Category: human services

Scramble for Slots at New Tiny House Village Shows Consequences of Shelter Scarcity

Alex Pedersen
Council member Alex Pedersen; Seattle Channel screenshot.

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this year, as the city prepared to sweep a small encampment in the University District where a man had recently been shot, residents and businesses in the area rallied around an idea that seemed to address one of the fundamental flaws with the city’s encampment policy: Instead of simply clearing out Olga Park and forcing everyone to leave, why not give encampment residents first dibs on a tiny house village that was expected to open nearby in about a month?

The idea would have solved two related problems. Neighbors complained that the encampment was particularly disruptive—before the shooting, there were many reports of fights, fires, and threats—and, at the same time, encampment residents couldn’t exactly pick up stakes and go inside. “My spiel [to the city] was, ‘If you guys are going to put tiny house villages in neighborhoods, it would show the benefit of having a tiny house village if it was for people in that neighborhood,” said David Delgado, the University District neighborhood care coordinator for the outreach group REACH.

Just over half of the referrals to Rosie’s Village—about 20—will come from the surrounding area; the rest will reportedly come from upcoming encampment sweeps in Lower Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons.

Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who represents the U District, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Low Income Housing Institute’s tiny house village at NE 45th and Roosevelt Way NE, known as Rosie’s Village, in part because it could provide a shelter option for unhoused people in the area while addressing neighborhood and business concerns about trash, needles, and other issues related to the unsheltered population.

Although neither Pedersen nor his staff responded to our requests for an interview, Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, praised Pedersen for being “so pushy and so organized” in getting a tiny house village in his district.

“A big part of his motivation is he wants it to be a resource for his district,” Lewis said. “Generally speaking, as we’re going to have six new villages coming online, I would like to see if we can have dedicated referrals that concentrate on the neighborhood where the village is sited.”

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Ultimately, the city swept Olga Park and encampment residents were scattered throughout the city. Some stayed in the U District, moving to spots near I-5 and other parts of Ravenna Park, while others moved to places like Lower Woodland Park. Rosie’s Village, which the city says can accommodate about 50 people, finally started taking referrals from the city’s HOPE team, which coordinates shelter referrals prior to encampment removals, this week. According LIHI director Sharon Lee, just over half of the referrals to Rosie’s Village—about 20—will come from the surrounding area; the rest reportedly will come from upcoming encampment sweeps in Lower Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons.

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said that “while the expectation was that a number of referrals from the vicinity would be made to Rosie’s Tiny House Village, the City never intended, or communicated, that the Village would only accept referrals from people experiencing homelessness in the University District.” Earlier this year, he added, the city moved people living unsheltered in the University District to hotels and shelters in other neighborhoods, including the Executive Pacific Hotel shelter, also operated by LIHI, downtown. Continue reading “Scramble for Slots at New Tiny House Village Shows Consequences of Shelter Scarcity”

SPD’s Community Service Officer is Poised to Grow, But the Program is Still Finding Its Feet

SPD Community Service Officers
SPD Community Service Officer Kevin Hendrix and sworn officer Hosea Crumpton; image via SPD Facebook.

By Paul Kiefer

The re-launch of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Service Officer (CSO) unit at the end of 2019 was quickly overshadowed by a global pandemic. In the two years since, the unarmed civilian team has mostly remained under the radar, handling non-emergency calls, connecting runaway kids and domestic violence victims to service providers, and doing meet-and-greets at neighborhood events.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2022 budget proposal would add six new officers to the CSO program, making it the only police department program to gain new full-time positions next year. Durkan’s plan would bring the total funded positions to 24; the team is still waiting to fill 10 existing positions that have been vacant since the beginning of the summer, so bringing the program to full strength would mean hiring 18 more people.

In some ways, the city council’s vocal support for scaling up alternatives to traditional (armed) police puts the CSO program in an advantageous position: instead of bulletproof vests and a gun belt, the CSOs wear light-blue polo shirts and walkie-talkies. But the unit is still part of SPD, and despite pressure from some activists to move the program to a civilian department, the CSOs themselves have been clear that they want to stay put. At the same time, some of the unit’s responsibilities seem increasingly redundant in a growing ecosystem of civilian-led public safety services.

During one week in late September, CSOs appeared at six community gatherings in an effort to “build positive rapport” with community members; according to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of those appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO program and to act as friendly ambassadors for SPD.

For the police department, the CSO program serves both as an in-house patrol support team and a community relations tool: A friendly, approachable face for a department that is desperately trying to regain public trust. As Seattle shifts its energy toward civilianizing public safety, the CSO program is the department’s most saleable asset—and one that could, according to program leaders, play a key part in reconnecting the city to SPD.

During one week in late September, CSOs appeared at six community gatherings in an effort to “build positive rapport” with community members; according to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of those appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO program and to act as friendly ambassadors for SPD.

