Category: human services

Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?

By Erica C. Barnett

Six months ago, City Attorney Ann Davison announced a new initiative that would target so-called high utilizers of the criminal justice system—people with more than 12 misdemeanor referrals in the last five years—by subjecting their actions to greater scrutiny, excluding them from community court, and keeping them in jail for months, much longer than current misdemeanor booking restrictions allow.

Since launching the High Utilizers Initiative in February, the city attorney’s office has filed charges against people on the list 82 percent of the time, compared to a 63 percent charging rate for all misdemeanor cases so far this year. In 2021, under former city attorney Pete Holmes, the office charged people meeting the new “high utilizer” standard just 58 percent of the time. The initiative was also supposed prioritize this group for mental health services and treatment.

So far, the initiative has resulted mostly in more charges for people on the list, although the city attorney’s office says additional policy proposals are coming.

“We are declining fewer cases for this population than for the overall population,” deputy city attorney Scott Lindsay said. “I think it tells us that this effort is doing exactly what Ann said it would do: For individuals who are repeatedly having a significant disruptive impact on their neighborhood, we are trying to make sure that they are not slipping through the cracks.”

The initiative also allows the city to keep people on the list in jail for longer, bypassing rules that have prohibiting most misdemeanor bookings. “When somebody has a record of 35, 40 criminal cases and then they have a new property destruction case in Ballard and they’re saying you can’t do anything about that, that doesn’t make sense,” Lindsay said.

Critics of the high utilizers initiative argue, citing considerable research, that repeatedly jailing people who are homeless and suffer from significant behavioral health conditions does not reduce crime and makes the people being incarcerated sicker and less likely to be able to thrive in their communities. Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the people on the high utilizers list “should not be subject to jail booking or prosecution for misdemeanor offenses; instead, they should be introduced to service providers who can develop community support and housing options without the hindrance and destabilization caused by repeated jailing and prosecution.”

“It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney. What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”—Anita Khandelwal, director, King County Department of Public Defense

Lisa Daugaard, co-director of the Public Defender Association, whose programs serve people involved in the criminal legal system, said creating a list of people who are frequently arrested for misdemeanors isn’t a “good thing nor a bad thing by itself. It could be helpful if it caused local authorities to come up with a plan for these people’s situation, which is highly likely in need of a plan or support or intervention.”

So far, Daugaard acknowledges, the focus has been on the enforcement side.

“If they are choosing to file against people on the list more often, to me, that means we’re not getting busy making plans proactively for people who we already know are in difficult situations,” she said. “There should be a lot of energy pushing for programming and placement options that just don’t exist for this population right now—and they would have a lot of allies.”

PubliCola obtained a copy of the most recent high utilizers roster, from July, and reviewed the recent criminal and legal histories of each of the 111 people on the list. Two things stand out right away. First, the vast majority of people on the list are either homeless or show signs of housing instability; fewer than 10 had consistent residential addresses in the Seattle area. Second, most “high utilizers” show signs of major behavioral conditions, including addiction and mental illness.

In many cases, people’s behavioral health issues were so severe that a Seattle Municipal Court judge has recently questioned their ability to understand the charges against them and participate in their own defense, a process used to determine, among other things, if a case can proceed. Nearly half, or about 54, have been ordered to undergo a competency evaluation within the last year, and 30 have been found incompetent multiple times—a high bar that requires not just a transient lack of understanding (which might be caused by drug use) but a profound underlying mental health condition.

Prosecuting such people, Khadelwal says, is pointless and counterproductive. “It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney,” Khandelwal said. “What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”

Katie landed on the high utilizers list after racking up more than two dozen separate charges in the last five years—everything from tampering with a fire alarm to vehicle prowling to pedestrian interference, for walking in the middle of busy Rainier Avenue South. She spends most of her time in Ballard, despite restraining orders and arrests and people warning her, over and over, to stay out of the area. She has a connection to the neighborhood—it’s where her family once lived, she has told officers and court officials and anyone who will listen, and where her “street family” lives now.

Mostly, Katie’s charges involve stealing from, screaming at, and harassing employees and patrons of businesses and institutions in Ballard’s commercial core, including retail stores, a car dealership, and the Seattle Public Library. Typically, she will enter a business, yell and knock things down, and run off with random items, such as pile of Starbucks paper cups a barista set outside one day. For just one person, people familiar with Katie say, her impact is tremendous; she might enter a single business multiple times a day, causing havoc and running out only to return a few hours later.

Katie has also assaulted people directly—pulling an earring off a waitress who told her to go away, attacking an employee at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, which offers daily meals from its building across from the Ballard Commons. St. Luke’s is among at least half a dozen Ballard businesses that have a no-contact order barring Katie from coming within 1,000 feet of their property—an almost unprecedented move for a church whose institutional mission includes serving Ballard’s homeless population. Earlier this year, because of her status as a “high utilizer,” she was detained for nearly five months at the King County Jail; when she got out, she went straight back to Ballard, where she was promptly arrested—not for harming anyone, but for simply being there.

This time, the city attorney’s office didn’t seek to keep Katie in jail , and she was released two days after her arrest. But her months-long stay in jail had consequences she was still living through. During that period, her name had come up on a waiting list for housing, but no one noticed; as a result, she missed a crucial deadline and fell off the list. Now, after case conferencing that included representatives from the city attorney’s office, she’s staying in a tiny house in a neighborhood across town. But she’s still barred from most of Ballard, which will make it hard for her to avoid arrest in the future.

