Category: King County

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?”

In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed

A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests—a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible—to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus. 

Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.

King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.

In the ruling, the court concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.

Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.

The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.

Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies—the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way—also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.

When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the city council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.

The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.” Continue reading “In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed”

Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board approved a bare-bones initial staffing plan for the agency on Thursday, but not before a lengthy conversation about the future of labor unions at the new agency—and the future of city employees who currently do the work that’s supposed to move over to the authority next year.

The city’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division, which is part of the Human Services Department, is currently represented by the PROTEC17 union, which also represents county human services workers. KCRHA director Marc Dones has said that they want to hire a whole new team for the agency, and that anyone at the city who wants to keep doing their current work will need to apply for the open positions just like everyone else. Dones has also said that although they support unions in general—saying on Thursday, for example, that “we would be delighted to have one or more unions represent our staff”—union reps and at least one city council member want more reassurances.

On Thursday, Seattle City Council president Lorena González told Dones that the law the city passed agreeing to join the new authority requires “a plan for transitioning staff positions to the new authority.” 

Shaun Van Eyk, the labor representative for PROTEC17, told PubliCola that the union wants any succession plan (an agreement that gives the union the right to represent anyone at the new authority who job falls within the “body of work” that existing union-repped employees are already doing) to include a right of first refusal for employees who remained at their city jobs even as the city repeatedly pushed their layoff dates forward. Although permanent HSI employees have been assured jobs elsewhere in the city, many of the jobs in the division are currently filled by long-term temporary workers, who have no job guarantee once the division shuts down.

“Marc has the ability to not only acknowledge PROTEC17 as the exclusive bargaining representative for those bodies of work, but to offer a right of first refusal for those folks doing that work currently,” Van Eyk said. “Part of my duty in this role is to advocate for our members [who have been] keeping the work going, especially with the delays.” The authority is currently about seven months behind schedule, and it’s far from clear that it will be prepared to take over hundreds of contracts from the city’s homelessness division in January as planned.

The larger question is how the new authority, and Dones in particular, will work with organized labor. King County Executive Dow Constantine appeared unnerved enough by the conversation about succession to add, “If I could just be completely frank, it is unlikely, approaching a zero likelihood, that the county or the city would fund a non-union successor to its union operations. That seems inconceivable.”

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2.  A flyer promoting mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell that arrived in voters’ mailboxes last week included what looked like an unusual disclaimer: “No corporate money paid for this mail piece. Hundreds of local residents gave their own personal money to send you this message.” The mailer, produced by an independent expenditure group called Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, says Harrell, who played for the Huskies, will “go on the offensive to move Seattle forward.”

The claim is a stretch. While Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future is funded by individual donors, the top donors to the IE are employed by, or in charge of, corporations with billions in assets and a huge vested interest in pro-business policies. Among the biggest contributors: Goodman Real Estate CEO George Petrie and his wife, Alyssa ($100,000); Hunters Capital owner Michael Malone and his wife, Barbara ($25,000); and retired seventh-generation banker Joshua Green III ($10,000).

In fact, the top seven employers of people who contributed to Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future (after “not employed”—people who listed their occupation as “retired” or “homemaker,” many of them formerly in real estate or married to real estate bigwigs, made up $98,000 of the group’s approximately $300,000 in contributions) were real estate firms, accounting for $117,750 of the group’s total contributions. So while it’s true that the people who gave money to the pro-Harrell group are “individuals,” their interests could hardly be more corporate if they were writing checks from their company accounts.

Finally: The IE campaign doesn’t have contributions from “hundreds of local residents”; it doesn’t even have 100 contributions, much less 100 from Seattle. About a third of the 79 donors listed at the Public Disclosure Commission live outside city limits, mostly in Eastside suburbs.

3.  An odd new online poll goes far beyond election questions, asking respondents about everything from their support for a future Seattle-only light rail measure to earthquake safety along I-5 to detailed questions about the city’s tree canopy. It’s unclear who’s behind the poll, but the specific issues it highlights dovetail with priorities articulated by council members Lisa Herbold (using bonds to fund bridge maintenance over bike lanes and sidewalks) and Alex Pedersen (bridge money, plus restricting development by preventing tree removal on private property.) Continue reading “Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences

Russell Harvey attends his resentencing hearing via Zoom on June 3, 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of an emotional hearing on Wednesday, Russell Harvey still looked nervous. The 60-year-old sat facing a webcam in an office at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County—his beige uniform matching the empty wall behind him—as King County Superior Court Judge David Steiner signed the paperwork releasing Harvey after more than two decades in prison.

Just before Judge Steiner ended the hearing, Harvey leaned closer to the computer in front of him. “Thank you, Judge. I’m sure it was a tough decision.”

“It wasn’t,” Steiner replied.

Harvey is the second inmate in King County to be resentenced under a new Washington law that retroactively removes second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.” In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three-strikes policy; at the time, the measure received broad bipartisan support.

But some Washington lawmakers are now trying to correct the long-term consequences of the “tough on crime” era, including by reconsidering the state’s harsh sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes. The bill that led to Harvey’s release, sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), is only one element of the broader push to address excessive sentences, but for both incarcerated people and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the new law is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy.

“For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released. And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way.”—Carla Lee, King County Prosecutor’s Office

Twenty-four years ago, a King County Superior Court judge sentenced Harvey to life in prison after his third arrest for second-degree robbery, which—unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter—generally doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. In the early years of his sentence, Harvey told the court, he repeatedly clashed with prison administrators and spent time in an “intensive management unit”—in other words, solitary confinement.

