Category: Mayor Durkan

City’s Hotel-Based “Shelter Surge” in Jeopardy Over Financial, Logistical Concerns

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s plan to use federal COVID dollars to move unsheltered people to hotels, then housing, has hit a serious snag—several, actually—that could put the centerpiece of the city’s planned 2021 “shelter surge” in jeopardy.

Last year, after a bruising budget season, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a $34 million plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant (COVID) grant dollars to create hundreds of new shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness, including 125 new enhanced shelter beds in traditional congregate settings and 300 hotel rooms that would be repurposed as noncongregate shelter.

According to a request for qualifications for the funding, the grant money is supposed to pay for programs that “assist those experiencing homelessness in finding safe alternatives through investment in shelters/hotels that result in permanent housing through Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing.” The idea is that homeless service providers will move hundreds of people out of encampments and into hotels, from which they’ll emerge on one of two tracks: Permanent supportive housing (for those who require comprehensive, 24/7 support) or market-rate apartments (for everyone else.)

The surge was also supposed to include 125 new 24/7 congregate shelter beds. So far, the city has only granted funding for the hotel-based shelters, and it’s unclear whether any agencies applied for the additional shelter funding.

The hotels were supposed to be up and running “beginning in December 2020.” None have opened, and a number of serious issues remain unresolved. The first is a $17,000-per-unit spending cap, established by the city budget office, which will limit what services and amenities are available to clients staying in the rooms. (The city is paying for the rooms themselves separately using the federal ESG funds.) The mayor’s office has said they expect the hotel units to turn over as people move rapidly through the hotel rooms and on to permanent housing, so the $17,000 cap is for each unit, not each client. 

From that money—a total of around $5 million, assuming the city eventually opens all 300 rooms—the service providers must pay for food, supplies, janitorial services, security, protective equipment, and salaries for the onsite case managers who will be charged with setting clients up for success in housing. So far, the city has offered contracts to two providers, Chief Seattle Club and the Public Defender Association, to run the hotels. The agencies have reportedly balked at this spending cap, which could make it difficult to provide the kind of high-touch services necessary to deal with the complex behavioral health issues, including addiction, that are common among people living unsheltered, especially those who are chronically homeless.

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Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said a typical enhanced shelter or tiny house village unit costs between $16,000 and $22,000 a year. “We are in active contract negotiations with multiple providers to operate new hotel shelter units,” Lemke said in a statement. “As expected, each provider has a different proposed approach and we are working through those details now. …Program approach and associated costs are key drivers.”

The city has set aside almost twice as much money, $9 million, for the rapid rehousing component of the program, which it has dubbed “Street to Housing.” The city has picked Catholic Community Services as its rapid rehousing provider, in addition to the Chief Seattle Club’s own rapid rehousing program. The city plans to use those funds to move 231 single hotel shelter clients into market-rate apartments and subsidize their rent for up to 12 months. As PubliCola has reported, the premise behind rapid rehousing programs is that many, perhaps most, people experiencing homelessness need only minimal assistance, including rent subsidies and financial counseling, to afford an apartment.

The people who provide rapid rehousing tend to disagree with this optimistic assessment. They say the clients who do best in rapid rehousing are the ones who have just become homeless, who are already employed or  recently lost a job, and who don’t require intensive case management or other services, such as mental health or addiction treatment. People with addiction, untreated mental illness, or other temporarily disabling conditions often need more than a short-term financial boost, but don’t require the comprehensive, long-term services offered in permanent supportive housing programs. There simply aren’t many programs for people who fall into that gap.

Another issue with the hotels the city has chosen is that the rooms are not set up for long-term residents. Neither of the two hotels the city is currently considering—King’s Inn, a block away from Amazon headquarters, and the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown—offers in-room kitchenettes or microwaves, meaning that the providers will have to either purchase microwaves so people can heat up food they bring in (impossible in the case of the Executive Pacific, whose wiring is apparently too old to withstand microwaves in every room) or pay for catering at significant expense.

