Category: neighborhoods

Outdoor Seating Is Here to Stay, City Extends Hiring Deadline for Police Accountability Director, “Seattle Nice” Debates “Operation New Day”

Councilmember Dan Strauss, at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard
Councilmember Dan Strauss, at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard

1. Back in 2013, when the city opened its first “parklet” in two former parking spaces on Capitol Hill, opponents (like this guy, who called the city “vehemently, virulently anti-car”) claimed that repurposing parking spaces for non-car uses would lead to all kinds of calamities, including lost parking revenue, traffic congestion, and the collapse of business districts—after all, why would anyone go to a business if they couldn’t park out front?

Parklets eventually caught on, and none of the dire consequences opponents predicted came to pass—in fact, the outdoor seating made business districts more appealing by bringing people into areas that used to be choked by cars. During the pandemic, the city decided to expand the program (allowing larger, more permanent structures) and make it free, providing safe, semi-permanent spaces for restaurants and bars to operate and helping businesses that might otherwise have closed.

Sitting under one of these temporary outdoor structures outside the La Carta de Oaxaca restaurant in Ballard Tuesday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell signed legislation sponsored by District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss to extend the program until January 31, 2023, with a goal of making it permanent. Eventually, Strauss said, the city will start charging for the permits and impose design standards for street dining structures, but that it won’t be “the same amount as [revenue from] five parking spots”—the pre–pandemic cost. “We don’t want to rush and jump to conclusions about how much a permit should cost or what the design standards should do,” Strauss said.

In a sign of how much things have changed since the parklet program started, only one reporter asked how making the program permanent would impact “parking and traffic congestion,” and Strauss responded with a hand wave. Gesturing to cars parked across the street, Strauss said, “As you see, we are having both the ability to have people eating outside and to park their cars. There’s many parking stalls here. What we also see here in Ballard is with increased density, we have more people living close to [businesses]”—people who don’t need to drive.

2. Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability won’t have a new permanent director until this summer at the soonest, giving the mayor’s office and city council time to launch a national candidate search for the high-profile role. Former OPA Director Andrew Myerberg left the office in January to join Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office as the new Director of Public Safety; Dr. Gráinne Perkins, an adjunct professor of criminology at Seattle University and a former detective in the Irish Police Service, currently runs the OPA as interim director.

During a city council public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, committee chair Lisa Herbold said the council will waive the standard 90-day deadline for the mayor to appoint a replacement for a departing OPA director; ordinarily, if the mayor misses the 90-day deadline, the public safety committee is responsible for appointing a new director. Instead, Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell said her office will hire a recruiting firm that specializes in police oversight positions, with a goal of identifying six candidates and starting to interview them by May 27.

Deputy Mayor Harrell added that the next OPA director will need to be a “special unicorn” who can navigate increased public scrutiny of police oversight agencies. During Myerberg’s four years at the OPA, police accountability advocates criticized his  cautious approach to investigating police misconduct—particularly allegations of excessive force, which Myerberg argued were rarely black-and-white enough to justify firing an officer. Myerberg said he was wary of recommending discipline that officers could get overturned on appeal; his wariness may be one reason for the overall decline in the number of disciplinary appeals filed by Seattle police officers over the past five years.

Harrell added that her office will also form a committee, which will include members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, to review the OPA director’s job description. In the past year, the CPC has increasingly challenged the OPA for what it views as inadequate disciplinary recommendations in high-profile misconduct cases.

3. This week on the Seattle Nice podcast, Erica and political consultant Sandeep Kaushik debate the merits of Mayor Harrell’s “Operation New Day” effort to crack down on crime in downtown Seattle. Continue reading “Outdoor Seating Is Here to Stay, City Extends Hiring Deadline for Police Accountability Director, “Seattle Nice” Debates “Operation New Day””

For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains

Plans show a deep Westlake Station, similar to the new U District Station pictured here.

By Lizz Giordano

The massive draft environmental impact statement  (DEIS) for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail extension landed on Sound Transit’s website in late January. It lays out the pros and cons of a variety of elevated and tunnel routes as the agency tries to weave light rail tracks through some of the densest parts of Seattle.

This second Seattle light rail line will start at the current SoDo station and cross the Duwamish Waterway before skirting the north edge of the West Seattle Golf Course on its way to the Alaska Junction. The Ballard spur will start in the Chinatown-International District (CID), then head north through a new tunnel under downtown toward Seattle Center, through Interbay, and over or under Salmon Bay to its terminus in Ballard.

This extension will add a second transit tunnel through downtown to handle increased train volumes (including the new extension to Everett, also part of Sound Transit 3) and new stations near existing ones at Westlake, the CID and SoDo, which will become transfer points between the two light rail lines.

Some options offer better bus connections or more potential for transit-oriented development. Other alternatives lessen construction impacts by moving stations to the fringes of the neighborhood or deep below ground.

While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

As the Sound Transit board makes a final decision on the route, expected in 2023, board members will be weighing short-term construction impacts against building a system that’s easy and seamless for riders to use for decades. Those decisions might be a little easier now that the costs of elevated routes is similar to that of tunneling. But underground stations don’t always equal a better experience for riders.

To keep certain tunnel routes on the table for West Seattle and Ballard, as requested by many in those neighborhoods, Sound Transit board members representing King County proposed a last-minute compromise in 2019. It stipulated that while the agency staff would continue to study the more expensive tunnel routes, they would not move forward without third-party (non-Sound Transit) funding.

A few years later, the relentless increase in property values has made it just as expensive to build above ground as to tunnel beneath the city for third-party funding.

In Ballard, where there are basically four options—an elevated or underground station at NW Market Street and either 14th or 15th Ave. NW—the price tag for the elevated options is now almost identical to the estimated cost to tunnel: Between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, compared to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion for the tunnel alternatives.

As the cost difference has evaporated, Seattle Subway, a transit advocacy group, hopes to persuade the agency to revive an old proposed route along 20th Avenue Northwest that would deliver riders closer to the core of the neighborhood rather than several blocks east. Serving dense neighborhoods (rather than more car-centric areas on their periphery) is a core urbanist tenet: High-capacity transit works best when it serves a dense core of riders, and easy access to transit can spur more density in urban areas.

