Category: human services

Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.”

By Erica C. Barnett

In March, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority appointed Marc Dones, a peripatetic homelessness policy consultant, to lead the agency charged with creating a unified, regional approach to homelessness. The authority was already seven months behind schedule when Dones was appointed, and their short-term task will be hiring dozens of staff and migrating hundreds of contracts with homeless service providers from Seattle’s Human Services Department to the RHA—a mundane but massive task.

In the long term, the agency is supposed to adopt a truly regional approach to homelessness, bridging the gaps that have long existed between different parts of the county—urban, suburban, wealthy, working-class, exurban, and rural. This policy framework could have profound impacts on how cities prioritize spending, their response to encampments, and whether they focus on quick “fixes” like shelter or longer-term solutions like housing subsidies (and what kind.) I

Dones, who’s lived in Ohio, New Jersey, Boston, New York, and Michigan, is new to Seattle, but not to the regional authority, whose basic outlines they shaped as a consultant to King County in 2019. Dones has said their first priority is hiring up staff for the authority and moving all of HSD’s contracts to the new agency by the end of this year—an ambitious timeline, to say the least. PubliCola sat down with Dones last week to talk about their approach to homelessness, the magnitude of the problem in King County, and whether a “regional” approach can work in a region where there’s so much disagreement about the basics, like what causes homelessness and how to fix it.

PubliCola: This region has shifted its approach to homelessness many times in the last 10 years. We got away from the idea that people need to transition slowly from unsheltered to housed, but replaced it with the equally extreme idea that almost everyone just needs a short-term subsidy to get them on their feet until they can pay for a market-rate apartment on their own. Now we’re somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that not all unhoused people have the same needs but still using the same menu of options. Do you think the region’s current understanding of the causes and cures for homelessness is correct, or are we still falling short?

Marc Dones: I think we’re getting there. There’s still a lot of discourse around substance use and behavioral health that is not statistically correct. The driver of homelessness is economic, and when you when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing. We have a segment that does have health concerns, but from my perspective, we need to be centered on the economics first and foremost, and thinking about how do we essentially create housing options for folks in the zero to 30 percent space.

“The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing.”

I think that where we are now, I hope, is recognizing that it’s a menu, not just “do the one thing.” People need options, and not every person needs the same stuff. And so we need to be personalizing how we are doing our work at sort of all levels, both through program design and the regional plan. If Spotify can create these bespoke playlists based on a couple things I toss into it every couple months, then we as system administrators can also seek to get to the same level of personalization and curation. Not through algorithms, but through human-centered design and dignity-centered work.

Government actors often talk about the need for better data and by-name lists of all people experiencing homelessness and the services they’re accessing i the system. Can you give a concrete example of how better data or an improved by-name list would improve the life of an unhoused person?

When I talk about the by-name list that I want us to have, it’s not just a list of names. I want us to know who’s out there, where they are, what are their needs, and what’s our plan. So I am really thinking about a database where we are really able to say on a granular and person by person level, here’s what this person needs. And I think that that the data itself does not necessarily improve the delivery of the service. I think that what the data is really going to help us do is appropriately identify and advocate for the right amount of funding. That, for me, is where I see data improving our capacity.

I’ll also say that the ability to gather that data is not just about asking people more questions. We really are trying to take an approach that is relational in its focus. And so we’re really trying to think about how we develop and deploy a peer navigation workforce that provides supports for folks for from the lens of, “Hey, I’ve experienced homelessness.”

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Peer navigation has has really been efficacious in the behavioral health space and in the recovery space, and in the violence space. We haven’t really leaned into it in in the homelessness and housing space. And I don’t know why. But I think that the Lived Experience Coalition and other folks who have experienced homelessness have indicated a hunger to be able to do that kind of work. And we haven’t really acknowledged that or provided pathways for them to do it. And so we’re really keen on listening to that request and activating it. We really want to want to step away from invasive, repetitive ways of getting that information, and situate all of it inside relational architecture and trust.

What will that look like in practice, in terms of contracting and the way that money gets spent and the way that people get hired? What kind of changes can we expect to see in the homeless service system?

The first big shift will be that, moving into 2022, the authority will be the contract issuer. The city contracts will sunset and the county contracts will be migrated to us as well. And the authority will issue 2022 contracts. From that point on, we will also be the policy lead and helping to navigate the difficulties that arise. In ‘22, we will develop a whole system rebid that we’ll put out in the summer. And then in ’23, we’ll have a whole new system,  full stop, very night and day, I suspect.

Alongside that, a third piece of business that we’re developing is around what we’re calling bridge housing. We have identified that there’s a gap in the system—we have the permanency of permanent supportive housing and we have shelter, but we don’t have a lot of stuff really in between. And so from a systems perspective, what that means is that the waiting lists for a lot of that stuff can be very long—sometimes many, many years.

“Administratively what we’ve said to people is, ‘You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.’ And that’s not acceptable.”

