Category: Media

Bullying and Marginalizing Media Critics is a Bad Look for a Potential Seattle Mayor

By Erica C. Barnett

Last Friday, Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell headlined a large indoor event at the China Harbor restaurant, where attendees, including Harrell, appear to have violated local COVID protocols by going maskless.

Photos and videos posted on social media, which I tweeted out on Friday night, showed a large crowd milling around the room, sitting around empty tables, and taking large group photos without masks. King County regulations explicitly require people attending indoor events to wear masks at all times except when actively eating or drinking; there is no exception for indoor group photos, sitting down (at tables or otherwise), or standing and talking to smaller groups within a larger event.

The Seattle Times and My Northwest picked up on the story. In a statement to the Times, Harrell struck a defensive tone, saying that he only took his mask off for group photos (in fact, candid photos posted on Facebook show him standing maskless in the crowd) and while eating (one image shows Harrell and former Gov. Gary Locke, both maskless, shaking hands and leaning their heads close together to talk.)

The Times called Harrell Sunday morning, according to their story. At noon that same day, Harrell’s campaign manager and niece, Monisha Harrell, sent the Queen Anne Community Council a last-minute ultimatum: Remove me as moderator of their candidate forum, scheduled for 3:00 that afternoon, or Harrell would walk. The campaign claimed they made this last-minute threat because of PubliCola’s months-old primary-election endorsement for Harrell’s opponent, Lorena González. Because of this endorsement, the campaign claimed, I could not be trusted to run an “impartial” forum.

A candidate, particularly someone running for mayor, should be prepared to respond to people who challenge their policies and positions. The mayor represents the whole city, not just those who agree with him or her.

I got the news as I was heading to my office to set up for the event, less than an hour after discussing some last-minute details with one of the organizers. It was disappointing to learn that, after collaborating with the Queen Anne Community Council on the format and questions for the forum since August, I would no longer be able to ask the questions we came up with together. More importantly, it was disrespectful of Harrell to force the community council to make a choice between having me as moderator and holding their long-planned forum at all.

Monisha Harrell claimed the campaign didn’t know I was moderating the event until Sunday, a claim that strains credulity. In fact, the campaign was informed weeks in advance that I would be the moderator, and both my name and photo appeared on all advertising for the event. If the campaign was so disorganized that it didn’t check to see who was moderating, that’s a bad sign; if they made up this claim so that Harrell wouldn’t have to take questions from a particular reporter, that’s worse.

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To take the campaign’s claim at face value for a moment: The idea that a reporter, commentator, or editor can’t be “impartial” if they’ve expressed a political “bias” in the past is patently ridiculous; by this standard, none the local pundits who get called upon to moderate political debates, including Civic Cocktail’s Joni Balter, KOMO-4’s Joel Moreno, and the South Seattle Emerald’s Marcus Harrison Green, would be eligible.

Making this specifically about “endorsements,” rather than opinions about issues and candidates, is a straw argument, since PubliCola is one of only a few local publications that issue endorsements. KIRO Radio, Sinclair-owned KOMO, and FOX 13 all have strong editorial slants, but Harrell will participate in a debate series next week in which all those outlets, plus the Seattle Times, will provide moderators.

Harrell himself is quite familiar with my moderating style, since he’s participated in several forums I’ve moderated in the past, including during this year’s election. I’ve been moderating debates, off and on, for about 20 years. In all that time, I’ve never sprung an unfair “gotcha” on a candidate, and there’s no reason whatsoever for anyone familiar with this work, as Harrell and his campaign are, to speculate publicly that I would.

Let’s say, though, that I had decided to go “rogue” and ask Harrell about the event on Friday. So? A candidate, particularly someone running for mayor, should be prepared to respond to people who challenge their policies and positions. The mayor represents the whole city, not just those who agree with him or her. “Mr. Harrell, why did you attend an event that appeared to violate COVID protocols?” is a legitimate question to ask someone who might have to implement COVID protocols and vaccine mandates. It is not “when did you stop beating your wife?” Continue reading “Bullying and Marginalizing Media Critics is a Bad Look for a Potential Seattle Mayor”

Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People

Just a few of the many headlines “Seattle Is Dying” station KOMO News has posted about a single encampment in North Seattle in recent weeks.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sinclair-owned KOMO TV, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” segment and its followup, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” has posted at least 11 pieces in recent weeks whipping up fear about a homeless encampment on the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. The latest, by reporter Kara Kostanich, began: “A drug overdose at a homeless encampment on the property of a local school has parents and neighbors asking when will something be done?”

