Category: human services

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”

Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee at an event promoting a proposed tiny-house village in South Lake Union last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle Times published a story about state Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43) decision to allocate $2 million in state funding to the Low-Income Housing Institute to build tiny house villages. Both Chopp and LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, took issue with the piece, which suggested that Chopp (who co-founded LIHI 31 years ago, but has no financial interest in the nonprofit) had improperly used his power to take the money away from three other projects that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority had chosen through a competitive bidding process.

The story of the $2 million is both more complicated and simpler than the Times’ coverage suggested. More complicated, because the state allocated the funds for tiny house villages almost a year ago; the money was never spent because of decisions made by Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose administration gave a series of excuses for not releasing the funds before her term ended last year. And simpler, because the money is ultimately controlled by the state, which can do what they want with it—including funding LIHI directly without going through any bidding process.

Chopp says he first agreed to find $2 million to fund tiny house villages after City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, asked Chopp to help fund his “It Takes A Village” strategy—a plan to build 12 tiny house villages across the city. The 2021 state capital budget, adopted last April, dedicated the $2 million explicitly to “tiny homes (Seattle).” Last June, the council adopted—and Durkan signed—the Seattle Rescue Plan, which, among other things, allocated another $400,000 in operations funds to supplement the $2 million from the state (on top of $2.8 million from the 2021 budget that had gone unspent) to build new tiny house villages. The Durkan Administration, however, never spent the money.

“They never had the money. It was not theirs to begin with.”—State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43)

At the time, Durkan’s staff gave several reasons for declining to take action on the funding, including the fact that the city hadn’t allocated long-term funding to keep the villages for years in the future (as council members pointed out at the time, the city only budgets in one-year increments); a lack of staffing as the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division emptied out in the runup to the KCRHA taking over; and a desire to let the KCRHA’s new director, Marc Dones, implement their own shelter strategy.

Dones has made no secret of their desire to overhaul the region’s shelter system. On several occasions, Dones expressed skepticism about the tiny-house village model, suggesting that group houses or a more direct route from the street to permanent housing might be a better option. This created a sense of urgency for tiny-house proponents to get the new villages up and running by the end of 2021, before the authority took over, as well as a mistrust between LIHI and the new authority that persists to this day.

Advocates for tiny house villages were still asking the city to spend the $2 million as late as September, but gained no traction. “We were all frustrated that that money sat there for a whole year, and we kept asking the mayor’s’ office and [the Human Services Department, why aren’t you putting out a [request for proposals?]” LIHI director Sharon Lee recalled.

According to Chopp, as 2021 wound down, he called Lewis and the interim director of the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, Robin Koskey, and said “‘Time’s up. A year ago, you promised it was all ready to go, and you promised the money would be spent by the first quarter of this year,'” which ended on March 31. At that point, Chopp said, he decided to take action by writing a local community project request—a way of earmarking capital funds for specific projects—to fund the three LIHI villages. Chopp said he told Nigel Herbig, the KCRHA’s intergovernmental relations director, “Nigel, you don’t have the money” in the third week of January.

The Times reported that Chopp withdrew money that the KCRHA had in hand, a contention Chopp called “ridiculous. They never had the money,” he said. “It was not theirs to begin with.”

A KCRHA spokeswoman, Anne Martens, did not respond to detailed questions about Chopp’s conversation with Herbig, subsequent conversations between Chopp and the KCRHA, or why the authority moved forward to seek bids for the $2 million even after being told the money was going to LIHI. “[A]s you know, the RFP as awarded does fund tiny house villages,” Martens said in an email—a reference to a 25-unit project the Chief Seattle Club proposed in partnership with LIHI and a separate expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet Shelter on 15th Ave. W.

Despite Chopp’s action to earmark the $2 million for LIHI, the agency still applied for funding through the KCRHA’s process; as we reported, the authority rejected both of their applications to build and operate their own tiny house villages, saying that their proposal to build a village on City Light-owned property in South Lake Union, which Lewis supported, would require people to live in “inhumane living conditions.”

Martens said she would have to look into our question about what specific conditions were “inhumane” when we asked about this last Tuesday, and had not followed up by press time. In a previous conversation, Martens said the awards prioritized “equity” and “lived experience.” The authority, Martens said, used “competitive bidding in order to be more equitable… and that is reflective of our commitment to centering lived experience.”

Asked why she applied for KCRHA funding if she knew Chopp had already earmarked the $2 million for LIHI, Lee said she “assumed that KCRHA had chosen to backfill (add) the $2 million from other sources,” such as leftover rapid rehousing funds from the Durkan Administration’s unsuccessful effort to cycle unsheltered quickly through hotels into permanent, often market-rate, apartments.  “Why would the RHA take this information and then proceed to award the funds if they were told that the funds were not available?” Lee said. “Why wouldn’t they make another plan or find additional funding?”

“We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

KCRHA has not said how they plan to pay for the projects that won funding through its bidding process. One possibility, Martens said, is to go to the city of Seattle, which provides about 70 percent of the authority’s funding, for the money. “We are talking to the City about this whole snafu to figure out what the next steps are,” she said.