And so what that means is that even if we never said it out loud, administratively what we’ve said to people is, “You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.” And that’s not acceptable. We need to have something that is permanent, that is housing, and that allows people to have stability and to have lives while whatever the thing that they are waiting for is coming online. We really need to have something that is in the middle.

I really want to be clear when I say it needs to be not time-limited. How long a person can be there shouldn’t be dependent on how long it will take them to get to the thing that is their thing. Or if they identify another pathway. If they get there, spend a year, and they’re like, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t think I need that supportive housing, I got this job, or I’m gonna move in with my whatever,’ they can choose to leave. There will be no “Oh, you have 24 months.”

Dow Constantine has suggested that the hotels the county is purchasing with Health Through Housing dollars will be one-stop shops for services, including connections to permanent supportive housing elsewhere, treatment, and other services that aren’t necessarily covered by the tax. Do you think this approach is enough to put a substantial dent in the problem, and have you seen it work elsewhere on the scale the county is talking about (1300 vouchers, 1600 hotel rooms, and 500 new enhanced shelter spaces all told)?

What we are looking at is not necessarily hotel/motel acquisition, but more at single- and multifamily acquisition as a strategy. But I do I agree with the fundamentals of the county position, that that does begin to get us towards scale. One of the things that that we often say on our team is that when we are talking about solutions, we have to be talking about thousands every time. We can never really be talking about hundreds, because the rough estimate is that there are about 15,000 people in the county who probably need support from our agency in some way, shape, or form. And so we really always have to be saying 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. Continue reading “Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.””

Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine drew his first significant challenger this year in state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), who’s running at the three-term incumbent from the left. So it would be easy to conclude that Constantine’s big push to announce the purchase of hotels around the county for housing and shelter—five since May, including three in the last three weeks—is timed to capture support and votes in the August 3 primary election, paving the way for yet another big win in November.

And maybe it is. But the purchases also represent a major shift in policy for the region, one that could make a noticeable dent in the number of people sleeping outdoors across the county. The first big difference from previous policy: The county is buying, not renting, the buildings, using revenues from a new countywide sales tax, branded Health Through Housing, to fund the purchases and pay for ongoing services for the people who will live in the former hotel rooms.

That means that unlike the city of Seattle, which is renting two hotels for ten months, the county’s placements won’t come with an end date, creating flexibility for people to stay there for a few weeks to years, depending on their needs.

“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.” —King County Executive Dow Constantine

“It is not intended to be the forever home for everyone who comes here,” Constantine said during a press tour of a newly purchased Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle earlier this month. “What we want is for people to be able to move past this kind of assistance and onto more self sufficiency.” But, he added, “Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. …If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.”

Capital costs (purchasing and retrofitting the buildings to serve as long-term shelter and housing) will make up, at minimum, 60 percent of spending on the hotels, with the rest reserved for behavioral health and “housing-related services” under the legislation that authorized King County to impose the tax. “It’s one thing to purchase the property, which is an expensive endeavor,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said during a Monday press briefing inside a 102-room former Clarion Inn the county just purchased in that city. “But more important, after that, is to ensure that those services continue.” 

The second difference is that the hotels are opening all over the region, not just in Seattle—including in cities that have adopted policies that are starkly at odds with the concept of regionalism, such as Renton’s efforts to ban emergency shelter and Auburn’s vote to criminalize sleeping in public spaces. The hotels are generally in areas that already allow hotels or housing, which means they won’t be subject to the kind of lengthy zoning debates that can doom projects that serve unsheltered people.

The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

Whether the hotel purchases represent a true change of heart by suburban cities remains to be seen. The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

The new King County Regional Homelessness authority is already hard at work on multiple “sub-regional plans” for various parts of the county, including South King County, the Eastside, and the Snoqualmie Valley, according to RHA CEO Marc Dones. This suggests that the main “transformation” the new authority will achieve, at least in the short term, is administrative: Seattle’s homelessness division will cease to exist, and the county and city’s efforts (and funding) will move to new authority.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

On Tuesday, Backus said she hoped that there wouldn’t be an excessive number of sub-regional plans, but argued that relatively affordable cities in South King County require a different approach than a large, expensive city like Seattle, particularly when it comes to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I’ve often said that what works in Auburn won’t work in Seattle, and what works in Seattle won’t work in Bellevue,” Backus said. Those differences, she said, include things like the new criminal penalty for sleeping in public spaces—a proposal that likely wouldn’t fly in Seattle, and was controversial even in Auburn. Backus said “members of the Puyallup Tribe” have complained that garbage from encampments in wetlands are getting caught in their fish traps, for example. “It’s not OK. We are damaging the land,” Backus said. Continue reading “Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?”

The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle

Image via seattle.gov

By Erica C. Barnett

In November, Seattle voters will (almost certainly) vote on whether to adopt Charter Amendment 29, an initiative that would require the city to divert public funds to add 2,000 new shelter beds while keeping parks and streets “clear of encampments,” according to the text of the amendment. The campaign is called Compassion Seattle, a name that suggests that by passing the initiative, voters will be supporting a compassionate approach to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness across the city.

