Category: Mayor Durkan

Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month

King's Inn
King’s Inn in Belltown

By Erica C. Barnett

With less than three weeks remaining before their contracts expire, the organizations that run two hotel-based shelters the city funded last year are scrambling to find housing for more than 100 homeless clients. One, the Chief Seattle Club, needs to relocate about 60 people from the King’s Inn shelter in Belltown; the other, the Low Income Housing Institute, must find shelter or housing for about 90 people still staying at the Executive Pacific hotel downtown.

Under their current contracts, which the King County Regional Homelessness Authority took over and declined to extend late last year, both hotels must empty out on January 31. (The actual contracts last another month, to give the agencies time to clean and repair any damage to the properties.) Both agencies stopped accepting new clients last year, and LIHI started moving hotel guests into other properties it operates, including tiny house villages, shelters, and permanent housing. Chief Seattle Club, meanwhile, made plans to move people from King’s Inn into two housing projects it had under development, including one, ?al?al, that was supposed to open in October.

Since then, however, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question. Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for Chief Seattle Club, described a cascade of delays that have pushed back the opening date for ?al?al again and again: Rescheduled fire inspections, the discovery of an underground conduit that upended the schedule to pour a sidewalk outside the building, interminable waits for utility hookups. “Every construction project in the city is facing delays,” Clark said.

Not every person at King’s Inn will move into Chief Seattle Club’s own housing; some will use federal emergency housing vouchers, and some will use short-term rapid rehousing subsidies; the same is true for those currently staying at the Executive Pacific, and those have stayed at both hotels in the past and moved into other shelter or housing.

Since last year, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question.

LIHI is facing similar challenges, its director, Sharon Lee, said; if several new projects where LIHI had hoped to move hotel guests aren’t finished by the end of January, “we may have to put some people in another temporary [shelter],” such as a hotel. “We don’t think that’s the best solution either—to move them from one hotel to another hotel.”

The problems LIHI and Chief Seattle Club are facing as they wind down their hotel-based shelters are only partly the result of housing construction delays. In fact, the biggest challenges were baked into the contracts from the very beginning. Former mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially resisted accepting federal COVID relief dollars to move people from the streets to hotels, agreed to a very limited hotel-based shelter program last year on the condition that the hotels would serve as way stations for people moving swiftly into housing, rather than long-term shelter. The idea was to move people from encampments to hotels to market-rate apartments, using “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between unsheltered, often chronic, homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Rapid rehousing is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds.

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is most effective for people with minimal barriers to housing and employment—those who can get jobs quickly and earn enough to afford an apartment in Seattle. It is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds. As a result, people did not tend to move from hotel rooms to apartments; instead, they ended up back on the streets, moved into other forms of shelter like tiny house villages, or stayed put. Continue reading “Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month”

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

Council Chooses Juarez, Library Explains Systemwide Closures, “Seattle Nice” Debates Durkan Legacy

1. District 5 City Councilmember Debora Juarez will serve as the next city council president, PubliCola has learned, after an intense and unusually public campaign for the position.

In addition to a lobbying campaign by Juarez’ supporters (including the leaders of a dozen Native American tribes), the Seattle Times weighed in on Juarez’s behalf, arguing for Juarez over her chief rival for the position, District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, on the grounds that Juarez would strip Herbold of her position as chair of the council’s public safety committee. (The Times’ editorial board, which usually talks about “the council” as an undifferentiated mass, seems to believe that  Herbold is far to the left on police funding; in fact, she fought consistently for reductions to the budget cuts her colleagues proposed).

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. In the past, council presidents have used the role to represent the interests of the council in negotiations with the mayor’s office, to mixed success. The usually low-profile job typically goes to a senior council member.

2. Seattle Public Library branches, which were supposed to serve as places where people could get warm during the cold and snow emergency last week, were mostly closed last week. Over the course of a weeklong emergency, the entire library system shut down for two full days because of weather (in addition to previously planned closures on Christmas and New Year’s Days), and opened between 9 and 12 of its 27 branches during the other four days of the emergency.

“It requires a certain number of staff in certain job classifications to safely and effectively open each branch, and we need to feel confident that those staff can make it in to work and make it back home safely,” SPL spokeswoman Laura Gentry said. “[W]hile we can change an employee’s work location, we cannot change their scheduled shift or their job classification. Contractually, we also cannot ask someone like a Security officer to staff our Circulation desk, or ask a Children’s Librarian to shovel and de-ice our walkways.”

While library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers.

Both these examples are fairly implausible; a more likely real-world scenario would be one in which several library staffers of various classifications showed up to open a branch’s doors during a weather emergency, leaving libraries without a full complement of job classifications but enough to open safely at a time when most housed people were stuck at home. The lack of a children’s librarian or circulation desk staffer at any given branch would be significantly less urgent if the library decided that, for just a few days during a temporary weather emergency, the primary purpose of library branches was to give unsheltered people a to get warm.