Barring a dramatic turnaround in its budget forecast, the city seems unlikely to provide the authority with additional money this year. “We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for,” city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said. “Marc and the RHA are receiving 68 percent of their funding from the city of Seattle. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”

Mosqueda called Chopp’s action to allocate the $2 million to LIHI “appropriate,” adding, “We have to be good partners with the state legislature when they trying to help with the most pressing issue in our city. You either use funding or you lose funding, and I’m glad that the  funding is being deployed so that people can continue to get access to tiny house villages, regardless of whether through RHA or directly from the state legislature.” Continue reading “Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System”

New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences

By Erica C. Barnett

In October 2020, a little more than six months into the pandemic, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority quietly changed the criteria it uses to place people in the so-called “priority pool” for housing—sometimes known as the “top 40 list.”

Instead of relying on an interviewing tool that has been widely criticized for producing racially biased outcomes, the KCRHA will use a simpler list of criteria developed in response to COVID-19 that prioritizes older people, people of color, and people with specific physical conditions, such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, that make them susceptible to COVID. The new system relies on data from local medical providers and information people self-report through the Homeless Management Information System used by most homeless service providers. Unlike other tools, it does not include factors such as mental illness or substance use disorders, which are common barriers to housing and part of the standard definition of “chronic homelessness.”

The need for a quasi-objective tool to decide who gets housing is a product of scarcity: For decades, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle has far outpaced the amount of available housing for people with little or no income or who need extra support to stay housed. Today, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority estimates there are as many as 45,000 homeless people in the region. Because there isn’t enough affordable housing for all those people, the homeless system has to triage—picking and choosing who gets access to housing based on their level of “vulnerability,” a term with a shifting definition. The calculus is brutal: Without enough housing, most people will always be left out in the cold; the only question is who makes the cut.

“Only a very small slice of people who are homeless are getting help,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Not many people qualify and there’s not a lot of funding in the system for people experiencing homelessness.”

“When we do have enough housing, prioritization as we’ve known it is something that that will no longer be necessary,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said.
“But as long as there’s that scarcity, then we have to be able to identify a group of folks” to prioritize.

King County has used a number of different tools over the years to assess people’s vulnerability and prioritize them for housing—most recently (between 2016 and 2019) an interview-based assessment called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT for (sort of) short. For years, critics argued that the VI-SPDAT led to racially biased outcomes—Black people, in particular, were underrepresented compared to white people—and King County adopted new criteria that de-prioritized the VI-SPDAT, but didn’t discard it, in early 2019.

Later that same year, a study from a group called C4 Innovations confirmed that the VI-SPDAT gave white people a better shot at housing and services than Black people and other people of color, and suggested some possible reasons why: The tool asks a number of extremely personal questions about things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and sex work, that white people may feel more comfortable answering in the affirmative, especially if the interviewer is also white. The study also found that the VI-SPDAT asked questions about vulnerabilities that white people were more likely to have than people of color.

The new criteria do away with that by only looking at race, age, and physical health (including pregnancy)—and by foregoing in-person interviews altogether. “What is fundamentally different [with the COVID-19 criteria] is that instead of asking folks a lot of invasive, retraumatizing questions,” KCRHA program performance manager Alex Ebrahimi said, is that “the tool is based on data… so that litany of really invasive, not trauma-informed questions doesn’t have to happen.” The KCRHA gets its information from both “administrative data” taken from the Health Care for the Homeless Network and Medicaid, and from the Homeless Management Information System, a giant database used by most homeless providers that is based on self-reporting.

In the year and a half the new system has been in place, the percentage of Black heads of household prioritized for housing increased from 27 percent to 49 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 32 to 11 percent. (The percentage of Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native households that were prioritized for housing also increased slightly, while the number of Asian and multiracial households declined). The change was also striking among families with children, where the percentage of Black households increased from 33 percent to 52 percent, while the percentage of white households declined from 27 to 6 percent.

But the biggest change since the KCRHA started prioritizing people for housing based on COVID vulnerability has been in the age of single adults who receive priority for housing placement. Because the COVID criteria put a premium on age—seven of eight “tiers” count age as one of a small handful of potential qualifiers, with a lower cutoff of 65—the average age of single adults who were prioritized for housing skyrocketed, from 41 to 61 years old. For a typical middle-aged person without any physical ailments that make them specifically vulnerable to COVID, the odds of getting bumped up the queue for housing are slimmer than ever.

Looked at one way, this makes perfect sense: By the time a homeless adult is 60, they are usually much “older,” biologically, because living outdoors is terrible for a person’s health. “The population of older adults who are homeless is expected to double by 2025 and triple by 2030,” Roman said, and “few are going to make it past 60. [By the time] they’re 55, they present as older and they have the problems of older people, but they’re not eligible for federal assistance to older people because they’re not old enough.”