In reality, the measure is an unfunded mandate that would force the city to create 2,000 new shelter “units” (beds) at the lowest possible cost, by diverting money from other city functions into a new fund aimed at moving unsheltered people out of places where they are visible and into places where they can’t be seen—”clearing” parks for housed people to use while spending the usual pittance to house, treat, and serve people with complicated needs.

Because initiative supporters are claiming that the measure will finally fix homelessness in Seattle, it’s extremely important to distinguish between what the charter amendment actually says and what supporters claim it would do. Here’s a cheat sheet to help inform your vote this fall.

Claim 1: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to build housing and provide needed services, including addiction treatment and mental health care, for thousands of unsheltered Seattle residents.

Compassion Seattle leader Jon Scholes, director of the Downtown Seattle Association, said during a recent forum that the amendment “mandates…  that we invest in treatment, mental health and emergency housing and the set of services that we know are important to bringing people inside.”

This claim is simply false.

In fact, Charter Amendment 29 does not mandate any city spending on treatment, mental health care, or any specific “set of services.” Instead, it says the city “shall help fund low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services” in conjunction with King County—something the city already does through its annual budget and will continue to do as a major funder of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

Claim 2: We don’t need additional funding to fix homelessness; it’s just a matter of priorities.

Not only does Charter Amendment 29 fail to prescribe any specific solutions, it provides no new funding to address homelessness. Instead, it requires the city to set aside 12 percent of its existing general fund, which works out to a reallocation of about $18 million a year based on recent budgets, to support “the human services and homeless programs and services of the City.”

That’s right—all of the human services programs the city runs, which include youth and community safety programs, programs to combat domestic violence, services for elderly and disabled people, child care programs, funding for the Nurse Family Partnership, and, starting this year, a new division that will take over some functions of the police department. So if you hear an initiative supporter saying it will add another $18 million to homelessness programs, tell them it doesn’t—it creates a generic “human services” fund that can be spent for any human services purpose.

And even if every penny of the reallocated $18 million went to homelessness, it would barely scratch the surface of the problem. Nonetheless, initiative proponents continue to claim that $18 million would be enough to pay for comprehensive care, including individual housing and shelter.

DSA director Jon Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise.

Claim 3: Compassion Seattle will fund hotels and evidence-based, high-quality services throughout the city.

DSA director Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise, because JustCARE isn’t cheap—certainly not cheap enough to provide hotel rooms, case management, and comprehensive wraparound services on a budget of $18 million a year.

Do the math: At $50,000 a person (the amount JustCARE supporters say the program would cost “at scale“), annual funding of $18 million would be enough to serve an additional 360 people. The initiative claims it will get 2,000 people off the streets in the first year alone. There’s simply no way supporters can justify the promises they’re making about the quality of care their budget-adjusting measure will pay for.

Claim 4: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to finally invest in real housing solutions for unsheltered people.

Supporters, including several mayoral candidates, have said they’re backing the initiative because it represents a new commitment to housing, forcing the city to provide individual shelter rooms and permanent supportive housing to people living outdoors. Mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell, for example, told the Seattle Times she considers the measure “the consensus path of what we need to do around homelessness,” because it would require “interim housing, more services, more permanent supportive housing.”

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

This is a common misinterpretation of what Charter Amendment 29 would do. The amendment includes a lot of words about providing appropriate services and permanent, individualized housing options, but that language is aspirational (“it is City policy to…”); it doesn’t implement any actual policy. In fact, much of what’s in the amendment is already city policy, including a section stipulating that the city supports housing and services that are “tailored to individual needs and cultural differences.” (For example, HSD already has policies in place committing the department to provide culturally responsive services to diverse populations.) Saying that something is city policy and mandating spending on specific solutions are very different things.

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

Thousands of shelter beds might put homelessness out of sight for groups like the DSA that are concerned about the impacts of tents on businesses, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that thousands of people in our region lack a permanent place to live. City and regional leaders have known for many years that the old shelter-first model is an ineffective way to get people housed, which is why “housing first” is now considered a best practice. And the proposal doesn’t mandate spending on services beyond what the city is already doing. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle”

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the members of the HOPE team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.

Instead, the HOPE team member, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email, staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.

In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the state Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.

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A spokesman for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the city and outreach providers have traditionally used to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users. (Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users). Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.

The city of Seattle’s IT department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The state Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.

According to Mundt, after consulting with the IT department, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process or any related City business “due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability. Continue reading “Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App”

Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters

1. The two hotels that the city belatedly rented out to serve as shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic have been in service for a little over three months of their ten-month contracts with the city. In that time, they have moved a total of 15 people into some form of permanent housing, according to the city’s Human Services Department—about 6 percent of the 230 people the city planned to cycle through around 200 hotel rooms over the life of the contracts, primarily through rapid rehousing rent subsidies.

