Category: human services

Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization

Two city commissions have called on Mayor Jenny Durkan to resign, and at least one more is considering it.

1. On Wednesday, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission—one of five volunteer city commissions that deal with the rights of marginalized groups—voted narrowly to demand Mayor Jenny Durkan’s resignation, joining the Human Rights Commission, which made a similar demand earlier this month.

In a letter outlining the reasons for their decision, the commission said the mayor had failed to take meaningful action on police violence and accountability; had continued to remove encampments without providing unsheltered people with adequate places to go; and had “repeatedly undermined the budget proposals supported by Black communities,” by, among other things, using JumpStart payroll tax revenues that were already allocated to COVID relief and housing for vulnerable communities to pay for a new $100 million “equitable investment” fund to be spent based on recommendations from a mayor-appointed task force.

The letter notes that deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan was dispatched to speak to the commission to make the case for Durkan, as she did earlier this week at the Women’s Commission when it considered a similar move. According to the letter, Ranganathan told the commission that the mayor does not have direct authority over police actions (such as the use of tear gas against protesters) and that she supports a regional payroll tax, just not the local payroll tax the council already passed. (She made similar arguments at the Women’s Commission meeting Monday night).

“Mayor Durkan’s role is to serve as the executive for Seattle and not as a lobbyist in Olympia,” the letter says. “Ultimately, Mayor Durkan’s opposition to the Jumpstart legislation disempowered the process taken to get there, which included months of work from Black communities, Indigenous communities, other communities of color, labor, and many more to find a way to fund affordable housing.”

The mayor appoints nine members of the Human Rights, LGBTQ, and Women’s Commissions. All three commissions have numerous vacancies and expired seats, but there is currently no major imbalance between council-appointed and mayor-appointed board members on any of the three commissions.

Durkan is up for reelection next year.

2. As we’ve reported, the city council, mayor, and homeless advocates have been working toward a tentative agreement on a new approach to unsheltered homelessness—one that could include dismantling the Navigation Team and creating a new process where unsheltered people move quickly through hotel-based shelters and into new permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rental subsidy.

The mayor’s budget allocates nearly $16 million to lease 300 hotel rooms for 10 months, which works out to about $5,300 per room, per month, and about $9 million for rapid rehousing dollars to serve up to 230 households (which works out to an average per-household cost of about $3,300 a month).

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,”  Alison Eisinger, the head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told PubliCola. “I have some hope that there are folks [at the city] who recognize that requiring people to move, without addressing the state of homelessness, was never effective before COVID and is completely deficient now.” 

One element of the plan that has gotten little attention so far is that it would be extremely short-term. Funding for the hotel would run out after about 10 months—right around the 2021 election, if the city started leasing the hotel rooms at the beginning of next year. The extra funding for rapid rehousing would also come from temporary COVID relief dollars that expire next year. The upshot is that if the city wanted to rent the 300 hotel rooms and continue the rapid rehousing expansion after the one-time runs out, they would have to find a new source of funding for both. Continue reading “Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization”

Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists

by Paul Kiefer

Today, a little more than four months since Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan first said she would invest $100 million in services for BIPOC communities, and more than two weeks after she announced she was creating a task force to recommend how to spend the money, she announced the initial members of the task force.

The 28 members of the group, the Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force, are drawn from an array of BIPOC-led nonprofits and civic organizations around Seattle, including well know civil rights leaders such as Estela Ortega, the Director of El Centro De La Raza, and Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, President of Seattle Central College. They will be tasked with “develop[ing] recommendations for a historic $100 million new investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to address the deep disparities caused by systemic racism and institutionalized oppression,” Durkan said in the announcement, ostensibly building on existing city investments

At present, the mayor’s proposed budget would take that $100 million from the revenues of the new Jumpstart payroll tax the City Council passed earlier this year. The council originally intended to use the Jumpstart tax revenue for COVID-19 relief for Seattle residents for the next two years, and later to fund affordable housing, projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and support for small businesses; many of those budgetary priorities were the result of years of lobbying and activism by local BIPOC organizations.

As PubliCola reported last month, city budget director Ben Noble told reporters in September that “budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed,” justifying the mayor’s affront to the council’s legislation.

Because the task force is expected to divert city dollars from JumpStart projects championed by racial and climate justice activists — and not from the Seattle Police Department — the Equitable Communities Initiative has raised alarms among some activist and nonprofit leaders in the past month.

Continue reading “Mayor Announces Membership of New Equitable Communities Task Force, Faces Criticism from Social Justice Activists”

Morning Fizz: Homeless Agency Hiring Delayed, Benefits of Hotel Shelters Confirmed, Parking Meters Canceled

Expiring. Image by Josh Newton, via Unsplash.

1. The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority won’t choose a director until mid-January, pushing back the timeline for the new authority to get up and running into next spring, according to a document posted to the authority’s website on Thursday.

Under the original timeline, the CEO would have been hired in September The timeline has been pushed back repeatedly as the county hired an executive search firm, the California-based Hawkins Company.