Additionally, the Executive Pacific is in the middle of downtown, and offers no common area for residents to gather, making it likely that they will congregate outside and contribute to the sense of “disorder” that causes business groups and law-and-order activists to call for crackdowns. Both hotels are clearly better than nothing, but they need to be places people want to stay. It’s unclear the city is setting either up for success.

Ultimately, the question the city has to consider is this: What is the point of these new shelters, and is a program that skimps on direct services while investing lavishly in a market-based solution likely to lead to that result?

If the point is to simply create the appearance of responding to the homelessness crisis  during a global emergency that—like Durkan’s term— will have largely ended by the time the grant runs out, then limited-service shelters that spit chronically homeless people into the private market may do the trick. But if the goal is to actually move people facing complex, persistent challenges into housing where they will thrive, it will take more than a single “shelter surge,” and very likely more than a few thousand dollars a person, to get there.

The mayor’s office will provide a “Status Update on 2021 Homelessness Investments” at the city council’s Homelessness Strategies and Investments meeting today, Wednesday, at 2pm.

Financial Crisis Forces Sound Transit to Consider Tough, Complicated Choices

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the past few months, Sound Transit, the regional agency tasked with building light rail to Ballard and West Seattle lines as well as extending the main light-rail “spine” to Everett and Tacoma, has been dealt a double blow of bad news. Last June, agency staff estimated that total revenues could fall short by $8 billion to $12 billion by 2041, the original end date of the Sound Transit 3 program voters approved in 2016. (More recent projections have adjusted that projection down slightly, to a range of $6.1 billion to $11.5 billion, but the numbers remain grim).

Then, earlier this month, Sound Transit announced that the cost to build the ST3 package, which includes elevated lines to West Seattle and Ballard, had increased by about $8 billion. The combination of the shortfall and cost inflation has created an “affordability gap” of about $11.5 billion.

Referring to the chart above, which shows a green line marked “ending balance” plummeting below zero beginning in 2029, Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel said last week, “I’ve never seen a chart where the budget dropped off the chart … so that’s pretty sobering for me.”

Keel made his comments during a board workshop on Sound Transit 3 “realignment” last Thursday, where the general outlines of two broad options emerged.

The first, which staff have dubbed the “expanded capacity” approach, would involve finding additional resources, such as grants, federal dollars, or new taxes, to boost Sound Transit’s revenues and make the newly inflated project possible. The second, called the “plan-required” approach, would involve some combination of delaying elements of the project, permanently reducing the scope of projects, and eliminating some projects altogether. According to a lengthy report on the options, this alternative would only come into play “in the event that new financial resources are not secured.”

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Presented with these conflicting options, several board members insisted that the solution was doing “both.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, for example, said, “We have to be working hard at what the resources we have, but [we also] have to look at what are other potential sources of revenues,” she said, adding, “Every time we pull the covers over ourselves, we fail ourselves. We have to be thinking of the future.”

To that end, the options Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff presented last week included: New federal funding; direct grants from the state; increasing the agency’s debt capacity; raising the rental car tax rate; purchasing lower-cost debt through federal loan programs; and increasing fares.

Most of these options come with significant caveats and downsides. For example, Sound Transit is already the nation’s largest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act borrower, making it less likely the agency will be approved for additional debt. Rental-car tax revenues are currently negligible because of the COVID-related decline in travel. And any increase to the agency’s debt capacity would require either 60 percent voter approval or a change to the Washington State Constitution (and would lower the agency’s credit rating, resulting in higher interest payments.)

Finally, Rogoff said, the likelihood of more federal grant funding is dampened somewhat by the fact that Sound Transit already receives one-tenth of the Federal Transit Agency’s grant funding nationwide; “We would certainly love to get a higher percentage of that program, and we certainly would love to get an additional program funded, but there is certainly a limit to what one transit agency can call on from that program, or at least there has been to date,” Rogoff said on Thursday.