Despite her erratic behavior, Katie has been found competent at least once, after two previous incompetency findings. Her most recent evaluation, in February, concluded that she was competent to stand trial as long as she stayed away from drugs—a conclusion that shows one of the limits of “competency” as a measure of behavioral health.

Peter, another “high utilizer” who has been found incompetent to stand trial repeatedly, most recently in July, frequents the University District, where his name is on a private list of high-impact individuals maintained by the University District Partnership (UDP), which represents businesses in the area.

“There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”—Daniel Malone, Director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Peter—also a pseudonym—has been arrested repeatedly for walking into businesses, stealing small items—a can of Campbell’s chicken and dumpling soup, an Ace bandage, a bottle of A&W root beer—and threatening employees who catch him or tell him to leave. He says things like, “If you stop me, I have a gun and I will kill you,” and “fuck you, I’ll kick your ass,” and “if you call the police, I will murder you,” according to police reports. On occasion, he’s taken a swing or tried to “head butt” a clerk. Once, he grabbed a “small pink pen knife” from a homeless woman’s cart and pointing it toward a Safeway clerk, Other than the pen knife, which he returned to the woman who owned it, police reports do not indicate that has ever been caught carrying a weapon.

Peter is also, as his many incompetency findings make clear, profoundly disabled, to the point that he’s frequently incapable of carrying on a coherent conversation. He may be “terrorizing” a neighborhood, but he’s also lost in his own delusions of money, grandeur, and persecution; it’s hard to imagine him understanding the nature of the charges against him, much less sitting still in front of a judge and testifying in his own defense.

“We have a lot of clients who are just so gravely disabled that you’re not going to get the same result if you tell them to do something” the way you would with most people, said Ailene Richard, the North Seattle LEAD supervisor for the homeless outreach organization REACH. “They’re not internalizing information in the same way. You have to ask people, what is your motivator? Why do you keep stealing things? Even to do that takes relationship building and trust building.”

The UDP participates in case conferencing—a process that involves sitting down with representatives from Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, neighborhood organizations, LEAD, REACH, and the city attorney’s office and figuring out how to address and assist people who are having a negative impact on local residents and businesses. But for cases like Peter’s, UDP president Don Blakeney says, they’re at a loss.

“What is the solution for someone who is having a negative impact on the neighborhood but is not really a great candidate for behavioral change?” Blakeney said. “Those kind of people on the list are going to be hard [to deal with]—they can’t keep impacting the neighborhood the way they do because it’s terrifying of folks who are stuck in one place,” such as behind the counter at a retail store. “If you get to a point in the neighborhood where people are doing that every day, it has a cumulative impact.”

The Downtown Seattle Association, which supported previous efforts to crack down on drug dealing and sales of stolen goods such as the short-lived Operation New Day, also supports the high utilizers initiative. But the group’s CEO, Jon Scholes, says simply arresting people and releasing them back into the community without health care and housing won’t address the impact high utilizers have on the neighborhood or help them access the services and housing they need. “There’s very few people in our constituency who want to lock up mentally ill people forever—they they want to reduce the impact [and] they want a better outcome.”

Unlike the University District and SoDo neighborhoods, which have access to case conferencing, Scholes said the city and service providers “haven’t set that kind of table with us and other [business] groups. We’ve never set aside the housing and other services that are really needed for this population. …A list is just a list if there’s no meaningful intervention that’s being offered.”

Both Katie and Peter, along with many others on the high utilizers list, are connected with case managers from groups like REACH and LEAD, which work with unhoused people facing charges and those who have co-occurring behavioral health conditions, including mental illness and addiction. But identifying appropriate housing and services for people with huge, sometimes lifelong, challenges takes time, even years, and in the meantime, the prescription from the city attorney’s office often prioritizes immediate neighborhood demands. 

And even some homeless service providers say there are times when jail is justified. Staffers for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which has provided (or currently provides) shelter or housing for many of the people on the high utilizers list, call police when a client assaults another client or threatens guests or staff—as happened earlier this month, when a man on the list exposed himself to residents and staff at DESC’s Hobson Place apartments.

“When I first heard about the so-called high-utilizers program,” Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid said, he hoped Davison’s office would “gather certain information on people who are having a high impact on the community” and “figure out how to address them in a useful way. That is not what happened. Instead, we were handed a list of people who we were told were not eligible for the primary diversion program at the court, and we were not offered a solution other than the primary solution of putting people in jail.”

“We’re supposed to [call police] not just when we’re upset at a lack of compliance or cooperation, but when it’s reached a point where we’re unable to manage the situation safely and effectively,” Malone said. “There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”

Richard said going in and out of jail all the time can cause “tremendous” harm—”jail is not a therapeutic place.” At the same time, jail can provide “a sort of break from everything they’re usually doing,” she added. “Sometimes if we’ve had trouble finding that client, that’s a way we can contact them. It is sometimes the only opportunity that we have to be able to meet with certain folks who we have not been able to find on outreach.”

Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid oversees community court, an alternative to mainstream criminal court that offers access to services such as mental health and addiction treatment, occupational therapy, and life skills classes. He says the city attorney’s office needs to demonstrate, with clear evidence, that jail is helping not just businesses and neighborhood residents but the people who are being jailed over and over again with few visible results. “If they’re going to charge these people more, they need to prove that they’re having a positive impact.” So far, he said, they haven’t done so.