This kind of flexibility might be rare for a government agency, but it isn’t impossible; for example, while library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers—duties for which the city offered between $150 and $250 in bonus pay.

In recent years, physical public library buildings have become havens for unhoused or unsheltered people who are not allowed in most other indoor public spaces during the day; during severe weather, libraries are among the only places unsheltered people (or those staying at nighttime-only shelters) can come indoors.

The issue of whether library workers should have to deal with homeless people has been a subject of debate in practically every major city, but the question of whether they do have to deal with homeless people has long been resolved; if you work in a public-facing role in a public library system, you will encounter unhoused and unsheltered people. In fact, “experience working with people who are unstably housed and/or with individuals who have mental health challenges” is one of the “desired characteristics” for entry-level positions at the Seattle Public Library.

3. If you haven’t tuned in yet to Seattle Nice, the new half-hour podcast where political consultant (and my longtime pal) Sandeep Kaushik and I spar about local news and politics (with producer David Hyde as moderator), this week’s episode, in which we discuss the legacy of ex-mayor Jenny Durkan, is a great place to start.

How did Durkan do on homelessness, COVID response, police accountability, and transparency? Find out what we have to say on those subjects and more and subscribe so you won’t miss a single week.

—Erica C. Barnett

Disdainful of Transparency to the End, Durkan Administration Deletes Critical Public Information Resource

By Erica C. Barnett

Last summer, the city’s public-facing employee directory—a vital resource that enabled members of the public to access contact information for city employees as well as information about city departments’ Byzantine bureaucracy—vanished suddenly from the city’s website. The directory was the only place where members of the public could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city.

Asked what happened to the directory last summer, the Durkan Administration office cited unspecified technical issues and assured PubliCola that it would be back before the end of the year.

“I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City,” the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer said in a statement released by Durkan’s office last summer. “This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution.”

That, supposedly, was the plan. Instead, in a decision typical of Durkan’s disdain for transparency and access to public information, the administration quietly decided to kill the directory on its way out the door. According to an update posted on the city’s website in mid-December, the city’s Office of Human Resources, headed by Durkan appointee Bobby Humes, issued a “decision” at some point late in 2021 that “the directory would no longer be maintained.”

According to Loter, the HR department’s “decision is to not maintain the directory and to rely on departmental contact information, which is also posted at that location as well as on many departmental web sites.” PubliCola has requested a copy of this decision.

The erasure of the public-facing city directory is a blow to transparency and access to public information. It’s hardly surprising that a mayor infamous for her disappearing text messages would also be responsible for eliminating this link to basic information about city government in her final months, but it’s disheartening nonetheless.

From now on, anyone who wants to contact a city employee by email or phone will have to take their chances on a limited number of official gatekeepers or file a public disclosure request for the information—a process that can take months.

We’ve reached out to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office for comment on the previous administration’s decision to disappear the directory.

In the meantime, PubliCola has requested a current copy of the directory. If the city won’t post it, we will.

City Attorney-Elect Fires Civil Division Chief, Homelessness Authority Gets Exemption from HUD Mandate, and More

1. Ann Davison, the new city-attorney elect, abruptly fired the head of the civil division of the city attorney’s office, Jessica Nadelman, last week, multiple sources tell PubliCola. The news came as a surprise to many inside and outside the city attorney’s office who had been under the impression that Davison planned to retain the civil chief, who provides legal advice to all branches of city government and defends the city against legal challenges, among many other responsibilities.

Nadelman sent an email to her coworkers on Saturday morning telling them, “Last night Ann and Scott [Lindsay, Davison’s deputy] informed me that I will no longer be civil chief when they take office in January.”

In her capacity as civil chief, Nadelman trained the two public disclosure officers, Stacy Irwin and Kim Ferreiro, who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Mayor Jenny Durkan and her legal counsel, Michelle Chen, violated state public disclosure law when they advised Irwin and Ferreiro to help cover up the deletion of several months’ worth of text messages from Durkan’s phone. The phone’s settings were adjusted to set to auto-delete in July 2020, just as the administration came under fire for its handling of protests against racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, an investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission investigation found.

Seattle Nice is now available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

At the time, then-city attorney Pete Holmes’ office told the Seattle Times his office considered the deletion of the texts a “deliberate act” that compounded what could end up being “tens of millions of dollars in damages and fees” to resolve lawsuits over Durkan’s handling of the protests. Lindsay, Davison’s deputy, is the son-in-law of a longtime friend and ally of Durkan, former Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Nadelman was not available to comment on her departure. Several people PubliCola contacted who worked closely with Nadelman spoke highly of her work and professionalism, but did not want to comment on the record.