Still, the exclusion of behavioral health conditions from the criteria is a significant shift—one that could mean some people with substance use disorders or disabling mental health conditions have to wait longer for housing. Ebrahimi, from KCRHA, says the authority may take behavioral health into consideration in the future, but notes that this information isn’t readily available through data; people have to disclose it voluntarily through the kind of interview process that the VI-SPDAT, with its biased outcomes, was based on. Continue reading “New Standards for Housing Homeless, Aimed at Addressing Racial Bias, May Have Unintended Consequences”

Most City Shelter “Referrals” Don’t Lead to Shelter, Police Preemptively Barricade Encampment Against Protests, City Says It Can’t Risk Handing HOPE Team to County

Chart showing trends in outreach and service connections by Navigation Team and HOPE Team
Source: Seattle City Council central staff report

1. Fewer than half the people referred to shelter by the city’s HOPE team last year actually showed up to shelter and stayed there for at least one night, according to data released by the city’s Human Services Department during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee this week.

The city’s HOPE Team, which provides shelter referrals to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, referred 1,072 people to shelter in 2021; of those, 512 enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and slept in a shelter for at least one night within 48 hours of receiving a referral. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 beds, or a third of the shelter beds in the city.

HSD deputy director Michael Bailey told council members the department is prioritizing people in the highest-priority locations (like downtown Seattle and Woodland Park) for shelter first, along with “individuals with multiple vulnerabilities from all over.”

“As you know, we can’t overrule someone’s decision to decline shelter, but we can work with the individual to better understand their unique needs and the factors contributing to that decision,” Bailey said.

Although the number of referrals went up in 2021, that was largely 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. As a separate report from the council’s central staff notes, 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.

2. One of the persistent oddities of the city’s homelessness system is that the HOPE Team has remained at the City of Seattle, serving as a kind of vestigial arm of the disbanded Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, even as every other aspect of the homelessness system has transferred to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

At Thursday’s meeting, Bailey introduced a somewhat novel explanation for the city’s decision to retain the HOPE Team: Without control over shelter referrals, Seattle risked violating rules that govern how and when the city can remove encampments. “The city is unable to shift this liability” to the RHA by making the authority responsible for outreach in advance of city-led encampment removals, the, Bailey said.

The Multi-Department Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the city to provide 72 hours’ notice and offers of available shelter before removing an encampment, unless that encampment is an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way or poses an immediate danger to the public. For several years, the city has defined “obstruction” very broadly, allowing it to routinely skirt the 72 hour and shelter referral requirements whenever an encampment is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or on any other public property.

Following up by email in response to PubliCola’s questions, Bailey said the HOPE Team “remains a City entity because it allows the City to meet its obligation to comply with the encampment removal rules. … Specifically, the City must identify or provide alternative shelter before removing non-obstructing encampments. The City is unable to shift this obligation to the RHA, despite the contracts moving to RHA, and is thus responsible for ensuring that it has the resources necessary (i.e., the HOPE Team) to do this body of work in the event RHA or its service providers decline to assist.”

Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

3. According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the HOPE Team did offer shelter referrals to 14 people (of 18 who were on site) when it removed an encampment under I-5 in the Chinatown/International District on Thursday, although it’s unclear how many of those people actually ended up in shelter. (A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the encampment was an obstruction.)

Although the sweep was typical in certain ways—the city routinely removes people from this location, a perennial encampment site that offers some protection from wind and rain —it was noteworthy in one respect: The presence of a phalanx of bike officers, who blocked off the encampment with police tape and issued verbal warnings that any protesters who tried to enter the area could be arrested.

Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.
Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.

Prior to COVID, the city routinely stationed police outside encampments—a practice that tended to heighten tensions rather than alleviate them. Mayor Bruce Harrell appears to be reviving the practice; according to a spokesman for Harrell’s office, the city decided that “[g]iven potential protest activities, a larger SPD presence was required to ensure the safety of City workers and encampment residents” at yesterday’s removal. Stop the Sweeps Seattle posted photos of the city’s encampment removal notices on social media, but did not turn up in large numbers on Thursday.

The mayor’s office may have felt burned by a protest that temporarily halted the removal of a large encampment across the street from city hall. After a weekslong standoff with protesters, the city swept the encampment abruptly last week, barricading several blocks of downtown Seattle in an early-morning action that sparked numerous verbal confrontations between police officers and mutual aid workers who tried to enter the area.

According to Harrell’s spokesman, “The number of officers and their equipment is dependent on the circumstances of the removal and potential protest activities. Encampment removal teams have always worked in partnership with SPD, and SPD officers will continue to be onsite during removal activities.”

The city’s aggressive approach to encampments in public spaces downtown (which, technically, are almost all “obstructions” in that they occupy public space) could come into conflict with the regional homelessness authority’s recently launched “Partnership For Zero,” a plan to eliminate almost all encampments downtown through intensive case management, led by “peer navigators” who have been homeless themselves.

Sweeps scatter people and exacerbate the chaos of their lives. Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

—Erica C. Barnett

DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons

1. Proponents of a bill (HB 2075) that would force the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to offer services in person scored a victory this week, as the agency agreed to reopen almost all its community services offices—key access points, prior to the pandemic, for people seeking services ranging from food stamps to cash assistance.

Since 2020, DSHS has required people seeking services to use an online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. The department opened the community service office lobbies late last year so that people seeking services could call the department on a land line or use a computer to access its online portal, but only agreed to offer services in person again after months of pressure from advocates for low-income and homeless people.