Complicating matters are some of the six factors the board will use to decide how to prioritize voter-approved projects in light of the budget gap. For Seattle residents, two factors could end up working against the city’s projects, including light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

The first is whether a project serves to “complete the spine” of regional light rail, meaning the central line that will eventually extend from Tacoma to Everett.  This portion of the plan requires the construction of a second downtown transit tunnel, but Sound Transit does not consider that tunnel part of the “spine.” Instead, the tunnel—which will also connect downtown to West Seattle and Ballard—is considered a Seattle-only project for planning purposes. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the tunnel is funded regionally, the costs split between the three “subareas” within the Sound Transit taxing district). The upshot could be that when Sound Transit gets around to picking projects to delay or cut, West Seattle and Ballard could be first in line because Seattle already got a “Seattle” project in the form of a second downtown tunnel.

The second issue is equity—defined, for Sound Transit’s purposes, as how well a project serves low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities within a one-mile radius of a project, such as a station. Although many ST3 projects scored low on equity, some of the worst were in Seattle. They included the West Seattle line (which scored medium-low), the downtown tunnel (medium-low) and the Ballard extension (low). This could bump these projects lower down the priority list.

Some board members argued that the definition of “equity” Sound Transit uses is narrow and self-defeating, since stations tend to raise property values (and prompt gentrification) in their immediate vicinity, driving down their equity scores even if they serve people from less-affluent, more diverse parts of town. For example, an infill station at NE 130th Street, in board member Debora Juarez’s Seattle City Council district, ranked low on the list, despite the fact that the station will serve people commuting into the area from elsewhere.

“I have a real problem with the equity” metric, because of the way it narrowly defines a station’s service area, Juarez said. “The whole point of having these stations is to get people to work, to the hospital,” Juarez said, referring to the UW Medical Center hospital near the station. “Taking three buses to get to the north end is ridiculous.”

The board isn’t expected to adopt a realignment plan until next summer, at the soonest. Although board chair Keel began a blue-sky discussion last week about how Sound Transit could cut costs or raise money—beginning with the rental-car tax, which would raise a negligible amount—board member Claudia Balducci, a King County Council member from Bellevue, cautioned against coming up with lists of cuts or new taxes before a thorough discussion.

“When we did this ten-plus years ago”—in the wake of the 2008-2010 recession—”we had a very deeply researched piece of documentation that was given to us with a lot of backup behind it,” Balducci, who first joined the Sound Transit board as Bellevue mayor in 2020, said. “I feel like we’re at that early stage of maybe trying to provide high-level feedback about the parameters around additional study that we want to see. … It feels like we’re rushing toward a solution when we haven’t identified the problems.”

 

Chief Seattle Club Director Joins Mayor’s Race, Durkan Deflects Dunn Denunciation

1. Colleen Echohawk, the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club—a human service provider and day center that focuses on American Indian and Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness—will announce she’s running for mayor on Monday.

Echohawk, an enrolled member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation, told PubliCola Sunday that she probably wouldn’t have gotten into the race if it wasn’t for COVID-19, which she said has created “opportunities”—like the city and county’s newfound willingness to move people out of overcrowded shelters and into hotels. “If you had told me last year that we would have roughly 1,000 people in hotel rooms right now, I would be shocked,” she said. With the end of the statewide eviction moratorium “looming,” she added, “we can’t have more people falling into homelessness. It’s just immoral.”

Native Americans make up a vastly disproportionate percentage of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and elsewhere. Over the past several years, advocates from groups like CSC have made Native American homelessness a priority for city spending, and successfully advocated for culturally competent assessments to get more Native people in line for homeless services and housing.