On Tuesday evening, Davison informed employees that she had appointed Jack Johnson, who was civil chief under Mark Sidran from 1990 to 2001, to serve as interim civil chief. In a statement, Davison’s office said she would do a “robust national search” for Nadelman’s permanent replacement.

2. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has received a one-year exemption from a federal mandate that requires government agencies overseeing homelessness to do an in-person “Point In Time Count” of the unsheltered homeless population every two years. As PubliCola reported last month, the decision put the agency at risk of losing up to 40 points—out of a possible 200—on its next application for federal housing funds.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said HUD granted the exemption in light of the agency’s work to use different methodology to get a more accurate count of the region’s homeless population without a physical count. The new tally, which used data from several sources, suggests that the number of people experiencing homelessness in King County could be above 45,000—more than triple the tally from the latest in-person count, which advocates have always acknowledged was an undercount.

Martens said HUD gave the KCRHA an exemption for 2022 only, “with an opening to keep talking about it if we want to do something similar in future years.” On December 7, agency director Marc Dones sent a letter to King County Councilmember (and Republican congressional candidate) Reagan Dunn, responding to Dunn’s call for the agency to reconsider its decision not to do an in-person count. In the letter, Dones criticizes the methodology behind the Point In Time Count, noting that critics have said the count may not represent “an appropriate use of precious community resources.”

Advocates for the Point In Time Count have argued that the count has value beyond producing an annual number, including large-scale community engagement, and point out that they have never claimed the count represents anything other than a massive undercount.

3. Check out the second episode of Seattle Nice, where political consultant Sandeep Kaushik and I discuss what it means that Seattle elected a declared Republican, Ann Davison, as its new city attorney—and what having a Republican city attorney might mean for the city of Seattle. When we recorded, Davison had just selected Scott Lindsay—author of the “prolific offenders” report that became the basis for the infamous KOMO special “Seattle Is Dying—as deputy city attorney, and picked Natalie Walton-Anderson, a former King County deputy prosecutor popular with groups that advocate for alternatives to incarceration, to head her criminal division.

Seattle Nice is now available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

—Erica C. Barnett

Latest Sweep Displaces Dozens As Winter Weather Rolls In

Sign in the window of an RV slated for towing.
Sign in the window of an RV slated for towing.

By Erica C. Barnett

The first snowflakes were just starting to fall on Monday morning as dozens of workers from the city’s Parks Department, backed up by a half-dozen Seattle Police Department SUVs, descended on a small swath of land near Green Lake to remove tents, property, and garbage from an area where dozens of people have been living for the better part of a year.

The sweep at Green Lake Park was typical in most respects: Mutual aid workers chalked messages on the sidewalk—”This sweep is unconstitutional based on the Homestead Act and the Eighth Amend[ment]”—as members of the press, RV residents, and a lone city outreach worker milled around, waiting to see what would happen next. A tow truck pulled up to take the first vehicle away, while the owner of an RV a few vehicles back tried to get her battery to start.

Earlier in the morning, just one RV resident had made good on a plan concocted the previous week to try to occupy a parking lot several blocks away; by 9:30, the lot had been locked down and secured, with a Parks Department vehicle stationed at one entrance and a “CLOSED” sign blocking the other. A spokeswoman for the Parks Department confirmed that the RV was still on site, behind the locked gate, on Monday afternoon. Plans to move more RVs onto the site seemed quixotic, given the Parks Department’s swift action to shut the site down Monday.

In response to PubliCola’s questions about the removal, a spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, Anthony Derrick, said the city used the same “intensified outreach and engagement efforts” at the encampment next to Green Lake as it did with encampments at Broadview Thomson K-8 School and the Ballard Commons.

“For several months, the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team has been coordinating outreach with the Urban League, to engage all those residing in the encampment with meaningful offers of shelter,” Derrick said. “This work has been aided by additional resource coordination in the area by REACH, Seattle Indian Center, Aurora Commons, and the Scofflaw Mitigation Team.”

The city refused for months to do any kind of outreach or engagement at Broadview Thomson, because the land—adjacent to a city park—was technically owned by the school district; for months, and until shortly before the removal, Durkan told the school district that the encampment was not the city’s problem and even suggested the district should dip into its reserves to create its own human services department.

RVs lined up on West Green Lake Way.
RVs lined up on West Green Lake Way.

What distinguished two recent removals from other sweeps was that a large number of desirable shelter beds and a handful of housing units came online all at once, putting the city in the highly unusual position of being able to offer people options that they actually wanted.