However, according to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure. And the encampment is not “on the property of a local school”; it’s on school district property next door to Broadview Thomson K-8, separated from the school itself by both a tall fence and a steep hill.

The incident KOMO characterized as a “drug overdose” happened past the bottom of that hill, on the shore of the lake that forms the encampment’s northern boundary. On a recent weekday, the area was quiet and almost bucolic, more like a large recreational campground than a homeless encampment.

According to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” at the center of KOMO’s story occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure.

A man named Tony, who was there when encampment residents found the man, whom I’ll call A, lying unconscious, said several people quickly gave the man Narcan “as a precaution” before paramedics arrived. Narcan works by quickly reversing the effects of opioids, such as fentanyl or heroin, and putting a person into instant, extreme withdrawal.

“I’ve seen people get Narcan and they usually come out swinging,” Tony said. “They’re usually really sick and upset. He didn’t seem anything like that—he just jumped up and took the oxygen mask off and said he was okay. He ended up leaving and going back to his tent. It was definitely not drug-related.”

Two other encampment residents said they didn’t think A used drugs, and said that he had mentioned having infrequent seizures in the past.

But We Heart Seattle leader Andrea Suarez, whose group started as a one-person encampment cleanup effort last year, is convinced what she saw was an overdose, no matter what the people who live at the encampment say. “It certainly looked like a duck smelled, like a duck and was a duck,” Suarez said. “Now, I’m not an expert, but… if I were to give it Vegas odds, I’d say sure that seemed like a classic OD.” Suarez told me she has seen other people overdose at encampments in the past, so it was “it was extremely traumatizing for me to witness the whole process.”

We have offered technical assistance to Seattle Public Schools, but the City is focused on addressing encampments on City property where thousands of individuals are living unsheltered—not WSDOT, private property or SPS property“—Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower

Suarez said she called 911 while “eight people were on top of [A] arguing about whether to give him a fourth dose of Narcan,” and that once paramedics showed up, “everybody took off—they all fled the scene quite quickly and I was still front and center.”

Encampment residents dispute nearly every aspect of Suarez’s account, but agree that she was “front and center”; she stood nearby shooting videos and photos on her phone as paramedics administered to the man, which she posted a couple of hours later on Facebook. Suarez said she took A to her car after he recovered and tried to convince him to go to the hospital, invoking the “Good Samaritan” law, which protects people who seek medical assistance for overdoses from criminal prosecution.

Paige, a woman who has lived at the encampment off and on with her boyfriend, Chris, for about a year, said Suarez comes around the encampment frequently offering “help” that consists mostly of offers to bus people to places they used to live or to “some kind of three-month camp [in Oregon] that you have to pay $250 for,” Paige said. “They’re not offering people places to 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.

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.

Suarez, along with a drug counselor named Kevin Dahlgren who instituted a “tough-love” approach to homelessness in Gresham, Oregon, acknowledges that she has offered encampment residents rides to the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a clean-and-sober housing program located in a former jail in Oregon that charges people $250 a month and requires them to do 10 hours of unpaid “community service” work every week. She says she has also offered to take people to Uplift Northwest, a nonprofit labor agency formerly known as the Mlilionair Club.

Paige and Chris said what they really need is a permanent place to stay—somewhere where they can take a shower—”not having a shower makes you feel kind of crazy; it’s no bueno,” Chris said—wash their clothes, and do dishes without having to beg for water and haul it down to their campsite. But the city hasn’t offered services, and the only useful assistance the camp receives is weekly trash pickups—one reason the encampment, unlike others in the city, is neat and tidy. Continue reading “Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People”

Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle

Image via Rail House Apartments.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has long been a hero to the NIMBY crowd. His columns about density and gentrification have created heroes and villains in Seattle’s growth wars: Little old ladies versus greedy developers; “unfettered growth” versus homeowners calling for a little restraint; “some of the biggest zoning changes in our lifetimes” versus bungalows.