In a letter to stakeholders last week, DSHS Community Services Division director Babs Roberts wrote, “we have heard clearly from many of you and agree that some elements of our plans will not sufficiently meet the needs of all the people we serve, particularly those experiencing the deepest impacts of poverty and homelessness. Thus, we are making changes.”

However, Roberts added, short-staffing and social distancing requirements may result in “limited waiting space and possibly long wait times in our lobbies. This moment (like so many before) will require flexibility and patience.”

As PubliCola reported in January, the closure of in-person services made it essentially impossible for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unsheltered people, to access critical services to which they are entitled, including food stamps, cash assistance, and housing subsidies.

Advocates are still pushing for the bill, which would direct DSHS to “strive to ensure” telephone wait times of no more than 30 minutes and would bar DSHS from restricting the kind of services clients can access in person. Friday is the cutoff date for the bill, which is currently in the senate rules committee, to pass out of the senate.

2. After a surprisingly contentious process, the Seattle Public Library Board unanimously appointed interim library director Tom Fay as the city’s Chief Librarian yesterday, rejecting another candidate, former Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library director Chad Helton, who resigned from his previous job amid criticism over his decision to work remotely from Los Angeles.

The vote, coming after a process that was mostly invisible to the public, shed little light on why the board chose Fay over Helton. (The two men were the only candidates that made it to the public stage of the vetting process.) During his one public interview, Helton defended his decision to run the Minnesota library system from California, saying he was just one of many people who started working from home during the pandemic. “The staff wasn’t really aware” that he lived elsewhere, Helton told the board, adding, “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary.” Fay lives in Pierce County.

As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported last week, Helton resigned from his position on February 1, after the Hennepin County Board of Supervisors passed a law, effective January 1, requiring the heads of public-facing departments like the library to live inside the state. Helton received $60,000 for “emotional damages,” plus $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, as part of a settlement.

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

3. Hours after the vote, Fay gave a presentation on library operations to the Seattle City Council’s public assets and homelessness committee. Although the presentation was mostly a high-level look at how the library spends its money, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used the opportunity to ask Fay whether the library would consider allowing social-service providers to open and operate library branches as day centers during rare weather emergencies like last year’s Christmas snowstorm, when most library branches were closed.

“Does your plan [for emergency weather operations] consider the possibility of opening as a [day] shelter only, not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter, like we do [when] we open up City Hall as a shelter?” Herbold asked. Continue reading “DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons”

Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past two years, a broad consensus emerged that non-congregate shelter—hotel rooms, tiny houses, and other kinds of physically separated spaces—was both healthier and more humane than the typical pre-pandemic congregate shelter setup, in which dozens of people sleep inches apart on cots or on the ground. When people are offered a choice between semi-congregate shelter and more private spaces, they’re far more likely to “accept” a hotel room or tiny house, and once there, they’re more likely to find housing than they would in traditional congregate shelters.

In January, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority issued a request for proposals for almost $5 million to fund new non-congregate shelter spaces. (An RFP is a preliminary step in the process of selecting and funding nonprofit service providers). The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates a dozen tiny house villages in and around Seattle, applied, as did Seattle’s JustCARE program, which offers hotel-based shelter and case management to people with complex behavioral health challenges and criminal justice involvement.

The original schedule called for the KCRHA to award the funding last month. Instead, at the end of January, the authority did something unusual: They extended the RFP by two weeks and expanded its terms to allow for-profit companies, rather than just nonprofits, to apply. The only for-profit firm that builds noncongregate shelters locally is an Everett-based company called Pallet. 

Although the KCRHA wouldn’t say whether Pallet applied for the money, the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, has frequently expressed skepticism about LIHI’s tiny house village model, arguing that people stay in tiny houses too long and that the “proliferation” of villages around King County needs to end.

Pallet might offer an alternative. The company builds “cabins” that serve a similar function to, but look and feel very different than, LIHI’s wooden shelters. If tiny houses look like scaled-down Craftsman homes, complete with sharply peaked roofs and porches, pallet shelters resemble miniature FEMA trailers—identical, white, and utilitarian. According to Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills, that’s by design. The shelters, which are made of prefabricated aluminum and composite panels, are meant to feel temporary, because shelter is supposed to be temporary.

“All our villages have some version of forward momentum” said Bills, who added that the typical stay at a Pallet shelter is between three and six months. “We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”

“We want them to be warm and safe, which they are, but we don’t want to encourage people to live in these for a long period of time, whereas something that’s more cutesy or homey might be more welcoming for a longer period of time.”—Pallet spokesman Brandon Bills

On a recent sunny afternoon, Catholic Community Services program manager Jennifer Newman showed me around the pallet village at CCS’ Junction Point shelter, an expansion of a modular shelter complex that opened in 2020 as part of the effort to “de-intensify” mass shelters across the city in response to the pandemic.

The cabins, arranged in narrow rows on a barren lot facing busy Elliott Avenue West, are taller and more spacious than they appear from the road, with high windows for ventilation, a fold-out cot, and a few small shelves for personal belongings. Each row of cabins is anchored by a portable toilet, but residents can access restrooms, along with a kitchen, common areas, and showers, at the main shelter building a few yards away.