One of his trips to “the hole” brought him to breaking point, Harvey said. “I called my mom and I asked her what I should do,” he told the court in his opening remarks. “The disappointment in my mom’s voice—there’s no mistaking it. … She basically just hung up on me, right after she asked, ‘when are you going to learn?’ I didn’t want to be affecting people like that. That was when I hit rock bottom.” Harvey’s mental health suffered; according to his attorney, Susan Hacker, Harvey struggled through a series of “trials and errors” by prison medical staff who tried to prescribe him medication after diagnosing him with depression.

But in 2009, Harvey’s case caught the attention of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which was assembling a list of inmates serving life sentences for three-strikes offenses involving at least one second-degree robbery with the goal of bringing their cases before Washington’s clemency board. That list grew to 45 names. Nearly two dozen received clemency, but Harvey was not among them.

Then, in 2020, the state legislature passed a law giving prosecutors the discretion to request resentencing for people whose original sentences no longer serve the “interest of justice.” In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office created a sentence review unit and added Harvey’s name to a list of inmates eligible for re-sentencing. Largely because of COVID-19-related court delays, that resentencing effort also stalled, but Harvey received a third chance at release when the state legislature passed the new law that specifically affects inmates facing life in prison for three second-degree robberies.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit, told PubliCola that the newest resentencing law follows a model developed in King County since the prosecutor’s office first identified Harvey as a candidate for a reduced sentence. “For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released,” she said. “And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way. Our model has now been legislated, so other prosecutors now have to follow it.” Continue reading “Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences”

County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks

1. During a campaign debate sponsored by the King County Young Democrats on Saturday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), had a testy exchange about the issue of corporate PAC contributions.

It started when Nguyen said he didn’t accept any money from “corporate PACs.” Constantine said he was “interested to hear [Nguyen] say that he doesn’t take corporate PAC money,” given that he has received thousands of dollars from political committees for credit unions, health care, dentists, beer and wine distributors, and auto dealers, as well as individual lobbyists from industry groups. “I’m fine if you want to say  you’re not taking any corporate PAC money, but just make sure that you actually weren’t taking corporate PAC money, which you clearly were,” Constantine said. 

Nguyen, sputtering a bit, responded, “I’m happy to explain the difference between an association and a PAC … and in fact, if that’s the bar, then if you did the same thing, then that’s totally fine. So feel free to do the exact same thing that I am doing, that’s totally fine.” 

Later, Constantine brought up the PAC issue again, Nguyen responded: “Are they PACs? Were they PACs?”

“Yeah,” Constantine replied.

“They’re not. So look again. Look again,” Nguyen said. “They were associations… not the corporations themselves. But if you think that’s an issue, do the same. I’m happy to have you follow my lead, so don’t take corporate PACs and call it good.”

For the record, both candidates have accepted money from PACs, although Constantine—as the more established candidate—has accepted more. Nguyen’s PAC money came during his run for state senator in 2018.

SeattleMakers’ street sink model.

2. Six months after the city council allocated $100,000 to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective,” Seattle Public Utilities has finally chosen two vendors to receive the money.

Slightly more than half, $60,000, will go to the Clean Hands Collective, an organization founded by Real Change that includes landscape architects and public health experts; the rest, $40,000, will go to SeattleMakers, a South Lake Union “makerspace” that designed a prototype “handwashing station” at an estimated cost of $7,250 per unit—about ten times the price of Clean Hands’ Street Sink. According to SeattleMakers’ website, the city reached out to them to design the sink. Continue reading “County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks”

In Blow to Regionalism, Burien Council Tables Homeless Housing Proposal

DESC’s proposed six-story permanent supportive housing building

By Erica C. Barnett

The Burien City Council voted narrowly last week to delay a Downtown Emergency Center development that would provide 95 units of permanent supportive housing, including at least 25 units for disabled veterans.

The proposal is part of Burien’s 2019 Affordable Housing Demonstration Program, which grants zoning variances to projects that serve people at various income levels; DESC applied to build housing for people between 0 and 30 percent of area median income, the lowest income level included in the pilot.

The Burien Planning Commission approved the project unanimously in April, but council members raised objections after some residents complained that the project would harm downtown businesses and bring homeless people from other areas (like Seattle) into Burien.

It’s a common complaint leveled against projects outside the city—see also: The Red Lion hotel shelter in Renton, another DESC project—and a major challenge for the new regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to come up with a regional approach to homelessness. King County’s suburban cities tend to see homelessness as a “Seattle problem,” and many opted out of a countywide tax that would provide housing for their homeless communities, preferring to pass their own taxes to fund higher-income developments.

Just as cities can’t restrict home sales or apartment rentals to people who already live there, they aren’t allowed to ban “outsiders” from moving into low-income housing developments.

Summarizing opposition to the “contentious and divisive” project, Councilmember Nancy Tosta said at last week’s meeting that community members have raised “concerns” about the “location, scale, and the fact that this facility won’t serve [Burien’s] low-income families and may not serve our Burien homeless population,” because it will be open to homeless individuals (not families) from all parts of the county. Just as cities can’t restrict home sales or apartment rentals to people who already live there, they aren’t allowed to ban “outsiders” from moving into low-income housing developments.

“Our downtown urban center plan envisions a thriving, safe, vibrant business community, and our businesses and community members have expressed concerns about what is happening downtown and that … this facility, where it is proposed, may create more problems, Tosta said. Continue reading “In Blow to Regionalism, Burien Council Tables Homeless Housing Proposal”