In 2015, a Westneat column warned darkly about secret plans to “do away with single-family zoning — which for a hundred-plus years has been the defining feature of Seattle’s strong neighborhood feel.” The column galvanized a rebellion among the city’s slow-growthers that gutted then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, reducing new density to a tiny slice of land on the edges of existing urban villages and ensuring that Seattle’s single-family areas will remain unaffordable enclaves for the foreseeable future.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

So I was surprised to learn recently that while Westneat preaches the gospel of slow growth and “concurrency”—a buzz word for anti-density groups that argue the city shouldn’t accommodate new people until it has built sidewalks, roads, and other infrastructure “concurrent” with population growth—he and his wife own a development company that bulldozed a bungalow in Seattle’s historically Black south end and replaced it with a 13-unit apartment complex. Westneat’s wife developed the property.

Rents at the Rail House apartments, located about a block from the Columbia City light rail station, start at around $1,400 for a studio and go up from there; prospective renters must have three references from previous landlords and a minimum credit score of 650 (until recently 660). Activists for racial equality have called credit requirements a form of modern-day redlining that has no relationship to tenant quality. Westneat said the credit and reference requirements were a response to a city law requiring landlords to accept the first applicant who qualifies; that law was designed to prevent discrimination by landlords.

According to King County records, the Westneats bought the property in 2005 for $267,750 and tore down the house that was there around 2016; the current value of the property, according to the county tax assessor, is just under $3 million.

Contacted about this seeming contradiction between the views he expresses in his columns and his family’s business, Westneat responded that he’s never had a problem with transit-oriented development; his issue is with places “where growth is overwhelming the infrastructure.”

“I think all transit corridors and the light rail corridors in particular are no-brainers for higher-density development, Westneat told me in an email. “I do have issues with the way Seattle has gentrified so quickly (but who doesn’t?).” Rail House, he continued, “is a classic transit-oriented development, 13 units with no parking. It works because it is right next to Columbia City light rail station, but it might not be appropriate in parts of the city that lack robust transit.”

What’s insidious about Westneat’s columns isn’t that they make a moderate case—it costs homeowners nothing to say that density is acceptable where they don’t live—but that they are an argument against the kind of density Seattle actually needs.

You won’t get any argument from me that transit-oriented development is a no-brainer. But even the most dyed-in-the-wool slow-growther would probably agree with this view today, now that battles over transit and development near transit stops have been mostly settled. (Of course, both Westneat and I have been around long enough to recall when transit itself was considered not just a gentrifying factor but one that would promote out-of-control growth in historically single-family areas like Columbia City!)

As an example of his support for appropriate density, Westneat said that he was all for Mike O’Brien’s 2016 legislation that would have “upzoned most of the city to three units.” (In reality, the city projected that the plan would result in fewer than 4,000 new units across the entire city over 20 years).

“I don’t have a longstanding editorial opposition to density or upzoning,” Westneat told me. 

I’d say that’s debatable—the cumulative effect of column after column condemning specific examples of density is an editorial opposition to density, even if those columns are tempered by general statements supporting the idea of density where “appropriate.” By opposing specific examples of density again and again, Westneat’s columns have poured gasoline on the movement against density of all kinds, including modest density (such as row houses and triplexes) in single-family areas.

Continue reading “Company Owned by Seattle Times’ Slow-Growth Columnist Razed House for Apartments in South Seattle”

Jessyn Farrell Joins Mayor’s Race; Tim Burgess Advises Seattle Times on Homeless Coverage

1. Former state legislator (and 2017 mayoral candidate) Jessyn Farrell joined the increasingly crowded 2021 mayor’s race last week, announcing her candidacy along with a list of endorsements that includes current city council member Dan Strauss. (Strauss’ colleague, council president Lorena González, is also running for mayor.)