Newman said guests at the shelter, which began as a “deintensification” site for CCS’ St. Martin de Porres shelter, vastly prefer the individual shelters to cubicles in the nearby modular units.

“The advantage of a Pallet shelter, versus cubicles or congregate shelter, is just the sense of safety, and the dignity of being able to shut and lock a door is a little bit more stabilizing for folks,” Newman said. This stability, in turn, allows CCS to better assess people’s needs. Newman said CCS has “been intentional about trying to move people into the Pallet shelters who are working with case managers” to get into housing, using the shelters as “practice housing, in a way.” The bright, relatively breezy units are an obvious upgrade from the nearby cubicles, which—although more private than a mat or cot at a mass shelter site—are dark, musty, and uninviting.

Pallet shelter units cost more to build than tiny houses—the price starts at about $5,300 a unit, compared to about $4,000 for a tiny house, according to figures provided by Pallet and LIHI, respectively. King County, which owns the land where the Junction Point shelter is located, has bought 74 Pallet units, including the 20 at Junction Point and 46 for a future site on Aurora Ave. N., plus three at a shelter in Bellevue and five at Eagle Village, a group of mostly modular shelters operated by the Chief Seattle Club in SoDo.

Lua Belgarde, the site manager at Eagle Village, said Chief Seattle Club did have to ask for physical changes, which Pallet made “very quickly,” so that people in wheelchairs or on crutches could access the units and get into and out of the built-in bed, which was originally too far off the ground. The shelters also lack air conditioning, making them “hotter inside than it was outside” during last summer’s heat wave, Belgarde said.

Inside a Pallet shelter.
Inside a Pallet shelter.

Still, as at Junction Point, people at Eagle Village tend to prefer living in their own space to sleeping in a trailer in close proximity to other people, Belgarde said. Two young men who have been in Pallet units at Eagle Village for close to a year “really like the option—they say that in the trailers, the rooms are too close together, they can hear people talking, so having the tiny house option with space in between” is appealing, she said.

Pallet shelters have their critics—among them LIHI director Sharon Lee, who spent much of the pandemic seeking funds from the city to build more tiny house villages. Lee says the same “homey” qualities that Bills said can turn tiny house villages into “forever homes” are what make them one of the most popular shelter options. “Most people like to have a sense of identity with where they’re living—they can decorate it and it’s attractive,” Lee said. “We’ve also heard feedback from people, especially neighbors and community residents, that they like that they’re colorful… and of course because they look like a tiny house.” In contrast, Lee said, Pallet shelters appear “sterile-looking” and “flimsy.”

“I understand why some cities are buying pallet shelters, because they’re quick to put up, but I think it’s much better to have a higher quality of materials and living environment,” Lee said. Continue reading “Pallet, a For-Profit Provider of Utilitarian Shelters, Could Be a Contender for County Funding”

Cold-Weather Shelter Plan Illustrates Challenges With Proposals to Eliminate Encampments Downtown

By Erica C. Barnett

As temperatures dipped below freezing Tuesday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced the opening of a single, nighttime-only shelter for up to 96 single adults at City Hall. The shelter will open at 7pm and close at 6:30 in the morning. Two additional shelters are opening for young adults and unaccompanied youth—one in Rainier Beach, and one at the Orion Center near downtown. (Details and updates, including information about shelters outside Seattle, are available on the KCRHA website.)

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the authority has “a couple conversations still in motion based on provider capacity” for opening day centers on short notice, but for now, they’re encouraging people to warm up in shopping malls and public libraries.

One reason short-term winter shelters are often underutilized, service providers say, is that people don’t want to abandon their encampments to go to a place they’ll have to leave first thing in the morning. Day centers can help alleviate this issue, but they work best when they’re co-located with shelter, so that people don’t have to pack up and walk to a different place during the day before returning to shelter at night.

“I’m glad that people’s consciences are pricked when the temperature dips, as they should be, but let’s not kid ourselves—leaving people outside in 34-degree weather is equally bad for their health.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

This is the KCRHA’s first time coordinating winter weather shelter since taking over responsibility for homeless services from the city, which eventually opened shelters in three locations—two in Seattle Center, and one at City Hall—plus several daytime warming centers during the last winter weather emergency in December.

For now, the authority plans to keep the shelters open through Saturday, when temperatures are expected to rise above freezing. To Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, freezing-weather shelters are a wholly inadequate response to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness.

“I’m glad that people’s consciences are pricked when the temperature dips, as they should be, but let’s not kid ourselves—leaving people outside in 34-degree weather is equally bad for their health,” Eisinger said. In January alone, at least 21 men died while living unsheltered in Seattle.

The location of the authority’s single overnight shelter in downtown Seattle also highlights an obvious challenge for plans, announced last week, to reduce the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero”: Downtown Seattle is the region’s nexus for homeless services. Whether the goal is to provide meaningful shelter and housing or simply to move unsheltered people to sanctioned encampments elsewhere, placing services downtown means that people will come downtown to access services.

