Category: human services

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As School Starts, Controversial North Seattle Encampment Stays Put

Anything Helps’ Mike Mathias and deputy Seattle Schools superintendent Rob Gannon take questions at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.

By Erica C. Barnett

The homeless encampment behind Broadview-Thomson K-8 school was supposed to be gone by September 1. Instead, as kids head back to in-person classes this week, it’s still growing—and no one knows quite what to do about it.

The city of Seattle washed its hands of the encampment earlier this summer, arguing that because the tents were technically on school property (rather than the city-owned land next door), the city had no responsibility to help the people living there. After noting (correctly) that the job of schools is educating children, not housing adults, the district stepped up, partnering with a fledgling nonprofit called Anything Helps to set up a resource tent on the property, with the goal of moving all 52 people to safer locations by this week.

With that “goal date” approaching, however, deputy school superintendent Rob Gannon acknowledged at a public meeting last week that “we did not make the goal.” In an interview, Gannon told PubliCola that although the encampment is still there, and has been growing, “I do intend to be able to demonstrate that there has been measurable progress, and that we’re on a pathway to continue to see most of those residents placed and the property cleared as soon as possible.”

The school district is under significant pressure to deliver on its promise. Neighborhood residents—egged on by wall-to-wall coverage on Sinclair-owned KOMO TV—have demanded that the district sweep the encampment as soon as possible, arguing that the presence of homeless people poses a danger to schoolchildren, contributes to crime, and is polluting Bitter Lake. (Although the encampment is unusually tidy by Seattle standards, KOMO’s coverage has focused near-obsessively on a large collection of trash and debris around a single campsite, suggesting a level of disorder that simply isn’t present).

At two recent public meetings at the school, neighbors have directed their anger at both Gannon and Anything Helps leader Mike Mathias, who’s singlehandedly trying to move people out of the camp, accusing both of “caring more about homeless people than our kids’ security,” to paraphrase comments made by several parents at the most recent meeting. “Trespass them!” several people shouted repeatedly during both meetings, suggesting Mathias or the school district should call police and have people arrested for being on the property. “They’re breaking the law!” one man yelled—a common misconception about people who sleep in public spaces.

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Anthony Piper, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said the vitriol on social media and negative press attention has made it harder for “a lot of people that are already having problems to stabilize and not have more problems. This is the most talked-about place on Nextdoor and everywhere else. They want to feel safe—well, we want to feel safe too.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Anything Helps’ Mathias sprawled in a camp chair under a canopy tent at the encampment, where a folding table, some chairs, and computers hooked up to a nearby generator serve as the makeshift headquarters for his impromptu organization. As we talked, several volunteers from a nearby church stopped by to drop off clipboards. Although a significant portion of the crowd at the first public meeting in July raised their hands at the end of the meeting when Mathias asked who was willing to volunteer, none of the hand-raisers followed through, although some donated money to Anything Helps. “We fear what we don’t understand, and so there’s just not a lot of on-site assistance,” Mathias said.

As Mathias was saying this, he was interrupted by a call: The police were on their way. Earlier that afternoon, someone  had been causing trouble at the encampment and was now refusing to leave, so a volunteer needed to go out and intercept the officers. The previous week, two SPD cruisers showed up and drove across the lawn right up to the encampment, which freaked everybody out, Mathias said.

Mathias hasn’t shied away from calling the cops if he feels the community is being threatened. “The majority of my time has been spent keeping the influx of new campers out,” Mathias said. “If they refuse to leave, I call the police. But that creates unsettling circumstances. I say, ‘Listen, I don’t want to do that to you,’ because I don’t. I legitimately don’t. And I hate to displace people, because I’ve been displaced and I don’t want that to happen to anybody.”

Mathias has a personal connection to the issue he’s trying to address at Bitter Lake: He was homeless for eight months, living in the notorious Jungle encampment near I-5 before it was swept in 2016. He now lives in an apartment paid for through the federal Housing and Essential Needs program, which helps people living with diagnosed physical or mental disabilities.

Initially, Mathias planned to enroll about two-thirds of the people living at the encampment in HEN. But it quickly became clear that the people living at Bitter Lake needed basics like IDs, cash benefits, and Medicaid before they could even start the process of applying for housing and other long-term benefits.

Encampment neighbors raise their hands at a recent public meeting at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.
Encampment neighbors raise their hands at a recent public meeting at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.

“I know that for us and our clients, HEN has been really hard to access,” Karin Salinas, outreach director for the city’s primary outreach provider, REACH, said. “Even with light-touch people that you think you should be able to move quicker, it rarely works because there are so many barriers and hurdles,” including in-person appointments with state officials, ID requirements, and visits with a doctor or doctors to verify that a person has a disability. “Our clients get tired of trying because it’s such an effort to even get to the process of getting your application in,” Salinas said.