Accounts from homeless outreach groups contradicted the Durkan Administration’s characterization of the efforts at Green Lake. A representative from REACH said the group had not, in fact, done intensive outreach at the encampment. And a member of the Scofflaw Mitigation Team—a small group whose city funding Durkan tried to eliminate during both of the two most recent budgets—said last week that the first indication the team had that a sweep was imminent was when a client living in one of the RVs called to tell her the city was placing “No Parking” signs between the vehicles.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department said that the city had referred 18 people to shelter from the area since September. According to Derrick, those including 10 who received referrals to tiny house villages or a new men’s shelter in the Central District. A shelter “referral” does not mean that a person actually checks in to a shelter or stays there; it simply means that a person agreed to go to a shelter and that a shelter bed was available.

In fact, as PubliCola reported last week, what distinguished those other two removals from other sweeps was that a large number of desirable shelter beds and a handful of housing units came online all at once, putting the city in the highly unusual position of being able to offer people options that they actually wanted.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the Green Lake area and helped coordinate the lengthy outreach process that preceded the closure of the Ballard Commons earlier this month, said the reason the Commons removal was successful was “because we coordinated efforts between community leaders, city departments, outreach workers, and my office.” This, Strauss noted, “was not the approach used to address Green Lake.”

Volunteers who’ve been on site for months, including the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, as well as people living in the park themselves, say that very few people have actually moved into shelter as the result of the city’s formal outreach efforts, which they describe as recent, occasional, and sporadic.

A no-parking sign indicates the remaining RVs are parked illegally.
A no-parking sign indicates the remaining RVs are parked illegally.

Most have relocated from the triangle of land the city swept on Monday into a large, sprawling tent city about one minute’s walk away, which—rumor has it (city officials would not confirm)—the city plans to leave alone until mid-January. Walking around the encampment on Friday, Bruce Drager, a neighborhood resident who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment every day for months, estimated that several hundred residents were still living in the uphill site site.

“About six months ago, we went from a couple of dozen folks to—at one point, there was probably 300 or 400 people total,” Drager said. “And you know why? They were coming from the other sweeps. Most of these people that live here have stories about the five, six, seven sweeps they’ve already been through, and each time they lose everything, and they’re worse off on the other end of it.”

Walking around the encampment on Friday—both the lower encampment the city is calling “Green Lake” and the upper one designated “Woodland Park”—several encampment residents said they would be willing to go inside if the city offered them a place that met their needs. One man said two people tried to get into a tiny house by going down to the lower encampment, but were turned away because they “didn’t live there,” and thus weren’t eligible for services. Another camper said she has claustrophobia and would accept a hotel room, but not a tiny house.

By Monday, all of the tents in the smaller, lower encampment were gone, and the only remaining residents were the people living in RVs. The city offers shelter beds to people living in their vehicles, too, but it’s a hard sell—giving up your vehicle to move into a shelter, even if you win the lottery and get a tiny house or a private room, means abandoning almost all of your possessions, your privacy, and—if your vehicle is running—your transportation.

“People’s personal possessions are in these motor homes,” said James Wlos, a 21-year Seattle resident who has lived in his van for the last 10 years. For Wlos, losing his van would mean losing his mobility and his ability to go to his part-time job. “Any time I’m parked on the street, I’m in danger of losing what I’ve got,” he said. “I owe so much to Lincoln Towing,” the company the city contracts to tow and store impounded vehicles, “I’ll never pay it all. I have no credit. I can’t get credit to buy a hamburger.”

Seattle Parks Department encampment removal crew clusters near trash cans at Green Lake.
Seattle Parks Department encampment removal crew clusters near trash cans at Green Lake.

In a statement, Mayor Durkan’s office said, “In recent months, Mayor Durkan, outreach providers and City employees have been working to bring hundreds of new 24/7 shelter spaces online and offer safer spaces in order to address the city’s largest encampments. Over the past several weeks, the City has successfully connected hundreds of individuals with a path to housing in key locations like City Hall Park, Ballard Commons, University Playground, and Pioneer Park, and will continue to move people indoors as more shelter comes online.”

Derrick, the Durkan spokesman, said the city has opened “530 new shelter units” since the beginning of the pandemic. But that number is both inadequate to shelter the thousands of people living outdoors in Seattle and misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down in January.

The Durkan administration ends in less than two weeks. For the past four years, administration officials have put a consistently sunny spin on the city’s response to homelessness; no matter how dire or dispiriting the numbers, for Team Durkan, the news has always been good and getting better. Last week, King County released new numbers suggesting that there are 45,000 or more people experiencing homelessness in King County. In that context, it’s hard to see 18 shelter referrals over three months as much more than a rounding error.

As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight

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

By the end of this week, dozens of tents that have dotted the hillside behind Broadview Thomson K-8 School will be gone, and the former campground, which borders the south side of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, abandoned except for the security guards who will ensure that no more unsheltered people move in. Many of the residents have moved into the Low Income Housing Institute’s new Friendship Heights tiny house village nearby, where 22 tiny houses are reserved for Bitter Lake residents. Another 18 have moved into the new Mary Pilgrim Inn, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, nearby.