Speaking about the authority’s “Pathway to Zero” plan last week, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said that they believe it will be possible to reach “functional zero” homelessness downtown by first figuring out how many people come into downtown through “inflow” points like the King County Jail, Harborview, and other sources, then immediately working to connect them with resources elsewhere.

“The things that are going to contribute to inflow into the downtown core are going nowhere any time soon. I don’t control them,” Dones said. “My goal in the design of this work… was to say, ‘How can we build that sustainable ecosystem that is able to quite literally meet new folks as they show up and begin to immediately triage and work to say, Where are we going? What do you need? How can we make sure that you are able to get there?'”

Eisinger said that neither “putting people into fenced areas” nor the authority’s “Pathway to Zero” proposal constitutes a meaningful plan to address homelessness in downtown Seattle.

“Personally, having worked in Pioneer Square for 15 years, I am sick and tired of public officials abdicating their responsibility for genuine health, safety, and wellbeing for Seattle residents, including those who don’t have homes, privacy, security, bathrooms, or garbage removal, and then coming up with half-considered, at best, proposals that they think will make downtown business interests happy,” Eisinger said. “You know what makes a plan? Specific, well-considered, funded additional resources that meet the needs of people who have been abandoned by this city for years, including for the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People

Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.
Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

As part of an effort to substantially reduce the number of unsheltered people living in downtown Seattle before summer, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is working on a plan to relocate as many as 600 people into sanctioned encampments around the city.

In an email sent last week to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of strategic initiatives Tim Burgess, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, lobbyist Ryan Bayne, and former city council member Sally Bagshaw, plus aides for Lewis and Harrell, Lewis laid out “a short-term displacement plan for visible pre-Memorial Day progress” that would involve removing and relocating unsheltered people from downtown Seattle into as many as 10 fenced-off encampments elsewhere in the city.

These encampments, which might be located on property owned by the city, Sound Transit, local churches, and the Port, would include case management (along with toilets, food, and showers), and could be up and running in as little as four weeks, Lewis said in his email. After people are relocated, Lewis continued, the tents could gradually be replaced by pallet shelters or tiny houses, with the goal of moving everyone rapidly from encampments to housing, such as the Health Through Housing hotels King County is working to open, within a year to 18 months.

“The strategy I am proposing here is to make a practical acceptance that more permanent housing and sheltering options likely won’t be available until the fall,” Lewis wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “THE WAITING ROOM WILL EITHER BE UNSANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS OR SOME INTERIM STRATEGY LIKE THIS. That is the choice we face.”

Why Memorial Day? According to Lewis’ email, visible homelessness always spikes during the summer; “If we still don’t have a policy to prevent unsanctioned encampments from putting down roots before Memorial Day, they will grow and make the problem even more difficult to mitigate.”

“The summer has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The proposal to move most of the homeless people downtown into sanctioned encampments in the span of a little more than three months comes in the context of an announcement last week that a group of private foundations and local corporations will donate $10 million to help kickstart a plan to move about 1,000 people living unsheltered downtown into shelter or housing elsewhere. That plan has five phases, culminating in a “hold steady” phase once most encampments are removed from downtown streets. The proposal to relocate unsheltered people from tents on the sidewalk to tents in sanctioned camps suggests one way the city might achieve its goal of an encampment-free downtown.

“It’s clear the [Harrell] administration has a policy where they do not want to have encampments in the downtown business district,” Lewis told PubliCola Monday. “It’s the prerogative of the executive to do those removals, and we need something to fill that gap.”

Marc Dones, the head of the regional homelessness authority, said Tuesday that the authority had nothing to do with the encampment proposal and that they had only heard about it through a forwarded email last week. Dones said they had asked Harrell’s office for more information about the proposal.

In his email, Lewis said removing encampments would be a necessary part of downtown recovery after two years of COVID. “The summer has to be the summer of recovery,” Lewis wrote. “It has to show people returning to work, tourists, and the local media that Seattle is capable of swiftly and compassionately managing our homelessness crisis. It has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”

Lewis told PubliCola he doesn’t consider the encampment idea a “perfect” or even a permanent solution to unsheltered homelessness downtown.  “One of the things [outreach provider] REACH says all the time is, ‘Give us something better” [to offer unsheltered people],  and this would be something better. Not something perfect and not something great, but something we could work with and improve over time.” REACH director Chloe Gale said she was unaware of the proposal on Monday.

“If it were up to me and I could wave a magic wand, we’d do a bunch of tiny house villages,” Lewis added, and pointed to Nickelsville as an example of an encampment that eventually evolved into a tiny house village. “All of our tiny house villages started out as sanctioned encampments,” Lewis said.

Bagshaw, who recently returned to Seattle after a fellowship at at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, pointed to the recent removal of a longstanding encampment in Boston as an example Seattle should try to emulate. People living in the encampment, known as “Mass. and Cass,” were offered shelter, including some rooms in a local hotel, reunited with family, or simply told to leave, according to local media reports.

“They offered them two or three options and said ‘We’re going to give you a supported hotel room or a supported apartment, but “no” is not an option,'” said Bagshaw, who lives downtown and has no formal position at the city. “They said, ‘We’re trying to live in a civilized space for everybody, and it’s not okay for you to pitch a tent wherever you want and however you want and to steal to support your habit. You’re not going to be able to stay here, and we’re going to give you 72 hours to figure it out.”