Inaba was one of the first people the department hired when the city finally reassembled the CSO program in 2019. Before joining SPD, he spent three years working for the Downtown Seattle Association as a safety supervisor and outreach case manager.

Though the current CSO program is still finding its footing, the concept isn’t new to Seattle. The department originally launched the program in the early 1970s in a bid to de-escalate tensions between SPD and Black residents of the Central District—tensions driven by allegations of racist policing and excessive force by the department’s officers—and to create a recruitment pipeline for Black police officers. For 33 years, the unit handled everything from landlord-tenant disputes to reconnecting homeless youth with their families. But after a series of budget cuts under then-mayor Greg Nickels, SPD disbanded the original CSO program in 2004.

Over one week in September, SPD’s patrol staff handed off calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, the officers found shelter space for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid for an Uber to take a domestic violence victim to a friend’s house after connecting them to an advocate.

When SPD and then-City Councilmember Mike O’Brien announced plans to revive the program in 2017, SPD was entangled in allegations of racially biased policing and excessive force—and, as a result, five years into an oversight agreement with the US Department of Justice known as the consent decree. Even before the department assembled a new CSO team, some community activists had already raised the possibility of moving the program out of SPD. But department leadership stood firm, arguing that the CSOs should act as a supplement to patrol, not an autonomous team of social service workers providing wraparound care.

With SPD’s ranks stretched thin after more than a year of high attrition, the CSOs have frequently served in this supplementary role. Over one week in late September, SPD’s patrol staff handed off calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, the officers found shelter space for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid for an Uber to take a domestic violence victim to a friend’s house after connecting them to an advocate.

Right now, Inaba said, the CSOs are among the only responders who have time to handle those tasks. “What we have is time, so we can help free up sworn officer to deal with other things while we help someone figure out where they can find what they need,” he said. In the past year, SPD patrol officers have called CSOs for support on more than 500 emergency calls; Inaba hopes that the city’s 911 dispatch will eventually be able to send CSOs directly to emergency calls, which be believes would add to their usefulness. Continue reading “SPD’s Community Service Officer is Poised to Grow, But the Program is Still Finding Its Feet”

Mosqueda Challenger Rails Against “Ghetto-Type Paintings,” Durkan Proposes Moving Homeless Outreach Team to Parks Department

1. Ever since an unknown civil engineer named Kenneth Wilson eked out 16 percent of the vote to come in second in the August council primary, the conventional wisdom has been that City Council District 8 incumbent Teresa Mosqueda (who in actual fact won with 59 percent) is facing “a more competitive race than expected,” thanks to a “surprise” upset by a  “frugal,” “competent” “fresh face” whom one pundit called just the kind of “Mr. Fixit” that the council “badly need[s].”

As compelling as those arguments may seem, we’d like to offer a counterpoint: Wilson’s own words.

During his closing statement in a debate last weekend moderated by PubliCola’s Erica Barnett, Wilson explained that one of the reasons he started “becoming political” was the presence of “ghetto-type paintings everywhere” (presumably: Graffiti-style murals), which he associated with crime. In her own closing statement, Mosqueda responded that Wilson, “as someone who says they’re analytical, should analyze how that statement is not a good thing to be saying.” She also pointed out that Wilson constantly talked over and interrupted the moderator, which he did.

In response to a question about how he would deal with the confirmation process for and appointment of a permanent director for the city’s arts office—a process Mayor Jenny Durkan upended by appointing a new temporary director to replace one she appointed earlier, all without input from the arts commission or the advisory body set up to advise her on the selection—Wilson responded: 

“So, first, first and foremost, the arts and culture are so fundamental to our life. We saw the great impact that we lost with what happened in COVID. So many things shut down. So having this important position is valuable to our community and something that we need to build upon. So I would take that very seriously. … I know we had questions even about what’s your qualifications for a position to teach in school. I think some of these jobs have a background to them but an educator, even having some of your background in arts and doing these things firsthand. So being a performer and how we’re going to select this and criteria that we would add to our thing is really valuable to me.”

Sometimes it really is okay just say you don’t have enough background to answer the question and leave it at that.

Finally, at a forum sponsored by Seattle Fair Growth, Wilson responded to a question about preventing displacement by suggesting that someone who makes $50,000 a year and can only afford a $1,600-a-month studio apartment in Seattle should take advantage of their “mobility” and “use their $1,600 maybe down at Angle Lake and get a three-bedroom apartment. Here in Seattle, we’re having other challenges.” Moving away from an urban neighborhood where you’ve lived for a long time to a suburb 20 miles away is pretty much the definition of displacement, not its solution.

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said the city planned to “loan” the HOPE Team’s system navigators to the Parks Department, where their job will consist of being “present on the day of a clean to offer shelter to the one or two people that are left there.”