“I don’t think that anyone who’s been in a leadership position of an organization thinks you can, all of a sudden, just demand that everything is going to change. We are hitting the right tone and now we need to figure out ways to find common ground.”—Colleen Echohawk

“When we’ve had a lot of success has been when we’ve been at the table,” Echohawk said. “If we miss one meeting, decisions get made without us that affect us down the road.” Echohawk said she has been “disappointed in recent months” to see how long it has taken to stand up the regional homelessness authority, which she supported. “It honestly breaks my heart, because we have people who are hurting and because we’ve committed to the regional [approach.]” 

In 2018, Echohawk led the team that helped Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is not running for reelection, select former police chief Carmen Best. Two years later, Best quit under a cloud of criticism over her handling of protests against police brutality.

Asked whether she supports the movement to defund the Seattle police and reinvest their budget in community-led public safety alternatives, Echohawk, who serves on the Community Police Commission, said, “I don’t think that anyone who’s been in a leadership position of an organization thinks you can, all of a sudden, just demand that everything is going to change. We are hitting the right tone and now we need to figure out ways to find common ground.”

Durkan has declined to begin the process of looking for a permanent police chief, and will likely leave it up to her successor to replace interim police chief Adrian Diaz. If that happens, Echohawk said she will look for someone “who has vision, a strong history of being anti-racist … and who understands the dynamics of the power of a police officer and how to work with community and work with the [Seattle Police Officers] Guild to find ways to change the system.”

Echohawk is widely viewed as an ally of the mayor’s, and reportedly turned down a job in Durkan’s office early in her term. But, she said, they differ in a number of important ways. “I come from a very different background” than Durkan, the native of Delta Junction, Alaska, said. “I grew up in a home where my dad would literally pick people up off the side of the road and bring them home. … We don’t have a legacy of privilege. We have a legacy of serving the community.”

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2 .The regional homelessness authority, already off to a slow and rocky start, will succeed or fail based largely on whether more conservative suburban cities and liberal Seattle can agree on what kind of homeless programs to fund and how to fund them. Already, there have been schisms and delays: Several suburban cities opted out of a sales tax that will fund housing and homeless programs across the region, and the hiring of a director for the agency is months behind schedule.

Last Thursday, another schism revealed itself, when members of the Lived Experience Coalition—a group of people with direct experience of homelessness—challenged King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, of Bellevue, over his voting record and public statements about homelessness. The exchange came during a meeting of the authority’s governing board, which includes nine elected officials and three Lived Experience Coalition members. Dunn cast the lone “no” vote on the county council against a 0.1 sales tax to fund hotel-based shelters and housing for people experiencing homelessness in King County, and proposed spending $1 million to bus homeless people out of the area.

Zaneta Reid, a member of the governing committee, addressed Dunn directly at the end of the meeting: “We’re at this table for one reason, and that’s really to solve this problem of getting people off the stress and ending homelessness. Why are there some who are working against this?”

She continued: “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?”

Before Dunn could respond, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who chaired the meeting, jumped in.

Continue reading “Chief Seattle Club Director Joins Mayor’s Race, Durkan Deflects Dunn Denunciation”

How Reforms for Off-Duty Police Work Died on the Vine

Image reprinted through a Creative Commons license.

By Paul Kiefer

In May of 2017, serious changes to the Seattle Police Department’s oversight of its officers’ off-duty work appeared to be imminent.

For years, officers found off-duty work as security guards and traffic flaggers in Seattle through an opaque system rife with real and perceived conflicts of interest. Though officers leveraged the power of their department jobs to find high-paying work in their free time, SPD didn’t oversee how much its officers charged for their services, screen outside employers, or closely monitor officers’ adherence to department rules. The system was based on trust, and it often failed. As early as 2005, a Seattle Times investigation found that dozens of officers skirted department rules prohibiting them from working in bars and nightclubs, sometimes acting as bouncers, while supervisors looked the other way.