In a letter to parents at the end of November, school principal Tipton Blish wrote, “With active support from the City of Seattle, the people who have been living at the camp now have an opportunity to move out of the elements and onto a path to break the cycle of homelessness.”

It’s a positive outcome for dozens of people who have spent more than a year waiting for services and support that never came.

But the past year at the Bitter Lake encampment, which culminated in disturbing allegations against the nonprofit director the school district tapped to relocate encampment residents, highlights ongoing policy questions about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, including the role that local government and nonprofits play in deciding which encampments get resources, and which get ignored.

It also raises a number of questions for the school district, the city, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Why did Seattle Public Schools place so much responsibility in the hands of an untested, brand-new nonprofit run primarily by a single volunteer? Should the district have done more to monitor what was going on at the encampment, including the power dynamics between the nonprofit and encampment residents? Why did the city take so long to step in and help encampment residents? And how did 14 housing vouchers end up in the hands of an unvetted nonprofit with no track record—or staff?

 

People began setting up tents at Bitter Lake shortly after the pandemic began, attracted by both the bucolic lakeshore location and the site’s proximity to a restroom in the city park next door. Walking to the site from the Bitter Lake soccer field, you might not realize you’ve crossed an invisible border from city property to school property; even the public boat ramp is technically on school district grounds, contributing to the sense that the lakeshore is part of the park itself.

But while the public may not have found the distinction meaningful, the city did, and when the school district asked for help picking up trash and providing services to the several dozen people living at the encampment earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was not the city’s problem, suggesting that perhaps the school district might want to use its “reserves” to set up its own human services department to provide outreach, case management, and housing to encampment residents.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps.

Casting around for allies, the school district settled on a new, but highly engaged, nonprofit called Anything Helps, led by a formerly homeless outreach worker named Mike Mathias. Within weeks, the school district had charged Mathias with the herculean task of finding shelter or housing for everyone on site. His plan, which involved enrolling every encampment resident in the state Housing and Essential Needs program, proved more challenging than either Mathias or the school district expected and ultimately didn’t pan out.

Instead, after many months of inaction, the city finally stepped in earlier this month, connecting encampment residents with shelter and housing through a very conventional avenue: The HOPE Team, a group of city employees that offers shelter and services to encampments that the city is about to sweep, started showing up and providing referrals to two new tiny house villages and a hotel-based housing project that recently opened nearby. Outreach workers from other nonprofits, who had mostly stayed away from Bitter Lake to prioritize people living in worse conditions elsewhere, showed up as well, and in the end, almost everyone on site moved into temporary shelter or housing.

Outreach workers, volunteers, and one school board member who spoke to PubliCola on background said they were relieved that encampment residents were finally able to leave, noting that the situation at the encampment had been deteriorating for some time.

Last week, volunteers for Anything Helps sent a letter to community members, the school district, and other homeless service providers making a number of disturbing allegations about Mathias. Among other charges, the letter alleges that Mathias used some of the money Anything Helps received from the school district and individual donors to pay for drugs; that he threatened and used federal Emergency Housing Vouchers as leverage over several women at the camp; and that he engaged in “verbal aggression, threats, and retaliation toward staff,” including accusing one volunteer of stealing money.

Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no paid case managers.

Mathias told PubliCola that “a lot of these allegations are false,” except for one that he declined to identify until he could talk to an attorney. He also said he would “step away from the project completely” and had appointed an interim executive director, former Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness outreach specialist Curtis Polteno, as his replacement. PubliCola was unable to reach Polteno to confirm his new role.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps, according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens. “These are very serious allegations that need to be investigated,” Martens said. Mathias had not officially assigned any of the vouchers to specific encampment residents yet when KCRHA froze the vouchers.

The city’s Human Services Department, which runs the HOPE team, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about the allegations.

The survey Mathias submitted as part of Anything Helps’ voucher application, which suggested the fledgling organization had a case management staff similar in size to longstanding service providers such as the YWCA, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, and Africatown, did not apparently raise eyebrows at the homelessness authority.

For months, Mathias and a handful of volunteers have been out at the encampment daily, setting up a makeshift “headquarters” that has consisted of a portable awning, some card tables, a few laptops, and a printer. None of the volunteers, who Mathias referred to as “volunteer staff,” received a salary, including Mathias. Nonetheless, on his application for vouchers, Mathias wrote that Anything Helps had seven “FTE case managers,” or the equivalent of seven paid full-time case managers, on staff. Continue reading “As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight”

Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget

1. Starting January 1, King County will a new interim sheriff: Patti Cole-Tindall, previously an undersheriff in the King County Sheriff’s Office, will assume the role until County Executive Dow Constantine appoints a permanent sheriff in mid-2022.