To fully resurrect this option, however, Sound Transit would have to create an entirely new environmental impact statement, which is no easy task and could add time to the project.

If that doesn’t happen, routes along 14th Avenue NW might offer the best combination of transit connections and development potential. The 14th Avenue location provides better transfers between buses and trains than alternatives on 15th Avenue, while also avoiding the need to build a moveable bridge over Salmon Bay.

A buried route along 14th would also create opportunities for transit-oriented development on Sound Transit-owned land after construction—up to 450 housing units and 70,000 gross square feet of retail space. While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

A similar price convergence is also occurring between above and below ground options in West Seattle, where stations are planned for the Junction, the Avalon area and North Delridge.

While a long-requested tunnel route to preserve views and “neighborhood character” from the West Seattle Golf Course to the Alaska Junction—estimated cost: $1.7 billion—is still much more expensive than the two elevated options, which are priced at $900 million and $1.3 billion, respectively. But a shorter tunnel route that would head below ground after the Avalon Station is now estimated to cost $1.1 billion, less than even one of the above ground routes.

Locating a station here at Alaska Avenue and Fauntleroy, one of two preferred alternatives identified in the DEIS, offers less potential for transit-oriented development than building at 41st or 42nd, while also displacing a Safeway.

At the Alaska Junction, future transit-oriented development hinges more on the location of the station than on whether the line is elevated or buried. Stations at 41st or 42nd Avenues SW have the potential to create slightly more residential units and commercial space on leftover Sound Transit land than if the station is further east. Any kind of station on 41st Ave.  offers the best bus connection for what will become a terminus station, according to the DEIS.

While laying tracks underground minimizes construction impacts on the surface and usually displaces the fewest businesses and residents, it doesn’t always lead to a better experience for future riders. This is especially true if the journey out of these deep stations or between lines becomes its own leg of the commute.

At the new Westlake Station downtown, Sound Transit plans to bury the train platform 135 feet below the surface regardless of which alternative the board chooses—more than twice the depth of the existing station. The agency estimates it would take most riders three to six minutes to get from the street to the train platform —two escalators or two elevator rides, or a mix of both (plus a stair option on the last leg), according to the agency.

Expect another long ride to the platform at the Midtown Station at Fifth or Sixth Avenue at Madison St. downtown, which is likely to be buried even deeper: Between 140 and 205 feet. Continue reading “For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains”

Police Sweep Troubled Little Saigon Intersection, Retirement Incentives Could Thwart SPD Hiring Plans, City Still Plans Sidewalk Sweep

1. After Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced plans to crack down on a street market in the Little Saigon neighborhood earlier this month, Seattle police officers swept the area last Friday, parking a mobile precinct at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St. and posting a half-dozen uniformed officers nearby. The southeast corner of the intersection, which housed an informal market for stolen goods, food, and illicit drugs, vanished; King County Metro removed a bus shelter from the intersection on Wednesday, and the neighboring strip mall installed a partial fence around its parking area.

The sudden police presence pushed people who frequented the market, including some who are unhoused, into the surrounding neighborhoods and encampments. A woman who lives under the I-5 overpass on King St. told PubliCola on Friday that some of the corner’s regulars briefly gathered near her tent on Friday morning before she told them to leave. “We told them aren’t welcome here,” she said. Other displaced people attempted to move into an encampment on 10th Ave. S, where they also encountered some objections, and a man selling toilet paper set up shop near a utilities box on a quiet side street. “We’re just being moved around in a circle again,” he said.

Although Harrell promised that “social service providers” would play a role in his plan to revive Little Saigon—an epicenter of Seattle’s public safety woes since the start of the pandemic, and one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods—Friday’s action relied exclusively on police.

Although some officers went door-to-door to nearby business owners on Friday to check in, one of those proprietors—the owner of Ten Sushi, located in the strip mall on the southeast corner of the intersection—wrote on Instagram that she still plans to leave the neighborhood, arguing that the police presence is only temporary.

“This improvement at 12th and Jackson demonstrates early results and a promising first step as Mayor Harrell continues to roll out his comprehensive approach to public safety,” a spokesman for Harrell’s office told PubliCola. “SPD’s efforts are one part of the administration’s broader strategy to ensure a safe and thriving neighborhood. In addition to addressing crime, next steps include providing social services, driving economic development, keeping areas free of litter and trash, and, most importantly, engaging community in immediate and forward-looking solutions.”

2. The Seattle Police Department estimates that its ranks could increase to 1,000 officers—still well below the department’s pre-pandemic size—by the end of 2022 if it is able to slow the pace of attrition, meet its optimistic hiring goals and count on officers returning from long-term leave.

However, a bill making its way through the Washington State Legislature may throw a wrench in the department’s plans. The bill, which would increase retirement benefits for officers who have worked in law enforcement for 15  years or more, could spur some of SPD’s older officers to retire early, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz warned during a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

In 2021, 171 officers left SPD, and the department hired only 81 new officers, most of them new recruits, as opposed to transfers from other law enforcement agencies. In January 2022 alone, SPD lost another 20 officers, including 12 who opted to leave the department instead of complying with Seattle’s vaccine mandate for public employees. SPD hopes to hire 125 more officers this year and has avoided making any estimates about attrition, but the council estimates that the department may lose as many officers as it hires in 2022.  Meanwhile, 170 officers are on long-term leave; some of those officers will return, but others are using their paid time off before formally retiring.

In a pitch to boost SPD’s regrowth, former mayor Jenny Durkan debuted a hiring incentive program last October that offered up to $10,000 for new recruits and $25,000 for officers who transfer from other departments, though SPD spokesman Sergeant Randall Huserik told PubliCola in January that the incentives didn’t produce “any uptick in applications.” The council attempted to end the hiring incentive program in December of last year, but Durkan ordered SPD to continue offering bonuses to new recruits into the new year, erroneously claiming that the council’s vote wasn’t legally binding; Mayor Bruce Harrell finally stopped SPD from offering incentives earlier this month.

During Tuesday’s meeting, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold and council member Sara Nelson, who worked together as council aides for Nick Licata and Richard Conlin, respectively, clashed over whether to renew the hiring incentive program. Herbold argued that the city should consider expanding hiring incentives for all departments with staffing shortages, while Nelson argued that SPD’s staffing shortage demands a more urgent response.