Wilson has raised about $62,000 in his bid to unseat Mosqueda, and so enchanted Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat that Westneat devoted an entire column to his virtues. The Times did not endorse in the primary, expressing astonishment that the popular incumbent did not draw “stronger” challengers.

2, As the city’s homelessness services move over to the new regional homelessness authority, one major unanswered question is: What will happen to the HOPE team?

The team, whose acronym stands for Homeless Outreach and Provider Ecosystem, was supposed to be a less-punitive replacement for the Navigation Team, which was primarily responsible for removing encampments. In reality, the team became a kind of vanguard for the Parks Department, which now conducts most of the city’s sweeps. Continue reading “Mosqueda Challenger Rails Against “Ghetto-Type Paintings,” Durkan Proposes Moving Homeless Outreach Team to Parks Department”

Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks

1. For weeks, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been involving herself with a strike by members of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters’ Union, joining a group of militant carpenters in encouraging “wildcat” strikes at work sites where legally binding agreements forbid walking off the job. The splinter group, called the Peter J. McGuire Group, maintains that union leaders aren’t asking for enough in ongoing negotiations with the Association of General Contractors.

Sawant has largely dismissed union leaders and members who have asked her to stop “interfering” in the ongoing strike, accusing “top union officials” of being the ones who are actually fomenting dissent by discouraging wildcat strikes. Now, a union that has historically supported Sawant, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says they may not contribute materially to her upcoming recall election because of her work to disrupt the carpenters’ labor negotiations. In the past, UFCW has contributed thousands of dollars to independent expenditure campaigns that have worked to elect Sawant. 

The union has endorsed a “no” vote on the recall, which UFCW 21 secretary-treasurer Joe Mizrahi calls an “undemocratic” effort they would oppose “no matter who the candidate was.” 

“[Sawant’s] treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”—UFCW 21 Treasurer-Secretary Joe Mizrahi

Mizrahi says Sawant is ignoring the ways in which “her involvement puts workers’ jobs at risk and their union money at risk. … Striking is a legal act—oftentimes, these contracts have a no-strike clause and if you violate that, the worker is not protected.”

Unions and workers can pay a stiff price if wildcat strikes disrupt a company’s ability to do business, Mizrahi says. For example, in Portland, secondary strikes by the longshoreman’s union (strikes against companies that were not party to the union’s contract) resulted in a judgment that bankrupted the union’s treasury. Such judgments send money directly from workers (whose dues make up the union treasury) to the companies that employ them. “The union treasury is employee money, so it’s transferring that worker money right back to the employer, which is the last place you want it to go,” Mizrahi said.

Mizrahi says it’s good to have union members pushing leadership for more favorable contract terms, but notes that Sawant isn’t the one who will suffer the consequences if the union is penalized because its workers violate labor law. “Her treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”

2. For the second year in a row, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed eliminating funding for the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a private program that works to keep people living in vehicles from losing their only source of shelter. And for the second year, Scofflaw Team founder Bill Kirlin-Hackett is trying to get the Seattle City Council to restore the team’s funding, arguing that the $80,000 the team receives is crucial because it helps people living in RVs and cars pay for repairs, parking tickets, and other expenses they incur as a result of city policies aimed at preventing people from living in their vehicles.

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Kirlin-Hackett says he has already spoken to council members about restoring funds for the program, “advocating, in large part, ‘if you cut this then you will have no one doing intentional outreach to vehicle residents when half the unsheltered population lives in vehicles.'”

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower notes that Durkan’s proposed budget includes a transfer of funds from the Seattle Department of Transportation to Seattle Public Utilities for trash pickup, sewage pump-outs, and property removal from RV sites, in order to “solicit voluntary compliance w[ith] removing belongings, debris from ROW.” The budget itself identifies these funds, which would pay for one new “field coordinator,” as “part of the City’s efforts to increase access to the [right-of-way].”

Hightower notes that the council paid for the scofflaw program last year with one-time funds, and says this year’s cut is in keeping with that intent. However, the city council actually first funded the program in 2019 with ongoing funds, adding it back to the budget in 2020 (and funding it with one-time dollars) after the mayor’s budget eliminated funding for the program.

3. Durkan’s budget also includes no new funding for street sinks, which the council funded in 2020 so that unsheltered people could wash their hands. Since most public restrooms in the city shut down or limited access in response to COVID, diseases like shigellosis, hepatitis A, and cryptosporidiosis have rampaged through communities of people living unsheltered, who have little access to clean water and soap.

“There is deep, deep resentment that [service providers] would be responsible for the sinks: ‘Why is the city not doing this? Why is it up to us, especially [when we’re] being overwhelmed during the pandemic?'”—Tiffani McCoy, Real Change

The mayor has consistently thrown up roadblocks to the sinks, ranging from concerns about “vandalism” to demands that SPU study alternatives to soap-and-water washing, such as a “Purell on a pole” idea that would substitute a quick squirt of hand sanitizer for a thorough cleaning with soap and water. The city finally allocated funds to two organizations, Seattle Makers and the Clean Hands Collective, with new requirements: The sinks have to drain directly into a storm drain, rather than a receptacle or planter as originally proposed, and they have to be fully ADA compliant, not just wheelchair accessible.