But even after some basic reforms, the world of off-duty employment remained a gray area in which officers’ duties to the public and loyalties to their employers were blurred. For a decade, police accountability experts, including the City Auditor and retired judge Anne Levinson, pushed the department and city council to intervene.

In June of 2017, the council passed a sweeping accountability ordinance that included the requirement—long championed by reform advocates—that SPD use civilians to independently manage and oversee its officers’ secondary employment in-house, with the goal of creating a transparent system that would give the city control over allocating contracts and setting prices at no cost to the public.

Four months later, then-police chief Kathleen O’Toole highlighted the urgency of those reforms by asking the FBI to investigate allegations that SPD officers, with the help of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), conspired to inflate hourly prices and intimidated business and property owners to stave off competition. As the FBI launched its investigation, then-mayor Tim Burgess doubled down on the reforms in the accountability ordinance, signing an executive order directing SPD to create a timeline and work plan for taking over management of officers’ off-duty work.

But more than three years later, SPD has made almost no progress toward managing its officers’ off-duty work, and the windows for corruption that sparked the FBI investigation in 2017 remain wide open. The death of those reforms after a change in leadership and a rush to reach a labor agreement with SPOG in 2018 is a lesson in how quickly city leaders can forget or abandon a widely supported reform.

More than three years after the city adopted a sweeping police accountability ordinance, SPD has made almost no progress towards managing its officers’ off-duty work, and the windows for corruption that sparked an FBI investigation in 2017 remain wide open.

Peter Nguyen, the labor negotiator who represented the city’s labor relations unit during bargaining with SPOG in 2018, says that the death of secondary employment reforms deserved more outcry than it received. At its core, he argued, SPD officers’ secondary employment stems directly from their primary jobs as police officers; therefore, Nguyen believes the city has the right to oversee how its police officers use their role as cops to make money in the private sector.

At the very least, Nguyen says, “we need to be assured that a police officer is not working too many off-duty hours or coming off of an all-night security stint and directly patrolling our streets while armed, fatigued, and judgement-impaired,” he said. He also said the current system could also create opportunities for officers’ off-duty loyalties to seep into their on-duty responsibilities. “How do we know that an on-duty officer doesn’t happen to over-patrol a business which pays them after hours as a form of kick-back?” he asked.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, echoed Nguyen’s and other police accountability advocates’ concerns about overworked officers and the potential for conflicts of interest. “Who is regulating and coordinating those off-duty jobs, essentially running a private, for-hire police department?” she said, alluding to past litigation about officers connecting their friends on the force to high-paying off-duty jobs, creating a power and income imbalance within the department.

Under current rules, an SPD officer who wants to find work needs the department’s permission, which they receive by applying for a permit from the department. When working off-duty, SPD now requires officers to enforce the law and follow department policies, and SPD policy forbids officers with records of misconduct from holding secondary jobs.

Despite that policy, the department approved secondary employment permits for at least two officers who appeared on the King County Prosecutor’s Brady list—a list of officers with sustained findings of dishonesty, evidence of racial bias, or criminal charges or convictions—in 2019. Detective Franklin Poblocki, who joined the county prosecutor’s Brady list for lying to Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability during a misconduct investigation in 2018, received department approval for 23 permits in 2019 alone, 11 of them after the county added him to their Brady list in June of that year. Officer Wade Murray, who also landed on the prosecutor’s Brady list in 2019 for lying to the OPA, received approval for three off-duty work permits later that year.

The absence of an oversight office in the department has left other problems unaddressed. Department policy forbids officers from working more than 64 hours a week, including off-duty hours, to ensure that officers don’t come on duty overworked. But without an oversight office, officers are left to self-report their hours to the department; SPD has no easy way to double-check to ensure that they’re telling the truth.