Delaying the hiring process, and thus the timeline to hire staff and stand up the authority, has impacts on other agencies, such as Seattle’s homelessness division. That division is supposed to sunset when the authority is up and running, and its staff are not guaranteed jobs in the new authority. One result is that HSI is increasingly short-staffed, which makes it harder for the city to get contracts (and money to providers) out the door.

This may seem in the weeds, but the worst-case scenario is that the city will be unable to get money to nonprofit service, shelter, and housing providers, who would then be unable to provide those services.

Will that happen? Who knows. But right now the remaining staff are working under major uncertainty, with moving timelines and little solid information about what things will look like in December, March, or next summer, when all contracts are supposed to transfer to the KCRHA.

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2. This week, researchers at the University of Washington and King County DCHS confirmed what service providers like the Downtown Emergency Service Center have been reporting anecdotally for months: Opening hotels to people experiencing homelessness not only reduced the spread of COVID-19, it also contributed to residents’ feelings of stability, health, and well-being, reducing conflict between residents and leading to more exits to permanent housing than congregate shelters.

The preliminary findings come as the city of Seattle is finally considering hotels as an option for people living unsheltered; last week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller outlined a plan to lease up to 300 hundred hotel rooms for about 10 months. The goal of the city’s program will be moving people rapidly out of the hotels and into housing, either through referrals to “rapid rehousing” in the private market or to one of the 600 permanent supportive housing units that will open over the coming year.

“Pay stations will no longer be on every block. For some spaces, the nearest pay station will be one block away.”

Last week, Sixkiller said the service provider at the largest county-funded hotel, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, lacked an “exit plan” for people living there, leading to long-term stays rather than quick turnover of rooms, as the city’s plan calls for. Asked for more details about how the city’s hotels will differ from those funded by the county, a mayoral spokeswoman said, “The City’s new plan moves unsheltered people from the street into a hotel unit.” (The county-funded hotels are occupied by people who moved from shelters, not the street.) Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Agency Hiring Delayed, Benefits of Hotel Shelters Confirmed, Parking Meters Canceled”

Progress on Outreach, Shelter, and Homeless Services Depends on Mayor-Council Unity. Good Luck With That!

By Erica C. Barnett

As Mayor Jenny Durkan rolls out the details of her proposed 2021 budget, an image has begun to emerge of the city’s post-COVID approach to unsheltered homelessness. Although the city budget office dropped the 751-page “budget book” last week, Durkan has continued to stage-manage announcements about specific budget line items, making it difficult for reporters and the public to get details about the budget until the mayor is ready to put out a press release.

The biggest headlines, so far, are the city’s decision to lease “up to 300” hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness—a significant change to the city’s previous policy of placing most people in large, “deintensified” congregate facilities; and the dissolution of the Navigation Team, which will be reconstituted as a new “outreach and response” team that currently lacks a catchy name.

Bye-bye, Navigation Team, Hello “Outreach and Response” Team

Last week, Durkan’s office put out a scorched-earth press release announcing that in light of the council’s decision to eliminate the Navigation Team, which has removed homeless encampments since 2017, she would cease all city-led outreach and engagement efforts immediately and lay off current team members or reassign them to other duties. In a letter to the council that accompanied the announcement, deputy mayor Mike Fong said the Navigation Team would stop responding to encampments and begin disposing of people’s property the city currently has in storage, returning the team to a pre-Navigation Team world where the only option for removing encampments was to call the police.

The letter sparked outrage on the council, and a retort from council members Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold that the council had never proposed eliminating the Navigation Team without replacing its outreach functions. In fact, the two council members noted in a joint statement, they had explicitly allocated $1.4 million in savings from eliminating the team to city-contracted outreach providers so that the outreach work the team has been doing during the COVID-19 epidemic could continue without a hitch.

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“Let’s be clear. The Council had a plan. That plan would increase services and allow the Navigation Team a smooth cooperative transition,” Morales said. “What the Mayor is offering this week is counter to that plan, and honestly doesn’t serve our housed or unhoused neighbors. Neither does it start to repair the relationship between our constituents living outside and our City.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that it’s still unclear how the mayor’s proposed outreach and response team will work and how many encampment removals the newly reconstituted team will do after the mayor’s COVID-19 “moratorium” on sweeps expires.

The role the new team will play in “coordinating” outreach—and, specifically, how much authority the city will have over the day-to-day operations of nonprofit outreach providers that receive funding from the city—remains similarly unclear. What seems likely is that the new team will oversee outreach providers in a more direct way than the city has before—telling them, for example, where to deploy and which clients to serve, even if those clients are not among a provider’s traditional client base.

The new team may also require service providers to track metrics similar to those that the city council previously required of the Navigation Team, including things like shelter and service acceptance rates and the number of contacts a provider has with individual unsheltered people. Efforts to increase the amount of data providers give the city could be hampered, however, by the fact that providers don’t currently have the ability to track this kind of information; even the Navigation Team has reported difficulty, for example, tracking the number of people who receive referrals to shelter and actually follow up on those referrals.