Farrell, who came in fourth last time (after Jenny Durkan, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver), told Fizz this year’s race is taking place in “a completely different political context” than the last one. “The conversation over the last four years has in some ways been a race to the bottom,” she said. “We are never going to be a city that is all about low taxes and low labor standards, so I think we need to think about the competitive edge in a different way, and I think unlocking the conversation about affordable housing and income equality is a way we can retain that edge.”

Specifically, Farrell said, the city needs to invest in “social” (public) housing, alternative homeownership opportunities such as limited-equity coops and community land trusts, and anti-displacement initiatives to rectify the racist housing policies of the past. “We often think of the housing market as this thing that just exists, and it is very much created by government policy, in ways both good and bad,” Farrell said. “There were very good, robust policies put in place in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s that in some ways helped create the economic stability that created the largest middle class that the world ever knew—and it was also deeply racist. We can look at the past to take that same spirit and robust government role and also rectify the injustices.”

Farrell, who led the transit advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition from 2005 to 2008, said that in the coming weeks, she plans to roll out a “complete communities housing initiative” that will be something like a “Sound Transit for housing”—a plan to add to the region’s affordable-housing stock, particularly around the light rail stations that will be opening over the next 10 years.

“There’s been a lot of handwringing about, ‘the suburbs aren’t ready for this,’ and ‘they’re taking actions that are contrary to a regional approach,’ and those things may be true, but we can still take action,” she said. “Bellevue was infamous for fighting mass transit”—true—and yet by building trust and organizing and talking about transportation in a creative way, we were able to get to a place where the city of Bellevue chose light rail as its alternative.”

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.

No mayoral frontrunner has expressed an outright commitment to defunding the Seattle police—González, who joined most of her council colleagues in supporting an eventual 50 percent reduction last year, comes the closest—and Farrell is no exception; she said the city needs to “really strengthen our concept of public safety is,” but added that the police serve many functions that can’t be easily or quickly replaced by civilian alternatives.

“There are programs within the police force that work—you don’t want to reduce the domestic violence unit or the work that’s being done to implement the extreme risk protection order program, and even the detective work that’s happening around all of the theft of catalytic converters,” Farrell said. Those are really important functions that you want to fund.”

Fifteen people have filed for mayor so far, but only a handful of those—including Colleen Echohawk, Bruce Harrell, Andrew Grant Houston, and Farrell—have reported significant campaign expenditures or contributions.

2. Former city council member Tim Burgess, who’s laying the groundwork for a ballot measure that would reinstate encampment sweeps, serves on a community advisory group for the Seattle Times’ Project Homeless, a group of reporters whose work covering homelessness is underwritten by local foundations, companies, and the University of Washington. The current Project Homeless reporters are Sydney Brownstone and Scott Greenstone.

Since leaving office, Burgess has become a vocal advocate for removing homeless people from public spaces—most notably in the pages of the Seattle Times, which regularly gives him space on its opinion page.

According to the Times’ Senior Vice President Product for Marketing and Public Service, Kati Erwert, the group meets quarterly with “a senior leadership team and the Project Homeless editor,” Molly Harbarger. “In that meeting stories that have been published are reviewed, key themes are discussed and funders and the advisory group provide any suggestions or feedback associated with coverage,” Erwert said, adding that the group does not “directly influence story choice.”

Most members of the advisory board represent the companies and foundations that underwrite the Times’ four-member homelessness team, including the Raikes Foundation, BECU, the Campion Fund, and the Paul G. Allen Foundation. The group also includes a representative from Vulcan Real Estate, Beth McCaw of the Washington Women’s Foundation (no relation to the McCaw Foundation), and McCaw’s husband, game designer Yahn Bernier of Valve Software.

Continue reading “Jessyn Farrell Joins Mayor’s Race; Tim Burgess Advises Seattle Times on Homeless Coverage”

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”

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”

Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed

It’s an Afternoon Fizz today, in two parts!

1. Scott Lindsay, a former public safety advisor to ex-mayor Ed Murray and a contractor for the pro-SPD lobbying group Change Washington, didn’t just appear in the latest piece of KOMO poverty porn, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”—he co-produced it.