Shelly Vaughan, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said it took her more than six months to get a Washington state ID, because she had to track down documents, including a birth certificate, from other states where she lived in the past. Other encampment residents faced similar challenges. Now, Mathias said, “everybody here has EBT [food benefits]. Everybody here has Medicaid. Everybody here has IDs. That’s great. But that has taken up the bulk of our time so far.”

And then there are the new residents. Mathias estimates that since July, the encampment has grown from 52 residents to 66—and that’s accounting for 21 people who have moved out “through diversion, housing, or memorandums of understanding, where the campers decided [someone was] too disruptive.” These MOUs are “really informal,” Mathias said—just brief agreements on a sheet of paper—”but they do deter people from coming back.” 

For example, a woman whose mental illness symptoms became too disruptive to the whole camp—she refused to wear clothes or shoes, screamed, and wandered into traffic—signed an MOU, along with her boyfriend, and moved to a different site nearby with camping gear purchased by Anything Helps. “She continued to refuse treatment,” and police wouldn’t take her to a hospital for an involuntary mental health hold, Mathias said. “Now I can’t find her. It’s just terrifying,”

As Mathias was explaining all this, a young man wandered past the tent; Mathias, who hadn’t seen him before, called out. “We’re at capacity right now,” he said. “I’m happy to help you, give you step-by-step directions on how to get housing, but I can’t have any more people stay here.”

After some back and forth, the man left. But our conversation was soon interrupted again by another conflict—another young man, swinging a crowbar, was accusing another resident of stealing his dollar. “If I give you a dollar, will that resolve it for you?” Mathias asked. “Give me ten,” the young man responded, scowling and scraping his crowbar in the grass. Eventually, Mathias and Piper convinced him to walk away.

These sort of conflicts, Mathias says, are constant—low-level stuff that takes time away from the primary work of getting people housed. To reduce the time Mathias spends doing conflict resolution, the district recently signed a contract with the WDC Safety Team, a group affiliated with the nonprofit Community Passageways, to provide a two-person deescalation at a cost of about $23,000 a month. The WDC Safety Team previously worked with Co-LEAD, a case management program run by the Public Defender Association that worked to shelter people with high-acuity needs and criminal justice involvement during COVID.

“It’s all about building relationships with the people living in encampments, being able to provide some kind of human connection,” WDC co-founder Dominique Davis said. “Our job is just being there, letting people know that we’re here to keep you guys safe. We’re not security and we’re not patrolling you. We’re not watching what you do. We’re here to make sure no violence happens and to deescalate situations as they arise.”

In late August, the district installed a fence with a locked gate on the north side of the encampment, and has since extended the fencing to separate a path that runs along the property, which could theoretically be used by children, from the camp. “The fence will not solve all issues, but it at least secures, or makes more secure, the pathway to and from the school,” Gannon said at last week’s meeting. “It may seem trivial, but that has done a lot to slow the traffic in and out of the camp.”

Although the city has refused to provide assistance to encampment residents or the school district, its own practice of removing encampments in response to neighborhood complaints appears to have exacerbated the situation at Bitter Lake. Mathias and people living at the encampment said some of the new residents arrived after the city swept nearby encampments, including multiple encampments in Lake City that have been the source of similar neighborhood battles in recent months.

Gannon agrees that the city-led sweeps are driving unsheltered people to seek new places to live—and some of them end up at Bitter Lake.”I don’t mean anything disparaging by this, but this is a transient population,” Gannon told PubliCola. “There are people coming in, there are people going out, and it’s difficult to keep tabs on everybody’s whereabouts. It is also difficult to determine who is new and how to exclude them from the property.”

Neighbors hold "Save Bitter Lake" signs at a press conference for Bruce Harrell's mayoral campaign
Neighbors hold “Save Bitter Lake” signs at a press conference for Bruce Harrell’s mayoral campaign

Sometimes, especially if your perspective is skewed by social media and heated public meetings, it can seem as though entire neighborhoods have turned their backs on unsheltered people and simply want them gone. But not everyone around Bitter Lake sees the encampment as a threat. In addition to the church volunteers, there’s Barbara—a neighbor who first ventured into the encampment after she heard on television that the city-owned sports field next to the encampment was covered with needles from encampment residents.

“I was like, ‘I can singularly solve this problem.'” said Barbara, who preferred that we use her first name only. “I came over here with my gloves on, my grabber, my container to put sharps in, and there were no needles there. In fact, I found no trash whatsoever.” On several recent visits, PubliCola found the encampment virtually trash-free, thanks to a cleanup system that involves collecting trash in large white bins and carrying it to the nearby park for collection by the Parks Department (which also installed a large sharps container by the restrooms).

After she showed up and found nothing to clean, Barbara started hanging out at the encampment and getting to know the people living there. “I’m out here nearly every day,” she said. “I’ve seen conflicts happen. And I’ve seen conflict resolution. And there’s been nothing that made me even feel like I needed to get up and leave.”