Instead, Davison took action early in her term to specifically deny access to community court to anyone on the list, arguing that people who commit the same offenses repeatedly need strict accountability, not treatment and classes. Davison, and Lindsay, especially objected to the fact that community court is a “release first” model, which gives people who enter the program the benefit of the doubt instead of, as Khandelwal put it recently, keeping people in jail “simply because they are too poor to post bail.” Continue reading “Seattle’s “High Utilizers Initiative” Targets Frequent Offenders for Prosecution. Could It Be Put to Better Use?”

Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?

Health One vehicle, 2019
Seattle rolled out its Health One program, part of the Seattle Fire Department, in 2019. Since then, progress on alternatives to traditional policing have been small-scale and ad hoc.Seattle City Council from Seattle, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

More than two years have passed since the protests against police violence that erupted after George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020, and many of the changes the city considered in the aftermath of those protests have failed to materialize.  Beyond the demonstrable fact that the police have not been “defunded”—reductions in SPD’s budget have been modest, and most have come from shifting jobs into other departments, not actual cuts—the whole idea of “community safety” has been largely abandoned in favor of “reform,” an idea that has been around for decades.

In Seattle, initial reforms, which were supposed to be followed quickly by more meaningful changes, included a lot of administrative shuffling, with mixed results. Parking enforcement officers now work for the Department of Transportation, not SPD, a move that has prompted a complaint at the state Public Employee Relations Commission alleging unfair labor practices and that forced the city to refund millions of dollars in parking tickets.

Separately, the city’s 911 system moved out of the police department and into a new department called the Community Safety and Communications Center. Although reformers hoped the CSCC would be able to direct some calls, such as those involving a mental health crisis, to civilian responders, that process has stalled. Earlier this summer, SPD began explaining why.

According to a recent presentation to the city council’s public safety committee by SPD chief operating officer Brian Maxey and senior research scientist Loren Atherley, a frequently cited SPD analysis concluding that 12 percent of 911 calls “can and should be explored for alternative responses starting now,” as a report from then-mayor Jenny Durkan’s office put, it was flawed. The 12 percent number was based on a report from the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR)  that found that nearly 80 percent of 911 calls in Seattle were “non-criminal” in nature.

In fact, the SPD officials told the committee, the city should never have used the NICJR report as the basis for staffing recommendations in the first place, because it relied on “perfect,” after-the-fact information about how various types of calls were ultimately resolved. In real time and in advance, “it’s very difficult to tell what is being described over the phone what you are dealing with,” Atherley told the council.

SPD’s “risk matrix” locates different types of 911 calls on a grid with two dimensions: The severity of the outcome and the likelihood it will happen. Currently, according to SPD, the department responds to all calls as if they are in the red “extreme” zone.

“The NICJR report that called for the vast majority of our calls to be categorized as appropriate for civilian response— honestly and directly, we take issue with it,” Maxey added. “The 12 percent that we discussed last summer—I don’t want to call it a back-of-the-envelope analysis, but it was far less sophisticated than the approach we are taking right now.”

That new approach involves using a “risk matrix” to categorize every 911 call based on the likelihood of various outcomes if an armed responder is not present, ranging from “negligible” to “catastrophic”. The risk matrix is based on safety management systems in commercial aviation, which determines risk based on a complex analysis of past events to decide which kinds of risks are acceptable and which must be avoided at all costs. Currently, according to SPD, every call gets treated as if it’s likely to be catastrophic; the point of the analysis is to figure out which calls don’t require an “all-hazards” response.

At a followup committee meeting last month, Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell said this analysis will enable the city to determine  “what is the consequence of not having an armed response a sworn response? And what is the likelihood that there will be a bad outcome without a sworn response?”

So far, SPD’s analysis has determined that there are about 42,000 different types of 911 calls—meaning that of the 400,000 or so calls the CSCC receives every year, each call type occurs an average of ten times a year. “Maybe that’s too granular,” Deputy Mayor Harrell said in an interview. “Maybe we can we can put those together. But there’s certainly themes, and there’s overlays to that in which we can in which we can say yeah, there are there are a significant number of calls that do not necessarily need a police response.”

The CSCC’s interim director, Chris Lombard, did not respond to requests for an interview.

City council members impatient for changes have questioned whether SPD and the mayor’s office are slow-walking the analysis on purpose to delay taking action. Pointing to cities like Denver, Eugene, Houston, and Albuquerque that have implemented alternative response models—including “co-responder” models that pair police and mental health professionals and triage models where low-risk crisis calls go directly to non-police responders—council member Andrew Lewis argues that there’s no need to wait for a lengthy analysis before starting to reroute some low-level calls.

I don’t know what is unique or special about our city that we cannot do this basic work, but I would like to… figure out how to put forward a very precise, efficient, and disciplined timeline to deliver on this critical body of work and not treat it like it is something that is unprecedented or obscure or difficult to do,” Lewis said at the council’s weekly briefing this past Monday. Continue reading “Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?”

New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Sidewalk Strategy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prioritizing for Sweeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success”

By Erica C. Barnett

The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which administers contracts and sets policy for the region’s homelessness response system, has seen its share of hiccups in the two and a half years since the city and county voted to create the agency in December 2019. In addition to the pandemic, the agency has faced budget battles, hiring challenges, and open clashes with homeless service providers over the appropriate response to unsheltered homelessness.