The city does not apply similar universal accessibility standards to its own portable toilets, many of which are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. Continue reading “Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks”

Mayoral Debates Highlight Key Differences in How Candidates Would Approach Homelessness

 

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday, two debates on homelessness highlighted stark differences between how each of the mayoral candidates—current Seattle City Council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell—would address the homelessness crisis. The first was sponsored by the Resolution to End Homelessness; the second, by We Are In and the Seattle Times.

As the Times noted in its own coverage of its debate, Harrell frequently responded to direct questions by changing the subject—answering a question about access to public restrooms, for example, by repeating a talking point about how people don’t care who’s to blame for the homelessness crisis—and claimed several times to have run into people he knew growing up in the Central District when visiting encampments and tiny house villages.

“”Mr. Harrell’s homelessness plan is a verbatim facsimile of a corporate and Republican-funded plan, commonly referred to as Compassion Seattle.”—Lorena González

González, meanwhile, focused on more long-term solutions to homelessness, like changing the city’s zoning code and building 37,000 new housing units in King County—the number a 2020 report said would be necessary to solve the county’s affordable-housing crisis—even in response to questions about how to address the problem of unsheltered homelessness in the short term.

Here are some of the key points on which Harrell and González offered starkly different approaches on homelessness.

Funding for Homelessness Response

Harrell, who has proposed a homeless strategy that is basically identical to the erstwhile “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, said the city has more than enough resources already, between existing city funds and potential corporate philanthropy, to solve unsheltered homelessness and “get our parks and our open spaces, and our sidewalks clean.”

Asked whether the city needs additional resources to fund housing, shelters, or services for people experiencing homelessness, Harrell responded than in 12 years on the council, he had never reached a point where “you have enough money to solve all of your problems. You have to take some principles of business into play and make sure that you do an inventory of what assets you have, you use them efficiently and effectively, you start solving the problem.”

“Seattle should not look at this as though we have a scarcity of resources,” Harrell said.

Harrell added that while the city worked to get new progressive revenue options from the state legislature (options that the state legislature has so far declined to provide), the city should also ask “wealthy corporations” with “corporate social responsibility goals” to contribute funding, which could produce “hundreds of millions of dollars” to address homelessness.

“Seattle should not look at [homelessness] as though we have a scarcity of resources.” — Bruce Harrell

González, in contrast, pointed to her co-sponsorship of the JumpStart payroll tax as an example of the kind of progressive revenue she’d work to expand as mayor, and criticized Harrell’s proposal to build 2,000 shelter “units” in one year using existing revenues (i.e. the Compassion Seattle plan) as inadequate to address the need. “Mr. Harrell’s homelessness plan is a verbatim facsimile of a corporate and Republican funded plan, commonly referred to as Compassion Seattle,” González said, calling it a plan “to legitimize sweeps… with the fig leaf of only an additional 1 percent of funding to address this crisis.”

Sweeps

During both debates, Harrell dodged direct questions about whether he supports “sweeps”—the forcible removal of unsheltered people from public spaces—rejecting the word itself as “radioactive.” Instead, he pointed to his support from faith leaders and his support for the United Way of King County, where his wife, Joanne, was CEO for several years.

“You allow people to donate not just money, but their time, their expertise,” he said. “I believe that the city can do that. And so we shouldn’t have to look at the human suffering of other people, and that’s my attitude going in, that I will bring into the mayor’s office: We don’t have to see it, and we’re going to lead with love, and we will make sure that people can enjoy their parks and have a quality of life that they deserve.”

González, noting Harrell’s frequent references to “cleaning” parks so that housed people can use them, said she wouldn’t shut down encampments until “the city does its job and provides provides the shelter and the housing that’s necessary to actually transition poor people out of poverty. … As mayor, I’m going to leverage every available resource. And I’m committed to rapidly rehousing people into meeting the needs of shelter housing and mental health needs of all of those we are currently failing.”

Solutions

González said that one of her first steps as mayor would be to work “with city staff, with community service providers, and with housing providers to immediately create individual service plans, and to immediately identify who is ready to come inside, based on an adequate offer of housing and shelter.” Beyond that, she said she would identify new resources to fund shelter and housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness—about 37,000 units countywide.

“The reality is that right now, on any given night, we do not have enough shelter for the nearly 4,000 people who are sleeping outside,” González said. “It is critically important for us to remain committed to … approaches that are going to reduce trauma, and also increase our success in actually ending homelessness, not just hiding it.”

