1. As the federal government and state police prepare for possible civil unrest on Election Night, the city of Seattle says it does not plan to physically open its Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates emergency response during crisis situations and extreme weather and public health events.
However, the Seattle Police Department has restricted time off for officers who may be deployed to respond to demonstrations during the week following the election, and the city has sent information to businesses in neighborhoods where protests are common, such as Capitol Hill, about “how to prepare and secure their employees and customers as well as their property to mitigate the impact of broken windows and graffiti, should that occur,” according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.
As of November 1, 72 percent of ballots sent to registered voters in King County (and nearly 75 percent in Seattle) had been returned. Although Washington state votes by mail, the county has opened seven voting centers where people can vote in person until 8pm on election day, including two in Seattle.
Durkan’s spokeswoman said SPD “does not have any intelligence to indicate that there will be large-scale demonstrations on Election Night or the days following. Our partners at King County Elections have not reported any threats or security issues at any ballot boxes. As such, the SPD and Seattle Fire Department’s planning is for contingency purposes only, and does not indicate that there will be demonstrations or unrest.”
City council member Tammy Morales formerly introduced her proposed alternative to Durkan’s proposed replacement for the Navigation Team, called the HOPE Team, last week. The five-member team would be a scaled-back, service-focused version of the Outreach and Engagement Team proposed by Durkan and council member Andrew Lewis last month—a team that would itself be a kind of scaled-back Navigation Team, one that would put the members of the recently disbanded Navigation Team to work in new roles “coordinating” the work of the city’s contracted outreach providers.
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During the council budget hearing on Friday, Lewis suggested that the differences between his plan and Morales’ were minor, but said he wouldn’t co-sponsor her proposal “because of my involvement in a parallel process.” Last week, Morales told PubliCola she believes the language in Lewis’ proposal is still “vague” enough to allow members of the larger team to do direct outreach. “I think we need to leave that work to the service providers—to the folks that are out there every day and understand the importance of developing relationships,” Morales said.
The HOPE team would include a team manager, a liaison to coordinate with other departments like Seattle Public Utilities, which manages the “purple bag” encampment trash pickup program, one data analyst (read more about why one data person may not be enough for a team dedicated to coordinating outreach and shelter referrals here), and two “provider and neighborhood liaisons” who would work with King County Public Health and providers to “provide reasonable notification of a[n encampment] removal and time to plan and implement the relocation.”Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution”→
1. Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral public safety advisor whose report on “prolific offenders” featured prominently in the viral “Seattle Is Dying” video, published a broadside against city council member Lisa Herbold yesterday on the website of a new political nonprofit called Change Washington. In the piece, Lindsay accuses Herbold of sneaking legislation into the 2021 budget that would “create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes” and “negat[ing] the majority of Seattle’s criminal code.”
Change Washington was incorporated at the end of 2019. Its principals are former state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Democrat from Medina who caucused (and voted) with Republicans; Sally Poliak, a “centrist Republican” political consultant in Seattle; Steve Gordon, a Republican donor from Pacific, WA who runs the anti-tax group “Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State“; and former Zillow executive Greg Schwartz, who left the company last year vowing to focus his energy on “Seattle’s chaotic streets and government.”
In his post, Lindsay refers to himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool blue Democrat.”
Lindsay’s claims about legalizing crime come from an extremely broad reading of a draft bill crafted with input from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and posted on the website of the King County Department of Public Defense. Lindsay appears unaware that these groups participated in the drafting of the bill, and even claims that they have never expressed any support for its basic concepts. And despite Lindsay’s claim that Herbold is using an elaborate “backdoor” strategy to “[keep] the proposed legislation almost entirely hidden from the public,” Herbold has not actually proposed any legislation. Council staffers are still working on a draft, one of many bills the council will propose as part of the budget process.
Nor would the bill Lindsay incorrectly identifies as Herbold’s actually legalize crime. Instead, the county public defenders’ draft proposes several new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder. Among other (welcome) changes, the bill would prevent prosecutors from throwing a person with untreated mental illness in jail because he broke a store window during a psychotic episode, or pressing charges against a hungry person because he stole food. It would not create a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who commits a crime and then claims to have—as Lindsay glibly puts it—”depression, anxiety, etc.”
Herbold says it’s high time the city reconsider its approach to offenses that result from poverty and lack of access to health care and housing. “As we’ve seen in the massive national and international protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it is past time that we reexamine our systems which often perpetuate homelessness and economic instability,” she says. “The City currently spends approximately $20 million a year on incarceration, which is known to significantly increase the risk of housing instability and homelessness.” The council will discuss the proposal at its budget meeting Wednesday.
Lindsay’s arguments will almost certainly find purchase in right-wing talk radio and on TV chat shows whose ratings depend on keeping audiences in a perpetual state of fear. There will always be a large contingent of people, even in liberal Seattle, who don’t believe that crimes that result from poverty or untreated mental illness really exist. To these people, Lindsay’s assertion that defendants would only have to “claim drug or alcohol addiction” or fake a mental illness to evade justice will make sense. It’s easier to believe in a world where shady defense attorneys argue, as Lindsay predicts they will, that “drugs are a ‘basic need” for someone with a substance use disorder” to than to consider the possibility that throwing people in jail for being addicted, mentally ill, or poor doesn’t actually work.
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2. After the city council passed legislation establishing a new “outreach and engagement team” to coordinate the city’s response to unauthorized encampments, you might think Mayor Jenny Durkan would be thrilled. After all, the team keeps most members of the Navigation Team on the city payroll, while leaving the question of what, exactly, the team will do.
Vanessa Caver learned of her brother’s killing several days after Seattle police officers shot Terry J. Caver near an intersection in Lower Queen Anne on May 19th. Her daughter called her unexpectedly to pass along the news. A few more days passed before she got a call from a Seattle Police Department sergeant who wanted to ask if she wanted to talk about her brother’s death. “I didn’t know what to talk about,” she explained when we spoke this week. “And the sergeant couldn’t tell me anything.”
Local news outlets covered the shooting only briefly on May 19. A day later, a post on the SPD Blotter identified Christopher Gregorio and Matthew Milburn as the officers who had fired at Caver and said that the department’s Force Investigation Team was looking into the incident. As is standard after most shootings by SPD officers, the department did not release the name of the victim. The C is for Crank first learned Caver’s name from the King County Medical Examiner’s office on Tuesday, nearly three months after his death.
According to the 911 calls and bodycam footage shared in SPD’s blog post, at least five officers arrived at the intersection of West Harrison Street and Elliott Avenue West in response to a series of 911 calls describing a man waving a knife at passersby. By the time the police arrived, there were no longer any pedestrians near Caver, who was still standing on the sidewalk. The officers stepped out of their cars and shouted at him to drop to the ground. At that point, he started to walk south on Elliott.
“I don’t understand why they had to kill him. I guess in their mind, he was a nobody.”—Vanessa Caver, Terry Caver’s sister
As the officers started to chase him, Caver broke into a run, shouting “you’re going to have to kill me.” He dropped a piece of clothing, revealing what appeared to be a kitchen knife. The officers fired a Taser at Caver, but they claim it did not have any effect. Caver suddenly stopped and turned to face the officers (or, if the Taser did have an effect, turned as his knees buckled), and Gregorio and Milburn shot him several times. Caver crumpled onto the sidewalk, and medics from the Seattle Fire Department pronounced him dead when they arrived. Based on the bodycam footage, the entire encounter lasted less than a minute. Terry Caver was 57 years old when he died. Like more than a third of all those shot by Seattle police in the past decade, Caver was Black.
When Vanessa heard that her brother had been carrying a knife and acting erratically, she knew what had happened.
Terry Joel Caver was born in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963. He was one of three siblings: Vanessa is his older sister, and his other sister died years ago from health problems. His mother was only briefly married to Caver’s father, and before he turned ten, she moved with her children to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.
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By his sister’s account, Caver was lovable and bright. “Even if he hadn’t been my biological brother, he would have been my best friend,” she says. And even as a child, Caver was apparently generous to a fault. “He would do anything for anybody, anytime,” his sister recalls.
As he neared his early twenties, Caver began to rack up felony charges, mostly for burglaries in northern LA County. According to his cousin, Gwendolyn Taylor, Caver bounced in and out of jail for years, never quite finding his footing before he landed in court again. That cycle consumed most of his young adulthood.
Once he moved to Washington to be near his sister, Terry Caver’s mental health struggles overwhelmed him. His sister says he constantly feared that someone was following him “to finish him off,” prompting him to almost always carry a knife to protect himself.
Caver’s trajectory took a turn for the worse after he was released from a stint in prison in 2010 and returned to his home in the San Fernando Valley. There, a drive-by shooting left Caver temporarily in a wheelchair after he survived nine gunshot wounds. His sister, who lives in Everett, brought him to Washington to stay with her while he underwent further treatment at Harborview Medical Center; his sister says he left with a plate in his ankle to help him walk again.
According to Vanessa Caver, the shooting in California was the breaking point for her brother. In its aftermath, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She believes the shooting triggered the onset of his mental illness. Taylor shares that belief, and she thinks that his brief detention as a witness to the shooting only exacerbated the trauma. A doctor prescribed Caver a medication to help manage his schizophrenic episodes; it’s unclear whether he was taking his medication at the time of his killing.
Once he moved to Washington to be near his sister, Terry Caver’s mental health struggles overwhelmed him. His sister says he constantly feared that someone was following him “to finish him off,” prompting him to often carry a knife to protect himself. Though he often stayed in her apartment, she says he didn’t always feel safe there, either. “He would think there was someone else in the house,” she says. As a result, he periodically found himself homeless.
Court records show that he was charged with a few minor assaults in Seattle and Everett, which his sister believes stemmed from other mental health episodes. He was also arrested for non-violent incidents. His cousin recalls him being arrested in Las Vegas after breaking into an empty apartment and refusing to leave; another record from the Washington Court of Appeals describes an incident in 2016 in which Caver was arrested for possession of methamphetamine after he called 911 to ask to be taken to a mental health treatment facility.
In the latter case, court documents show that Caver was carrying a pocket knife, but after talking to police, he placed it on the ground. In the initial trial, the arresting officer justified placing Caver in the Snohomish County Jail during a mental health crisis by explaining that “the jail [had] available mental health professionals and separate housing for inmates with mental health issues.” For his part, Caver requested that he be allowed to wear his jail clothes to the trial. “It represent[s] what’s really going on in my life,” he explained to the judge. “I don’t want these people thinking that I’m on the streets when I’m not on the streets.” The court denied his request, claiming that “it causes much mischief if the defendant is clothed in regular jail garb.”
His cousin, Taylor, says that no matter his mental state, Caver always gave her a call as soon as he was released from jail. “He somehow always knew my number,” she says. “He would lose his phone, his phone would break, but he always remembered it.”
As Vanessa Caver made clear, her brother’s life in Washington was not wholly defined by his mental illness. Her fondest memories are of his most enduring quality: his generosity. When he first arrived in Everett in the early spring of 2010, Vanessa remembers buying her brother a leather coat to help withstand the cold. Only a few hours later, her brother returned coat-less, having given the gift to a man at a bus station. “I had a sweater and a hoodie,” he explained to his sister. “The other guy looked cold.” His sister says he was also a regular volunteer at a local soup kitchen; she’s sure he had become well-acquainted with some police officers in the process. “He said they told him he was doing a good job,” she remembers.
Terry Caver also made some attempts to get on his feet while in the Northwest. After returning from Las Vegas, he moved into a substance abuse recovery house, only to return to his sister’s apartment after realizing his roommates had taken his clothing and shoes. Later, she remembers him receiving a voucher for affordable housing. “He went down to Seattle to look for a place to live,” she said, “because he wanted to continue helping the homeless.”
While in Washington, Caver also converted to Islam and became a steadfast attendee at a local mosque. His sister doesn’t know the name of the congregation, but she admired his piety. “He tried to convert me,” she said with a chuckle, “but every time we would just start talking about the Lord. He loved the Lord.”
But Caver was still regularly overwhelmed by paranoia and fear caused by his mental condition. His sister can only imagine how afraid he was when he was reported waving a knife at pedestrians in Lower Queen Anne just before he was killed. “I’m sure he thought they were going to try to finish him off,” she says.
She thinks his mental crisis was made worse when police arrived on the scene. “If there had been one or two officers, they could have talked to him. He always listened. If they had talked to him, got him to sit down in the patrol car, he would have felt safer. But there were too many officers, so he was scared,” she explained.
She hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch the video of the shooting, but she is sure that her brother didn’t have to die. “If they had to stop him, they could have just shot him in the foot, taken him to the hospital and then taken him to jail,” she says. “I don’t understand why they had to kill him. I guess in their mind, he was a nobody.” Over the phone, she drew a comparison between her brother’s death and that of Charleena Lyles, the 30-year-old Black woman killed by Seattle Police officers in Magnuson Park in 2017 in front of her children (Lyles was also pregnant at the time). “They knew [both Lyles and Caver] were having mental health crises. They just needed to slow down and talk,” she said.
The current SPD policy manual does not provide specific instructions for responding to people with knives. The manual does instruct officers to de-escalate when “safe and feasible,” and the manual’s guidelines for de-escalation recommend that officers consider “whether any lack of compliance is a deliberate attempt to resist rather than an inability to comply based on factors including… behavioral crisis” and that they make an effort to slow down interactions and maintain a safe distance from suspects. In Caver’s case, the officers surrounded him on three sides (by the time officers fired, his only route of escape was into a dead-end parking lot) and repeatedly shouted at him to drop to the ground.
Both because of pandemic-related public health recommendations and because her brother was uninsured, Vanessa Caver and her family weren’t able to hold a proper funeral for her brother. His cousin paid for his body to be cremated and delivered to her apartment in an urn. “I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that urn was in the other room,” she says. The next day, her daughter arrived to drive Vanessa – and the urn – to her home in southwest Washington, where the family had a memorial dinner.
Vanessa Caver says her daughter has been in contact with a lawyer to discuss the case. For now, though, she is still trying to wrap her head around her loss. “I don’t have any siblings left,” she says.
According to Andrew Myerberg, the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the police department’s Force Investigation Team will present their findings about the shooting to the Force Review Board—an eight-member panel that includes both Myerberg and the city’s Inspector General as non-voting members —sometime soon. Myerberg says that his office did not receive or file any complaint that would trigger an OPA investigation.
Last year, when King County’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless population indicated a slight dip in the number of people counted in the shelters and on the streets, Mayor Jenny Durkan celebrated the news, crediting the city’s work adding shelter and expanding the Navigation Team, among other actions, for the apparent 5 percent decline in unsheltered homelessness. Three-quarters of that decline was attributed in the report itself to the redefinition of “shelter” to include tiny house village encampments, which moved a number of people from the “unsheltered” to the “sheltered” column even though their living situation stayed the same.
This year’s one-night count showed a slight increase in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness throughout King County, with the biggest increases in Seattle and Southwest King County. The new total estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness represents a five percent increase over last year. A separate survey, which had fewer participants than in previous years, provided demographic data and information about why people became homeless, information that the county’s “Count Us In” report extrapolates across the entire homeless population.
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Now for the caveats. Every point-in-time count is just that—a count of how many people volunteers were able to identify on a specific night in January, a time when the number of people seeking shelter is higher and when the number sleeping outdoors fluctuates widely based on the weather. The night of the count, January 24, was extraordinarily rainy, with 1.14 inches of rain compared to no rain the previous year. Probably as a consequence, the number of people found living in abandoned buildings increased dramatically, from 140 to 662; the report notes that “The combined totals (of abandoned building count and street/outside count) are notably similar across the years.
Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.
The number of people counted also depends, in part, on the number of people walking and driving around the county and counting them. This year, about half as many volunteers showed up for the count as did in 2019, and about 25 fewer guides with lived experience of homelessness. The report attributes this decline to the weather and a shooting downtown that occurred less than two days before the count.
Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.
Another factor that makes the January count an incomplete guide to current homeless numbers is the fact that it took place before the COVID-19 crisis, which created unprecedented unemployment throughout the region. Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) shows a steady increase in the number of people seeking homeless services through the end of March, when 13,238 households (which can include multiple people) sought services, a 29 percent increase over January. Losing a job is the most common reason survey respondents gave for becoming homeless (16 percent); another 8 percent said they became homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent.
“Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.” — Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club
The county could not offer HMIS data after March, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially—especially after moratoriums expire. Leo Flor, the director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said Wednesday that “rent-burdened” households—renters who struggle to pay rent from month to month—will be hit especially hard by both the economic downturn and the eventual termination of financial assistance that is currently helping them make ends meet.
“If that assistance were to cease” in the absence of replacement income, “we would see a lot of additional people moving from rent-burdened to homelessness.” In other words: If people who are living on cash or rent assistance (or not paying rent at all during the eviction moratorium) don’t find jobs by the time that income runs out, we’re going to see a lot more homeless people on our streets. This is supported by the fact that “losing a job” was the most common reason people reported becoming homeless, followed by alcohol or drug issues, mental health problems, and an inability to afford rent.
People sleeping outdoors or otherwise unsheltered increased in every part of King County except North and Southeast King County, with the largest percentage increases in Northeast King County (69 percent) and East King County (32 percent), followed by Seattle at 5 percent.
People who identified as Black made up 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the latest count, which uses numbers from a separate survey—this year, of 832 homeless adults and youth) to extrapolate demographic data across the entire homeless population. (The people conducting the one-night count do not approach people or note their apparent genders or races.) That’s a decline from last year’s number, 32 percent, but still extremely disproportionate in a county where Black people make up just 7 percent of the population.
The proportion of Native American/Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, spiked from 10 to 15 percent of the people surveyed, and 32 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness, a prevalence that’s 15 times higher than the number of Native people in the county. Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, attributed the increase to better data collection this year, including the fact that Native service providers have been increasingly involved in data collection. (Prior to last year, no Native organizations were involved in collecting data.)
“Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.” — King County DCHS Director Leo Flor
“Because of our efforts to collect more accurate data related to American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing homelessness, we believe we are getting closer to truly understanding the scope of the work ahead,” Echohawk said in a statement. “Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.”
King County’s survey also include a multi-race category, which dilutes the racial data.
This year’s report also shows dramatic increases in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness (from 2,451 to 3,743) and in the percentage of those individuals who were unsheltered (from 3 to 29 percent), along with an increase in the number of homeless individuals (70 percent of them women) fleeing domestic violence. The report attributes these upticks, in part, to better data collection. But the number of women experiencing homelessness, both in general (41 percent) and in subcategories like youth (47 percent) and people living in vehicles (56 percent) suggests that the face of homelessness is increasingly female—a fact that doesn’t fit with the most common stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why. The report didn’t ask women and men separately why they became homeless, an oversight that makes it hard to extrapolate why women become homeless from this report.
The number of people who are chronically homeless (a group that is much more likely to be unsheltered than people who have been homeless for shorter periods) increased more than 52 percent this year, to 3,355, and the rate of reported psychiatric disorders also spiked sharply. (The term “chronically homeless” refers to a person who has been homeless for more than a year, or for more than four times in the last three years, and who suffers from a chronic physical or mental health condition, including serious mental illness or addiction or a physical disability.)
Flor, the DCHS director, noted Wednesday that the two trends are closely related. As the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness increases, he said, “we would expect that the number of psychiatric conditions would increase as well. Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.”
In her statement about this year’s results, Mayor Durkan emphasized the county’s move to a regional approach to homelessness rather than one centered on City of Seattle resources. “While many individuals[‘] last stable home was not in the City of Seattle, our city continues to serve the most vulnerable in our region,” Durkan said. “Our regional homelessness investments must include an immediate and direct response to any crisis of housing stability, connecting people with the services they need, in their community wherever they are across the county.”
After the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015 (a year that, like previous years and all the ones since, ended with more people experiencing homelessness than ever), cities, counties, and service providers should be adopted the mantra that homelessness should be “brief, one-time, and rare.” This year, not only did the rate of chronic, long-terms homelessness increase, so did the percentage of survey respondents who said they had been homeless for one year or more.
Seattle has tried focusing on “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers, pivoting to heavy investments in emergency shelter, and now joining forces with the county and suburban cities to try to agree on a single regional solution to homelessness. Perhaps next year’s count will begin to reveal whether this latest shift will actually yield results.
1. The Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which in normal times is a program that keeps low-level offenders out of jail by providing case management and connections to services, has pivoted during the COVID epidemic to focus on people who are being let out of King County jails to prevent overcrowding and who have few social supports or legal sources of income. The Co-LEAD Program, PDA director Lisa Daugaard says, is “starting with people who were released in the wave of jail releases and are not doing very well, which is, of course, totally predictable.” The program is also accepting referrals from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement—”people who in normal days might be subject to arrest but that is completely off the table,” Daugaard said.
With job opportunities virtually nonexistent (and work release shut down for the foreseeable future), Daugaard says property crime has risen in some areas. “For a lot of people without any means of support, what’s the option?” she says. “There’s got to be some strategy for people to take care of their basic needs when there is no way to earn money. That is the bottom line for a lot of folks.”
The Co-LEAD program, which launched this week in Burien, is providing former jail inmates with access to hotel rooms, gift cards, and crisis intervention. So far, the PDA has reserved about 25 rooms in hotels along the I-5 corridor and “we plan on scaling that up rapidly.”
If you’re wondering where LEAD is getting the money to do all this—wasn’t the mayor still withholding their 2020 funding and refusing to sign a contract until LEAD met a long list of conditions?—the answer is that the city finally signed the contract and released LEAD’s full 2020 funding in late March, after the COVID epidemic hit. “We finally executed the contract for the total amount of funding and immediately the world is different,” Daugaard says.
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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.
2. King County is opening hundreds of hotel rooms and field hospital beds for shelter residents and for those in isolation or quarantine who have (or may have) COVID-19 and have no safe place to isolate or recover. One question that has come up both tacitly and explicitly, in Seattle and in other cities with large homeless populations, is what happens when someone needs crisis intervention or help managing their active addiction.
Both Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan and San Francisco Mayor London Breed have suggested that it would be prohibitively expensive, for example, for cities to rent out large blocks of hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, because they would have to be heavily staffed by care workers—workers who would need to be trained, it is implied, to intervene at a moment’s notice when homeless clients act out, attempt to destroy hotel property, or try to leave.
“It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”—King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division director Kelli Nomura
Kelli Nomura, the director of King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, says the county has not had to ask anyone to leave any of its quarantine, isolation, and recovery centers, which, as of Sunday, will include a 140-bed field hospital in Shoreline. The county is connecting people to their existing providers when they have them, and providing behavioral health and addiction management services through its King County Integrated Care Network if they don’t.
“Everyone who’s going into these facilities is needing some level of behavioral health support,” including people who aren’t homeless, Nomura says. “It’s a scary, isolating, confusing, lengthy process, so everybody who we’ve put in these rooms has needed behavioral health care at one time or another. On day 7, after you’ve been in a hotel for that long, just human contact is important.”
Nomura says there have been instances when someone with a severe, persistent mental health disorder has had an acute episode, or when people who are actively using drugs or drinking have needed immediate help managing withdrawal symptoms. When that happens, she says, behavioral health staff either connect them by phone with their existing provider or “just step in and do that crisis intervention ourselves. … We have been deescalating, doing motivational interviewing, and you might have to go into on site” to go into a person’s room and intervene, she says.
The county is reserving beds at its isolation and quarantine site on Aurora Ave. N, which includes 23 units in modular buildings, for people who need daily methadone dosing, Nomura says, but opiate users who take Suboxone (buprenorphine) to manage their addictions can fill their prescriptions or get a new one at the other sites.
As of tomorrow, the county will have opened just over 400 units in isolation, quarantine, and recovery sites, including the 140 beds opening in Shoreline on Sunday. Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton says additional sites at Eastgate in Bellevue and in White Center will be ready later this month; an additional site in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, which was initially planned as an isolation and quarantine location, may instead be used as an expansion site for the city’s still-overcrowded shelters.
That was the message during a press conference on new state and local orders to contain the COVID-19 epidemic this morning, when Governor Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that all large group events are effectively canceled. Inslee’s order bans all gatherings of more than 250 people, including family gatherings, in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties; the county’s order, which was signed by King County Public Health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin, bans gatherings smaller than 250 people unless the organizer can guarantee that they are following every CDC recommendation to contain the spread of the virus. Later in the day, Seattle Public Schools announced it was closing schools starting tomorrow, and the Seattle Public Library board was meeting to discuss potential closures.
Meanwhile, King County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor told me that a motel in Kent purchased by the county to house patients who can’t be quarantined at home (including both people without homes to go to as well as those who share their homes with vulnerable people) just accepted its first patient, a King County residents. The county, he said, is still working out plans to redistribute people currently living in close quarters in shelters, both by locating large indoor spaces like the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, where the Downtown Emergency Service Center shelter moved some residents on Monday, and by distributing motel vouchers to people who are not infected but are especially vulnerable to the virus.
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So what do you need to know? Here are the basics, along with a few more specific details about planning for people experiencing homelessness, who are highly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus because of preexisting health conditions, substandard living environments, and lack of access to quality health care.
• Gatherings of 250 or more people will be prohibited until at least the end of March in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, an order that Gov. Inslee said would likely be extended and expanded to include more parts of the state.
The goal here is to slow, not prevent, the spread of the illness so that hospitals aren’t slammed with thousands of new cases all at once. “We do not want to see an avalanche of people coming into our hospitals with limited capacity,” Inslee said.
“We recognize that isolation and quarantine are going to be difficult settings for the people in them to be in, and the ability to provide behavioral health on site or by telephone to anybody who’s in one of those facilities is one of our top priorities.” — Leo Flor, King County
Inslee emphasized that the law is “legally binding on all Washingtonians,” but said he did not anticipate having to use state police or the National Guard to enforce it. “The penalties are, you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it,” Inslee said.
• Gatherings of fewer than 250 people are also prohibited in King County, unless the organizers abide by guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control to prevent spread of the virus, including social distancing (the CDC recommends six feet), employee health checks, access to soap and water, and other sanitation measures. “Temporarily banning social and recreational gatherings that bring people together will help to ensure that a health crisis does not become a humanitarian disaster,” Constantine said. “Below 250, we thought people, business owners, could take measures to keep people apart,” Inslee says. However, “We do not want to see people shoulder to shoulder in bars from now on. That is just totally unacceptable.”
A state senate bill aimed at taking people with severe behavioral health issues off the street and putting them into involuntary treatment is off the table for this year, but its sponsor, Tacoma Republican Steve O’Ban (R-28) says he plans to resurrect it next session, because the problem of untreated mental illness and addiction isn’t going away.
“The reason for this bill is really the parents who have these kids … who devolve into a worse and worse condition and by the nature of their condition, they don’t think they need care,” O’Ban says. Under current law, people can only be detained and put under guardianship if a court determines that they’re incapacitated by a “mental disorder” and pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
O’Ban’s proposal would allow judges in three counties—King, Pierce, and Snohomish—to appoint executors for people who have been involuntarily held for psychiatric evaluation five or more times in a 12-month period under the state Involuntary Treatment Act. That law allows people to be held in psychiatric hospitals (or emergency rooms if no psychiatric beds are available) for up to 180 days if a judge determines that they are incapacitated by mental illness. The proposed new involuntary guardianship, or “executorship,” would last one year unless the executor filed for an extension.
The program is modeled on a similar set of bills that passed in California in 2018 and 2019, which authorized three counties—San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—to create a new “conservatorship” program for people with both severe mental illness and addiction. California state senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who sponsored both bills, says his legislation is intended to address “a very small percentage of homeless people … who are severely debilitated and not capable of accepting voluntary services.”
“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services.” – State Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28)
Wiener says the new California laws create a “very narrow conservatorship to reach this small population so that we can save their lives. It is incredibly inhumane, and certainly not progressive, to allow people to die on the streets.” He estimates that the legislation would apply to as many as 100 people in San Francisco, but advocates who opposed the bill say the number is probably much smaller.
O’Ban’s bill, in contrast, would initially be limited to 10 people in each county. Patients placed under executorship would cede most of their legal rights to a “court appointed resource officer,” or CARE officer, including the right to refuse treatment or choose their own medical providers, the right to decide where to live, and the right “to make decisions regarding social aspects of life,” according to a staff analysis of the legislation.
“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services,” O’Ban says.
At a hearing on the bill earlier this month, parents whose kids had died on the streets due to lack of housing and treatment testified that if the law had been in place when they were trying to get help for their children, they might still be alive today. Jerri Clark, the founder of Mothers of the Mentally Ill, told the committee that her son, who died last year at the age of 23, “cycled through hospitals that kept him just long enough that he wasn’t dangerous anymore” before releasing him.
“If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars.” – Jen Flory, Western Center on Law and Poverty
But critics of the legislation, including advocates for people with disabilities and people who have struggled with mental illness themselves, say that taking away people’s civil rights is inhumane and doesn’t solve the underlying issues: An acute lack of funding for treatment, housing, and intensive case management.
“We do have concerns that adding another layer of legal process to compel people into care, rather than adding new treatment or housing resources, will mainly restrict civil liberties while not actually getting to the desired outcomes,” the Department of Community and Health Services said in a statement about the bill. “Instead of adding another layer of court involvement, we think a middle of the road approach – focusing on expanding flexible, community-based intensive services and added supportive housing resources – will more effectively meet the needs of this population.”
Laura Van Tosh, a behavioral health care advocate who testified against the bill, says the fact that people are involuntarily committed again and again “points to a problem that has nothing to do with people’s mental health. How can people be committed that many times in one year and nobody has ever talked about why the system didn’t work well enough the first time?” She says the current involuntary commitment system “is like going to a restaurant and getting E. coli over and over again, and never figuring out that you should go to a different restaurant.”
California’s conservatorship law requires treatment and housing to be available before people can be placed under conservatorship, although opponents say cities may meet this requirement by simply putting people in the new program at the front of the line for scarce treatment and services. “San Francisco will not conserve people unless they have somewhere to place them,” Wiener says. “In San Francisco, we’re expanding our mental health bed capacity and our shelter bed capacity, we’re building more supportive housing, but it’s definitely a challenge.”
Similarly, O’Ban’s bill says that a county could only implement the program if there are sufficient resources, including mental health treatment and housing, to serve potential clients. The loopholes will likely be the same, if a version of O’Ban’s bill passes in the future, as those in places like San Francisco. There are always beds in Seattle for some people—the question is who gets priority.
Jen Flory, a policy analyst at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, says that by putting people in involuntary treatment and stripping them of their rights, “we’re kind of skipping from A to Z. If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars being brought to psych emergency [wards]. And at the end of this journey, they’re like, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong with you and we need to force this care on you.’”
David Lord, the public policy director for Disability Rights Washington, says that before the state authorizes counties to appoint guardians for people struggling with mental illness and addiction, they should actually fund the services O’Ban’s bill enumerates, which include supportive community housing, outpatient counseling and treatment, peer support services, and substance use treatment.
“If you provide services, make them available, and do it in a way that is attractive to people, they’re much more likely to accept those services than if you try to force them,” Lord says.
Neither California’s law, nor O’Ban’s proposal, specifically focuses on people experiencing homelessness. But the subtext of both bills is that they will help put people exhibiting visible symptoms of severe mental illness and addiction—shouting, acting out, and behaving in ways that make other people uncomfortable—out of sight.
In our conversation, O’Ban referred to the 100 “prolific offenders” identified in a report by former Seattle City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay as a group that might be eligible for executorships under his proposal. And he acknowledged that while his bill is “not exclusively for those who are homeless, I think many of the people who are eligible would be” homeless.
“I can tell you that there are familiar faces, frequent flyers, people who are well-known to the law enforcement community and in emergency rooms,” O’Ban says. “If you start focusing on that population, by identifying the top 100 who are heavily utilizing all those …. you would save the system literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” And “clean up” downtown streets in the process.