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If an officer works too many hours in a week, or if they work an off-duty job without a permit from the department, they can be subject to an OPA investigation. However, according to OPA Director Andrew Myerberg, it’s hard for his office to catch violations of secondary employment policies. “If we’re going to come across secondary employment-related misconduct, it’s almost always tangentially,” he said. For example, the OPA sometimes discovers that an officer lacks a permit when a civilian complains about the officer’s behavior at an off-duty job.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, opportunities for an officer seeking off-duty work were boundless. A list of secondary employment contracts from 2019-2020 shows more than 300 officers—nearly a quarter of the force—working for dozens of private and public employers, ranging from Seattle Public Utilities to Dick’s Drive-In and the Paramount Theater. Because Seattle only allows sworn police officers to take traffic control jobs, many officers find work directing traffic outside busy downtown garages or at construction sites.

SPOG, which represents SPD officers, detectives and sergeants, sets the minimum hourly rates for its members’ off-duty work. The guild didn’t respond to PubliCola’s request for updated hourly rates, but a public document from 2019 listed a minimum hourly rate of $52 for an off-duty officer or detective working as a security guard and $55 for an officer or detective working in traffic control. However, because police officers have exclusive domain over traffic control jobs and can negotiate even higher rates, several downtown garage owners told the Seattle Times in 2017 that an officer demanded and received as much as $120 an hour. Continue reading “How Reforms for Off-Duty Police Work Died on the Vine”

Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”

Tunnel Option Back on the Table? Plus: Updates on Homeless Authority and Vaccinating Unsheltered People

An example of a lot in West Seattle that went up dramatically in value after a developer built a 300-unit apartment complex on site.

1. At Sound Transit’s system expansion committee meeting today, agency staff will present new numbers showing a greatly reduced cost differential between the elevated and tunnel options for light rail between Ballard and West Seattle, according to multiple sources. Previous cost estimates indicated that any tunnel would be far more expensive than the agency’s preferred elevated options, adding well over a billion dollars to the cost of the project; if the difference turns out to be negligible, a tunnel alignment would start looking better and better.

Sound Transit’s preferred alternatives for the Ballard-to-West Seattle segment include both elevated and tunnel options, but the tunnel has always come with an asterisk: The agency will only consider building it if tunnel supporters can find third-party funding to pay the difference.

Last week, Sound Transit released new cost estimates showing that the Ballard-downtown-West Seattle alignment will cost between 53 and 59 percent more than the agency estimated in 2019, due primarily to increased property acquisition costs. As PubliCola reported, the most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment.

Joe Gray, Sound Transit’s director of real property, said in an interview Wednesday that Sound Transit based its new property value estimates on the past several years of property sales in the neighborhoods along the alignment, without regard to the development potential of individual properties. For example, a vacant parking lot that is zoned for nine stories of residential development would be assessed not at the potential value of the future apartment building, but on the actual sales price of comparably zoned parking lots in the area over the past five years. If someone buys that parking lot and puts a 300-unit apartment complex on it (see image above), the difference in value becomes an unanticipated cost.

“It’s an estimate, because we only have the data that’s out there,” Gray said. This could be one reason the West Seattle estimates went up more dramatically than those for Ballard—”it’s a hot market,” Gray said, and the large number of property sales is reflected in Sound Transit’s higher estimates for that area. (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that the difference between the cost increases in West Seattle and Ballard “is due to the property development currently underway in the area.”)

An alternative approach would be to pick a different cost escalator—one based on the likelihood that West Seattle and Ballard will continue to grow, particularly along the light rail alignment—and come up with new, higher estimates based on that assumption. But Gray said that would require assumptions Sound Transit is not prepared to make; after all, “the bottom could fall out” of the real estate market. “We wish we had that crystal ball to say that growth is going to continue in the commercial and in the industrial [sectors], but we just can’t,” he said. “We have to go to on what the property is [worth] today. We don’t guess.”