“We shouldn’t have to look at the human suffering of other people, and that’s my attitude going in, that I will bring into the mayor’s office: We don’t have to see it, and we’re going to lead with love, and we will make sure that people can enjoy their parks and have a quality of life that they deserve.”—Bruce Harrell

Harrell said he would adopt a mix of upstream and downstream approaches, including early childhood education, health care for people who can’t get funding through other government programs, mentoring and life skills classes, and a jobs center where people can “tap into their gifts, whether it’s working with their hands, whether they draft code, or they’re artists.” These programs, Harrell said, would be places where “people who may not be chronically homeless, may not have the extent of mental illness that some do, can find employment, can retool themselves, and we’ll bring in mentors and counselors to make sure that they are on a better path.”

Harrell also said he would send “culturally competent” people to do outreach at encampments and suggested that the current outreach system does not provide unsheltered people with outreach workers who “look like them” or have “cultural commonality” with the people they’re attempting to help.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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Tiny Houses

Harold Odom, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition and a longtime resident of a tiny house village in Georgetown, asked both candidates what they would do to avoid the proliferation of tiny-house villages, which he called “Hoovervilles,” around the city. Tiny house villages are a type of enhanced shelter where people live in a community of small shed-like structures and access services through a provider such as the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs all of the city’s sanctioned tiny house villages.

The issue of tiny house villages is a live one, as the new regional homelessness authority takes over nearly every aspect of Seattle’s homelessness response; the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, is a tiny house village skeptic.

González said she would work to lower the amount of time people stay in tiny house villages and create a “meaningful transition away from tiny sheds and towards a path of sustainable, safe, appropriate … housing for those who are currently living in those spaces. While we all acknowledged at one point in time that these structures provide a safer option than living in our parks or in doorways or in greenways, I agree that five years in, it now appears that we are baking this in to our intervention strategies.”

Harrell said that he, too, would like to create a goal of moving people from tiny houses into permanent housing more quickly, and pivoted to talking about his health care plan, his plan for a job center, and his Empowerment and Opportunity Program, a mentorship program for Black kids to learn networking, wealth building, and career skills. “I want people out of those tiny homes as much as possible as well…  just to make sure that we can get our parks and our open spaces and our sidewalks clean,” he said. “And I said publicly, it’s inhumane just to ignore people’s conditions. So… we’re going to get them services that they currently do not have.”

People who “don’t want help”

At both debates, the candidates were asked some version of the question, “What do you do with people who refuse services because they just want to live outside?” Continue reading “Mayoral Debates Highlight Key Differences in How Candidates Would Approach Homelessness”

Advocates Propose “Solidarity Budget,” LEAD Seeks Funding, Posters Protest Candidate’s Anti-RV Action

1. On Saturday,  a coalition of Seattle-area police abolitionist groups and community nonprofits debuted the city’s second “solidarity budget,” a set of spending proposals for Seattle’s 2022 budget that would shift dollars away from police, prosecutors and the municipal court to pay for mental health services, education and housing programs. The coalition released their plan two days before Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed her own 2022 budget—the fourth and final budget of her term.

The coalition, which includes Decriminalize Seattle, the Transit Riders Union, and Columbia Legal Services, among other advocates, released the first solidarity budget last year, lobbying the council to decrease the Seattle Police Department’s budget by half and to launch a city-wide participatory budgeting program to re-distribute public safety dollars. Ultimately, the council chose to reduce SPD’s 2021 budget by 11 percent and set aside a participatory budgeting program; that project was subsequently delayed  until at least next year.

This year’s solidarity budget also calls for a 50 percent cut to the criminal legal system, largely by cutting the total number of SPD officers to 750—roughly 300 fewer officers than the department currently employs. The proposal calls for eliminating SPD’s narcotics unit, cutting the special victims unit budget by half, eliminating the department’s public affairs unit, and moving the civilian Community Safety Officer program out of the department and into the new Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC).

The coalition also recommended cutting the budgets of the Municipal Court and the criminal division of the City Attorney’s Office by 50 percent. “While the Municipal Court and City Attorneys have begun to embrace non-incarceration and conviction approaches to misdemeanors,” the coalition wrote in their budget outline, “court and prosecutors are not social service agencies, and should not be the gateway to housing and treatment.”

The solidarity budget would shift the money saved through all these cuts to nonprofits that can run civilian crisis response teams, mental health and harm reduction programs, and domestic violence victim support. It also calls for setting aside $60 million for participatory budgeting (the mayor’s budget sets aside $30 million for this purpose), as well as roughly $3 million to support members of the Duwamish tribe in the absence of federal recognition—including free transit passes, funding for inpatient drug rehabilitation, and rental assistance.

2. Earlier this month, PubliCola reported that Fremont Brewing, owned by Seattle City Council candidate Sara Nelson, had apparently placed “ecology blocks” in the public street around its Ballard production facility to prevent people living in RVs from parking there.