According to a spokesman for the Human Services Department, 13 people have moved into permanent housing from the 139-room Executive Pacific Hotel, operated by LIHI on a $3.1 million contract; 10 of those received rapid rehousing subsidies. Two people have moved out of the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club on a $3.1 million contract, into permanent housing .

In the context of homelessness, “permanent housing” refers to the type of housing, not the length of a subsidy; rapid rehousing subsidies, for example, can last up to 12 months, but the market-rate apartments they help pay for are called “permanent” to differentiate them from transitional housing or shelter. Permanent housing can include everything from long-term supportive housing to moving in with relatives.

Both shelters include rapid-rehousing programs, which the city is funding through separate 10-month contracts. Chief Seattle Club runs its own rapid rehousing program at the hotel, at a cost of just over $800,000, and LIHI is working with Catholic Community Services, which has a $7 million contract.

“We anticipate the number of rapid rehousing enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”—Human Services Department spokesman

According to the HSD spokesman, “Chief Seattle Club case managers are working with participants to identify the best housing solution. … As with any brand new shelter, it takes time for the program to ramp up, clients to stabilize, and for people to find housing solutions that work best for them. This is why the program was designed for 10 months to allow time for individuals to connect with the best resources–whether it is rapid rehousing, diversion, or the permanent housing solutions coming online. We saw this play out at the Navigation Center when it opened. We anticipate the number of RRH enrollments to increase as people at these hotels have time to stabilize and Chief Seattle Club’s RRH program ramps up.”

When the city started intensifying encampment sweeps earlier this year, it used COVID vulnerability criteria to move people from encampments into the Executive Pacific Hotel. This has resulted in a population that faces more barriers to housing than the unsheltered population as whole, and thus less likely to succeed in rapid rehousing, which requires participants to earn enough income to afford a market-rate apartment within a few months to a year.

As a last resort, the OPA assembled a 13-person panel for a blind study. None of the panelists heard the n-word after listening to the recording for the first time, and only five heard the slur after investigators revealed the allegations against Zimmer.

LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola last month that “the majority” of people living at the hotel “are not candidates for rapid rehousing.” The Chief Seattle Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

2. Neither an outside audio expert nor a 13-person panel could conclusively tell Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability whether an officer called a man the n-word during a 2020 DUI arrest.

The OPA’s investigation into whether Seattle Police Officer Jacob Zimmer used the racial slur hinged on a single, hard-to-discern word captured on Zimmer’s body-worn video during the arrest. According to the original OPA complaint, Zimmer commented that the man was a “tall-ass n—-r.” Continue reading “Panel Can’t Tell if Cop Uttered Slur; Three Months In, Just 10 Have Moved to Rapid Rehousing from Hotel Shelters”

“Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

Drive through Seattle’s industrial areas—Georgetown, South Park, parts of Ballard, and SoDo—and it’s hard to miss them: Bulky, horizontal concrete blocks lined up like giant Legos along the sides of the street, preventing large vehicles from parking by the roadside.

At Third and Brandon in Georgetown, around the corner from the headquarters of the LGBTQ+ health care organization Lifelong, a row of bright-white barricades prevent any vehicle longer than a passenger van from parking on the street. Along a quiet, wide stretch of road near West Marginal Way in South Park, graffiti is just starting to pop up on an older, graying line of blocks set a dozen feet apart across a chain-link fence from a modern apartment building.

The blocks, known as “ecology blocks” because they’re made of waste material that concrete producers would otherwise throw away, are there to prevent large vehicles—primarily RVs—from parking in front of businesses. They started proliferating in industrial areas, which are the only areas where Seattle allows RVs to park overnight, during the pandemic, when the city suspended rules requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours.

Equinox Studios owner Sam Farrazaino, who says the blocks have given his neighborhood the feel of a “war zone,” has installed a number of the blocks around land he owns in Georgetown, although he says he used his “eco blocks” to “define parking” for his business, painted them to make them more attractive, and did not put them in the public right-of-way. “It’s a complicated… debate,” said Farrazaino, who described a rat infestation on a lot surrounded with RVs that made the ground look like “a moving carpet.” On the other hand, he said, “We keep pushing people around and saying we solved the problem, but the end result of the people with the power and land being able to push out that people that don’t have power and don’t have land is terrible.”‘

Although most of the debate about unsheltered homelessness centers on people living in tents in so-called “unauthorized encampments” (in Seattle, there is no other kind), about a quarter of people living without shelter in the city live in RVs, which are only allowed to park overnight in industrial areas. The city dedicates few resources to helping this group, who are often seen as less vulnerable than tent residents and are unlikely to “accept” the city’s offers of shelter, because even so-called enhanced shelters, which are open during the day and allow people to bring their partners and pets, provide less privacy and autonomy than the most rundown RV.