Since losing a race for city attorney to incumbent Pete Holmes in 2017, Lindsay has transformed himself into a spokesman for the belief that homelessness is caused by drugs and drug addiction can be fixed by forced treatment and jail. This perspective is popular among many fed up with seeing the aesthetically unpleasing signs of visible suffering, such as the people unwittingly featured without their apparent knowledge or consent in KOMO’s latest “news documentary,” because it suggests an easy, obvious solution that politicians are simply unwilling to adopt. But as experts on homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction (alcohol being the most common street drug), and mental illness have documented for decades, mental illness and addiction are not conditions that respond to even the sternest talking-to.

Lindsay, a star of both “Seattle Is Dying” films and a co-producer of the most recent installment, strides quickly past tents in a segment from “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”

Lindsay, whose on-camera contribution to KOMO’s simplistic narrative is to suggest that jail and mandatory treatment (of what sort, no one ever seems to say) will solve Seattle’s problems with homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and property crime, told PubliCola he was not paid for his work as a co-producer on the 90-minute film. Longtime KOMO employees, however, are reportedly unhappy that the activist received a producing credit for his behind-the-scenes work on a film that was presented as a piece of journalism.

2. As other media have documented (exhaustively—one wonders where all the cameras and helicopters were when larger encampments were removed over the past year, or why protesters haven’t descended on other long-term camps and walled them off with fortresses of junk), Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill was swept this morning. The Seattle Times has been covering the removal from the scene, as has Capitol Hill Seattle. 

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One incident that hasn’t been mentioned in the coverage so far is what happened when the city’s Human Services Department tried to set up a resource tent on the periphery of the scene. The usefulness of such outreach methods is questionable—setting up a canopy tent labeled “City of Seattle” in the middle of a protest against the city seems quixotic—but what isn’t in question is why the table is no longer there: According to HSD, protesters threw bricks and eggs at the city employees sitting under the canopy, leading them to make a hasty retreat. (PubliCola has reviewed a photograph of the scene, which show chunks of bricks and multiple broken eggs.) The employees included three social workers known as system navigators who were previously part of the Navigation Team.

3. Those social workers are now part of a new(ish) program called the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) team. (Everything’s an “ecosystem” now.) In addition to coordinating outreach efforts that will be done by nonprofit providers, rather than by the city itself, the HOPE team is supposed to help direct unhoused people into shelter, including 300 new hotel units that are supposed to serve as short-term lodging for people moving rapidly from homelessness into either permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing programs. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed”

The C Is for Crank: No, Danny Westneat, Building 1,000 Tiny Houses Won’t Solve Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

This week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote a piece arguing that the solution to homelessness in Seattle is simple: Build 1,000 “huts” in tiny house villages and move homeless people through them into permanent housing, then sweep the streets of all their human and physical detritus.

Five years ago, Westneat writes, he made this same proposal to “spread the huts across the city in camps located in all seven council districts. …In return, the city would begin enforcing the no-camping law and start cleaning up the garbage-strewn sites around freeways and greenbelts.”

The solution, he concludes, is just as clear today. “Five years in to this intractable emergency, I’d like to propose, again, that building a thousand tiny homes is still it.”

Here are some reasons that, contrary to Westneat’s tidy argument, building 1,000 tiny house villages is not, in fact, “it.”

First, Westneat’s argument rests on a single statistic: “Last year, 34% of the people who went into tiny houses eventually moved to permanent housing, versus 23% for enhanced shelters and only 6% for basic shelters.”

Citing the low rate of exits from basic shelter is like complaining that hand-washing stations don’t move people into housing. It’s completely beside the point.

Westneat doesn’t define permanent housing, so his readers might be left believing that this means people have this housing permanently. In reality, the term “permanent” is used by officials and advocates to distinguish housing meant to be occupied on a long-term basis from impermanent living situations like shelter, transitional housing, and tiny houses. All the apartments in Washington state from which people are at risk of being evicted once the COVID-19 eviction ban is lifted, for example, are “permanent housing.”

Moreover, he gets both the percentage of exits to permanent housing from basic shelter (actually 3 percent, not the 6 percent he cites) and, more importantly, the purpose of basic shelter, wrong. The point of basic shelter isn’t to move people into permanent housing. It’s to give people a place to stay on a nightly or emergency basis. Citing the low rate of exits from basic shelter is like complaining that hand-washing stations don’t transition people into housing. It’s completely beside the point.