Last year, county voters approved a charter amendment that sets up a process for appointing, rather than electing, the King County sheriff. Tindall will be King County’s first appointed sheriff in more than two decades.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Tindall served as both the director of the county’s labor relations unit and interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office.

At a press conference Tuesday, Tindall said that she doesn’t plan to apply for the permanent sheriff or for permanent chief of the Seattle Police Department, the two most prominent law enforcement job openings in the county. “I see my value in this appointed process as being there to help the permanent sheriff be successful,” she said. The county council, with input from a panel of sheriff’s staff, community members and local government representatives, is still reviewing candidates to become the permanent sheriff.

Constantine also debuted his proposal to provide hiring and retention incentives for sworn sheriff’s officers, which county council budget chair Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduces as an emergency amendment to the county’s 2022 budget today. The proposal would provide $15,000 to officers who transfer from other departments, $7,500 to new hires, and a one-time $4,000 bonus to every officer in the department. Constantine argued that while the sheriff’s office, which has 60 vacant officer positions, isn’t currently struggling to meet demand, the incentives might help attract and retain officers as a growing number of officers reach retirement age.

King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez told reporters he supports the hiring and retention incentives. His counterpart at the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, Mike Solan, voiced his skepticism about a similar hiring incentive program introduced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in October.

2. On Monday, the Seattle City Council approved a $7.1 billion 2022 city budget that provides new funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, preserves the JumpStart payroll tax spending plan while restoring the city’s depleted reserves, and keeps Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Seattle Police Department largely intact, shaving about $10 million off the mayor’s initial $365.4 million proposal.

As budget chair Teresa Mosqueda emphasized twice on Monday, the budget the council adopted doesn’t require SPD to lay off any officers, nor does it eliminate any officers’ salaries. Instead, the council saved $2.7 million by assuming SPD will lose more officers next year than Durkan’s budget projected—125, instead of 91—and moving their unspent salaries out of SPD’s budget. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget”

In Reversal, Council Keeps Durkan’s Expanded Police Budget Mostly Intact

Seattle interim police chief Adrian Diaz.
Seattle interim police chief Adrian Diaz

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle City Council voted Thursday to leave Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal for the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget largely intact, and in the process put an internal messaging battle—whether to attempt to make peace with SPD or repurpose dollars from the department’s budget in the future—in the spotlight.

The council’s decision to leave Durkan’s budget largely untouched was preceded by a dramatic last-minute press release from Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, who inaccurately claimed that council president Lorena González had proposed eliminating more than 100 officers’ jobs. In reality, González’s amendment would have eliminated the spending authority for 101 positions that SPD doesn’t expect to fill in 2022. While Durkan’s budget has already redistributed the unspent salaries for other purposes in 2022, the amendment would have allowed the council to repurpose more than $17 million in future years.

The amendment struck at a pillar of SPD’s accounting strategy: asking the council to leave space in the department’s budget for dozens of positions that SPD can’t feasibly fill and redirecting the unspent salaries elsewhere in the department. In 2022, SPD expects to have 134 vacant positions, leaving a total of $19 million in unspent salaries that the department intends to use for other purposes, including new civilian staff and equipment.

The strategy is unique to SPD; while other department have vacant positions, only SPD builds a noteworthy portion of its budget around vacancies that it doesn’t expect to fill. González’s amendment also left a 33-vacancy “cushion” in case SPD surpasses its hiring goals, leaving the department with a maximum of 1,256 officers in 2022.

Diaz’s press release forced González and her colleagues to re-hash a familiar debate about whether the council’s budget proposal would restrict the department’s growth or simply bring an end to an unusual accounting trick that gives SPD an annual surplus to spend as it chooses—a privilege, González noted, that no other city department enjoys.

González’s failed amendment struck at a pillar of SPD’s accounting strategy: asking the council to leave space in the department’s budget for dozens of positions that SPD can’t feasibly fill and redirecting the unspent salaries elsewhere in the department.

The interim chief isn’t asking the council for wiggle room or a reasonable level of discretionary funding. He is apparently demanding a blank check and zero fiscal accountability or scrutiny,” González said, calling Diaz’ statement either a “gross, intentional misrepresentation” or a “gross misunderstanding” of her amendment.

A slim majority of the council voted against the amendment, signaling their wariness to engage in a battle with SPD after a year of acrimony with the police department.

In the week and a half since council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda debuted revisions to Durkan’s proposal for the SPD budget, the council has seen an onslaught of accusations from Durkan, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, Diaz, and others claiming that the council was attempting to slash SPD’s budget and ranks. In fact, Mosqueda’s revised budget would have reduced Durkan’s proposed budget increase by $10.8 million, for a total of $6.8 million in new investments. (The overall size of the police budget would have decreased slightly under Mosqueda’s original proposal).