Both Lewis and Bagshaw pointed to JustCARE—a service-rich program that provides temporary housing and case management for people involved in the criminal legal system—as an example of the kind of approach that works for people who have many barriers to housing, including substance use, outstanding warrants, and long-term homelessness. “JustCARE is what we need, but we can’t wait until JustCARE has 600 units,” Bagshaw said.

“Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard

In theory, people who need extensive services could be channeled into JustCARE over time. In practice, funding for JustCARE expires at the end of June, and the program is no longer taking new clients beyond the 230 it currently serves.

In his email, Lewis estimated that the encampments would cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year to operate, for a total of $8 million to $12 million a year, not counting capital costs. “The hardest part will be case management and services. But even there, I don’t know how daunting the numbers truly are,” Lewis wrote.” If we assume a ratio of one case manager to every 20 campers, and a maximum capacity of 600 people, the whole operation requires 30 case managers organized across our entire spectrum of providers. We should be able to manage it with a ramp up of several weeks.” Continue reading “Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People”

Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection

Aftermath of a shooting at 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in October 2021 (Seattle Police Department)

By Paul Kiefer

Every morning at around 8 am, an informal market begins to assemble at the corner of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street. Buyers and sellers arrive from every direction by every mode of transportation: One man parks his car nearby and unloads a bag of laundry detergent and whiskey; another man steps off the streetcar at the Little Saigon stop and joins the small crowd gathering under the bus shelter.

The market has become a daily presence in Little Saigon, spilling into the courtyard of the adjacent strip mall and the underground parking structure below. Two dozen people gather on the corner, where, until this week, a King County Metro Metro bus stop stood; satellite groups of three or four people settle down near a gravel lot across the street. The products for sale vary depending on the day. On one cold February morning, a man appeared with a shopping basket full of frozen shrimp, seemingly stolen from a nearby seafood market; on another, a vendor sold bottles of hand soap.

Typically, the vendors are outnumbered by the dozens of people who come together at the corner to socialize or smoke crushed-up pills from sheets of foil. At night, some people light small bonfires to keep warm and huddle in the doorways of nearby restaurants. At any hour of the day, arguments can escalate into violence: Nearly a dozen people have been shot or stabbed at or near the intersection since the start of the pandemic, including three people in January alone.

Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

The corner has become the epicenter of Seattle’s public safety discussions, fueled by outcry from business owners and neighborhood advocates who say that the public drug use and bouts of violence at the corner have driven away customers and could lead to the death of Little Saigon. Just before taking office, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison appeared at one nearby restaurant, Seven Stars Pepper, for a photo op with the owner, Yong Hong Wang; Davison brought up the visit, and Yong’s warning that she will need to close her restaurant if the city doesn’t intervene in the neighborhood, in her inauguration speech.

In January, SPD made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests at the corner. Although the only regular law enforcement presence at the intersection is a sheriff’s deputy working for King County Metro’s transit security program, that could soon change: Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

Crackdowns on crime “hot spots” are nothing new in Seattle, and many past attempts have produced few (or no) long-term results. Harrell’s new plan to focus the city’s police resources on the neighborhood has many observers, including neighborhood advocates and mental health service providers, wondering whether this time will be different.

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Little Saigon is no stranger to shoplifting, drug dealing and other illegal commerce, said Jim Pugel, a former Seattle police chief who first worked in the neighborhood in the 1980s. Even before it evolved into the present-day street market in Little Saigon, Pugel said that some minor illegal commerce has long been a feature of the nine square blocks between I-5 and Rainier Avenue S.

“It is an area that has always had a small  market for stolen goods, illegal cigarettes and EBT [food stamp] fraud,” he said. The daily crowd of people selling shoplifted merchandise and drugs on the corner of 12th and Jackson today may be more extreme than any past iteration, he said, but the basic components are not new.

In 2011, SPD recovered more than $100,000 in stolen cell phones and other merchandise from a storefront at 12th and Jackson. Other investigations in the early 2010s led police to a restaurant selling cocaine to neighborhood drug dealers and an EBT fraud scheme involving the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores.

“Informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards,” SPD Detective Todd Jakobsen remarked in a 2014 post on the department’s blog. “We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street,” he continued. “We’re going to take that area back for the community.”

Quynh Pham, the director of the advocacy group Friends of Little Saigon and one of the central figures in current discussions of the neighborhood’s fate, says that SPD’s past crackdowns on EBT scams and drug dealing were only effective in the short term. When the COVID pandemic hit and forced many of the neighborhood’s businesses to close, she said, she watched 12th and Jackson decline more dramatically than ever before.

The city’s 2015 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.

When SPD has ramped up its presence in Little Saigon in the past, she said, “I feel like they’ve always been reactionary and temporary. There’s never been a strategy where it’s more long term or sustained effort. And I think that’s why a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with, like food stamp fraud, keep coming back up. We’ve been a vulnerable neighborhood for a long time, and we’re still dealing with kind of the same root issues, but it’s so much more visible now.”

