims, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) made all shelter residents eligible for hotel rooms and is asking FEMA to expand its reimbursement qualifications again. New York, which is moving people into hotel rooms regardless of whether they’re “vulnerable” under the early federal guidelines, has already received FEMA reimbursement. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, states that take the initiative by expanding eligibility and requesting funds under the new criteria have a good chance of being reimbursed.

Read the rest of the story at HuffPost.

Nonprofit Housing Providers Struggle to Pay Bills In COVID Crisis

This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared at Sightline.org, where you can read the entire story.

It’s the first of May. As another rent day arrives, tenants aren’t the only ones seeking relief from the financial fallout of COVID-19, which has led to widespread job loss in nearly every economic sector, and the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

Cascadian affordable housing providers that receive funding through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which helps to fund about 90 percent of all new affordable housing in the US, have also been hit hard by the crisis. Nonprofit providers of subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income wage earners report unpaid rent rates of 20 percent or more, a shortfall that has left many struggling to balance their books.

“Our delinquency rate shot way up, and we are now accepting partial payment for rent and doing some payment plans,” said Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which serves communities throughout the Seattle metro area and in Olympia, Washington. “We’re working with tenants and doing partial payment plans for people who’ve recently become unemployed.”

In Oregon, about half the tenants in buildings owned by REACH Community Development earn income from wages. Anthony Petchel, REACH’s philanthropy and public relations director, says about 10 percent of their tenants had asked for rent forbearance as of late April, but he expected that number to go up as people continue to weather the economic collapse. “[The issue] is having the cash to manage the cash flow disruption” from missed rents, and “how long can all the organizations manage that,” Petchel says.

Daniel Delfino, the program and planning development director for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said that once the 60-day rent and mortgage freeze ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy ends, there are few protections for struggling tenants or for nonprofit housing owners with mortgages to pay.

Currently, nonprofit landlords are working out arrangements with tenants on a “case by case basis,” he said, but with more than 40,000 Alaskans unemployed, it’s unclear when or whether rent payments will get back to normal. “There are usually reserves that are put in place to handle four to six months of operating expenses and debt payments. Those aren’t set up to handle something like COVID-19, when the economic occupancy”—the percentage of people who pay their rent—”goes down from 93 percent to 40 percent.”

Enterprise Community Partners, a national low-income housing advocacy and funding group, estimates that a 10 percent income loss among renters could add up to $238 million per month in losses to groups like these that run LIHTC-funded buildings across the US. That’s based on an average loss of $792 in monthly rent from the three million tenants in LIHTC buildings that Enterprise estimates could miss rent payments if they don’t get assistance.

Susan Boyd, the executive director of Seattle nonprofit provider Bellwether Housing, said wage earners had a delinquency rate of about 21 percent as of mid-April, up from 2 to 3 percent in a typical month, as “about 30 percent of the people who were wage earners have lost all or a part of their income.” Likewise, Chris Persons, the director of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Housing, said April rents are falling about 22 percent short.

It’s easy to see why. With a patchy social safety net, hourly wage earners were already on the precipice of financial disaster before a nationwide economic shutdown led to mass unemployment.

A full-time worker making minimum wage in Oregon earns just over $23,000 a year; in Washington, that number is just over $28,000. According to the Urban Institute, the median income for US renters in low-income tax credit buildings was $17,470 before COVID, and about four in ten of these renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

In King County, which includes Seattle, about 77,000 people making less than $40,000 a year had lost their jobs as of April 16; in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, about 38,000 low-income jobs had vanished. The pandemic puts the US housing crisis on steroids. Low-income renters often live paycheck to paycheck, and if they lose their jobs they simply can’t pay rent. The eviction moratoriums enacted in many jurisdictions throughout the US only grant a reprieve.

Even organizations whose revenues don’t rely primarily on renter incomes—groups like Plymouth Housing and the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle, whose tenants pay their rents using federal vouchers and stable income sources like Social Security Insurance (SSI)—are struggling.