The story appears to have sparked outrage: Over the weekend, someone put posters saying “Sara Nelson Hates Poor People” on the blocks. As of Sunday, both the eco blocks and the posters remained in place, although at least some of the posters now say simply, and enigmatically, “Sara Nelson,” after someone (presumably a supporter) came by and removed the bottom half of the message.

Eco blocks, which are enormous, heavy, and hard to move, have popped up in industrial areas around the city as business owners have sought new ways to keep people living in vehicles from parking on public streets near their properties. Obstructing public rights-of-way in this manner is illegal, but the Seattle Department of Transportation has, so far, thrown up its hands, pointing to the difficulty and expense of removing hundreds or thousands of multi-ton blocks from streets around the city.

3. Throughout the Durkan administration, the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) has frequently struggled to convince the mayor’s office to release funding for the program, a diversion program for people whose criminal legal system involvement stems from behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. This year has been no different: In June, the council appropriated $3 million to expand LEAD’s budget by third, but the Human Services Department hasn’t gotten the dollars out the door.

During a presentation at the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee outlining the costs and logistics of expanding LEAD program into a citywide service, council member Andrew Lewis asked HSD staff for a “status update” on the funding. Instead, HSD deputy director Tess Colby said that her department is “actively working” to get the dollars out the door. If HSD doesn’t get the $3 million into LEAD’s hands before the end of the year, the money will go back into the city’s general fund. Continue reading “Advocates Propose “Solidarity Budget,” LEAD Seeks Funding, Posters Protest Candidate’s Anti-RV Action”

As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites

Kent isolation and quarantine facility
Screenshot: King County Youtube

By Erica C. Barnett

An alarming increase in COVID cases among people experiencing homelessness has been exacerbated in recent weeks, homeless service providers say, by rumors that if people enter a county-run isolation and quarantine site, they won’t be allowed to leave.

And even before these rumors began circulating widely, many unhoused people who tested positive for COVID were reluctant to enter isolation and quarantine, for reasons that ranged from active substance use to the fear that if they left an encampment, they would lose everything they had—a not unreasonable assumption, given the recent uptick in encampment sweeps.

“The resistance, in my experience, has been across the board,” Dr. Cyn Kotarski, medical director for the Public Defender Association, said. “I haven’t met anyone so far who doesn’t have some fear and some resistance to go, and that’s mostly just because it’s overwhelming. It can feel pretty scary to think that you don’t know where you’re going or why, especially when you’re taking someone out of their own environment and their own community,” Kotarski said. The PDA is a partner on several efforts to move unsheltered people into hotels during the pandemic, including Co-LEAD and JustCare.

Although early reports suggested that people living outdoors are less susceptible to COVID infection than those living in group quarters like congregate shelters, the more contagious delta variant could lead to more infections in both indoor and outdoor locations. During the week that ended September 10, King County counted 41 people experiencing homelessness who tested positive for COVID—an undercount, since it only accounts for county testing events.

According to King County Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole, as of last week, there were 22 active COVID cases associated with encampment outbreaks, defined as two or more people who have tested positive at an encampment—an “increase from baseline” of “one to four cases per month associated with encampments.” A review of the county’s weekly reports shows a steady increase in cases that began in early August and hasn’t abated.

“The facilities are not secure, and staying is totally optional. When people come in, we say, ‘Your isolation period is this long, your quarantine period is this long. If you do not want to stay the whole time, let’s talk about it.'”—Hedda McClendon, King County

The increase in COVID cases has impacted every part of the county’s service system. The county’s public health department offers testing and transportation for people who test positive, but service providers and county officials say the system is stretched thin, with long waits for transportation and even testing. According to Cole, the current wait for a test by the county’s HEART E Team, one of two teams that performs testing at homeless encampments, can be as long as five to seven days. When someone living in an encampment tests positive, an outreach provider often must wait with them for hours until a county vehicle arrives to take them to isolation and quarantine, increasing the likelihood that they’ll give up and decide not to go. 

Just getting someone on the phone, outreach workers say, can be a challenge. “You call in and they take your number, but if you call back, it’s an automated line and you have to try to reach the person you were talking to,” Dawn Shepard, the south district outreach coordinator for REACH, said. If an outreach worker or unsheltered person misses a call from the county’s COVID hotline, Shepard says, they’ll have to start the whole process over again, “and by that point the person’s just losing interest.” Currently, Shepard added, “It’s taking us about eight hours from coordination to pickup.”

The county, through a partnership with T-Mobile, has handed out about 500 cell phones for outreach providers to distribute to clients, according to Cole, but Stewart says they need more, along with rapid COVID tests so that people don’t have to wait for days to get tested. Currently, rapid tests are hard to come by and expensive when they are available.

Meanwhile, the number of people staying at the Kent isolation and quarantine site, where 60 rooms are currently available, has increased from zero to 50 virtually “overnight,” King County COVID Emergency Services Group director Hedda McClendon said, stretching resources thin. If all the rooms fill up, the county will have to start triaging people based on test results, exposure, and other qualifications, turning people away if their cases aren’t severe.