Years of efforts by advocates and city council members to create “safe lots” for RV residents have been unsuccessful, thanks largely to neighborhood objections that have made it difficult to site lots for ordinary cars and trucks, much less RVs. And while the city council recently allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds could create safe parking spaces for between 20 and 30 RVs, that represents a tiny fraction of the need; according to the most recent count of homeless people in King County, nearly 1,000 people were living in RVs, and vehicular homelessness expert Graham Pruss, an academic researcher who has advised the city on the needs of people living in vehicles, says the true number is likely much higher.

“The reality is that the people who live in the vehicles and the people who own the businesses who are angry about the vehicles are all subject to the same problem: There is not a private place for the person who lives in that vehicle to park, and if they don’t have a place to park, they are forced to occupy that public street,” Pruss said.

Compounding the conflict, the city has used laws and informal policies, such as “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs, to push RVs deeper into nonresidential areas, usually far away from frequent transit lines, hygiene centers, and agencies that provide resources like job assistance and addiction treatment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would stop enforcing the 72-hour parking rule so that people could work from home; one year later, she announced she was reinstating the regulation, forcing people who had been living in one place for a year or more to get their vehicles in working order or risk losing them. 

Homeless service providers say the suspension of the rule had positive effects for vehicle residents, who didn’t have to deal with the daily stress of finding another place to park. “It was nice for them to have a reprieve where they didn’t have to move every 72 hours, where they could be in place and connect to service providers from one location and get more accomplished,” said Rebecca Gilley, the SoDo outreach coordinator for the homeless outreach group REACH. 

But it also led to increased conflicts with nearby business owners, who complained that people occupying space on the street were making it impossible for customers to park, committing crimes, and causing unhealthy and unsanitary conditions around their vehicles.

“There were folks who were here for a year and a half, blocking the whole sidewalk on both sides and blocking part of the travel lanes with all the stuff they had accumulated” around their RV, Farrazaino said. “If it was a house and the living conditions were the same as these, the county and the city would have shut it down and condemned the house.”

Placing ecology blocks or boulders in the public right-of-way without permission, as many businesses have done, is illegal under city law; theoretically, anyone who does so can be fined up to $4,000 for each individual violation.

The problem is, the blocks are cheap to put in place and expensive to remove. Farrazaino said he paid about $20 apiece for his ecology blocks, which he bought from Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel in Ballard. The biggest expense, he added, was moving them. “We drove back and forth to Salmon Bay with a big rental truck to get the ones we have here,” Farrazaino said. “It’s just a matter of moving them around with a forklift that can handle it.”

Removing the blocks would require the city to devote money, manpower, and storage space to addressing the problem, plus enforcement to ensure the blocks don’t come back. “Part of the challenge is that each ecology blocks weighs 1-2 tons, and more blocks continue appearing in new areas,” Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. “Removing these massive obstructions is costly and our employees are busy completing important work to maintain our streets and infrastructure.”

Mariajose Barrera, who owns Mose Auto in Georgetown, said she installed ecology blocks near her business because of “the garbage, the nuisance, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampments.” For example, she said, someone parked a large box truck outside her auto shop for several weeks and was using it to hold stolen goods; more recently, someone broke into her shop and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools.

“We’ve been working to be able to have parking for our own businesses and kind of deter people from long-term parking, because the garbage, the nuisances, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampment—it’s really rough.” Barrera said. Seattle Public Utilities provides garbage pickup and sewage pump-out services to some RVs through its RV remediation and pump-out programs, but the utility can’t serve every site, so garbage, sewage, and gas and chemical spills remain persistent problems.

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“Unfortunately, we’ve had set up these eco blocks because we’re not getting any other help from the city,” Barrera continued. “It’s unfair—we all work for our stuff and for these people to just come in take whatever they want, whenever they want, without any accountability is not okay.”

Part of his frustration, Farrazaino said, stems from the fact that the city has pushed people living in RVs into industrial areas, which make up just 12 percent of the city’s land. Gentrification in places like SoDo and industrial Ballard, where breweries and retail storefronts are overtaking traditional industrial businesses, has constrained options for vehicle residents even further; you’re less likely to get hassled or swept if you live next to a steel fabrication plant than in front of a popular bar. The result is more conflicts between RV residents and businesses in places like Georgetown and South Park, and the proliferation of barricades to keep them from coming back.

“SoDo is pushing everyone down here [to Georgetown] because they have a [business improvement area] and money to hire security,” Farrazaino said. A business advocacy group might give Georgetown or South Park more clout with the city; Erin Goodman, the director of the SoDo BIA, has pushed the city to crack down on RVs from the area for years, arguing that the presence of people living in vehicles has contributed to crime and filth in the area. Continue reading ““Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness”

Intruders Halt City’s Shelter Plans; Compassion Seattle Calls Opponents “Disingenuous” Liars

1. The city’s plan to move about 40 people living temporarily at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall into a longtime shelter nearby has hit a snag.