3. After activists thwarted the removal of an encampment that stretches along the west side of Fourth Avenue on Sunday, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office confirmed that the city still plans to remove the tents, which the city has deemed an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way.

As we reported yesterday, Seattle’s rules for removing encampments require the city to provide at least 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter before removing an encampment, but there is an exemption: If an encampment poses an “obstruction”—that is, if it is located on a sidewalk, in a park, or in any other space used by the public—the city can clear it without notice, and with no offers of shelter or services.

While the City will do its best to offer shelter as available through the City’s HOPE team and the efforts of the RHA, we cannot allow tents and other structures to remain in the right of way if they are causing an obstruction or presenting a public health or safety risk,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “It is important to balance the immediate need to ensure safe and equitable access to sidewalks while we work to expand services and strategies to bring more people inside.”

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection

Aftermath of a shooting at 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in October 2021 (Seattle Police Department)

By Paul Kiefer

Every morning at around 8 am, an informal market begins to assemble at the corner of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street. Buyers and sellers arrive from every direction by every mode of transportation: One man parks his car nearby and unloads a bag of laundry detergent and whiskey; another man steps off the streetcar at the Little Saigon stop and joins the small crowd gathering under the bus shelter.

The market has become a daily presence in Little Saigon, spilling into the courtyard of the adjacent strip mall and the underground parking structure below. Two dozen people gather on the corner, where, until this week, a King County Metro Metro bus stop stood; satellite groups of three or four people settle down near a gravel lot across the street. The products for sale vary depending on the day. On one cold February morning, a man appeared with a shopping basket full of frozen shrimp, seemingly stolen from a nearby seafood market; on another, a vendor sold bottles of hand soap.

Typically, the vendors are outnumbered by the dozens of people who come together at the corner to socialize or smoke crushed-up pills from sheets of foil. At night, some people light small bonfires to keep warm and huddle in the doorways of nearby restaurants. At any hour of the day, arguments can escalate into violence: Nearly a dozen people have been shot or stabbed at or near the intersection since the start of the pandemic, including three people in January alone.

Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

The corner has become the epicenter of Seattle’s public safety discussions, fueled by outcry from business owners and neighborhood advocates who say that the public drug use and bouts of violence at the corner have driven away customers and could lead to the death of Little Saigon. Just before taking office, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison appeared at one nearby restaurant, Seven Stars Pepper, for a photo op with the owner, Yong Hong Wang; Davison brought up the visit, and Yong’s warning that she will need to close her restaurant if the city doesn’t intervene in the neighborhood, in her inauguration speech.

In January, SPD made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests at the corner. Although the only regular law enforcement presence at the intersection is a sheriff’s deputy working for King County Metro’s transit security program, that could soon change: Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.

Crackdowns on crime “hot spots” are nothing new in Seattle, and many past attempts have produced few (or no) long-term results. Harrell’s new plan to focus the city’s police resources on the neighborhood has many observers, including neighborhood advocates and mental health service providers, wondering whether this time will be different.

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Little Saigon is no stranger to shoplifting, drug dealing and other illegal commerce, said Jim Pugel, a former Seattle police chief who first worked in the neighborhood in the 1980s. Even before it evolved into the present-day street market in Little Saigon, Pugel said that some minor illegal commerce has long been a feature of the nine square blocks between I-5 and Rainier Avenue S.

“It is an area that has always had a small  market for stolen goods, illegal cigarettes and EBT [food stamp] fraud,” he said. The daily crowd of people selling shoplifted merchandise and drugs on the corner of 12th and Jackson today may be more extreme than any past iteration, he said, but the basic components are not new.

In 2011, SPD recovered more than $100,000 in stolen cell phones and other merchandise from a storefront at 12th and Jackson. Other investigations in the early 2010s led police to a restaurant selling cocaine to neighborhood drug dealers and an EBT fraud scheme involving the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores.

“Informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards,” SPD Detective Todd Jakobsen remarked in a 2014 post on the department’s blog. “We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street,” he continued. “We’re going to take that area back for the community.”

Quynh Pham, the director of the advocacy group Friends of Little Saigon and one of the central figures in current discussions of the neighborhood’s fate, says that SPD’s past crackdowns on EBT scams and drug dealing were only effective in the short term. When the COVID pandemic hit and forced many of the neighborhood’s businesses to close, she said, she watched 12th and Jackson decline more dramatically than ever before.

The city’s 2015 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.

When SPD has ramped up its presence in Little Saigon in the past, she said, “I feel like they’ve always been reactionary and temporary. There’s never been a strategy where it’s more long term or sustained effort. And I think that’s why a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with, like food stamp fraud, keep coming back up. We’ve been a vulnerable neighborhood for a long time, and we’re still dealing with kind of the same root issues, but it’s so much more visible now.”

Harrell and SPD shouldn’t ignore the neighborhood’s history of neglect and underground commerce, said Lisa Daugaard, the co-director of the Public Defender Association (PDA). “People come to purchase where they know to come to purchase, and people sell where they know people will come to purchase,” she said. “In some locations, those patterns have proven incredibly stable over time, notwithstanding literal decades of flavor-of-the-month short-term enforcement initiatives.”

Critics of the “hot spot” approach to public safety often point to a 2015 campaign targeting the drug trade in Seattle’s downtown core known as the “9 1/2 Block Strategy,” which was spearheaded by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, then an advisor to mayor Ed Murray. The campaign resulted in more than 100 arrests in its first week and a sharp decline in drug-related 911 calls from a small stretch of downtown surrounding Westlake Park, but the number of drug-, disturbance- and assault-related calls from the surrounding neighborhoods rose. The 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates. Continue reading “Advocates Question “Hot Spot” Approach to Crime at Little Saigon’s Most Troubled Intersection”

Private Donations Will Fund “Peer Navigators,” Launch Plan to “Dramatically Reduce” Downtown Homelessness

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private "Partnership for Zero" Thursday
Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private “Partnership for Zero” Thursday

By Erica C. Barnett

King County and the city of Seattle announced today that they will use $10 million in one-time private funding to launch a new “Partnership for Zero” campaign focused on downtown Seattle in which “peer navigators”—case managers with lived experience of homelessness—will work to “navigate” people experiencing homelessness downtown into shelter and housing. Each peer navigator will work directly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and have a relatively small caseload of clients experiencing homelessness downtown.