New Shelter, Hotel Rooms, and Permanent Housing

The mayor’s 2021 budget proposal also includes COVID-19 relief funding “from the City reserves and other funding sources” for 125 new “enhanced” shelter spaces—24/7 shelters where people can store their belongings and have a guaranteed bed—and “up to 300” hotel rooms that will be available for about 10 months. Continue reading “Progress on Outreach, Shelter, and Homeless Services Depends on Mayor-Council Unity. Good Luck With That!”

Suburban Cities’ Tax Plans Could Supplant, Reduce County Executive’s Homeless Housing Tax

By Erica C. Barnett

Several cities in South King County, including Renton, Tukwila, Auburn, and Kent, are poised to adopt a local 0.1-cent sales tax for affordable housing, using authority the state legislature granted to city and county councils earlier this year. If the taxes pass, they would effectively supplant those cities’ contribution to a countywide sales tax proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which would pay for permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in all parts of the county. Renton and Tukwila will consider their local taxes on Monday; the other cities are reportedly deciding whether and when to propose local taxes of their own.

Constantine’s office has said his proposal would provide up to $400 million in bond revenue to purchase motels, nursing homes, and other disused or derelict facilities and convert them into permanent supportive housing with services for chronically homeless people. The more cities opt out of the county tax, the less revenue there will be for Constantine’s proposal.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, is worried. “My hope would be that the suburban cities that are eager, apparently, to use this revenue source to address the genuine homelessness and health crises that are hitting South King County hard, would be committed to the truly regional response to homelessness” that the county has adopted, she said. The county is in the process of standing up a new regional homelessness authority that includes substantial input from, but no direct financial contribution by, suburban cities.

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The authority itself is banned by law from raising money. However, under legislation adopted during this year’s state legislative session, city and county councils can pass a sales tax increase of up to 0.1 percent. The catch, from the county’s perspective, is that the legislation allows cities to essentially override county taxing authority by passing their own taxes first.

The legislation also does not require the proceeds of such a tax to go toward housing for very low-income or homeless people; instead, they can use it to fund housing for people making as much as 60 percent of area median income, which for the Seattle metropolitan area is more than $94,000. This is a very different type of housing, serving a much less service-reliant population, than Constantine’s proposal.

Eisinger said that by using the sales tax authority to fund higher-income housing, suburban cities ran the risk of ignoring the needs of homeless people in their own cities. “I hope this isn’t an effort by elected officials in suburban cities to pretend that they don’t need … housing that meets the needs of the people who are chronically homeless in their community by instead trying to address other housing needs with these resources,” she said.

Renton and Kent have clashed with Constantine and the county government as a whole over the relocation of hundreds of formerly homeless people into hotels in their cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Renton, officials have taken regulatory and legal action to try to force the closure of a shelter the Downtown Emergency Service Center opened at a downtown Red Lion earlier this year. In Kent, elected leaders protested the county’s purchase of a motel for use as an isolation and quarantine site for people unable to isolate at home, warning that the presence of so many homeless people in one place would lead to a surge in crime.

“If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world.”—King County Council member Dave Upthegrove

If enough cities pass their own local taxes, they could collectively reduce potential revenues from Constantine’s regional proposal by millions. According to a presentation posted on the Renton City Council’s website, a local, Renton-only tax would raise about $2.8 million a year for projects in the city; according to Tukwila’s briefing materials, that city could see an additional $2.2 million a year for housing.

Elected officials from Renton, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents parts of Tukwila, Renton, Kent, and other cities in South King County, said he supports Constantine’s proposal because it provides housing for people with the greatest needs—those with low or no income who need supportive services.

At the same time, he said, “I’m trying not to panic” about the idea that some South County cities might decide to go their own way. “If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Maybe we don’t bond for 400 million—maybe we end up doing $320 million and a few of the cities go out on their own. It doesn’t have to mean that this proposal doesn’t work.”

“”Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”—Deputy King County Executive Rachel Smith

Upthegrove notes that cities already control zoning and permitting rules, which gives them multiple avenues to ban housing for formerly homeless people. “Part of me says that if this really isn’t want the local government wants, and that local government controls zoning and permitting, then what’s the likelihood of getting them zone and permit this housing in their city?”

County council member Claudia Balducci, who represents the Eastside, says the real headline may be that local suburban governments are willing to increase taxes to build more affordable housing, even if it isn’t for chronically homeless people. “I think we could really build not just good projects through this, but also create better relationships and more confidence in working together regionally,” Balducci said. “If we play our cards right, having cities put skin in the game could be a really good long-term positive thing.”

King County deputy executive Rachel Smith, responding to PubliCola by email, was significantly less sanguine than either county council member about the prospects for unity-through-localism. “The Executive’s plan includes concrete, data-informed, evidence-based, clear outcomes, including reducing racial-ethnic disproportionality,” Smith said.

“Regional officials, business leaders, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience have repeatedly stated that homelessness is a regional problem that demands regional solutions,” Smith continued. “Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”

Durkan Unveils 2021 Budget that Uses JumpStart Tax to Fill Shortfall, Fund $100 Million In Unspecified BIPOC Investments

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated.