A partnership with businesses that aims to eliminate all tents from downtown Seattle by providing intensive case management from people who have been homeless themselves sparked controversy, as did the authority’s request—the second in two years—for significantly more city funding than Seattle leaders said they could provide.

Recently, the agency’s CEO, Marc Dones, stood side by side with Mayor Bruce Harrell at an event celebrating the closure of an encampment at Woodland Park, which Dones distinguished from a traditional encampment sweep because most of the people living there received extensive outreach and shelter referrals. As a matter of official policy, KCRHA opposes sweeps—a position that puts the agency in constant tension with the city, which has dramatically accelerated encampment removals since Harrell became mayor.

I sat down with Dones in their bare-bones office in Pioneer Square last week to discuss some of the controversies they’ve encountered in their first year on the job, the authority’s relationship with the city, and where they believe the region is making progress on homelessness.

We started out by discussing the emergency housing vouchers provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its COVID relief efforts last year. HUD set up a complex, multi-layer process for delivering these vouchers to people who need them; as a result, many nonprofit service providers across the country have struggled to get the vouchers in their clients’ hands and ultimately get their clients into housing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PubliCola: To start us off, can you talk a little bit about where the region has made progress on homelessness in the year since you took over at the agency?

Marc Dones: I would say we have made really significant progress on engaging, for lack of a better term, non-standard providers, and I think our emergency housing voucher work is the best example of that. Our emergency housing voucher program is trending above national [rates], in terms of lease-up, by almost half. I think we’re at 60 percent, and the country’s at something like 33.

I’m using ‘provider’ really broadly here, because a lot of these folks who are linked to the EHV program were not funded by the system at all. They’re folks who do more mutual aid-style work, where they are supporting people who are experiencing homelessness, often through relational work, and case management activities. How we have been able to connect people with the vouchers as a resource, and then support them through lease-up and then into housing, has really hinged on this idea that if we went to where people have their relationships, and use that as the primary vehicle, we would see success. And I think that we are seeing success.

I [also] think of our severe weather response, because we tapped into who’s supporting people outside, and how can we get the money to better support people who are outside, instead of hyper-focusing on this idea that we have to open up 10 more severe weather shelters downtown that people probably aren’t going to use, because they don’t provide parking, or you can’t store your stuff, or it’s only overnight. [So we focused on], how do we get stuff to people that it’s going to meaningfully interrupt potential harm, like just straight-up supplies.

Some of the other stuff that I’m particularly proud of—controversial in some spaces though it is—is our ability to engage philanthropy and business and to be able to begin to migrate towards being on the same page as some of those folks who have historically been positioned as external to the narrative, and then securing their buy-in in to put a significant chunk of change into the system for single adults. Which, not for nothing, it’s always families [who get support through philanthropy]. And so being able to work with the team of folks to get that much buy-in around single adults felt like a really big deal for me.

“If timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public.”

PC: In implementing the public-private Partnership for Zero, how is the authority ensuring that KCRHA is not prioritizing people in one geographic area for beds in the whole system or for units in the whole system?

MD: I get this question from everybody. And I keep having to say, well, no, that kind of will happen to some degree, because we don’t have enough stuff. Full stop. And so part of what the authority is looking to do is create geographic areas of focus, where we drive a ton of good outcomes for people who need us.

Downtown was selected because it has the highest concentration of unsheltered homelessness in the county, particularly for chronically homeless folks. And my expectation is that the vast majority of the folks that we are going to be engaging with—because of how prioritization currently works in terms of having a severe and persistent disability, being eligible for permanent supportive housing, etc.—are folks who we know would rise to the top of lists if they were engaged anyway.

But I think that what we have said is, until such a time as we have enough resources to activate countywide, we are going to have to make choices about where is our specific focus, and then we’re going to have to drive real hard and then shift, and drive real hard and then shift. And I will not defend it as the best way to do this work.  But I will defend it as what is possible for us inside the resource scarcity that we have.

PC: Do you think that you’re on track for “functional zero” [no permanent downtown homeless population] on the timeline you rolled out back in March?

MD: So far so good. I think we’re on track. [That said,] I do want this to feel less opaque to the general public. And I want timeline shifts to not be government failure, particularly when we’re doing complex, human-centered work. And it might take longer as we learn more about who those folks are. I think that if timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public so that when those shifts happen, they should have enough insight into what we do, so that their reaction isn’t ‘The government is out here playing with the timelines.’ We have to get that level of trust. And I know we don’t have it, but we have to get it.

PC: There has been a dramatic increase in encampment sweeps during the new administration. What the KCRHA’s role leading up to and during encampment removals?

MD: Our role is relatively limited. We play a role, but that role is outreach. Currently, we are in receipt of the removal calendar between 30 and 60 days in advance. And that is in part because the mayor’s office has done, I think, some good policy work to help prioritize which encampments are prioritized and why, so that it begins to skew away from what we’ve traditionally seen, if we’re just being totally, brutally honest, which is someone who’s elected or someone who is in a wealthy neighborhood is able to generate enough outcry about someone who’s experiencing homelessness.

PC: How do does the uptick in obstruction removals [encampment removals with less than 72 hours’ notice] affect the KCRHA’s ability to be trusted, and outreach workers that are contracted with your agency to be trusted?

MD: My responses are limited because we’re just not in that stuff. And where we have aligned with the mayor’s office is around what we are able to provide, in terms of engagement and support. On the obstructions, there is currently no authority role there. We have been very clear that a displacement-based strategy is not how we want to work. And recognizing that sometimes where an encampment is, for many reasons, including for the people who live there, doesn’t work. We want to work on timelines that make sense to get people inside.