At a press conference Thursday morning, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the public-private partnership would fund a new approach that, unlike existing outreach and case management efforts downtown and elsewhere, will provide “longitudinal” case managers who will work with clients to find services and housing and then keep working with them after they become housed.

Currently, Dones said, “So many of the things that we provide are these leaky hallways where, yes, we put people on a path, but …we see people drop out constantly. It’s the relational architecture that we see in communities that have implemented this well that actually drives success.”

PubliCola reported exclusively on the peer navigator proposal last week.

Today’s announcement adds new details about how the homelessness authority plans to deploy these new workers and its five-phase plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness,” starting with the downtown business district.

In addition to 30 peer navigators—a number Dones said could ultimately grow to 70 or more—the one-time contribution will fund 15 “incident responders,” who will “focused on immediate crisis response for deescalation,” according to King County Regional Homelessness Authority spokeswoman Anne Martens. These responders would supplement, not replace, Health One and Triage One, two specialized units within the Seattle Fire Department that respond to crisis calls that do not require an ambulance or police response, Dones said Thursday.

The announcement includes more details about a consolidated “unified command center” to which Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell alluded in his state of the city speech last week—part of the first phase of the “Partnership for Zero” five-phase plan the KCRHA says it will use in neighborhoods across the city, starting downtown.

The center will include a Joint Information Center (similar to the JIC at the city’s existing Emergency Operations Center) and a “multi-agency coordinating body” that will include representatives from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. This coordinating body will be “empowered to prioritize and allocate private resources such as funding, property, or personnel,” according to the announcement.

The announcement does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time spending for the 45 new employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out.

Subsequent phases of the plan will include the creation of a “by-name list” of people experiencing homelessness downtown; a “draw down” period in which peer navigators, having “establish[ed] the trust needed to help people move from homeless to housed,” relocate the entire downtown homeless population to shelter and services; and a “hold steady” period, in which the authority responds quickly to address any “new individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the target areas.”

The announcement—perhaps aiming to avoid the fate that befell the region’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness by 2015—does not include a date to reach its goal of zero homelessness. But Dones told PubliCola they “feel confident that we can execute on placements for the folks who are currently living downtown, with what the system is slated to generate this year and already has available through natural turnover,” within a year. Those placements, Dones said, will include spots in new permanent supportive housing projects as well as Emergency Housing Vouchers from the federal government.

After that, Dones continued, the homelessness authority will need more resources to keep the momentum going. “Revenue generation is not a power we have, so my role on that is limited to advocacy,” Dones said.

Last year, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association, whose membership includes most of the operations that chipped in for the $10 million gift, sued the city unsuccessfully to overturn a payroll tax on large corporations that will fund housing, equitable development, and jobs programs in Seattle.

Downtown Seattle has always been the epicenter of homelessness in Seattle; it’s where most homeless services are located, and it’s where people end up when they leave the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center or the King County Jail. Setting up a system in which people who happen to be homeless downtown have more access to resources, such as peer navigators and potentially shelter and housing, will almost certainly attract some number of additional unsheltered people into the area, Dones acknowledged. “It’s unrealistic to say that there won’t be some people who see this as an opportunity to get support and make a decision to try to engage with that support through what we are providing,” they said.

But DSA director Jon Scholes told PubliCola that he believes downtown will look substantially different, with “fewer people on the streets,” within a year. The new peer navigator approach “means that if you end up homeless on the streets, or in an alley, or in a park, that there’s somebody there that’s gonna engage with you immediately,” Scholes said. “And over time, that population is not going to be as large.”

The partnership does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time funding for the 45 new KCRHA employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out. “Our system doesn’t have enough money,” Dones said Thursday, particularly for “spaces for people to be.” A key question raised by skeptics of the homelessness authority’s emphasis on peer navigators is where the agency plans to navigate people to.

King County has been slowly adding hotel-based housing and shelter units across the region through its sales tax-funded Health Through Housing program. The hotels have, at times, been controversial (nearby residents have vociferously opposed plans to open one Health Through Housing hotel in Kirkland, for example). And they aren’t a permanent housing solution for everyone: The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Mary Pilgrim Inn in North Seattle, which serves chronically homeless people, including active drug users, has had to kick out a number of guests for disruptive behavior.

Because the donation is one-time, today’s announcement creates a fiscal cliff after the first year of operations that the city of Seattle or King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—will have to fill. Authority CEO Marc Dones has said they believe the agency will be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for the program’s operation costs after the first year, although the council expressed skepticism about this plan last year when it declined to immediately fund the program. Continue reading “Private Donations Will Fund “Peer Navigators,” Launch Plan to “Dramatically Reduce” Downtown Homelessness”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

Maybe Metropolis: Sorry Gen Xers, Capitol Hill is Cooler Than It Used To Be. And Less White.

Capitol Hill's Neumo's on a Wednesday night in October.
Lines around the block are political wins; Capitol Hill’s Neumos on a Wednesday night in October.

by Josh Feit

With additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett

Many of my Gen X peers like to wax about Capitol Hill circa the late ’90s, as they long for the golden years when the central Seattle neighborhood was so much cooler. When I think about Capitol Hill, I like to cast my mind back decades as well. But not to pine for the past. Rather, to remember the aspirational crystal ball renderings of city visionary Liz Dunn, who laid out a plan in the early 2000s to revitalize the neighborhood. Honestly, Capitol Hill was a predictable white hipster zone at the time. Nowadays, I like marveling at how Dunn’s vision for an energized, vital city neighborhood came true.

Sorry to burst your nostalgic bubble fellow Gen Xers, but Capitol Hill is far cooler today than it was in the past. I’ve lived on Capitol Hill for 20-plus years, and it’s never been a more exciting place to be than it is right now.

I was the news editor at The Stranger 20 years ago and, jealous that my colleagues on the arts side of the paper had established the Genius Awards for arts and culture trailblazers, the news team managed (in 2007) to give out “Political Genius” awards. The news staff picked developer Liz Dunn as “one to watch” for her “pro-development and pro-density” plan to “bring more life to the street” on Capitol Hill.

In a lovely case of “how it’s going,” fast forward 14 years to Dunn’s premier project, Chophouse Row, which is located at the epicenter of Capitol Hill between Pike and Union on 11th Ave. With its winding indoor-outdoor arcade, its restaurants, housing, shops, landscaped punch-throughs, and a lively public fire-pit courtyard where local jazz legend Evan Flory-Barnes regularly takes the stage, Chophouse Row has become Exhibit A for the new, action-packed Capitol Hill. Just across the street from Dunn’s bourgeois garden of delights? A plebian pizza joint that serves stiff drinks. And right around the corner from that: another grungy pizza joint, a lesbian dive bar, a coffee shop that’s been around since 1995, a punk rock burrito joint, a perfectly cheesy Mexican place, a late-nite diner, and a loud tavern.

In fact, Capitol Hill itself is Exhibit A in my counter-narrative to the notion that Seattle is dying. Capitol Hill has always been billed as a one of Seattle’s destination neighborhoods, and—as someone who regularly frequents the jumping Pike/Pine Corridor—I can tell you, anecdotally, it has never been more popular and crowded. The crowd has never been more diverse either.

Driven by an increase in people identifying as Asian and mixed-race, Capitol Hill’s white population dropped nearly 10% as a percentage of the neighborhood overall.

Standing in line for a veggie dog from one of the many street vendors lining Capitol Hill’s drag, watching a weirdo electronic show at Vermillion Gallery, or grabbing a drink at your pick of taverns and dives on the weekend, it’s impossible not to notice the sea change that’s taken place on Capitol Hill in recent years. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, you were likely to see sparser foot traffic and mostly white faces, these days the crowds appear much more diverse.

Certainly, Friday and Saturday nights mean “bridge and tunnel” crowds, which doesn’t say anything about Capitol Hill’s internal demographics, but it does indicate that BIPOC people see the neighborhood as a much friendlier destination these days. Additionally, I tested my anecdotal experience and looked at the American Community Survey stats from the four census tracts that make up Capitol Hill—from 15th Ave. E to I-5, and from Madison St. to Roy St.—and, yup, the neighborhood is less white than it used to be, according to ACS data comparing 2010 and 2019.

The African American population grew in raw numbers, but with such small numbers to begin with in the area (around 6 percent of the population in 2010), the increase in the Black population could not keep pace with Capitol Hill’s stunning 36 percent population growth overall and declined to about 5 percent of the population in 2019. Nonetheless, driven by an increase in people identifying as Asian and mixed-race, the white population declined from around 78 percent to 71 percent of the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, there’s been no real change in the average age over the past decade: 31.6 now compared to 31.8 a decade ago, according to the ACS data. In short, Capitol Hill is still youth-centric.

Of course, there’s no denying that Capitol Hill has become a more expensive place to live. The average income has climbed from $32,765 in 2010 to $51,041 in 2019 (all in 2019 dollars) and average rent for a one-bedroom has gone from about $1,000 to as much as $2,400—or around $1,700 for a smaller one-bedroom. Capitol Hill is not in the top ten most expensive neighborhoods, but certainly, like every neighborhood in the city, it needs more publicly funded, affordable housing.

As for the ubiquitous related criticism that “artists” can no longer afford to live on Capitol Hill, I say this: With the bevy of venues and spaces, there are more opportunities for artists to actually work in the neighborhood now. According to the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s cultural space inventory, there are 50 cultural spaces on Capitol Hill, including music venues, art galleries, performance spaces, and dance clubs—not to mention a potpourri of dining options, versus, what, chains like Taco Bell and Jack in the Box in the ’90s? And, oh, there was Café Septieme for stepping out!

Only Pioneer Square, with its concentration of art galleries, and the University District, amped by UW arts programming, comes even close to supporting as many arts and culture hives. The city didn’t catalog cultural spaces 10 or 20 years ago, but I can tell you from experience, there weren’t as many venues to see artists perform “back in the day.”

You know what else Capitol Hill has today that it didn’t in its supposed heyday? A light rail station—a busy one too. The Capitol Hill station is the third most crowded stop in Sound Transit’s system, with nearly 8,500 daily pre-pandemic weekday riders. That 2019 number represents a 12 percent jump from just two years earlier, indicating the increasing momentum Capitol Hill’s got right now. And soon, as the pandemic recedes, it will be even more crowded as college students discover the new light rail route between the U District and Capitol Hill, just a seven-minute ride.

The successful Capitol Hill station may help explain Capitol Hill’s “walker’s paradise” Walkscore designation and also the neighborhood’s increase in non-single-occupant-vehicle commuting. The share of commuters who drove to work alone declined from 35 to 27 percent, according to the ACS. Indeed, with no more parking minimums required for development on Capitol Hill, biking and walking to work also increased, helping make the neighborhood far more green and sustainable than it used to be.


Protected bike lanes now criss-cross Pike/Pine and Broadway. There's a farmer's market. And there's an activated park—Cal Anderson—for skateboarding, basketball, soccer, gleeful dog owners, or just reading a book on one of the benches by the reservoir.

None of this existed 10 or 20 years ago. And, don't worry, you can still slip into the nondescript door on 11th and climb the stairs to see a play at Capitol Hill's Annex Theater—the longest-running fringe theater in town.

Capitol Hill is certainly not the gay enclave it was in the post-Bowers v. Hardwick, pre-Obergefell v. Hodges era of the mid-1980s and 1990s. But with Gay City and Lifelong maintaining prominent footprints in the Pike/Pine Corridor, including Gay City's library, plus hangouts such as the Wild Rose, Queer Bar, the Madison Pub, and Pony among the bounty of gay bars in the neighborhood, queer-centric establishments and services are alive and well on Capitol Hill. In fact, GenPride, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ seniors, just broke ground at Broadway between Pike and Pine on its 1,800-unit affordable housing development, Pride Place, with a 4,400-square-foot community and health services center. It opens in 2023—just in time for Gen Xers to be eligible! Continue reading "Maybe Metropolis: Sorry Gen Xers, Capitol Hill is Cooler Than It Used To Be. And Less White."

As School Starts, Controversial North Seattle Encampment Stays Put

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

By Erica C. Barnett

The homeless encampment behind Broadview-Thomson K-8 school was supposed to be gone by September 1. Instead, as kids head back to in-person classes this week, it’s still growing—and no one knows quite what to do about it.

The city of Seattle washed its hands of the encampment earlier this summer, arguing that because the tents were technically on school property (rather than the city-owned land next door), the city had no responsibility to help the people living there. After noting (correctly) that the job of schools is educating children, not housing adults, the district stepped up, partnering with a fledgling nonprofit called Anything Helps to set up a resource tent on the property, with the goal of moving all 52 people to safer locations by this week.

With that “goal date” approaching, however, deputy school superintendent Rob Gannon acknowledged at a public meeting last week that “we did not make the goal.” In an interview, Gannon told PubliCola that although the encampment is still there, and has been growing, “I do intend to be able to demonstrate that there has been measurable progress, and that we’re on a pathway to continue to see most of those residents placed and the property cleared as soon as possible.”

The school district is under significant pressure to deliver on its promise. Neighborhood residents—egged on by wall-to-wall coverage on Sinclair-owned KOMO TV—have demanded that the district sweep the encampment as soon as possible, arguing that the presence of homeless people poses a danger to schoolchildren, contributes to crime, and is polluting Bitter Lake. (Although the encampment is unusually tidy by Seattle standards, KOMO’s coverage has focused near-obsessively on a large collection of trash and debris around a single campsite, suggesting a level of disorder that simply isn’t present).

At two recent public meetings at the school, neighbors have directed their anger at both Gannon and Anything Helps leader Mike Mathias, who’s singlehandedly trying to move people out of the camp, accusing both of “caring more about homeless people than our kids’ security,” to paraphrase comments made by several parents at the most recent meeting. “Trespass them!” several people shouted repeatedly during both meetings, suggesting Mathias or the school district should call police and have people arrested for being on the property. “They’re breaking the law!” one man yelled—a common misconception about people who sleep in public spaces.

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Anthony Piper, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said the vitriol on social media and negative press attention has made it harder for “a lot of people that are already having problems to stabilize and not have more problems. This is the most talked-about place on Nextdoor and everywhere else. They want to feel safe—well, we want to feel safe too.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Anything Helps’ Mathias sprawled in a camp chair under a canopy tent at the encampment, where a folding table, some chairs, and computers hooked up to a nearby generator serve as the makeshift headquarters for his impromptu organization. As we talked, several volunteers from a nearby church stopped by to drop off clipboards. Although a significant portion of the crowd at the first public meeting in July raised their hands at the end of the meeting when Mathias asked who was willing to volunteer, none of the hand-raisers followed through, although some donated money to Anything Helps. “We fear what we don’t understand, and so there’s just not a lot of on-site assistance,” Mathias said.

As Mathias was saying this, he was interrupted by a call: The police were on their way. Earlier that afternoon, someone  had been causing trouble at the encampment and was now refusing to leave, so a volunteer needed to go out and intercept the officers. The previous week, two SPD cruisers showed up and drove across the lawn right up to the encampment, which freaked everybody out, Mathias said.

Mathias hasn’t shied away from calling the cops if he feels the community is being threatened. “The majority of my time has been spent keeping the influx of new campers out,” Mathias said. “If they refuse to leave, I call the police. But that creates unsettling circumstances. I say, ‘Listen, I don’t want to do that to you,’ because I don’t. I legitimately don’t. And I hate to displace people, because I’ve been displaced and I don’t want that to happen to anybody.”

Mathias has a personal connection to the issue he’s trying to address at Bitter Lake: He was homeless for eight months, living in the notorious Jungle encampment near I-5 before it was swept in 2016. He now lives in an apartment paid for through the federal Housing and Essential Needs program, which helps people living with diagnosed physical or mental disabilities.

Initially, Mathias planned to enroll about two-thirds of the people living at the encampment in HEN. But it quickly became clear that the people living at Bitter Lake needed basics like IDs, cash benefits, and Medicaid before they could even start the process of applying for housing and other long-term benefits.

Encampment neighbors raise their hands at a recent public meeting at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.
Encampment neighbors raise their hands at a recent public meeting at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.

“I know that for us and our clients, HEN has been really hard to access,” Karin Salinas, outreach director for the city’s primary outreach provider, REACH, said. “Even with light-touch people that you think you should be able to move quicker, it rarely works because there are so many barriers and hurdles,” including in-person appointments with state officials, ID requirements, and visits with a doctor or doctors to verify that a person has a disability. “Our clients get tired of trying because it’s such an effort to even get to the process of getting your application in,” Salinas said.

Shelly Vaughan, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said it took her more than six months to get a Washington state ID, because she had to track down documents, including a birth certificate, from other states where she lived in the past. Other encampment residents faced similar challenges. Now, Mathias said, “everybody here has EBT [food benefits]. Everybody here has Medicaid. Everybody here has IDs. That’s great. But that has taken up the bulk of our time so far.”

And then there are the new residents. Mathias estimates that since July, the encampment has grown from 52 residents to 66—and that’s accounting for 21 people who have moved out “through diversion, housing, or memorandums of understanding, where the campers decided [someone was] too disruptive.” These MOUs are “really informal,” Mathias said—just brief agreements on a sheet of paper—”but they do deter people from coming back.” 

For example, a woman whose mental illness symptoms became too disruptive to the whole camp—she refused to wear clothes or shoes, screamed, and wandered into traffic—signed an MOU, along with her boyfriend, and moved to a different site nearby with camping gear purchased by Anything Helps. “She continued to refuse treatment,” and police wouldn’t take her to a hospital for an involuntary mental health hold, Mathias said. “Now I can’t find her. It’s just terrifying,”

As Mathias was explaining all this, a young man wandered past the tent; Mathias, who hadn’t seen him before, called out. “We’re at capacity right now,” he said. “I’m happy to help you, give you step-by-step directions on how to get housing, but I can’t have any more people stay here.”

After some back and forth, the man left. But our conversation was soon interrupted again by another conflict—another young man, swinging a crowbar, was accusing another resident of stealing his dollar. “If I give you a dollar, will that resolve it for you?” Mathias asked. “Give me ten,” the young man responded, scowling and scraping his crowbar in the grass. Eventually, Mathias and Piper convinced him to walk away.

These sort of conflicts, Mathias says, are constant—low-level stuff that takes time away from the primary work of getting people housed. To reduce the time Mathias spends doing conflict resolution, the district recently signed a contract with the WDC Safety Team, a group affiliated with the nonprofit Community Passageways, to provide a two-person deescalation at a cost of about $23,000 a month. The WDC Safety Team previously worked with Co-LEAD, a case management program run by the Public Defender Association that worked to shelter people with high-acuity needs and criminal justice involvement during COVID.

“It’s all about building relationships with the people living in encampments, being able to provide some kind of human connection,” WDC co-founder Dominique Davis said. “Our job is just being there, letting people know that we’re here to keep you guys safe. We’re not security and we’re not patrolling you. We’re not watching what you do. We’re here to make sure no violence happens and to deescalate situations as they arise.”

In late August, the district installed a fence with a locked gate on the north side of the encampment, and has since extended the fencing to separate a path that runs along the property, which could theoretically be used by children, from the camp. “The fence will not solve all issues, but it at least secures, or makes more secure, the pathway to and from the school,” Gannon said at last week’s meeting. “It may seem trivial, but that has done a lot to slow the traffic in and out of the camp.”

Although the city has refused to provide assistance to encampment residents or the school district, its own practice of removing encampments in response to neighborhood complaints appears to have exacerbated the situation at Bitter Lake. Mathias and people living at the encampment said some of the new residents arrived after the city swept nearby encampments, including multiple encampments in Lake City that have been the source of similar neighborhood battles in recent months.

Gannon agrees that the city-led sweeps are driving unsheltered people to seek new places to live—and some of them end up at Bitter Lake.”I don’t mean anything disparaging by this, but this is a transient population,” Gannon told PubliCola. “There are people coming in, there are people going out, and it’s difficult to keep tabs on everybody’s whereabouts. It is also difficult to determine who is new and how to exclude them from the property.”

Neighbors hold "Save Bitter Lake" signs at a press conference for Bruce Harrell's mayoral campaign
Neighbors hold “Save Bitter Lake” signs at a press conference for Bruce Harrell’s mayoral campaign

Sometimes, especially if your perspective is skewed by social media and heated public meetings, it can seem as though entire neighborhoods have turned their backs on unsheltered people and simply want them gone. But not everyone around Bitter Lake sees the encampment as a threat. In addition to the church volunteers, there’s Barbara—a neighbor who first ventured into the encampment after she heard on television that the city-owned sports field next to the encampment was covered with needles from encampment residents.

“I was like, ‘I can singularly solve this problem.'” said Barbara, who preferred that we use her first name only. “I came over here with my gloves on, my grabber, my container to put sharps in, and there were no needles there. In fact, I found no trash whatsoever.” On several recent visits, PubliCola found the encampment virtually trash-free, thanks to a cleanup system that involves collecting trash in large white bins and carrying it to the nearby park for collection by the Parks Department (which also installed a large sharps container by the restrooms).

After she showed up and found nothing to clean, Barbara started hanging out at the encampment and getting to know the people living there. “I’m out here nearly every day,” she said. “I’ve seen conflicts happen. And I’ve seen conflict resolution. And there’s been nothing that made me even feel like I needed to get up and leave.”

It would be misleading to suggest that no violence or illegal activity has occurred at the Bitter Lake encampment. People have showed up at neighborhood residents’ homes and asked them to call 911 because they were overdosing, and people have died on the property. Drug and alcohol use is common. Before my most recent visit, Mathias called the cops on a woman who was screaming at people by the nearby tennis courts. But the evidence that the encampment poses a risk to nearby school children is nonexistent. As Piper notes, unsheltered people are well aware that housed people loathe and fear them. They’ll go out of their way to avoid interacting with people’s kids.

Anthony Piper, one of the de facto leaders of the Bitter Lake encampment
Anthony Piper, one of the de facto leaders of the Bitter Lake encampment

Moreover, in a city where thousands live unsheltered, “move them somewhere else” is not a compelling solution—not for encampment residents, who will be demonized and shamed no matter where they go, nor for housed residents, who will still be confronted with visible homelessness until homelessness is solved.

In the coming weeks and months, Gannon and Mathias hope to find places for everyone living at Bitter Lake to move indoors—including, Gannon hopes, a hotel on Aurora Ave. North that King County purchased in July. “The county is working with us,” Gannon said. “They understand the pressures that we’re under, they understand that the timeline that we’re operating towards, but there also is an appreciation that the approach we’re trying to take right to find services and solutions for those experiencing homelessness, not to merely sweep them away and have that become a different problem in a different area of the community.”

Once the people living at the encampment are housed or have agreed to move elsewhere, Gannon says, the district will have to think about what to do with the property, which has historically been an open field that has served as an extension of the park next door. One option would be to keep it fenced off and use it for “school-related purposes”; another would be to sell it. “We haven’t actually entertained potential buyers, but that is on the list of considerations, Gannon said. “But that decision is a long way away.”

Piper and Vaughan, who have been at Bitter Lake since the beginning, both point to the many drawbacks of living outside, including the fact that they have to travel several hours on the bus and wait in a long line at the nearest hygiene center just to take a shower. (There’s a City of Seattle community center right next to the encampment, but it’s closed).  “We definitely would like to live in our own house,” Vaughan says. “But we kind of want to stay here till the last person’s gone, because we kind of started it in a way.”

Piper, who has a housing voucher through the Veterans’ Administration and a small monthly disability check, says that even though he hasn’t lived indoors for a long time, “I’ve always kind of thought, eventually, when I was ready, I’ll be okay.” For now, though, he’s staying put. “A lot of these people are my friends. Personally, I just want everyone to have the chance. And even if they don’t take it, that’s fine. They got the chance to do something. That’s what I want. I just want to see that through.”

“Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

Drive through Seattle’s industrial areas—Georgetown, South Park, parts of Ballard, and SoDo—and it’s hard to miss them: Bulky, horizontal concrete blocks lined up like giant Legos along the sides of the street, preventing large vehicles from parking by the roadside.

At Third and Brandon in Georgetown, around the corner from the headquarters of the LGBTQ+ health care organization Lifelong, a row of bright-white barricades prevent any vehicle longer than a passenger van from parking on the street. Along a quiet, wide stretch of road near West Marginal Way in South Park, graffiti is just starting to pop up on an older, graying line of blocks set a dozen feet apart across a chain-link fence from a modern apartment building.

The blocks, known as “ecology blocks” because they’re made of waste material that concrete producers would otherwise throw away, are there to prevent large vehicles—primarily RVs—from parking in front of businesses. They started proliferating in industrial areas, which are the only areas where Seattle allows RVs to park overnight, during the pandemic, when the city suspended rules requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours.

Equinox Studios owner Sam Farrazaino, who says the blocks have given his neighborhood the feel of a “war zone,” has installed a number of the blocks around land he owns in Georgetown, although he says he used his “eco blocks” to “define parking” for his business, painted them to make them more attractive, and did not put them in the public right-of-way. “It’s a complicated… debate,” said Farrazaino, who described a rat infestation on a lot surrounded with RVs that made the ground look like “a moving carpet.” On the other hand, he said, “We keep pushing people around and saying we solved the problem, but the end result of the people with the power and land being able to push out that people that don’t have power and don’t have land is terrible.”‘

Although most of the debate about unsheltered homelessness centers on people living in tents in so-called “unauthorized encampments” (in Seattle, there is no other kind), about a quarter of people living without shelter in the city live in RVs, which are only allowed to park overnight in industrial areas. The city dedicates few resources to helping this group, who are often seen as less vulnerable than tent residents and are unlikely to “accept” the city’s offers of shelter, because even so-called enhanced shelters, which are open during the day and allow people to bring their partners and pets, provide less privacy and autonomy than the most rundown RV.

Years of efforts by advocates and city council members to create “safe lots” for RV residents have been unsuccessful, thanks largely to neighborhood objections that have made it difficult to site lots for ordinary cars and trucks, much less RVs. And while the city council recently allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds could create safe parking spaces for between 20 and 30 RVs, that represents a tiny fraction of the need; according to the most recent count of homeless people in King County, nearly 1,000 people were living in RVs, and vehicular homelessness expert Graham Pruss, an academic researcher who has advised the city on the needs of people living in vehicles, says the true number is likely much higher.

“The reality is that the people who live in the vehicles and the people who own the businesses who are angry about the vehicles are all subject to the same problem: There is not a private place for the person who lives in that vehicle to park, and if they don’t have a place to park, they are forced to occupy that public street,” Pruss said.

Compounding the conflict, the city has used laws and informal policies, such as “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs, to push RVs deeper into nonresidential areas, usually far away from frequent transit lines, hygiene centers, and agencies that provide resources like job assistance and addiction treatment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would stop enforcing the 72-hour parking rule so that people could work from home; one year later, she announced she was reinstating the regulation, forcing people who had been living in one place for a year or more to get their vehicles in working order or risk losing them. 

Homeless service providers say the suspension of the rule had positive effects for vehicle residents, who didn’t have to deal with the daily stress of finding another place to park. “It was nice for them to have a reprieve where they didn’t have to move every 72 hours, where they could be in place and connect to service providers from one location and get more accomplished,” said Rebecca Gilley, the SoDo outreach coordinator for the homeless outreach group REACH. 

But it also led to increased conflicts with nearby business owners, who complained that people occupying space on the street were making it impossible for customers to park, committing crimes, and causing unhealthy and unsanitary conditions around their vehicles.

“There were folks who were here for a year and a half, blocking the whole sidewalk on both sides and blocking part of the travel lanes with all the stuff they had accumulated” around their RV, Farrazaino said. “If it was a house and the living conditions were the same as these, the county and the city would have shut it down and condemned the house.”

Placing ecology blocks or boulders in the public right-of-way without permission, as many businesses have done, is illegal under city law; theoretically, anyone who does so can be fined up to $4,000 for each individual violation.

The problem is, the blocks are cheap to put in place and expensive to remove. Farrazaino said he paid about $20 apiece for his ecology blocks, which he bought from Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel in Ballard. The biggest expense, he added, was moving them. “We drove back and forth to Salmon Bay with a big rental truck to get the ones we have here,” Farrazaino said. “It’s just a matter of moving them around with a forklift that can handle it.”

Removing the blocks would require the city to devote money, manpower, and storage space to addressing the problem, plus enforcement to ensure the blocks don’t come back. “Part of the challenge is that each ecology blocks weighs 1-2 tons, and more blocks continue appearing in new areas,” Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. “Removing these massive obstructions is costly and our employees are busy completing important work to maintain our streets and infrastructure.”

Mariajose Barrera, who owns Mose Auto in Georgetown, said she installed ecology blocks near her business because of “the garbage, the nuisance, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampments.” For example, she said, someone parked a large box truck outside her auto shop for several weeks and was using it to hold stolen goods; more recently, someone broke into her shop and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools.

“We’ve been working to be able to have parking for our own businesses and kind of deter people from long-term parking, because the garbage, the nuisances, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampment—it’s really rough.” Barrera said. Seattle Public Utilities provides garbage pickup and sewage pump-out services to some RVs through its RV remediation and pump-out programs, but the utility can’t serve every site, so garbage, sewage, and gas and chemical spills remain persistent problems.

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“Unfortunately, we’ve had set up these eco blocks because we’re not getting any other help from the city,” Barrera continued. “It’s unfair—we all work for our stuff and for these people to just come in take whatever they want, whenever they want, without any accountability is not okay.”

Part of his frustration, Farrazaino said, stems from the fact that the city has pushed people living in RVs into industrial areas, which make up just 12 percent of the city’s land. Gentrification in places like SoDo and industrial Ballard, where breweries and retail storefronts are overtaking traditional industrial businesses, has constrained options for vehicle residents even further; you’re less likely to get hassled or swept if you live next to a steel fabrication plant than in front of a popular bar. The result is more conflicts between RV residents and businesses in places like Georgetown and South Park, and the proliferation of barricades to keep them from coming back.

“SoDo is pushing everyone down here [to Georgetown] because they have a [business improvement area] and money to hire security,” Farrazaino said. A business advocacy group might give Georgetown or South Park more clout with the city; Erin Goodman, the director of the SoDo BIA, has pushed the city to crack down on RVs from the area for years, arguing that the presence of people living in vehicles has contributed to crime and filth in the area. Continue reading ““Eco Blocks” Are Concrete Signs of Seattle’s Failure to Address RV Homelessness”

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.”

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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.

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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”