Most controversially, Mosqueda’s budget assumed that SPD will lose more officers in 2022 than Durkan or Diaz currently project. While Durkan and SPD estimated that just 94 officers would leave the department next year, Mosqueda estimated a loss of at least 125 officers: enough to cancel out the department’s hiring goals and leave 31 more vacant positions—and $2.7 million more in unspent salaries—than Durkan anticipated.

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The mayor’s projections are optimistic, given that SPD will lose an estimated 150 officers by the end of this year. Her estimate also does not factor in the dozen unvaccinated officers currently on leave who will likely lose their jobs in January. However, Diaz and Durkan predict that attrition will decline sharply in 2022, in part because of plans to spend more on retention programs like group therapy.

Additionally, Mosqueda suggested that the council scale back Durkan’s planned increase to the department’s overtime budget, saving another $3.2 million. Mosqueda’s budget also would have maintained, rather than expanded, SPD’s Community Service Officer (CSO) program—a civilian unit that handles outreach and some non-emergency calls—and omitted Durkan’s proposals to pay hiring bonuses to new officers in 2022 and to launch two new software projects.

On Thursday, an amendment sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen to use the city’s emergency reserve funds to restore most of Durkan’s original budget failed by a wide margin; another amendment—also from Pedersen—that would have met Durkan halfway on attrition projections and overtime increases met the same fate.

The mayor’s projections are optimistic, given that SPD will lose an estimated 150 officers by the end of this year. Her estimate also does not factor in the dozen unvaccinated officers currently on leave who will likely lose their jobs in January. However, Diaz and Durkan predict that attrition will decline sharply in 2022, in part because of plans to spend more on retention programs like group therapy.

The council also narrowly voted down an amendment by Councilmember Andrew Lewis that repurposes $2.7 million from the city’s reserves to defer to Durkan’s attrition projections. “There’s an advantage to assuming less attrition so that we don’t have to go back next year to correct the budget,” Lewis said. He also raised concerns about the optics of Mosqueda’s attrition projection, adding that he “would prefer that the council not habitually predict that hiring and [departures] will be the same,” noting that the council made the same prediction last year. While the council initially voted in favor of the amendment, Councilmember Tammy Morales asked for a re-vote near the end of the session that defeated the proposal; Morales, who previously supported the amendment, reversed her vote.

Mosqueda introduced her own amendment to expand the CSO program, though her $900,000 amendment fell short of Durkan’s original $1.3 million proposal. Because SPD will likely be unable to hire the six additional officers before next spring, she said, the CSO unit will only need six months of funding in 2022. The council agreed, voting overwhelmingly to expand the program. Mosqueda added that she eventually hopes to move the the CSO program to a civilian department, but she conceded that the unit will stay in SPD for the foreseeable future. The CSOs have said they aren’t interested in leaving SPD, citing close relationships with their sworn counterparts; Herbold admitted that she had assured the unit’s supervisors that the council wouldn’t force the CSOs to leave SPD in exchange for expanding the program, and Thursday’s vote allowed her to keep her promise.

The council rejected just three minor proposals to increase SPD’s budget. Pedersen’s pitch to add more dollars to SPD’s overtime budget didn’t find traction, and nobody on the council expressed interest in supporting the two SPD technology projects that Mosqueda deemed “non-essential”: a body-worn video analysis system used to assess racial disparities in policing and a wearable biometric monitor that would track police officers’ vital signs to flag officers at risk of using excessive force or acting erratically because of stress. Continue reading “In Reversal, Council Keeps Durkan’s Expanded Police Budget Mostly Intact”

Council Amendments Would Stall Downtown Streetcar, Preserve Laurelhurst Community Center, and Defund Salvation Army Shelter

Laurelhurst Community Center

By Erica C. Barnett

The battle over police funding may be the marquee issue at Thursday’s final public city council budget meeting, but the council will also be taking up dozens of other changes to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2022 budget. Here are a few we’re tracking as the council winds up its deliberations over next year’s budget.

• A proposal by Councilmember (and perennial streetcar opponent) Lisa Herbold to cut $2.4 million that would re-start planning for the long-delayed downtown Seattle streetcar and reallocate that money to help improve Seattle Public Schools’ bus routing technology and to fund a citywide hiring incentive program.

Herbold noted earlier this month that there are currently vacancies across all city departments, not just SPD, and suggested funding incentives to fill those positions as well.

• Two amendments, both by Councilmember Tammy Morales, that would strip $5.1 million in federal funding from a Salvation Army-operated emergency shelter in SoDo and use the money to fund land acquisition for cultural space through the city’s Cultural Space Agency, to purchase a separate piece of land in SoDo for transitional housing to be run by the Chief Seattle Club, and to develop a new “City-run social housing acquisition program.” The Cultural Space Agency is a public real estate development agency established last year with a mission to create new, community-based arts and cultural venues and spaces in Seattle; an infusion of $1.1 million would allow the agency to set up a land acquisition fund.