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This omission almost has to be deliberate, because this fact is right next to the stats Westneat (inaccurately) cites: “The primary focus of basic shelter is not moving people from homelessness to housing because it lacks the necessary services and amenities to support stabilization.”

Westneat goes on, citing a 34 percent success rate for tiny house villages at moving people into permanent supportive housing, compared to 23 percent for enhanced shelter—which, unlike basic shelter, is aimed at getting people housed. But, again, he omits several extremely relevant details about this impressive-seeming stat—details that disprove his argument  that 1,000 tiny houses will solve (or even make a dent in) homelessness on their own.

All these facts, again, are in the report Westneat cites and links.

First, the total number of exits from tiny house villages is extremely small compared to other solutions—108 (duplicated) households moved on from 275 tiny houses in 2019, compared to 1,563 for enhanced shelter. That’s pretty important when you’re claiming that a single solution can meaningfully make a dent in an immense, region-wide crisis. 

None of this is a knock on tiny house villages, which are an important part of Seattle’s approach to addressing homelessness. It’s a knock on influential people like Westneat who use their massive platforms to make arguments that suggest there’s a simple solution to homelessness.

Second, people tend to stay in tiny house villages for an extremely long time—almost a year, on average—which is contrary to the city’s goal of making homelessness brief and one of the reasons the number of exits is so low. On average, people stayed in tiny house villages 317 days, compared to 75 for enhanced shelter. That’s more than three times longer than the minimum performance standard of 90 days for tiny house villages adopted by the city’s Human Services Department when it began performance-based contracting in 2017. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: No, Danny Westneat, Building 1,000 Tiny Houses Won’t Solve Homelessness”

Morning Fizz: Stranger Editor Nixed, Former County Dems Director 86’d

By Erica C. Barnett

Doing a retro Morning Fizz this morning to round up a few items I haven’t been able to get to.

1. Bailey Stober, the former head of the King County Democrats who lost his position in 2018 due to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and financial mismanagement, called police late one Friday night in July to report what he described as a 10-person bar brawl at the Cloud 9 tavern in Kent. According to reports from witnesses, the fight started when security asked Stober to take his feet off a bar stool and he refused. I documented Stober’s downfall as head of the county Democrats—a saga that included misogynistic text messages, thousands of dollars spent on office rent, booze, and boys’ club getaways, and accusations that one of his accusers was an unreliable drug addict—on the Crank.

Stober resigned from his $90,000-a-year job as communications director for the King County assessor in 2018, amid an investigation into whether his behavior as head of the Democrats disqualified him from the position. But he quickly landed on his feet, taking consulting jobs for local campaigns before getting a full-time position as communications director for Kent Mayor Dana Ralph.

Witnesses interviewed by police who arrived at the Cloud 9 around 2 in the morning on July 11 said that after refusing to take his feet off the bar stool or leave the bar when asked to do so, Stober “began yelling that he works for the City of Kent and that he works for Kent PD.” According to the police report, “As [Stober] was proclaiming his employment, he began waving around his City of Kent ID card.”

Stober later told an officer that he had only claimed to work for the mayor, not the police.

At that point, several witnesses told police, someone punched someone else in the face, and a confusing fight between security guards and several patrons who were with Stober ensued.

Stober, according to all accounts, left the bar and went outside to call 911 without getting mixed up in the fight himself. When officers arrived, he told one that “he believed he may have instigated a bar fight without intending to,” according to one officer’s account.

Another officer reported that “[b]efore I could ask any further questions, he stated ‘I already called the Mayor and the Chief.'” Later, the same officer reported, “Bailey was advised he was trespassed from Cloud Nine for life. Bailey said he understood and would not be coming back.

“Bailey appeared to be very intoxicated during this investigation,” the officer’s account continues. “Bailey mentioned he worked for the Mayor’s Office and made comments to myself and other officers’ that Cloud Nine’s liquor license would not be renewed.”

The Kent City Attorney declined to file charges against Stober and the case was closed in early August.

Contacted by email, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said her office “has reviewed Mr. Stober’s conduct from a personnel standpoint, taken proper disciplinary action, and documented it in his personnel file. We consider the matter resolved.” Ralph did not specify what disciplinary action she took against Stober, and Stober himself did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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2. A Seattle resident has filled a complaint with the city’s Office of Police Accountability against police chief Carmen Best for “using her official position to promote her private affairs.” The complaint centers on Best’s use of the police department’s website to complain about demonstrators who attempted to show up at her house in Snohomish, a small town about 30 miles north of Seattle.

“[T]he time she, and other employees spend on posting the article on the blog, is not a matter for the City of Seattle, and as a resident of Seattle, my tax dollars should not go to waste on this issue outside of the city,” the complaint says. “This is a serious matter, and a full investigation of what resources Carmen is directing to support her private residence needs to come to public attention.”

The complaint bounced around a bit, going to the city auditor’s office and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission before landing on OPA director Andrew Myerberg’s desk. Myerberg says OPA is doing intake on the complaint (along with thousands of others stemming from ongoing protests against police violence) now, a process that takes up to 30 days. Once that’s done, the office will determine whether Best violated any city policy and, “even if we close it as a contact log”—a designation that means OPA found no misconduct—”we’ll send some kind of explanation.”

3. Longtime Stranger editor Christopher Frizzelle is no longer employed by the publication. Last week, a majority of the Stranger’s editorial staffers reportedly told upper management it was him—or them. The decision didn’t come out of the blue; according to sources, editorial staffers have been dissatisfied with much of the online content, including daily video messages from people in the Seattle arts scene, and had issues with Frizzelle’s management style.

The paper has not published a print edition since early March, and has downsized dramatically since the onset of the pandemic, laying off all of its print production staff and many editorial staffers. 

Street Newspapers Are Struggling To Survive Societal Shutdown

Real Change vendor Shelly Cohen.

The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post.

One week ago, before Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued a “stay at home” order shutting down all but the most “essential” businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the office of Real Change, a street newspaper sold by homeless and low-income people in Seattle, was still bustling.

As one vendor collected papers from a staffer at the walk-up counter, another slipped a copy of the latest edition ― cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down” ― into its clear plastic display case, upside down. “Because the world is upside down!” said vendor Shelly Cohen.

Nearby, a staffer handed a bowl of chili to a vendor who had just stopped by to take a load off.

But once the stay-at-home order came on March 23, the vendors were left with nothing to do ― and, for many of them, no way to make money.

The weekly paper’s founder, Tim Harris, said the staff had already decided to stop publishing a print edition earlier this month, but had still been letting vendors buy papers to sell on the streets up until the stay-at-home order.

Harris founded the Boston street paper Spare Change News before moving to Seattle and starting Real Change in 1994. This is the first time in the paper’s 26-year history that it’s skipped a scheduled publication date.

A similar story is playing out in cities across the country, where street papers ― newspapers that report on poverty and homelessness, and are sold on the street by low-income or homeless vendors ― are disappearing, as vendors fold their chairs, abandon their perches outside grocery stores and downtown businesses, and vanish.

“Currently, I believe that 100% [of street papers] have either stopped publication or are transitioning into halting their physical” press runs, said Israel Bayer, director of the International Network of Street Papers North America, a bureau of the International Network of Street Papers.

Some, like Real Change, have shifted to online-only publication, but about three-quarters of street newspapers have never had an online edition, and are facing a choice between ceasing publication or adapting quickly. “We usually feature a few of the stories online, but we don’t have a PDF version of our paper, so [publishing online] will be a little bit different,” said Jennifer Seybold, executive director of the monthly Denver Voice.

Brian Carome, CEO of the Street Sense newspaper in Washington, D.C., said he was “adamantly against” the idea of shutting down publication when it came up earlier this month, “because for most of the 130 men and women who sell our newspaper, it’s their only source of income.” Gradually, he said, “we came to the conclusion that, given what’s happening in other cities, that the person-to-person selling of the newspaper was a public health concern ― both for our vendors, many of whom have underlying conditions, and for the public.” This will be the first time in 17 years that the twice-monthly paper has not been published on schedule.

Read the whole story at Huffington Post.