In a pre-recorded message complete with swelling background music, multiple backdrops, and B roll from locations around Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan unveiled a 2021 budget proposal today that relies heavily, as PubliCola was first to report, on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax passed by the city council earlier this year. The council expressed its intent to wall off the revenues from the tax for direct COVID-19 relief to Seattle residents in the first two years, and to spend the money in 2022 and beyond on affordable housing, non-housing projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and small business support. Durkan vetoed the spending plan (the council overturned that veto) and allowed the tax to become law without her signature.

“We’ve balanced the 2021 budget, with a $100 million investment for BIPOC communities,” budget director Ben Noble said at a press briefing this morning, referring to the money the mayor has proposed parking in the city’s “general finance” budget until a Durkan-appointed “equitable development task force” comes up with recommendations for spending the money. (PubliCola was also first to report on the task force). “If we identify a sustainable source for that in 2022 and beyond,” such as a local one-percent income tax, “those resources could be redirected towards the council’s original intent. … Budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed.”

Durkan first proposed spending $100 million on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities last summer, as protesters called on the city to defund the police department. This morning, she argued that it was appropriate to use the payroll tax revenues for this purpose. “Everyone wants to make deep, deep commitments to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities and investing in those communities,” she said.

“‘Dedicated’ is not really the term used with resolutions,” Durkan continued, referring to the fact that the council’s JumpStart spending plan was not a budget ordinance. “We did everything we could this year to honor the allocations [for COVID relief], and next year we will have a discussion with council to really honor the city’s commitments going forward.”

Durkan’s budget includes a $21.5 million line item for COVID relief in 2021, and $86 million in combined “continuity of service and COVID relief” this year. It’s unclear how that combined $86 million differs from the $86 million that payroll tax sponsor Teresa Mosqueda proposed spending on COVID relief, specifically, this year. The budget presentation notes that the city will also fund COVID-related activities in various departments.

The mayor did not answer specific questions about the future of the city’s Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that, prior to the pandemic, removed encampments and offered shelter referrals to some of their displaced residents.

From the budget itself, it appears that the work of the existing team will be dispersed among various departments, and that some of the funding for Navigation Team positions (though not necessarily the people themselves) will be moved into a new Safe and Thriving Communities division of the Human Services Department. That division will include staff from the existing Youth and Family Empowerment Division, domestic violence advocates that already work in HSD, and domestic violence victim advocates that would be transferred out of SPD. Some DV advocates have opposed this transfer from SPD, which is a subject I’ll write about in greater detail in a future post.

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

All HSD contractors will see their contracts extended at the same levels as 2020, with a small inflationary increase, and will not be subject to the previously required performance reviews that determined whether they would receive fully funding. The decision to extend these contracts is related to the fact that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take over most of these contracts, has been unable to hire a director on its original time frame, which has pushed the schedule to get the authority up and running further into 2021.

The mayor didn’t dwell much this morning on her Seattle Police Department budget, which she said she will have more to say about in the spring. So far, it includes the reductions she has already announced, which mostly result from transferring items that can be civilianized, such as the 911 call center, into other departments. Durkan vetoed the council’s revised budget in August over the council’s plans to cut the police department by 100 positions, not all of those resulting from layoffs. (That veto was also overturned.)

The $100 million for BIPOC communities is a “blank” item in the budget. The mayor wants that spending to be determined through the work of the task force whose members she will announce this week. At the same time, the city council allocated $3 million to a separate “community research” effort headed up by King County Equity Now; at a press conference yesterday, the group announced that they had already hired dozens of staff and planned to employ more than 130 researchers. (Paul will have more on that story later today.)

Durkan’s plan would keep some parks facilities, including many pools, closed throughout 2021, and would cut back spending on many transportation projects, including bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure improvements.

Overall, Durkan’s budget includes about 40 outright layoffs, a number the budget office was able to keep down by drawing down on revenues such as the payroll tax and levy funding, and by reducing the city’s emergency reserves to $5 million next year. The revenue forecast for 2021 is actually less dire than the shortfall that resulted in major budget reductions in the budget the council adopted in August, which just withstood a mayoral veto—the budget office expects the city to take in about $1.7 billion in revenues, including the payroll tax, next year, compared to just $1.4 billion this year. In addition to the general 2020 economic collapse, this year’s shortfall resulted in lower revenues from funding sources that were impacted by COVID, including parks fees, parking taxes, and taxes on real estate transactions. “We do see that there’s hope on the horizon,” Durkan said.

 

 

Advocates, Service Providers, and US Census Workers Describe “Chaotic,” “Confusing” Process to Count the Unsheltered

Image by Enayet Raheem via Unsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

Tonight, temporary Census workers will fan out across King County, and communities all over the country, and attempt to count everyone who is living unsheltered by doing a “head count” of people observed sleeping in tents, vehicles, and on streets and in green belts statewide. Similar head counts, which are a way to include homeless people in the Census rather than an effort to count the number of people experiencing homelessness, began across the nation starting on Tuesday and will wrap up up tomorrow.