It would be misleading to suggest that no violence or illegal activity has occurred at the Bitter Lake encampment. People have showed up at neighborhood residents’ homes and asked them to call 911 because they were overdosing, and people have died on the property. Drug and alcohol use is common. Before my most recent visit, Mathias called the cops on a woman who was screaming at people by the nearby tennis courts. But the evidence that the encampment poses a risk to nearby school children is nonexistent. As Piper notes, unsheltered people are well aware that housed people loathe and fear them. They’ll go out of their way to avoid interacting with people’s kids.

Anthony Piper, one of the de facto leaders of the Bitter Lake encampment
Anthony Piper, one of the de facto leaders of the Bitter Lake encampment

Moreover, in a city where thousands live unsheltered, “move them somewhere else” is not a compelling solution—not for encampment residents, who will be demonized and shamed no matter where they go, nor for housed residents, who will still be confronted with visible homelessness until homelessness is solved.

In the coming weeks and months, Gannon and Mathias hope to find places for everyone living at Bitter Lake to move indoors—including, Gannon hopes, a hotel on Aurora Ave. North that King County purchased in July. “The county is working with us,” Gannon said. “They understand the pressures that we’re under, they understand that the timeline that we’re operating towards, but there also is an appreciation that the approach we’re trying to take right to find services and solutions for those experiencing homelessness, not to merely sweep them away and have that become a different problem in a different area of the community.”

Once the people living at the encampment are housed or have agreed to move elsewhere, Gannon says, the district will have to think about what to do with the property, which has historically been an open field that has served as an extension of the park next door. One option would be to keep it fenced off and use it for “school-related purposes”; another would be to sell it. “We haven’t actually entertained potential buyers, but that is on the list of considerations, Gannon said. “But that decision is a long way away.”

Piper and Vaughan, who have been at Bitter Lake since the beginning, both point to the many drawbacks of living outside, including the fact that they have to travel several hours on the bus and wait in a long line at the nearest hygiene center just to take a shower. (There’s a City of Seattle community center right next to the encampment, but it’s closed).  “We definitely would like to live in our own house,” Vaughan says. “But we kind of want to stay here till the last person’s gone, because we kind of started it in a way.”

Piper, who has a housing voucher through the Veterans’ Administration and a small monthly disability check, says that even though he hasn’t lived indoors for a long time, “I’ve always kind of thought, eventually, when I was ready, I’ll be okay.” For now, though, he’s staying put. “A lot of these people are my friends. Personally, I just want everyone to have the chance. And even if they don’t take it, that’s fine. They got the chance to do something. That’s what I want. I just want to see that through.”

As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain

Via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. 

Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.

Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.

“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.

UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”

Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”

This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.

Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”

Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”

City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”

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While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'” 

But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain”

City Unions Balk At Vaccine Mandate, Durkan Proposed Asking Homeless Where They Came From, González Moves Ahead

1. A coalition of city employee unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, issued a letter to the interim head of Seattle’s Labor Relations unit on Monday demanding to bargain the effects of the city’s newly announced requirement that all employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine before October 18, 2021.

In the letter, Coalition of City Unions co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the vaccine mandate—which would give the city grounds to fire employees who refuse the vaccine without an exemption, and which could open the door for phasing out remote work—will have a “direct impact on working conditions.”

In an email to PubliCola on Monday, Van Eyk clarified that while his coalition generally believes that the mandate is legal, any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule. The areas for debate, he said, could include accommodations for employees who obtain a religious or medical exemption from the mandate, as well as additional protections for employees who have already received the vaccine, such as personal protective equipment or HVAC improvements to ease the transition back to in-person work, for instance.

In a separate letter published on the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) blog on Monday, union President Mike Solan also called for the city to come to the bargaining table to discuss the new mandate, adding that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not consult with SPOG before issuing the mandate.

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules; officers became eligible for vaccination in mid-March. In his letter, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest. “SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?”

PubliCola has reached out to the King County Police Officers Guild, which represents most of the sworn employees in the King County Sheriff’s Office, for their response to the county’s parallel mandate.

2. An email obtained through a public disclosure request confirms that Mayor Durkan’s former homelessness advisor, Tess Colby (now deputy director of the Human Services Department’s homelessness division), asked HSD to require outreach providers that contract with the city to collect information about where every client they work with first became homeless, and to withhold contractors’ funding if they refuse to do so.

In the email to HSD staff, dated January 11, Colby wrote that for “ALL contracts the Mayor wants data collected on prior place of stable housing. This is a question in [the Homeless Management Information System, a database used by the city and county] (although not mandatory) that has a lot of null responses. She wants it replied to by everyone enrolled in HMIS. A way to ensure this happens is through a minimum data quality standard, below which invoices are held until the provider brings the data quality up. There may be other ways. The Mayor will want to see this in each contract prior to execution.”