Intruders have repeatedly broken into the Seattle City Light-owned building, formerly the site of DESC’s 100-bed Queen Anne Men’s Shelter, while it has been unoccupied during the pandemic. The break-ins include at least two incidents that resulted in calls to the Seattle Police Department.

The building was supposed to reopen as a shelter this week for some of the 70 or so people being displaced from Exhibition Hall, which opened as a temporary “deintensification” shelter during the pandemic and is set to close permanently at the end of this month. Instead, the city says they’re still assessing the damage and deciding how to clean up the mess.

According to a police report on April 28, officers responding to a call about some “high/intox[icated]” people occupying the building discovered that “numerous” people “had barricaded the front door with assorted items [so that] the doors would not be able to be opened.”

In addition to “debris and garbage” and “biohazards” (a common euphemism for human waste), a spokeswoman for Seattle City Light said that “the status of various mechanical and electrical elements of the building need additional assessment.” Camille Monzon-Richards, the director of the Seattle Indian Center—which was supposed to take over the building from DESC this month—was more direct. “Vandals broke in and pretty much obliterated the place,” she said.

It’s unclear how people initially accessed the building, which is now patrolled by Phoenix Security, a private security firm. According to a police report on April 28, officers responding to a call about some “high/intox[icated]” people occupying the building discovered that “numerous” people “had barricaded the front door with assorted items [so that] the doors would not be able to be opened.” The supervisor of the building said he told the people inside that they weren’t allowed to be there, and that they responded that “The Exhibition Hall [shelter] said we could be in here.”

“No subjects exited willingly,” the report continues. “A building search was conducted and all the subjects trespassing inside were removed and identified.”

Despite the security patrols, people continued to access and occupy the onetime shelter, resulting in at least two more calls to police in May and June.

The real estate and developer-funded campaign used similar “we shall overcome”-style rhetoric in another recent email.

Noah Fay, director of housing programs at DESC, said his agency is working to find shelter spots for every person who’s been staying at Exhibition Hall, including DESC’s Navigation Center in the International District. “We’re actively securing spots for them,” Fay said, and “we’re quite confident we’ll have a spot that’s going to work for everyone,” either at the Navigation Center or at another site, such as a new Salvation Army congregate shelter inside a former Tesla dealership in SoDo.

It’s unclear when the Queen Anne shelter might be habitable again. “Early estimates indicate it will take weeks for this work to be completed,” the City Light spokeswoman said. The city would not confirm that the Seattle Indian Center will take over the space once repairs are completed, although both Fay and Monzon-Richard said that was the plan.

2. The million-dollar Compassion Seattle campaign continued to portray itself as a besieged underdog this week, sending a message to supporters urging them to collect as many signatures as possible for the charter amendment on homelessness by this Friday, the deadline for the group to gather 33,000 valid signatures from registered Seattle voters. Continue reading “Intruders Halt City’s Shelter Plans; Compassion Seattle Calls Opponents “Disingenuous” Liars”

No Charges Against Cops Who Violated Voting Law; City Finally Buys Shower Trailers

1. Eight Seattle police officers who registered to vote using the addresses of Seattle Police Department precincts instead of their home addresses—including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan—will not face criminal charges. Instead, after an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), two of the officers (including Solan) received one-day unpaid suspensions and three received oral reprimands; the remaining three officers retired or resigned before the investigation ended.

The South Seattle Emerald first reported that eight SPD officers had registered to vote using their precinct addresses in July 2020, after a search of county voting records found at least one officer registered at each of the department’s five precincts. Because registering to vote using an incorrect residential address is a felony in Washington—one punishable by a five-year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine—the OPA initially referred the case to SPD for a criminal investigation.

The department decided not to investigate; according to the OPA’s report on the case, an SPD captain justified the decision by noting that the officers were already under investigation by the King County Department of Elections, and by claiming (incorrectly) that all of the officers lived in Seattle.

While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

In lieu of an investigation, the OPA began its own investigation of the officers’ alleged policy violations, ultimately ruling that all eight officers violated SPD’s professionalism policies, as well as a policy prohibiting officers from using their precinct addresses for personal business. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg didn’t say whether he believed the officers knowingly violated state law, though he noted that King County Elections’ investigation will eventually resolve the question. “Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” he wrote in his report. “This is especially the case for police officers who are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing it.”

If the elections department does rule that the officers knowingly broke state law, county election officials told the OPA they are unlikely to press charges—the law targeting incorrect voter registration addresses is frequently broken and rarely enforced.

Only five of the officers agreed to interviews with OPA investigators. While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

2. The city will replace two rented shower trailers, which have been stationed at Seattle Center and King Street Station in Pioneer Square since last fall, with trailers it bought from a Pittsburgh-based company called Restroom2Go Restroom Trailers. According to a Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman, the trailers cost the city just over $188,000.