The counts are taking place in combination with separate counts of people who stay in shelters or access other homeless services, such as hot meals—the so-called sheltered homeless. This one-night “count,” which will take between four and six hours will be the only effort to enumerate the number of people living unsheltered in the United States—a number that effects not only political representation but the allocation of federal resources to address issues such as homelessness. Because President Trump shortened the Census timeline by a full month, to September 30, the agency will have no ability to recount or recalibrate if local counts go poorly or result in obvious undercounts of people living outdoors.

The ability of the Census Bureau to do an accurate count hinges on whether they follow best practices for counting people who generally don’t want to be found.

So what will tonight’s count look like? According to Los Angeles Regional Census Center spokesman Donald Bendz (whose division includes Seattle), the Census has trained its workers to interview people they encounter and has equipped them with advance intelligence, collected from local homeless service and outreach providers, about where encampments are located in every community. “We work with the city, the county, the state, and all of the partners who work in providing services to people experiencing homelessness and they provide us a list” of places where people are living unsheltered, Bendz said, “and then we have a list that we use from the 2010 census” that will be updated with new information from local service providers.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

In practice, homeless service providers and advocates say that outreach to their organizations has been patchy, confusing, and redundant. Nicole Macri, a state representative and deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that “ten or 15 different people [from the Census] reached out to us” asking similar questions. “I don’t know if it’s that COVID made it feel even more rushed and last-minute”—the Census collections, originally scheduled for April, were moved to September due to the pandemic—but “it just felt very confusing and chaotic.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the situation is similar in cities across the nation. “A lot of [service providers] expressed that it was confusing, that they had had difficulty reaching people at the Census to discuss issues and problems,” said NAEH president and CEO Nan Roman. “People have had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. The guidance was all over the place.”

Ground-level Census workers say they, too, are confused about how tonight’s “head count” will work. According to two local Census “enumerators,” the training for the overnight count has been scattershot and incomplete, with two weeks of in-person training replaced, due to COVID, by a single in-person orientation and fewer than two days of online exercises. As of late Monday afternoon, one census workers said he hadn’t gotten any details about where his team will be going, the methodology they’ll use for counting people if they don’t want to be interviewed or are asleep, or what to do if they can’t figure out how many people are sleeping in a location. 

“People have had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. The guidance was all over the place.”—Nan Roman, President and CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness

“The fact that I don’t even know where we’re doing [the count] tomorrow is a little unsettling,” one worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his temporary position, said. “We’ve gotten no instruction at all [on how to count people who are asleep]. I don’t know how we’re supposed to do that—are we supposed to throw the tent flaps back?”

Another temporary Census employee, who originally volunteered to participate in tonight’s count, which comes with a 10 percent pay bonus, backed out after he decided the process was “a shit show”; for one thing, he said, workers were expected to refer throughout the night, and make notations on, a 300-plus-page printout that they only received in electronic form.

The worker said he was also concerned about people who were newly homeless and might not show up a count that only focused on shelters, soup kitchens, and people living outdoors. “When you’re newly homeless, you don’t end up directly on the street—you couch surf or you jump in your car and travel,” he said. “The newly minted homeless certainly don’t have a location where you can count them.”

During tonight’s count, Census spokesman Bendz said, Census workers are supposed to try to talk to anyone who’s present and awake, but that “if they’re asleep, we won’t attempt to wake that person.” A Census training document obtained by PubliCola says that Census workers should try to talk to people in locations like encampments by going through a “group quarters contact person,” such as the “leader: of the encampment—a directive that suggests that ad hoc encampments are significantly more organized than they typically are in practice.

“The fact that DESC is a major homeless service provider, and it’s not clear to me that it’s well-known within the organization that this is happening, is a big red flag.” —Nicole Macri, deputy director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told a group of advocates and service providers last week that the coalition has been telling the Census Bureau for more than a year that a going “to places where people are camping by the thousands and ask[ing] them to complete a census form with a total stranger at night is a very poor process that isn’t going to count people effectively.”

Eisinger made her comments during Zoom meeting organized by the Coalition. Instead of telling member organizations to direct Census staff to specific outdoor locations, Eisinger said SKCCH is urging groups to proactively encourage clients to fill out their census forms whenever they come in contact with unsheltered people.

Unlike the annual Point In Time count of the region’s homeless population, the Census won’t be counting tents and cars from a distance and using a standard multiplier to estimate how many people are inside. Instead, Bendz said, they will be going right up to tents and vehicles and attempting to count people individually. “If everyone is asleep in a car, then we will count what we see in the car,” Bendz said. “If it’s a tent and the tent ‘windows,’ for lack of a better word, are open and we can see inside the tent, then we will count the people we see inside the tent.” 

The Census Bureau’s practices differ from the methods used during the Point In Time count in other ways as well. Every year, in the run-up to that count, volunteers spend weeks scouting sites during daylight hours to find encampment locations that might be overlooked at night. On the night of the count, more volunteers, mostly recruited from the ranks of community organizations and groups that work with the homeless population, spread out across a grid carefully designed to avoid double counting. Teams typically include at least one person with lived experience of homelessness who is familiar with the area and able to relate comfortably to unsheltered people the groups encounter.

“It just takes tremendous effort to organize an effective, comprehensive count of people who are unsheltered,” DESC’s Macri said. participated in one-night counts for more than a decade, back when the counts were done by the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Compared to the 2010 Census, there are a lot more people who are living unsheltered, and of course there’s a much greater proportion of people who are living homeless who are living unsheltered” in 2020, Macri adds.

Bendz said the Census Bureau has done months of outreach to service providers to figure out the best way to count people living unsheltered, but Macri—whose organization provides outreach and is one of the largest shelter providers in the Seattle area—told me that she was “unaware” of tomorrow’s count until I asked her about it. DESC director Daniel Malone told me that he, too, was unaware of any communications with the Census Bureau about encampment locations.

“The fact that DESC is a major homeless service provider, and it’s not clear to me that it’s well-known within the organization that this is happening, is a big red flag,” Macri said. Roman, from the NAEH, said that she heard from one large city that Census officials told the county that they were working closely with the Continuum of Care—the regional planning body that coordinates homeless services for a county or other jurisdiction—”but none of the [CoC] board and none of the staff had ever talked to them.” Continue reading “Advocates, Service Providers, and US Census Workers Describe “Chaotic,” “Confusing” Process to Count the Unsheltered”

In Surprise Vote, Seattle City Council Overrides Mayor’s 2020 Budget Veto

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted 7-2 to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of the 2020 midyear “rebalancing” budget package they adopted in August, setting the stage for a showdown with the mayor in the upcoming 2021 budget discussions, which kick off formally next Tuesday.

The vote essentially reinstates the midyear budget the council passed back in August, after several feverish weeks of work to come up with a proposal that could win a veto-proof council majority. That budget included fairly modest cuts to the Seattle Police Department (a reduction of 100 positions, many achieved through attrition) and investments in community organizations that work to reduce violence and improve community safety, as well as a $3 million down payment on participatory budgeting.

Council members Alex Pedersen (D-4, Northeast Seattle) and Debora Juarez (D-5, North Seattle) voted to sustain the mayor’s veto. Pedersen said he supported most elements of a “compromise” bill that council president Lorena González introduced in case the veto override vote failed, and said he believed that “we get more done in a faster and more sustainable way when we work together.” Juarez, who frequently votes with Pedersen, was the only council member who didn’t offer any public explanation of her vote.

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Council members who voted to overturn the mayor’s veto said that community members had made clear that they want the city to reduce police spending and reinvest in community-based programs more quickly than Durkan is willing to move. “There is broad agreement in the community that there is an urgent need to divest [from] the systems that have acted” against the interests of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, council member Teresa Mosqueda said.

After the vote, King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, two groups that have been at the virtual council table during their budget discussions, issued a statement applauding the council for its vote and urging them not to backslide during budget negotiations this fall. “It should not take such prolonged, sustained community efforts for this minimal change but we recognize that Council’s move to override the Mayor’s anti-Black veto marks an urgent break from the decades of votes to expand racist policing,” the statement said. “Going forward, we expect Councilmembers to continue to resist the Mayor’s attempts to rewrite legislation that has already passed.  

The mayor immediately denounced the vote. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said Durkan thought she and the council had reached a compromise—the backup “compromise,” which PubliCola described in detail this morning—but that “they chose a different path.”

Votes do have consequences,” the statement continued. “Because of Council’s actions today, the Navigation [T]eam will be eliminated, severely restricting the City’s ability to move people out of homelessness and deal with encampments for the rest of this year. The City will move forward with layoffs for the City staff who are coordinating and helping individuals experiencing homelessness at encampments across the City.” 

The mayor’s statement appears to refer only to the civilian members of the Navigation Team—the field coordinators who manage encampment removals and cleanups, and the three “system navigators” who do direct outreach to people living in encampments. The team also includes 14 police officers, whose positions are subject to bargaining through the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

Durkan has the ability to direct the Human Services Department to lay off these workers, but if she does so unilaterally, without funding alternative outreach strategies and equipping them to succeed, the result could be some level of chaos. The council’s budget didn’t just call for slashing the team—it also directed the mayor to spend the money saved through staffing cuts to expand existing contracts with outreach providers, such as the nonprofit outreach nonprofit REACH, and to transfer the Navigation Team’s outreach function to those providers.

The transition wouldn’t just be a matter of shifting personnel. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds, which team members can access through a proprietary program called NavApp. The Human Services Department would need to hand over access to this system to any new outreach provider if it wanted to prevent a disruption in services, and to comply with a council requirement that the team report regularly on referrals and other data.

Of course, the mayor’s statement could be bluster. (Her office did not immediately respond to an email asking if it was). Durkan’s 2021 budget announcement, coming next Tuesday, reportedly includes a proposal to transition the Navigation Team into a smaller group focused on outreach and engagement rather than encampment removals; the new-look Nav Team would also work with encampment residents to reduce their impact on surrounding communities instead of routinely declaring encampments “obstructions” and removing them without notice, according to people familiar with the document. 

Legislation that isn’t signed by the mayor takes 30 days to take effect. Durkan could wait until next week, roll out her proposal, and negotiate a new deal with the council that would keep the Navigation Team in a different form. Or she could stick with her initial statement, start sending out pink slips, and eliminate the changes to the Navigation Team from her budget. The council indicated today that they’re still open to amending the budget they adopted, which is now the official budget for the rest of 2020. The next move will be the mayor’s.

Morning Fizz: Veto Crunch Time, a $100 Million Mystery, and Other Budget News

Council President Lorena González, via
City council president Lorena González, via Youtube

1. Today at its special 3pm meeting, the Seattle City Council will vote on whether to overturn or uphold Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of their 2020 “rebalancing” budget package. The council’s version of the budget included modest cuts to the police budget, new spending on a process to reinvest city dollars in alternatives to policing, and the elimination of the Navigation Team, a crew of cops, sanitation workers, and three social workers that until recently removed hundreds of homeless encampments a year.

The mayor actually vetoed three separate bills. Two require a six-vote majority to overturn; the third, which actually appropriates funding for the remainder of 2020, requires seven votes—so seven is the number council members who want to overturn the mayor’s veto will need to shoot for. A vote to overturn all three vetoes would restore the council’s budget. A vote to sustain the veto(es) would lead to a vote on a separate, “compromise” piece of legislation, put forward by council president Lorena González, that would preserve the police department at existing levels, eliminate a loan between city departments that would pay for city and community human services programs, and keep the Navigation Team at current levels while requesting that the Seattle police chief reduce the total size of the team by eliminating two police positions that are already vacant.

On Monday, it looked unlikely that there would be seven votes to overturn the mayor’s veto, although several council members were conspicuously silent during the discussion. Interestingly, González herself tweeted on Monday night that she would vote to overturn the veto, in support of “the work to divest from a broken model of policing.”

A vote for the compromise bill would hand Durkan a significant victory on the eve of her 2021 budget speech next week, and on the threshold of her 2021 reelection campaign. Council members suggested Monday that they believe their hands are tied—if they overturn Durkan’s veto, the mayor can simply ignore any budget provisos that restrict police spending (forcing the council to overturn those provisos so that officers will continue to get their paychecks) and any negotiation with the Seattle Police Officers Guild would probably take three months anyway, pushing the discussions into 2021.

“I think we’re faced with the unfortunate reality that even though we can appropriate money, we can’t compel the mayor to spend the money, and that is sort of the condition we found ourselves in with a lot of these projects around how we’re going to restructure and defund” SPD, District 7 council member Andrew Lewis told PubliCola after the vote.

The consolation prize, to the extent that there is one, consists of $3 million that, according to the legislation, “is intended to be spent on providing non-congregate shelter,” like tiny house villages and the hotel rooms Durkan has resisted funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That funding is secured through what council members called a “verbal agreement” with the mayor’s office; Lewis said after the meeting that because the council discussed the agreement publicly, “it’s on record that that’s going to be the understanding of how this is going to work. We are about to [discuss] the 2021 budget and we can make sure this is in there, and we would be fully within our rights to be very indignant about that if there’s not a shared commitment to keeping that deal.”

There’s also $500,000 to be divided among a long list of human service needs, including behavioral health investments, “support[ing] the work of the Navigation Team,” diversion funding, and rapid rehousing funds. The entire half-million would flow through the Navigation Team, even though some of the programs—such as rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rent subsidy that assumes a person will be able to pay full market rent within a few months—are not really geared toward people experiencing long-term unsheltered homelessness.

Under the compromise bill, the $3 million allocated for research into community-led alternatives to policing in the council’s budget is shrunk to $1 million, with the rest to follow, also apparently by verbal agreement, next year. And there’s $2.5 million for “organizations engaging in community safety,” such as (for example) Choose 180 and Community Passageways.

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. If the compromise passes, Durkan will also get to keep the Navigation Team at its current level. The future of the team was a major sticking point in the budget negotiations (the other two being whether the council would overturn the veto—which Durkan was adamantly against even if the council immediately adopted a compromise—and cuts to police) and a vote for the compromise bill will only forestall the debate over the fate of the team.

Already, Durkan has reportedly indicated that she plans to keep the team going through 2021, although Lewis—who chairs the council’s special committee on homelessness—says the team’s role, like public safety in general, may be “reimagined.” What that might look like remains unclear, but it could involve renegotiating the terms under which the city can remove encampments, or—as Lewis puts it—”pivoting to more of a coordinating and clearinghouse kind of space to coordinate service providers.”

The council voted unanimously to remove police from the team last month through another budget proviso. The compromise bill also states the council’s “policy intent” to cut five positions from the Navigation Team total; Lewis indicated during the meeting that the additional cuts would come from removing non-SPD staffers from the team.

3. With the 2020 budget almost the rearview mirror, it’s time for Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, which she will send to the council next Tuesday. The biggest-ticket promised item—”$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults,” as she put it when she first committed to the funding in June—will also be the hardest to pay for. Durkan has not said publicly where she plans to come up with $100 million in a budget that will have to address ongoing revenue shortfalls in 2021.