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The order was never implemented, in part because of objections from service providers, who reportedly said collecting this information from every client would be invasive and unnecessary. Durkan, as we’ve reported, has taken to citing an older statistic suggesting that 40 percent of people who are homeless in Seattle became homeless somewhere else, suggesting that Seattle is a “magnet” because of its homeless services.

Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower confirmed that the city never made the data collection a requirement contractors would have to meet in order to get paid. “Collecting basic data shows the regional nature of homelessness and the degree to which, due to lack of local shelter or services, people are forced to leave their communities and social support systems to seek services elsewhere,” Hightower said. “For example, we know that the City is currently supporting hundreds of individuals who were last stably housed in Kent, Renton, Auburn and Federal Way.”

3. On Monday, city council president Lorena González continued to gain ground in late results from last Tuesday’s mayoral primary, closing the gap with her former council colleague Bruce Harrell to just 2 percent, or 4,051 votes. While she probably won’t quite close that gap—with fewer than 8,000 votes uncounted, González would have to win more than half of all outstanding votes in the 15-way race to top Harrell’s count—the results suggest that pundits who’ve written González off should rethink their casual dismissals.

Meanwhile, city attorney candidate Nicole Kennedy-Thomas, a police abolitionist, contained to widen the lead between herself and second-place finisher Ann Davison, a Republican who has advocated for literally warehousing homeless people. Still, the race is wide open, with 30 percent of voters (those who voted for incumbent Pete Holmes) up for grabs. Holmes has won his last three races by wide citywide margins, so the makeup of his support base (Status quo liberals? Left-leaning realists? Establishment centrists?) is hard to characterize.

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday afternoon, the city council’s homelessness committee will get a long-awaited update from the city’s homelessness division about what the division, and the homeless service providers the city funds, have done over the past seven months to move people into shelter and housing—including a report on the two hotel-based shelters the city belatedly funded as part of its pandemic response earlier this year.

Both hotels—the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, and the 139-room Executive Pacific, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute—are nearing the halfway mark on their 10-month leases. Yet neither has made much visible progress toward a key goal of their contracts: Moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness and into permanent housing, using short-term rapid rehousing subsidies to help fund apartments on the private market.

While both rapid rehousing programs have enrolled a similar percentage of clients into rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually identified housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments.

After resisting calls to open hotels to shelter people living outdoors during the COVID pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announced it was signing short-term leases on the two hotels in February. The plan, announced by then-deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller (who quit to run for mayor) and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis last October, was to take people directly off the streets, stabilize them and assess their needs, and move most of them quickly into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies administered through separate contracts with the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, respectively. By cycling most clients quickly through the hotels and into private-market apartments, proponents said, the hotels could serve hundreds of people.

The reality, however, hasn’t lived up to the initial promise. While both Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services have signed up a similar percentage of clients for their rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually found housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments. (Although the online presentation says the Chief Seattle Club has enrolled no households in its rapid rehousing program, its executive director, Derrick Belgarde, says the current number is 38). At the Executive Pacific, 17 people have moved into apartments with rapid rehousing subsidies—seven more than the total three weeks ago. At King’s Inn, not a single person has moved out using a rapid rehousing voucher. Several people have exited both programs into other types of housing—moving in with relatives, for example—and some simply left the hotels and didn’t return.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly. “It’s going to be hard to find them a place they can afford with little to no income,” Belgarde said. “With their underlying conditions, they’re going to need permanent supportive housing.”

One option, Belgarde said, would be moving some of the people currently at King’s Inn into ?ál?al, a Club-owned 80-unit studio apartment building that’s opening in Pioneer Square in October. Some of those living at King’s Inn could use rapid rehousing vouchers to live at ?ál?al, for a year, Belgarde said, and then, if they couldn’t afford market-rate housing, they could apply to move into Sacred Medicine House, a 125-unit permanent supportive housing development in Lake City that’s supposed to open in October 2022. Both buildings, which are designed to cater specifically to Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, are subject to fair housing law, so ensuring that their residents are by and large Native is a matter of getting people’s applications in quickly.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, said he initially hoped that the hotels would enable the city to “rapidly house hundreds of people … but that does not seem to be where we are at right now.” Instead, he said, the hotels have turned into a “bottleneck” while the subsidies go unused.

One option, Lewis said, might be to “open up” access to the subsidies to other providers, such as the Public Defender Association and its JustCare program, whose clients might be a better fit for rapid rehousing. Rapid rehousing programs typically best for people who can return to full employment before the subsidy ends—people facing temporary setbacks, not permanent disability. Continue reading “The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check”

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

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

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

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

Image via seattle.gov

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

This claim is simply false.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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