As the COVID pandemic abates, the city has begun closing down and relocating facilities and services for people experiencing homelessness, including “de-intensified” mass shelters and hygiene facilities like the two shower trailers. For now, the spokeswoman said, people will still be able to shower at King Street Station, but the shower trailer at Seattle Center will have to move as summer programming returns to the former World’s Fair grounds. A temporary shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall has already started shutting down, with residents moving back into the Navigation Center (a congregate shelter in the International District).

Another DESC shelter whose residents moved to Exhibition Hall during the pandemic, the Queen Anne Shelter, remains closed.

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As PubliCola has reported over the past year, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was reluctant to provide mobile showers for people experiencing homelessness even before the pandemic. Although the city council provided funds to purchase shower trailers in 2019, SPU, under Durkan, didn’t spend the money, forcing a mad scramble to rent trailers at an exorbitant cost once the pandemic began. (Even then, the city took months to actually deploy the trailers.) Eventually, the city ditched its gold-plated trailer provider for a more affordable service.

According to SPU, the city is still looking for a place to move the Seattle Center trailer “on the campus,” and is also working out what to do with the two trailers in the long term. “City staff are considering exploring the best options for the trailers, including making them mobile, keeping them stationary or a hybrid approach, to meet the needs of our clients and maximize utilization.”

Even with the two trailers remaining in service, there are very few options for people living unsheltered to take a shower citywide. Lack of access to hygiene is a major quality of life issue, and a barrier to accessing public facilities like transit and libraries, not to mention applying for a job. According to the city’s current hygiene map, there are just 14 places in the city that offer free showers, most of them concentrated near the downtown core; neighborhoods south of I-90, including all of West and Southeast Seattle, have just one shower location each.

3. Someone—perhaps the same brave long-lens photographers who add images of unsheltered people to Google Maps results for various Seattle parks—took the time recently to rename the Ballard Commons Park “Straussville” in Google Maps.

Dan Strauss is the city council member for District 6, which includes the Commons; unsheltered people have lived and congregated in the park, which is next to the Ballard branch library, for many years, but have become more visible during the pandemic as the city decreased encampment sweeps. As of Monday morning, the fake park name had been removed.

City May Relinquish Control Over Homelessness Contracts; Surveillance Law May Not Cover Facial Recognition; No Plan Yet for Complaints Against 911 Dispatchers

1. After insisting for more than a year that the city needs to retain full authority over homeless outreach and engagement programs, the city has changed its mind, and will reportedly hand outreach over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority along with all the other homeless service contracts currently managed by the Seattle Human Services Department.

KCRHA director Marc Dones told outreach providers that their contracts would move to the new authority at a meeting on Wednesday, several who attended the meeting confirmed. Derrick Belgarde, the director of the Chief Seattle Club, said the belated change makes sense: Outreach “needs some separation from the HOPE team and their efforts.”

Previously, as we’ve reported, Durkan and HSD have argued for keeping outreach, and only outreach, at the city, on the grounds that the HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team) needs to have direct access to outreach workers who can connect people in encampments the city removes to shelter and services. The connection between the HOPE team and outreach workers was at the heart of the larger dispute over this year’s contracts, with providers arguing that the new contracts would place them at the “beck and call” of a team that serves as the vanguard for encampment sweeps.

The meeting, led by deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, was called to discuss changes to a set of proposed 2021 contracts that providers said were unacceptable; among other changes, the contracts the city originally sent providers would have required them to do outreach at encampments that the city planned to remove, regardless of whether the community or clients they serve (young adults or Native people, for example) were present.

The new contracts will revert to essentially the same language as the contracts providers signed in 2020. Provisions requiring outreach workers to be on site on the day of encampment removals will be stripped from the new contracts, and the city will greatly reduce the data reporting requirements that some providers found objectionable—eliminating the need, for example, for providers to give the city detailed daily reports on the people they encounter living unsheltered.

Belgarde said he was heartened by Dones’ and Washington’s emphasis on progressive engagement at encampments—focusing first on outreach, and then on more intensive case management, which is the point at which asking more personal questions is appropriate. “They seem to understand why you don’t do it” the first time you meet someone living at an encampment, he said. “It’s traumatizing. You can’t go out there with a pen and pad like you’re a lawyer or the police making notes.”

An HSD spokesperson would confirm only that the department is “in ongoing conversations with providers on a number of items, including what coordinated outreach looks like for both city and county shelter spaces and investments. Additionally, the City is already in conversations with the KCRHA about logistics for the transfer of contracts to the KCRHA. Our primary goal is supporting the ramp up of the authority. HSI will maintain outreach contracts through the end of 2021.”

2. After an investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) into a Seattle police detective’s use of a controversial facial recognition software, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg sent a letter to SPD Interim Chief Adrian Diaz concluding that while the detective used the unapproved technology without permission, it’s unclear whether facial recognition is covered by the surveillance ordinance the city adopted in 2018.