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Shepard said that in the early days of the pandemic, “we really didn’t see folks that were living outside contracting the disease…  largely because the viral load is much lower when you’re outside. Now, though, I think it’s safe to say that with the delta variant, our clients don’t have the same protection, because we’re seeing it all over the city.”

Shelter providers, including Compass and WHEEL, also confirm that they’ve seen an increase in cases; according to WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand, COVID “is ripping through many, many homeless programs and communities,” including WHEEL’s women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has seen at least 11 positive cases in the past few weeks. “We’ve had to stop doing intakes now because of this outbreak,” Marchand continued, adding that the organization is seeking funds for hotel vouchers “to meet the immediate need during this current crisis.”

Charlene Mitchell, the program manager at the Compass Housing-run women’s shelter Jan and Peter’s Place, said that the shelter requires people who test positive to stay “in their bed area” while they wait to be taken to the site in Kent, a process that’s considerably faster than testing and moving people living unsheltered. (Currently, the county uses Yellow Cabs for this purpose). She can remember one recent case when a woman left the shelter for the Kent site and decided not to stay. “She turned around [after arriving] and stayed outside in the streets and at the bus stop” after family members refused to take her in. “She recovered, but I don’t know who all she infected” while she was contagious, Mitchell said.

Shepard says that she’s encountered an increasing number of unsheltered people who tell her they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t want to be tested or go into isolation and quarantine because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed to leave. “There was this big push, when isolation and quarantine opened, that they were not going to hold people against their will, but now there are stories coming out about that happening to people.” Shepard says she takes these stories “with a grain of salt—when I’ve asked who has had that experience, it’s just like, ‘everyone knows'”—but says they’ve had an impact nonetheless. “The big thing I’m hearing right now is, ‘No, I don’t want to go because they won’t let me leave.'” Continue reading “As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites”

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”

City Finally Sends Team to Bitter Lake Encampment, City Attorney Candidate Has Scant Court Record, 37th LD Endorses

Anything Helps' Mike Mathias takes questions at a recent public meeting at Broadview Thomson K-8 School.
Anything Helps’ Mike Mathias takes questions at a recent public meeting at Broadview Thomson K-8 School.

1. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, a group that coordinates outreach by social-services groups like REACH, has begun showing up at a controversial encampment near Broadview Thomson K-8 School after months of deliberate inaction from the city—a sign, advocates and encampment residents fear, that the city is preparing to sweep the area.

For months, Mayor Jenny Durkan has maintained that the city bears no responsibility for helping the dozens of people living at the encampment, which is on school district-owned property along the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. Earlier this year, Durkan said the school district should establish its own human services system to provide services and housing for the people living there, using district “reserves” to pay for it.

Once the district missed its self-imposed deadline of September 1 to move people off the property, however, the city changed its tune, sending HOPE Team members into the encampment to “do an assessment of the needs of the current residents of the encampment and identify the resources needed to permanently address the encampment,” according to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt.

Mike Mathias, an outreach worker who has been on site at the encampment with his organization, Anything Helps, for months, says the sudden presence of city outreach workers has “freaked out” a lot of people at the encampment, leading to more disruptive behavior and residents giving out false information to the new, unfamiliar outreach staff. “Our whole goal was to be on site so that if outreach teams wanted to collaborate, they could come up or call us and we could give them warm introductions to people,” Mathias said. “Instead, the city keeps sending people without any notice, and it’s frightening for people.”

The city is reportedly about to stop referring new clients to the two hotels it has leased through next year, leaving rooms vacant as people leave, so the only options available to encampment residents are existing shelters and tiny house villages, which fill up quickly.

Mathias says the city has told him flatly that encampment residents will have to move into congregate shelters, rather than hotel rooms, while they wait for housing resources to come through. (Mathias is trying to sign most of the residents up for the Housing and Essential Needs program, subsidized housing for low-income people with disabilities, but it’s a slow process.) “Our priority [now] is ensuring that people can stay together and that they don’t go to congregate settings,” Mathias said. “That’s just not going to happen not here.”

Ideally, Mathias said, the city would open rooms in the two hotels it has reserved for people referred by the HOPE Team for residents of the Bitter Lake encampment. Originally, the hotels were supposed to serve as temporary housing for unsheltered people who would be moved quickly into permanent spots using “rapid rehousing” subsidies, so that each room could shelter multiple people over the life of the hotel contracts, which are supposed to start ramping down early next year.

However, not only did that optimistic scenario fall flat, the city currently plans to stop referring new clients to the hotels as soon as mid-October, PubliCola has learned, leaving rooms vacant as people leave. (HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt told PubliCola after this article was posted that the city has not picked a specific date to stop taking new referrals to the hotels.) This would mean that the only options available to encampment residents are existing shelters, which many people experiencing homelessness avoid, and tiny house villages, which fill up quickly. The contracts the city has signed with hotel service providers say that they will begin decommissioning the hotels at the end of this year.

Mundt, from HSD, says it is not true that the city has decided to stop referring people to its two hotels sooner than stipulated in the contract. If such a decision was made informally, the city could change its mind without requiring changes to the contract itself.

According to Mundt, the city now plans to offer encampment residents “resources” including “diversion, rental assistance, new and existing shelter, and permanent housing from combined resources of [Seattle Public Schools], City, and County.” In an internal presentation about the encampment, the city said it hopes to have everyone off the site by October 14.

2. Ann Davison, who ran for lieutenant governor last year on the Republican ticket (her platform: Abolish the office of the lieutenant governor), has touted her experience as an attorney and arbitrator working on “civil litigation, immigration, sports, contracts and business transactions,” according to her campaign website. But a review of court records in King and Snohomish Counties suggests Davison has represented clients in the Puget Sound region in just a handful of court cases, none of them after 2010.

Specifically, Davison (also known as Ann Sattler) has represented clients in five King County cases—four cases involving people’s wills, one business dispute that ended in a settlement, and one case involving unpaid commercial rent. Sattler’s most recent case in King County was in 2010.

The city attorney’s office does not primarily prosecute crimes (the sort of major and violent crimes Davison has talked about in her campaign literature are the province of the King County Prosecutor, not the city attorney), but it is constantly involved in litigation—defending legislation the city has passed, defending the city and city officials against lawsuits by outside parties, and enforcing civil laws like environmental regulations. Although the only strict requirement to run as city attorney is being an attorney, a lack of courtroom experience could be a serious impediment for doing the day-to-day work of running the office’s civil and criminal divisions.

3. At the end of a nearly five-hour online meeting Monday night, the 37th District Democrats narrowly failed to reach consensus on an endorsement for mayor, with 59 percent supporting City Councilmember Lorena González in two rounds of voting, just shy of the required 60 percent. The group ultimately voted for a “no endorsement” position. Notably, Bruce Harrell—who lives in the 37th and represented Southeast Seattle on the council—failed to top 40 percent in either endorsement vote, despite previous endorsements by the group. Continue reading “City Finally Sends Team to Bitter Lake Encampment, City Attorney Candidate Has Scant Court Record, 37th LD Endorses”

“Compassion Seattle” Charter Amendment Won’t Appear On November Ballot

By Erica C. Barnett

The Washington State Court of Appeals denied the Compassion Seattle campaign’s appeal of a lower-court ruling striking down their proposed Seattle charter amendment on homelessness this morning, and the measure will not appear on the November ballot.

In its ruling, the appeals court did not give any specific reason for denying the campaign’s appeal, which it filed on Tuesday after strongly suggesting it would not do so after last week’s King County Superior Court ruling. Knoll Lowney, an attorney for a coalition of groups opposing the measure, told PubliCola this week that he expected to prevail, in part, because Compassion Seattle “appealed without coming up with any appellate arguments.” Instead, the campaign’s appeal relied on the same arguments it made in its initial response to the lawsuit against the initiative.

Compassion Seattle said in a statement that the appeals court ruling “means that Seattle voters must change who is in charge if they want a change to the city’s failed approach to addressing the homelessness crisis. While we are deeply disappointed, we will continue to share evidence that our amendment’s approach can make a necessary and noticeable difference for those living unsheltered in our parks and other public spaces.”

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As we reported this morning, mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell has said that if he’s elected, he will implement all the major policies the charter amendment would have mandated. Those include mandating that the city spend 12 percent of its budget on homelessness, requiring the city to fund 2,000 new “permanent or emergency housing” (realistically, shelter) units in one year, and keeping streets, sidewalks, parks and other public spaces “open and clear of encampments.”

So what does this ruling mean for the mayoral campaign going forward? Compassion Seattle —and its founder, former council member Tim Burgess, whose “People for Seattle” PAC bombarded voters with negative ads targeting council candidates and incumbents in 2017—clearly hoped that the charter amendment would frame the entire election.

Now that it’s dead, Harrell will have to push for its provisions in isolation, and hope that voters don’t realize that the city council, not the mayor, funds projects through the annual budget process. (Honestly, not the worst assumption.) His opponent, current council president Lorena González, will no longer have to respond to the question “Why don’t you support Compassion Seattle?” at every turn, but will also need to present an alternative to Harrell’s spend-then-sweep proposal that does more than respond to the charter amendment’s proposed spending mandates.

The Compassion Seattle campaign cost more than a million dollars, funded mostly by dozens of large donations from a who’s-who of downtown real estate interests, as well as consultant Tim Ceis, who helped draft the measure. Burgess gave just over $1,000 to the campaign.