Will the money be new revenue—something like a flat income tax, with rebates to low- and middle-income people to get around a court ruling quashing the city’s high-earners’ income tax? Will the revenue come by reallocating funds from a tax that already exists? Or will the mayor use budgetary magic—similar to the math that turned an interdepartmental transfer of 911 call center staff into a huge “cut” to the police department—to conjure $100 million from existing dollars?

Morning Fizz: Smoke Shelter Closes, HSD Apologizes, and City Ditches Gold-Plated Shower Vendor

Today’s Morning Fizz:

1. The onset of hazardous air quality conditions led King County to open up a little-known site in SoDo this week—not as a full-time homeless shelter, but as a temporary smoke shelter serving about 100 people. But demand was greater: The shelter, located inside a former Tesla dealership the county is leasing from developer Greg Smith, had to stop taking referrals on Monday, citing lack of staff to expand the site to its full capacity of around 300 beds. The shelter will close today and remain on call as a potential isolation and quarantine site should hospitals become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases in the future.

According to King County Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor, staffing is a significant bottleneck at every current shelter, making it hard to increase the number of beds available even when there is plenty of room, as is the case at the massive former showroom in SoDo.

“Staffing has been one of the critical constraints on this system since February,” Flor said. One reason it’s hard for agencies to staff up to expand shelter capacity right now, Flor added, is that the federal money that pays for COVID-specific shelters is temporary—people would rather have jobs with some guaranteed longevity than a three-month gig that could be extended to six.

But the county’s conservative approach to COVID plays a role, too. The SoDo site was originally designed as an isolation and quarantine site (with HVAC and filtration systems that help prevent disease transmission as well as smoke inhalation) and could still be used for that purpose. So could a similar facility in Bellevue, which remained empty this week as smoke settled over the region. “We need a system that can flex, if we start to see increases in the prevalence of the virus, [to accommodate] that can’t be housed in their own homes,” DCHS housing and community development division director Mark Ellerbrook said.

The long-term purpose of the SoDo site is unknown, although the county has reportedly been working on plans to convert it to enhanced 24/7 shelter.

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. The social media manager for the Seattle Human Services Department (whose name I am not printing, since he is not a public figure) was reprimanded and relieved of his Twitter and Facebook duties after posting a series of sarcastic, borderline hostile responses to people raising questions about the city’s response to homelessness.

For example, in response to someone who said the city should house people instead of relying on temporary shelters, @SeattleHSD responded that it was “reckless and irresponsible” of them to suggest that simply moving every single unsheltered person into an apartment would solve the problem” of homelessness.

When someone tweeting asked a question about the terminology HSD uses to refer to people experiencing homelessness, @SeattleHSD responded, “Unfortunately, there are people on Twitter and in the media who like to complain and spin misinformation when what we say to the public doesn’t match exactly with internal data or communications even when it is just making these kinds of distinctions.”

And when several people questioned the city’s relationship with the historically anti-LGBTQ Salvation Army, @SeattleHSD responded defensively, implying that the tweeters did not understand how shelter contracts work and snapping at one, “If you are aware of a local organization with trained staff that is prepared to operate a new 24/7 shelter, please go right ahead and share that information with us.”

This is the second time in less than four months that the HSD staffer behind the account has lashed out at critics. In late May, after a controversial homeless encampment removal, the staffer spent the better part of a day scrapping with random people who opposed the sweep, often dismissing criticism with sarcastic and heated language.

On Thursday afternoon, the Human Services Department tweeted out an apology for the “content/language/tone” of the tweets. The person who posted the apology tweet closed the replies, eliminating the public’s ability to comment directly (if not indirectly) on the outburst.

3. As we noted in Fizz on Tuesday, the city just ditched its high-cost mobile shower vendor, VIP Restrooms, for three new contracts —two with United Site Services, for two shower trailers at King Street Station and the Green Lake Community Center, and one with OK’s Cascade Company, for a trailer at Seattle Center.

While difficult to compare directly because different things are included in each contract (for example, two of the trailers don’t require daily pumpout services because they’re connected directly to the city’s sewer system), the two new contracts are both less expensive than VIP, which charged the city ultra-high prices when mobile showers were in high demand at the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Seattle Public Utilities, the United trailers—not counting pumpouts, staffing, and materials such as towels and toilet paper, which add significant costs to the flat rental fee—will cost between $6,000 and $7,000 a month, and the OK’s trailers (with all the same caveats) will cost just over $16,000. Altogether, the three contracts are providing 15 shower stalls. VIP’s bid to continue its existing contract was a little over $19,000 a month. For comparison, in March, as I reported, the city put nearly $30,000 on a credit card to rent two three-stall VIP trailers for just one week.

As a procurement agent for the city noted drily on the letter transmitting the United contract, “At the start of the COVID-19 emergency, we were only able to find shower trailers from VIP Restrooms due to high demand and short supply. The demand/supply issue still exists but we were able to obtain quotes from two other suppliers that offer the trailers at a lower price.”