PC: And did the mayor’s office ask the authority to participate in those removals or have any role?

MD: It was a conversation. And I think what I have pushed for is, give us time to engage people so that we can do right by them with what the system can currently offer. And [Deputy Mayor] Tiffany [Washington] was super open to that. And then it became, okay, on what cycle? And that’s how we’ve gotten to this 30-to-60-day, maybe even beyond, structure that gives us the capacity to engage people. So I do really want to say there was real collaborative work there.

“You can’t sunset [the HOPE Team], and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, ‘go away.'”

PC: What do you think of the fact that the HOPE Team has remained at the city as a kind of vestigial outreach team, while almost every other function of the city’s homelessness apparatus has moved over to the authority? Do they still serve a purpose?

MD: Currently, I would say yes. And I would say that part of it has to do with what we understand to be the case about when outreach teams don’t want to engage [during a sweep]. They have said very clearly that, after [removal signs are posted], our efficacy drops, and for reasons that are at this point nationally recognized as true. So I think that the [HOPE team] remains an important today feature. I don’t know if it’s going to make sense next year. I’m really trying to get it become vestigial over the next three-ish years, as we turn this around.

PC: Should the HOPE Team continue to have exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds that aren’t available to service providers?

MD: When we talk about the set-aside beds, I don’t think that there’s actually an argument about whether or not the set-aside beds are the best way to manage bed availability. But in order to fully step away from set-asides, we need a better way to manage real-time bed availability across the whole system. And we’re working on that here—it is a hot topic around these halls. But we’re not quite there yet. And so there’s some stuff that I think we can talk about in the community as not ideal, and acknowledge that there will be a moment where we can say, ‘Okay, now we can turn that off.’

But I think it’s also really important to be really clear that you can’t sunset one thing, and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, go away, because then there’s chaos in that space, which is harmful. Again, we do still need to meet some of those functions to help people.

PC: It’s almost summer. Can you preview the authority’s plan for getting people inside during hot weather and smoke? Continue reading “One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success””

Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps

1. A new audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office found significant racial disparities in use of force, arrests, and who becomes a “suspect” in areas where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency.

Residents and sheriff’s deputies “reported Black people as suspects and officers arrested Black people at rates nearly four times higher than expected given their proportion of the county population,” according to the audit report.

Although the county’s data on use of force was limited—619 calls led to a use of force between 2019 and 2021—the audit found that “overall, White officers as a group used force twice as often as Black or Asian officers. Additionally, both Black and Hispanic people were subjected to uses of force more often than White people.”

As the chart above shows, there were also major disparities in arrests—specifically, Black people were three and a half times more likely to be arrested than their proportion of the population would predict. In some areas, such as Sammamish and Woodinville, Black people were arrested at a rate more than ten times out of proportion to their population.

After “controlling” for overall arrest rates between various racial groups, that differential more or less disappears, but it still illustrates major upstream disparities, principal management auditor Peter Heineccius told the King County Council on Tuesday: Black, brown, and Native American people are far more likely than white and Asian people to become suspects (in part because people call police on them more), and more likely to be arrested as the result of a 911 call.

“This shows the risk of how an analysis that controls for certain factors might explain away racial disparities because it removes analysis of how [people of] different races become suspects,” he said.

Another factor that makes it hard to grasp the scope of racial disparities in stops and detentions: The sheriff’s office does not collect information about race during the vast majority of encounters with the public. Under the department’s interpretation of a law intended to protect immigrants from ICE, the county council would need to change county law to allow officers to start routinely recording the race of people they encounter.

“Previous Sheriff’s Office leadership has also stated that officers should not collect information about race, limiting the ability to quantify and ultimately reduce racial disparities,” the audit says.

Calling in to the council meeting on Tuesday, county Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she “was heartened to see that while the report did say there are racial disparities, the amount of force that we use, based on the number of contracts was very, very minimal”—about 0.06 percent of all calls for service result in force, according to the audit.

2. The city’s decision to refund around $5 million in parking fines, and drop the equivalent of another $5 million in tickets, is not the only issue parking enforcement officers have raised during their transition from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Parking officers, who are considered “special police officers” under the commission from SPD that was at the center of the parking ticket snafu, want to retain access to the Criminal Justice Information System, a that allows police to do background checks on vehicle owners, via radio, before making a stop.

Now, the union that represents the parking enforcement officers, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG), filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to CJIS without bargaining the changes with the union. CJIS is only available to law enforcement officers; the state Public Employment Relations Commission is currently considering their claim.

“We sill have access to radio—it’s that the information is not the same as when we were at SPD,” said SPEOG president Chrisanne Sapp. “We are able to read between the lines, but with the body of work that we do, I don’t find that reading between the lines is an acceptable response.”

PERC hearings are not public; however, representatives from the city have argued that parking enforcement officers can still call in plates and find out if they should avoid a parked vehicle, even without access to the information system.

2. The recent removal of a small encampment from a park near the West Seattle Golf Course illustrates the problem with the city’s approach to sweeps, according to Keith Hughes, a neighbor who runs a day center at the nearby American Legion hall: Without housing and meaningful services, people just come back.