Harrell and SPD shouldn’t ignore the neighborhood’s history of neglect and underground commerce, said Lisa Daugaard, the co-director of the Public Defender Association (PDA). “People come to purchase where they know to come to purchase, and people sell where they know people will come to purchase,” she said. “In some locations, those patterns have proven incredibly stable over time, notwithstanding literal decades of flavor-of-the-month short-term enforcement initiatives.”

Critics of the “hot spot” approach to public safety often point to a 2015 campaign targeting the drug trade in Seattle’s downtown core known as the “9 1/2 Block Strategy,” which was spearheaded by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, then an advisor to mayor Ed Murray. The campaign resulted in more than 100 arrests in its first week and a sharp decline in drug-related 911 calls from a small stretch of downtown surrounding Westlake Park, but the number of drug-, disturbance- and assault-related calls from the surrounding neighborhoods rose. The 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates. Continue reading “Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection”

Lawmakers Propose Homeless Worker Stipend; Harrell’s State of the City Previews Potential Budget Battle

1. To support homeless service providers struggling with staffing shortages, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) are hoping to add $78 million to the state budget to provide $2,000 stipends to thousands of homeless service workers across the state. The program would start in October.

Washington Low Income Housing Alliance policy and advocacy director Michele Thomas said many homeless service workers earn such low wages, “they are one step away from homelessness themselves.” Nonprofits that provide services and shelter to people experiencing homelessness are perennially underfunded, and often have trouble recruiting and retaining staff.

“Our permanent supportive housing providers and our homeless service providers are saying they’re literally competing with fast-food employers and their workers are leaving because [fast food jobs have] similar benefits, similar pay, and a lot less trauma,” Thomas said.

Nguyen said “we as a government have failed” because the state is relying on nonprofit homeless service providers and their underpaid workforce “to do the work that government should have been doing.”

In the House, 27 representatives, including half a dozen from Seattle, signed a letter urging the Appropriations Committee to include the request in the 2022 operating budget. Nguyen said the budget request has support in the senate as well, although he adds that “$78 million is a lot” to ask when there are so many competing budget priorities.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee will release their 2022 operating budgets next week.

2. In his first  State of the City Address Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell reiterated his commitment to hiring more police officers and removing more homeless encampments from public spaces; described work to consolidate various systems for reporting encampments and tracking outreach and services to homeless people; and promised to be “the administration that ends the federal consent decree over SPD.” The consent decree is a 10-year-old agreement giving the US Justice Department oversight of SPD’s efforts to correct patterns of excessive force and racially biased policing. “The time to build this [police] department is now,” Harrell said.

As he has during the first month and a half of his term, Harrell emphasized the need to address public disorder that, he said, is destroying small businesses or driving them out of Seattle.

“The truth is, the status quo is unacceptable—that is the one where we must all agree,” Harrell said.

Harrell teased a “major announcement” that will happen later this week on homelessness; as we reported last week, this announcement will include a large, one-time philanthropic donation to fund a “peer navigator” program within the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Peer navigators are case managers with lived experience who connect people to shelter, health care, and other services; the city, which provides most of the authority’s funding declined to fund a $7.6 million peer navigator pilot last year.

“Yesterday we received some good news, learning that revenue from the JumpStart Payroll Expense Tax has come in $31 million higher than expected,” Harrell said. “That additional revenue must go toward alleviating the budget issues we expect in 2023.”

In a preview of a potential budget battle later this year, Harrell said the city is facing a $150 million revenue shortfall that he plans to fill with revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which is earmarked for housing, small businesses, and Green New Deal programs. Former mayor Jenny Durkan attempted repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to use revenues from the tax (which she opposed), to fund her own budget priorities. She also tried to pass legislation that would allow the city to use JumpStart revenues for virtually any purpose, effectively overturning the adopted spending plan.

“Yesterday we received some good news, learning that revenue from the JumpStart Payroll Expense Tax has come in $31 million higher than expected,” Harrell said. “That additional revenue must go toward alleviating the budget issues we expect in 2023.”

For two years, the revenues from the payroll tax have largely gone into COVID relief. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the tax, told PubliCola, “We have a codified JumpStart spend plan in law for a reason. … It should also be noted that were it not for JumpStart in 2020, we would have faced an austerity budget. In 2022 and beyond, funding is dedicated to the areas noted in the codified spend plan which will create a more resilient and equitable economy.”

Asked if the mayor plans to use JumpStart revenues to backfill the general fund shortfall this year, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said, “The Mayor’s Office has been regularly engaging with [Councilmember] Mosqueda on budget issues and are looking forward to working with her and Councilmembers regarding how to allocate the new revenues just identified yesterday.”

Mosqueda said the city should consider new revenue sources to make the city budget sustainable, rather than using payroll tax revenues to fill holes in the budget. “We have to remember, while Jumpstart first revenue returns are in, our commitments to the community members who supported the Jumpstart tax and the detailed spend plan have yet to be realized,” she said. Harrell mentioned the possibility of new taxes in his speech, saying the city would “need to look at all our options, deciding between one-time and ongoing commitments, adjusting expenditures, revisiting existing funding sources, and looking at options for increasing revenues.”

—Leo Brine, Erica C. Barnett