Social housing is a somewhat loftier notion; according to Morales’ amendment, $2 million would be enough to hire a team that would “research portability of social housing acquisition program models currently operating in cities like Berlin, Paris and Vienna,” but any expansion of the program would require ongoing funds in future years.

PubliCola is seeking more information about the transitional housing project.

UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, all three of Morales’ proposals to repurpose funding for the SoDo shelter failed; two, the transitional and social housing proposals, failed for lack of a second vote to put them up for discussion.

In her budget this year, Durkan proposed eliminating the creative industries director position altogether and demoting the city’s creative industry policy advisor to a lower-level “creative industries manager” job overseeing various special events and permitting staff.

The Salvation Army shelter receives additional funding from the city and county, but the loss of $3.1 million in annual funding would force the agency to close the shelter in 2023 or find funding elsewhere. The shelter, located in a former COVID isolation site inside a former Tesla dealership, enabled the Salvation Army to consolidate several existing shelters in one location, freeing up other spaces for use during weather-related emergencies. The building, which has a special air-filtration system, served as the city’s only smoke shelter during the 2020 summer wildfires.

• Morales has also proposed restoring a position at the Office of Economic Development to support and promote film, music, and other creative industries in Seattle. Over her term, Durkan has steadily chipped away at this longstanding city function, first by neutering the Office of Film and Music (whose director, Kate Becker, left for a job as King County’s first-ever Creative Economy Strategist in 2019 and was never replaced), then by attempting to eliminate the city’s nightlife advocate, and, finally, by bumping OED’s Creative Industries director position further and further down the OED org chart.

Currently, the Inclusive Creative Industry Director job is vacant; the city’s website describes the job of the office as helping creative workers “transition into middle and higher earning jobs,” promote economic recovery, and “Better connect businesses and workers with the creative skills that will be in high demand in the Network Economy,” whatever that means.

Laurelhurst is a wealthy area that ranks among the least diverse in Seattle. In his pitch to trade the parks workers’ pay increases for the community center, Pedersen argues that the center serves an important race and social justice purpose because it is “connected by a bridge to the adjacent [Laurelhurst] elementary school, where 45 percent of students are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) and 31 percent of students’ families are low income.”

In her budget this year, Durkan proposed eliminating the creative industries director position altogether and demoting the city’s creative industry policy advisor to a lower-level “creative industries manager” job overseeing various special events and permitting staff. Morales’ resolution wouldn’t reverse the demotion, but it would place a hold on the money to fund the manager position until OED provides the council with a “Creative Sector Action Plan” and a description of how the office will “reorganize so that this position can focus solely on policy development and implementation related to the creative industries and not be responsible for staff management.”

• Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who frequently talks about the need to treat “mom and pop landlords” differently than big property management companies, wants to set up a special “small landlord and tenant stakeholder group” at the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections. According to Pedersen’s proposal, “The group should propose a definition of ‘small landlord,’ estimate the population of small landlords with units in Seattle, make findings about how current regulations and market trends impact small landlords and their tenants, and identify whether those impacts are disparate.”

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The plight of smaller landlords came up frequently during the COVID pandemic, when many tenants who lost their jobs were unable to pay rent. Landlord advocates argued that the eviction moratorium and other tenant-friendly laws and policies put smaller-scale property owners at risk of defaulting on their mortgages.

• Pedersen is also behind a proposal that would eliminate pay increases for some salaried parks employees to fund the reopening of the Laurelhurst Community Center, which Durkan’s budget proposes closing and turning into a “premier rental facility” like those at Pritchard Beach and Golden Gardens. Durkan’s budget uses the money saved by shuttering the center to pay for a mobile recreation and playground program called Rec’N the Streets. The city’s parks department shut down all 26 of the city’s community centers last year because of the pandemic, and has reopened only nine.

Laurelhurst, a waterfront neighborhood in Northeast Seattle, is a wealthy area that ranks among the least diverse in Seattle. In his pitch to trade the parks workers’ pay increases for the community center, Pedersen argues that the center serves an important race and social justice purpose because it is “connected by a bridge to the adjacent [Laurelhurst] elementary school, where 45 percent of students are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) and 31 percent of students’ families are low income.”

However, the community center is one of the smallest in the city, lacks a gym, and does not offer child care, limiting its usefulness to families with school-age children. Across Seattle, community centers serve the entire surrounding community, not just nearby elementary school students, and are especially critical in lower-income areas where residents may lack the ability to pay for private sports lessons, child care, after-school activities, homework help, fitness classes, and other types of programming that community centers provide.

The Laurelhurst Community Club, a private organization that runs a beach club that’s open only to property owners in the neighborhood, has been a vocal advocate for reopening the community center, where the group has historically held its meetings.