All five people who were living in Totem Pole Park a week ago returned to the area within three days, according to Hughes, including a couple who moved their tent temporarily to another location and three single men who stayed a couple nights in a large downtown shelter and came back to West Seattle days after they left. One of the men subsequently attacked Hughes physically, he said, punching the 74-year-old in the face and leaving him with a droopy eye, a large cut, and bruises on his left shoulder. Continue reading “Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps”

Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers

By Erica C. Barnett

Next week, the governing board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will vote on a proposed budget that would nearly double the amount of money the authority is requesting from Seattle and King County, which fund the authority.

Overall, the proposed $209 “base budget,” not counting $12 million in one-time COVID relief funds, would require the county and city, collectively, to contribute an additional $90 million to the regional authority, on top of this year’s total contribution of $119 million. The majority of the KCRHA’s existing funding—about $70 million—comes from the city through its annual budget process; the rest comes from the county.

Nearly 40 suburban cities, organized as the Sound Cities Association, receive services funded through the KCRHA and have seats on its governing board, but do not contribute any funding to the authority.

The KCRHA has not presented a detailed breakdown of its budget requests to each of its two funders yet, but if the money was divided up along similar lines as this year’s contributions, it would amount to about $54 million in additional funding from the city, for a total of more than $122 million.

At a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board, agency CEO Marc Dones said, “I agree that this is a hefty ask,” but added that even doubling the authority’s budget won’t fundamentally transform the homelessness system, given the scale of the need in King County. “We went into this saying, and maintain, this is not the transformational budget for us,” Dones said.

PubliCola asked the spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, county council budget chair Joe McDermott, and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, how realistic they considered the KCRHA’s request, given the likelihood of significant budget gaps this year. The city, for example, currently estimates next year’s budget shortfall at around $34 million, and has asked departments to come up with potential cuts of 3 to 6 percent.

The budget proposal includes tens of millions for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve a total of 130 vehicles at a time.

Harrell’s spokesman said the mayor’s office “is still in the early stages of evaluating this preliminary budget proposal. We look forward to working with the KCRHA and CEO Dones, as well as our partners at King County, to help develop a budget through a collaborative and iterative process. We will at the same time be considering our own budget needs, addressing a significant financial gap, and working to determine what investments will most effectively address the homelessness crisis.”

A spokesman for Constantine said the county executive’s office is “reviewing the draft budget and are in communication with KCRHA and our partners at the City of Seattle to discuss needs and realistic budget expectations, as well as potential opportunities for funding.”

Mosqueda said she had not seen the budget proposal yet, “but with Seattle currently funding 68 percent of the budget, it underscores that regional funders are necessary.”

McDermott did not respond to our request for comment.

Lewis, the council’s homelessness committee chair, said the size of the request demonstrates the scope of the need. “I don’t think, in and of itself, that the total number is an unreasonable amount of money to be asking for some of the stuff that they want to do,” he said. “But we’re already paying 70 percent of [the agency’s budget], and Seattle taxpayers are actually paying more, because we pay into the county’s contribution too.”

On Thursday, Dones told PubliCola that even if the authority factored in all the money suburban cities are spending on homelessness, there would still be a “substantial” need for more funding. Under its charter, the authority has no ability to raise taxes or require suburban cities to help fund it: “The limit of what we can do is, this is what is necessary. This is the price tag,” Dones said. The governing board, made up largely of elected officials, could, however, advocate for a new local or county tax to fund homelessness. “They can’t effectuate it, but they are the ones politically situated to call that question and to be the appropriate envoys of the discussion.”

The budget proposal includes tens of millions of dollars for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing for 345 people; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve up to 130 vehicles at a time.

Last year, the city council declined to fund the KCRHA’s request for the high-acuity shelter, citing a revenue shortfall and concerns that the authority had not coordinated their request with the city. Subsequently, King County expanded its shelter complex in the SoDo neighborhood, built with federal COVID relief funds, to include shelter for people with physical and behavioral health care needs. A  spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the $20 million would be for “new capacity, locations [to be determined].”

The 400 proposed new shelter and emergency housing beds represent just 20 percent of the 2,000 new shelter or housing beds Harrell vowed to add this year in the city of Seattle alone. Harrell’s office did not respond directly to a question about this discrepancy between the KCRHA’s proposal and his campaign promise.

Dones has advocated for emergency or “bridge” housing, which they recently described as “non-time limited housing-style options for people” moving from homelessness into permanent housing. The city began moving away from traditional transitional housing in the last decade, after a 2016 report by consultant Barb Poppe called the model “extraordinarily expensive” and the average time people stayed in transitional housing units “shockingly long.”

The agency’s analysis, in contrast, concluded that transitional housing had the lowest “cost per exit” of any shelter or emergency housing type KCRHA funds, and that tiny house villages—a type of shelter Dones has frequently criticized in the past—are the most expensive and have the longest average stay of any shelter type, with a 45 percent rate of exits to permanent housing.

The proposed budget increase would fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).

It’s unclear how the authority derived the “cost per exit” metric, which differs from more frequently uses measures such as average cost per client per year. (Asked for more details about the math the agency used and for the data underlying the numbers, the KCRHA spokeswoman said the number came from “Performance data from HMIS, funding data from our contracts database” and did not provide the data itself.)