“We rely a lot on local dollars, most of which come from specific local taxes and fees like the [state] document recording fee for housing and homelessness, and of course those could go down if real estate transactions slow down, which seems likely,” DESC director Daniel Malone said. “And as local government taxation goes down, there certainly could be some squeeze on what they choose to fund and what they choose to cut.”

On April 21, Seattle’s City Budget Office released a worst-case revenue forecast that predicts a 2020 funding shortfall of up to $300 million, with some of the biggest revenue losses coming from the construction, retail, and food service sectors. In Portland, a smaller city, the shortfall could be as much as $100 million.

Read the entire story here.

Council Vote Allows Stalled Housing Projects to Move Forward Without Usual Lengthy Review

Not Seattle.

After more weeks of debate than any other piece of emergency legislation to come out of the COVID crisis so far, the Seattle City Council voted this morning to ease the requirement that certain developments go through the lengthy full design review process, allowing dozens of buildings that were already in the process pipeline to continue moving forward. The legislation died last week for lack of seven votes (the requirement for emergency legislation) but was brought back this afternoon with a new amendment from council member Tammy Morales, who initially voted against the bill on the li grounds that it would expedite gentrification in historic districts like the Chinatown/International District and the Central District.

Public comment, which returned last week, was split between people who insisted that streamlining design review, even for a few months, would lead to the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods and the decimation of urban forests, and those who argued that building housing was critical to the city’s recovery. Several speakers who opposed the bill said that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections “can’t be trusted” and suggested that city land-use bureaucrats were hellbent on scraping single-family lots of trees and vegetation to build dense, “unaffordable buildings” in the middle of their single-family neighborhoods.

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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.

Last week, Morales proposed an amendment that would have eliminated a provision allowing city staff, rather than historic district and landmark review boards, to approve changes in historic districts. That amendment failed, and Morales voted against the legislation, along with Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen. This time, she came back with a more narrowly tailored amendment specifically prohibiting any online meetings of the city’s International [District] Special Review District on the grounds that the community includes many people without access to technology and translation services. That amendment passed, and Morales voted for the final bill, calling her vote “my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.”

Council member Andrew Lewis proposed an amendment, which failed to pass, that would have halted work on three projects that are participating in the city’s Living Building pilot program by requiring them to continue through the full design review process. “Living buildings” get some extra height and density in exchange for being built to high environmental standards, but like other buildings that receive height bonuses, they tend to be controversial among traditional neighborhood groups. Lewis said he had heard concerns from “the community” that allowing these projects to shift to administrative design review, which doesn’t require in-person meetings but does allow public feedback, would lead to inferior buildings. The amendment failed despite an assist from Herbold, who encouraged Lewis to reiterate his reasons for believing that projects shouldn’t shift from full design review to a less process-y process midstream.

“This will be my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.” — Council member Tammy Morales

And what about Herbold, who voted against the bill last week after her own amendment, which would have eliminated a provision that exempts affordable housing from design review for six months, failed? City rules prohibited her from bringing up the same amendment again (as they did with Morales’ unsuccessful changes), and she voted against the bill a second time, arguing that the affordable-housing exemption violates Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting cities from considering legislation that is unrelated to the COVID emergency. Council president Lorena Gonzalez, who said she had consulted on this question extensively with the city clerk and city attorney’s office, disagreed, and the legislation passed 7-2.

The upshot of all this is actually more significant than the last few weeks’ arcane finagling suggest. Dozens of projects, including affordable housing projects, have been on hold since Inslee’s order halted in-person public meetings, putting a critical economic sector in a holding pattern until the city decided what to do. Now, and for the next six months, these projects can get back underway. As Queen Anne Community Council board member Justin Allegro put it during public comment, “We don’t want to look back and regret that we missed out on huousing opportunities now just because we weren’t willing to trust our city employee experts to make design review decisions for the next few months.”