The OPA launched an investigation into South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes’ use of Clearview.AI—an artificial intelligence software which bills itself as a kind of Google search for faces, using images scraped from the internet without their owners’ permission—in November, when a civilian watchdog obtained emails showing that Kartes had used the software several times since 2019. At the time, Myerberg told PubliCola that the investigation would hinge on whether Kartes used the software during a criminal investigation, which he said would constitute a clear policy violation and seriously undermine public trust in the department.

In his letter to Diaz on Wednesday, Myerberg wrote that Kartes used Clearview.AI’s search function roughly 30 times since 2019, including for an unclear number of criminal investigations; Kartes didn’t keep records of cases in which he used the technology, so OPA investigators weren’t able to assemble a complete list. According to investigators, Kartes did not inform his superiors that he was using the software. The OPA hasn’t said whether Kartes will face discipline for his use of the unapproved technology.

However, in his letter to Diaz, Myerberg wrote that the city’s surveillance ordinance, which requires city departments to seek the council’s approval of any surveillance technology it intends to use, defines “surveillance” too narrowly to include facial recognition—because software like Clearview.AI does not allow SPD to “observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals,” Myerberg argued, it may not be addressed by the law.

To deal with the gray area surrounding facial recognition technology, Myerberg recommended that Diaz either create a new surveillance policy that explicitly forbids the use of facial recognition software; he also suggested that Diaz could ask the city council to modify the 2018 surveillance ordinance to clear up any confusion about whether it applies to facial recognition software.

Myerberg’s letter to Diaz came just over a week after the Metropolitan King County Council voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology by county departments, becoming the first county in the nation to pass such a ban.

3. When Seattle’s 911 dispatch center left the Seattle Police Department last week, the OPA lost its jurisdiction over the roughly 140 civilian dispatchers who work in the center. And the new department—the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which the Seattle City Council hopes will eventually hold other civilian public safety agencies—hasn’t yet outlined a plan to handle misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

Though complaints against 911 dispatchers made up only a small portion of the OPA’s caseload, the unit faced roughly 30 to 40 complaints annually over the past five years. Among the most notable recent cases was a dispatch supervisor fired last year for assigning herself overtime to supplement her income despite being unqualified to answer emergency calls, and another dispatcher whom Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz fired in April for telling a Black caller that “all lives matter” during a call about a car break-in.

The OPA’s jurisdiction is set by city law; according to Myerberg, that law—Seattle’s Accountability Ordinance—only authorizes his office to investigate “potential acts of misconduct perpetrated by SPD employees,” which no longer includes 911 dispatchers. While Seattle’s Human Resources department could take on complaints for an additional 140 employees, Myerberg said that if the council or mayor want his office to continue handling complaints against dispatchers, the council will need to expand the OPA’s jurisdiction, which may also require bargaining with the dispatchers’ union.

PubliCola has reached out to CSCC Director Chris Lombard about his plans for handling misconduct complaints against dispatchers.

Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Olga Park, a small swatch of green space near Ravenna and Cowen Parks in Northeast Seattle, has been the site of a fairly small but disruptive encampment for about a year. Neighbors in nearby apartments and houses have complained frequently to the city about noise, drug use, and hostile treatment from the people living there—typical points of friction between housed and homeless people in densely populated residential areas.

But many in the neighborhood have also worked to find alternatives that wouldn’t simply displace the encampment residents, meeting with outreach workers from REACH who have developed relationships with people living in the park to discuss options that would keep them in the neighborhood. “My ideal approach so far, which we’ve been advocating with the city to do, is something like the JustCARE program, where people move into hotels on a voluntary basis,” Teresa Barker, from the Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance, said.

Those conversations came to an abrupt halt last week, when the city decided to sweep the encampment after a man who lived elsewhere shot and killed an encampment resident. Those living in the park got about two days’ notice; two accepted referrals to the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and one got a referral to Otto’s Place, a 100-bed shelter in Pioneer Square. The rest moved elsewhere, leaving behind tents, property, and trash for the Parks Department to haul away.

The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the University Heights Center, said.

Neighbors who’ve been asking the city to address the encampment for months were relieved that it’s gone, but said they also understand that the city isn’t solving anything by moving traumatized people from place to place. The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the nearby University Heights Center, said. “It’s unfortunate that we wait to drop the hammer and force people out when they already traumatized by the murder.” 

Both Ewing and Barker said the city needed to do something about the encampment; both pointed out numerous examples of aggressive behavior and dangerous incidents, including a large fire, screaming fights, verbal threats, and a man who climbed 40 feet up a tree and wouldn’t come down. But they both said that most of the neighborhood wanted the city to provide alternatives that would actually work for the encampment residents, rather than a standard-issue sweep, in which people are offered whatever shelter happens to be available at the moment.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood.” —Theresa Barker, Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood,” Barker said. “The challenge is that in a few weeks we’ll see them back—if not at that site, they may be down the street or at the playground or playfield, with even more defense mechanisms because of the trauma that just happened to them.” Continue reading “Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park”