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates tiny house villages throughout King County, disputes the authority’s metrics, saying their own analysis shows about 50 percent of tiny house residents exit to permanent housing, and that the cost of sheltering one person in a tiny house for one year comes out to just over $9,000. Continue reading “Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers”

Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022

Chart showing HOPE team shelter enrollment rates over timeBy Erica C. Barnett

A review of six months of data from the HOPE Team—the team of Seattle Human Services Department staffers who do outreach and offer shelter to people living at encampments the city is about to remove—shows that only around 36.5 percent of people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up to that shelter and stayed there overnight. This number represents a 23 percent reduction in referrals from the 47.7 percent enrollment figure HSD reported in March.

The enrollment rate for the first two months of 2022—in winter, a time when people are typically most likely to move indoors—was even lower, just 33 percent. That means that out of every 100 people the HOPE team referred to shelter, fewer than a third actually showed up and stayed the night.

HSD provided its data in response to a records request from PubliCola.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department said the numbers they provided are lower than the true enrollment rate, because about a quarter of people who use homeless services have opted out of he the county’s Homeless Management Information System, which means that their identities are anonymous and can’t be tracked. For example, one shelter whose residents came exclusively from HSD referrals, Rosie’s tiny house village in the University District, had an official enrollment rate of just 52 percent, even though all 36 units were full.

However, the numbers HSD provided, which represent data from September 2021 through February 2022, are directly comparable to the 48 percent figure HSD itself reported for 2021. Both PubliCola’s numbers and HSD’s earlier report represent a straightforward comparison of referrals to confirmed enrollments, without factoring in people who have opted out of the county’s tracking system. For this reason, the more recent numbers—both the 36.5 percent enrollment rate for the last four months of 2021 and the 33 percent enrollment rate for early 2022—represent an apples to apples comparison to HSD’s own published figures.

The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 shelter beds, or about a third of all shelter beds in the city; those beds can only be filled by the HOPE Team, which leads to a shortage of beds for other providers trying to find beds for clients who are actively seeking shelter, as opposed to those who happen to be in the path of an upcoming sweep. Between September 2021 and March 2022, the HOPE Team made 533 referrals to 20 shelters, including the now-closed Executive Pacific Hotel. Of those 533 referrals, just 195 resulted in someone staying at a shelter overnight.

Within the numbers, patterns emerge. In general, tiny house villages—private mini-shelters that are among the most desirable forms of shelter currently available in King County—had a much higher enrollment rate than congregate shelters: Three of the four highest-performing shelters on the HOPE Team’s list were tiny house villages. (I’ve excluded the unspecified category “enhanced shelter,” which accounts for 32 referrals and 10 enrollments, and any shelter that had fewer than 10 referrals over six months from this list.)

However, all three tiny house villages that had higher-than-average enrollments had one thing in common: They all opened during the six-month period the data encompasses. Friendship Heights, a tiny house village on Aurora that had the highest enrollment rate at 59 percent, opened last December; Rosie’s Village in the University District, with a 42 percent enrollment rate, opened last November; and the Interbay Tiny House Village, with a 47 percent enrollment rate, expanded to add 30 new units in November.

Similarly, the Benu Community Home—a men’s shelter with dorm-style rooms in the Central District—opened in November and had an enrollment rate of 50 percent.

As we reported in March, shelter referrals and enrollments went up in 2021 because hundreds of new permanent housing and shelter beds came online all at once, adding new supply to the shelter system that was immediately filled by people being removed from high-priority encampments. A separate report from City Council’s central staff revealed that nonprofit service providers requested shelter for their clients four times more often than the city provided a referral, meaning that the vast majority of people seeking shelter were unable to find it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the shelters with very low enrollment rates had a few things in common: Three of the four are basic shelters or “enhanced” shelters that offer services but little privacy. The other is Lakefront Community House—an enhanced shelter with single and double rooms in a former drug treatment center run by the Low-Income Housing Institute in North Seattle. Continue reading “Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022”

City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps

Tents and other items on the ground during a recent encampment sweep at City Hall
The city put up signs announcing this encampment across from city hall would be removed at 6am, giving residents less than two hours’ notice.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s Human Services Department has asked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to modify its contracts with  outreach providers (including the city’s largest outreach provider, REACH) to require them to show up and offer services to unsheltered people up to the day their encampments are swept.

REACH does not have a strict policy against showing up before encampment sweeps; instead, they make decisions on a case by case basis, REACH director Chloe Gale said. In 2019, the group decided to withdraw from the Navigation Team, a group of police and city outreach workers that used to be in charge of encampment removals, because of concerns about their ability to build trust with clients while appearing to participate in sweeps.

UPDATE: On Friday, a spokeswoman for the KCHRA told PubliCola the authority “confirmed with the City that we are not making any contract modifications.”

In a message to council members, the department said that its HOPE Team—a group of city staffers that connects people whose encampments are about to be swept to beds in shelters to which the HOPE Team has exclusive access—is “often the only entity on site that’s willing to make shelter offers and connections during the posting period (i.e., the time between a site being posted and the time of the removal).”

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor “support[s] providers offering outreach and service connections to encampments before the day of removal.”

UPDATE: On Friday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said in an email to homeless service providers that “despite what you might have seen in [PubliCola’s] recent article” (the one you are currently reading), “KCRHA has not received any requests from the City of Seattle that would change our shared approach to outreach responsibilities.” The Human Services Department confirmed its request for contract changes, provided the request to PubliCola in full, and explained the intent of the request in more detail in an email, and PubliCola stands by our reporting.

REACH and other outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

In recent years, the city has largely abandoned the previous practice of providing 72 hours’ notice before it removes an encampment, a timeline that gave encampment residents time to move into shelter or relocate their tents. Instead, the city designates encampments as “obstructions,” a broad term that can be applied to any tent in any public space, and removes them with little or no advance notice.