That approach—basing cost estimates on recent sales—is conservative in the sense that it doesn’t assume huge spikes in property values without direct evidence. In another sense, though, it could actually be risky: By assuming that property values will basically stay on their current trajectory into the indefinite future, even if their underlying zoning is designed specifically to encourage development that will dramatically increase its value, Sound Transit may be ensuring that it will have to come back with new, higher estimates year after year.

For now, the Sound Transit board and staff will consider a more immediate question: What will happen to the West Seattle-Ballard line? One possibility is that the new line (which is actually three separate segments, any of which could be built on its own) could be truncated or delayed. Another is that Sound Transit will give the tunnel options a closer look. Property values have less of an impact on tunnels because they just don’t require as much property acquisition. But tunnels can go over budget, too—and some of the new costs revealed last week have nothing to do with property values.

2. After numerous delays, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to hire a director—which the agency calls a “CEO”—and is interviewing four finalists for the job this week. As part of that process, the candidates will be meeting separately with members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people that has three representatives on the regional authority’s implementation board. The idea, board member and Lived Experience Coalition founder Sara Rankin said, was to bring these marginalized people closer to power, in this case by giving them a chance to sit down with the potential leaders of the new agency.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

On Wednesday, the board approved another informal meeting—this one with representatives of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban cities that are members of the authority. The SCA, which includes Renton, Kent, and other cities that are often at odds with Seattle and King County’s approach to homelessness, reached out to ask for the “informal meet and greet,” as former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak put it. “If this body is going to be successful, there has to be some sharing and some building of trust, so I would be in favor of finding a way to do this,” Chelminiak said.

Board member Simha Reddy, a doctor who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness, supported the motion for a different reason. “It’s important for the candidates to know what they’re getting into.”

3. During a press conference announcing a city-led effort to vaccinate people living in congregate settings such as long-term care facilities on Tuesday, PubliCola asked Mayor Jenny Durkan whether the city had any plans for reaching the thousands of unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people experiencing homelessness during later vaccination phases. Homeless people who “live in or access services in congregate settings” won’t get their turn in line until Phase B4 unless they’re over 70 (Phase A2), and the current list of phases does not include any guidance at all about people living unsheltered, who may spend little or no time in congregate settings at all.

Durkan’s response was nonspecific. “That is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the county and the state,” she said, adding that “that phase is in robust planning” by city and county officials. “Some of those people live in congregate settings, like permanent supportive housing, and so setting up systems to get them vaccinated will be easier than those who are unsheltered.”

This is probably an understatement. Because the vaccine must be administered in two doses, unsheltered people who receive the first shot must “keep a record of their vaccination status and when they need to follow up for a second dose,” according to the CDC. Then, after hanging on to that piece of paper for nearly a month, they have to follow through on schedule. How Seattle and King County will track down unsheltered people who fail to show up for their second vaccination appointments remains unclear.

Police Union Head’s Refusal to Resign Raises Questions About Upcoming Contract Negotiations

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday evening, Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) President Mike Solan sent an email to members of his guild. “Connecting with you today to directly respond to the latest media frenzy surrounding our union,” he began.

The police union leader had been under fire since last week after posting a tweet that appeared to blame Black Lives Matter activists for the attempted pro-Trump insurrection at the US Capitol, and after he refused to condemn two officers—both SPOG members—for traveling to Washington, D.C. during the attacks.

Last Friday, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) opened an investigation into both officers. That same day, Mayor Jenny Durkan and former Seattle police chief Carmen Best called for Solan’s resignation. Since then, members of city council have added their voices to the chorus. Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz made clear that he will only fire the two officers if the OPA investigation finds that they took part in attacks on Capitol police officers or otherwise violated federal law.

“I am in communication with those two members and have provided SPOG resources to assist them during this process,” Solan wrote in his email on Monday. “As you can imagine, we are concerned for their safety, mental health and for what appears to be their guilt by association for merely exercising their constitutionally protected first amendment rights. We are in a scary time in our nation’s history as voicing a dissenting opinion can get you ‘canceled’.” SPOG’s resources likely include defense attorneys, paid for with union dues.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Solan made no effort to condemn the attack on the U.S. Capitol, nor did he endorse Diaz’s plan to fire the two officers if the OPA finds that they participated in the attack.

Pivoting to calls from city leaders for his resignation—which spurred a second OPA investigation into whether his tweets violated the department’s social media policy—Solan declared that he has no intention of stepping down. “I will never bend to cancel culture as I lead this union with conviction,” he wrote. He did, however, backhandedly admit that his comments on Twitter hadn’t helped SPOG’s public image, writing that his tweets have “been spun intentionally for political reasons to hurt SPOG and limit our influence” and that he will “definitely take this as a lesson learned in Seattle politics.”

Solan did not, however, back down from his claims that Black Lives Matter and left-wing activists bear some blame for the attack on the Capitol last week. “At no point did I blame one faction over the other, including BLM, Antifa or Proud Boys,” he wrote. “What I was trying to convey is that we as police are caught in the middle of two extreme political groups (left/right) whom [sic] are vying for political control via violence.” Continue reading “Police Union Head’s Refusal to Resign Raises Questions About Upcoming Contract Negotiations”

Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests

Image by Robert Ashworth on Flickr.

1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.

“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.

Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.

WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.

SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.

Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”

In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.

2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”

This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.

Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Continue reading “Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests”

2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of efforts to shelter people in some of the city’s thousands of empty hotel rooms, the closure of public restrooms during the COVID pandemic, or the delayed transition of city homelessness services to a new regional agency, read on.

City OKs Hotel Shelter

After staunchly resisting requests from advocates and service providers to fund and facilitate non-congregate shelter in hotels, the city reversed course this fall, agreeing to use federal dollars to fund a 10-month pilot program that will place several hundred people in hotel rooms. The plan, shepherded through by deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller earlier this year, is to move people through the hotel rooms and into regular apartments through short-term “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

The Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services will be the service providers at the hotels the city will soon announce it is renting as part of its 10-month hotel-to-housing program, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.

The city has not announced which nonprofit agencies will receive the contracts or which hotels they’ll be renting with federal relief dollars, but PubliCola has learned the names of the three agencies and one of the hotels. The Public Defender Association, which provides hotel rooms and case management to unsheltered people through its existing Co-LEAD and JustCares programs, and the Chief Seattle Club will provide services at the hotels, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown and at least one smaller motel.

Catholic Community Services will serve as the rapid rehousing provider, connecting shelter residents to housing in market-rate (non-subsidized) apartments by providing short-term (up to one year) housing assistance.

Restroom closures

At the beginning of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population faced an elevated risk of exposure not just to COVID-19, but to other communicable diseases such as hepatitis A, because the closure of public buildings and retail businesses greatly diminished their access to restrooms and running water. According to the city auditor, the number of public restrooms available to people experiencing homelessness was already inadequate before the pandemic.

As we documented throughout the spring, the city itself exacerbated the problem by shutting down or failing to reopen dozens of public restrooms, then claiming that they were actually open and providing a map directing people to restrooms that weren’t actually available. In our review of 27 restrooms the city claimed were open to the public at the end of March, eight were closed and locked.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Eventually, the city did reopen many of the restrooms it shut down (although most library and community center restrooms remain closed), and it slowed down the barrage of press releases touting wide availability of restrooms for unsheltered people. Restroom access after hours remains a major problem, as does access to potable water, but things are better now than they were in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.

As winter approaches, many public restrooms will be shut down again, although many that were subject to “seasonal closures” last year (those at beaches and parks that don’t get much winter traffic) will stay open. According to Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, many of the city’s park restrooms were built more than 70 years ago and have pipes that can’t withstand winter weather. Schulkin provided a list of nearly 30 parks restrooms that will be closed for the winter, including Alki Playground, Greenwood Park, Little Brook Park, and others across the city. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”