This is not the first time the city has attempted to include a requirement to participate in sweeps in its contracts with outreach providers; former mayor Jenny Durkan made a similar attempt last year, but ultimately backed down after some nonprofits said they would refuse to sign contracts that included this stipulation.

Outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “While the funding for these contracts continues to come from the City of Seattle, the oversight of contracts, and the ability to modify those contracts, now live with KCRHA. We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

Responding to questions about the city’s request during the council’s homelessness committee meeting Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the authority had not “entered into any conversations at this point around modifying contracts with providers. What we are discussing at this point is working to support humane responses to folks that are at our prioritized encampments”—that is, encampments the city prioritizes for removal.

HSD spokeswoman Stasha Espinoza said HSD “has yet to request RHA’s assistance with making outreach available on the day of a removal, and that in for now, “HSD has asked their System Navigators”—the HOPE Team’s outreach workers—”to make offers of shelter prior to and during a removal. This includes transportation to a shelter if such services are requested.” Continue reading “City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps”

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”

Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate

1. Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation (HB 2075) that would have required the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to meet minimum service requirements by keeping their physical offices open, come up with a plan to achieve phone wait times of 30 minutes or less, and generally ensure “that clients may apply for and receive services in a reasonable and accessible manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, including but not limited to, technology, language, and ability,” according to a staff summary of the legislation. The bill passed both houses with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, adding to its sponsor, Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21) surprise at Inslee’s veto.

“I had zero idea that this [veto] was even being considered, so getting over the initial shock and confusion took at least half a day,” Peterson said.

The legislation was aimed at addressing a persistent problem at DSHS, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps: Because DSHS, unlike most other government agencies, had never reopened its physical offices, clients—many of them homeless—could only access the agency by phone, and wait times were often several hours.

DSHS secretary Jilma Meneses agreed to reopen most of the agency’s 181 physical offices in March, which eliminated much of the cost associated with the legislation; eliminating a 30-minute wait time mandate and replacing it with language saying DSHS should “strive for” 30-minute wait times made that issue a debate for a later time and reduced the bill’s short-term cost to nothing. 

“We all know a significant investment needs to be made into upgrading the systems that they use—the phone system, the ability for people to access [DSHS] online, and the in-person service, which was the crux of the bill,” Peterson said. He said he trusts that Menenses will keep her word and keep the offices open, but added that the legislation provided a guarantee that would have lasted beyond the tenure of a single DSHS secretary.

In a statement, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said, “We wish we had not had to advocate so forcefully to get the CSOs to reopen, and that the governor had not vetoed this commonsense bill. Together with our service and advocacy partners across Washington, we look forward to working with the governor, DSHS Secretary Meneses, and the legislature in 2023 to guarantee that never again will the state lock its doors on people in need of services, especially in an emergency.”

Inslee’s veto message shed little light on the reasons for his veto. “The executive branch always strives to manage state programs in the best manner possible, within the authorization and resources provided by the legislative branch,” Inslee wrote. “Identifying specific performance metrics, in particular without the necessary resources, is an overreach in our respective roles.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said the “performance metrics” Inslee referred to in his veto letter include “not only having offices open but also tracking call wait times and dropped calls with the aspirational goal of keeping that response time to 30 minutes or less. Costing that out is very difficult. … Secretary Meneses has her team working on outreach to advocates and those who access our systems to determine what the buildout should look like.”

2. Back in February, as state legislators were working on a capital budget that would include hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) proposed—and Rep. Noel Frame’s (D-36) office set up—a meeting between King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones and the 45 members of King County’s legislative delegation (not all of whom were expected to attend). Until that point, legislators had not met formally with Dones, and the KCRHA had not provided a list of legislative priorities for the 60-day session.

The meeting was set for 12:30 on February 17. At 9:40 that morning, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig sent an email to the 45-member delegation to cancel.

“As you may have read in the Seattle Times this morning, the KCRHA will be making an announcement about our plans to address unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle,” Herbig wrote. As we reported, the announcement was about private donations totaling $10 million to fund, among other things, 30 “peer navigators” in downtown Seattle.

“Because of this announcement, and how busy you all are right now with session, we are canceling today’s 12:30 meeting,” Herbig continued. “We appreciate your understanding, and look forward to opportunities to introduce ourselves and answer any questions you have about us or our work after Sine Die,” the end of the legislative session.

“I am inferring from your cancellation [that] KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”—State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in an email to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Macri, who works for the Downtown Emergency Service Coalition when the legislature isn’t in session, called the cancelation “a slap in the face” in an email response to Herbig. “Tell me why I should not read it as this—’Sorry, elected officials, we have no time for you because some billionaires are giving us a small shiny thing, which they can only do it on the one day we have a meeting with the group who collectively represents the interests of 2.3 million people from our region,'” Macri wrote.

“I am inferring from your cancellation,” Macri continued, that “KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”

In a followup email, State Sen. David Frockt (D-46) added, “Our proposed Senate capital budget has over 470m for housing and stabilization investments, so I concur with Rep. Macri it would be good to connect since I presume KCRHA and key agency partners will be seeking some of this money at some point. … [P]artnership with the key budget writers and the former speaker,” Frank Chopp (D-43), “would be helpful and will help me relate to all of my more conservative colleagues in the Senate why these investments toward King County are worthwhile.” Continue reading “Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate”