Category: Parks

Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work

The Seattle Parks Department, which conducts encampment sweeps and cleans up trash at encampment sites through Seattle’s Clean City Initiative, hired a company owned by a current City of Seattle employee to do nearly half a million dollars’ worth of encampment cleanup work, despite the fact that the company was not on the city’s list of approved contractors to perform this work and does not have any contract with the city.

The company, Fresh Family LLC, is owned by a city employee named Debbie Wilson, who registered the company with the secretary of state’s office this past May. Wilson, who worked as a parks maintenance aide for the Parks Department until taking a job with to Seattle City Light in 2017, declined to comment when PubliCola contacted her by email and phone.

Ordinarily, when a company wants to work for the city’s encampment cleanup crew, they must wait for the city to run a formal bidding process for inclusion in the city’s “blanket contract”—essentially, a list of pre-approved sanitation companies that the parks department can call on to do cleanup work. When the encampment cleanup team goes out to remove or clean up waste in and around an encampment, they are supposed to draw exclusively from this list, using other suppliers only if no company on the list is able to do the work. The only exceptions are for contracts under $8,000, which do not require any bidding process, or under $55,000, which require the city to get written quotes from three different companies.

Not only is Fresh Family not on the city’s blanket contract list, they aren’t in the city’s contractor database at all, because they don’t have a contract with the city. “There is no contract,” the Parks spokeswoman, Rachel Schulkin confirmed. Instead, it appears that Fresh Family was simply told to do the work and submit invoices to the city. As of December 2, Fresh Family had charged the parks department about $425,000 for its work, Schulkin said.

The circumstances that led the city to hire Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup company outside the ordinary process and without a formal contract are convoluted and still somewhat mysterious.

There are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

According to Schulkin, a Parks Department employee selected Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider after locating them in the city’s online business database, which includes all “companies, including women and minority-owned businesses, who have expressed interest in doing business with the City.” The database includes a column, labeled “WMBE—Ethnicity,” that identifies the “ethnicity” (or race) of the owners of Women and Minority-owned Business Enterprises (WMBEs). Schulkin said the employee misunderstood the designation “B” in this column, assuming that it stood for “Blanket” (as in a blanket contract) rather than “Black.”

As of mid-November, according to weekly “snapshots” of Clean City work provided by the Parks Department, Fresh Family was still doing encampment cleanup work, although Schulkin said the department has since stopped using the company and has informed Wilson she would need to go through the ordinary open bidding process the next time the city seeks new encampment cleanup providers. 

“We are remedying this situation with providing this employee and their team with better training on City contracting policies, reexamining our department accounting controls and contract management systems, as well as working with the City’s [Finance and Administrative Services] … to find out how we can better prevent this type of mistake, and catch it sooner should it occur again,” Schulkin said.

The Parks Department did not respond to repeated questions about which employee approved Fresh Family to perform encampment cleanup work. August Drake-Ericson, the former manager of the Human Services Department’s erstwhile Navigation Team, is now a strategic advisor for the department’s encampment cleanup team, which is headed by senior manager Donna Waters.

Schulkin characterized the error that led to the no-bid, no-contract approval as a simple “mistake” involving a misunderstanding of what the letter “B” stood for in the city’s business database. But there are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

In addition to B for Black, the city’s “ethnicity” designations include A for “Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander,” W for White, N for “Native American or Alaska Native” and “H” for Hispanic or Latino.” A link to information about what each letter under “ethnicity” stands for is at the bottom of the search page.

What the Parks Department is saying is that whoever approved Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider overlooked both the column heading (“WMBE & Ethnicity”) and the link explaining what the letters meant.

Assuming that is what happened, and that the unidentified employee in charge of deciding which companies receive encampment work believed that “B” meant “Blanket,” that employee would also have to have believed that a company that had been in existence only a few months was already part of the blanket contract. All seven companies in the blanket contract were initially approved in 2017. Continue reading “Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work”

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

Laurelhurst Community Center

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

PubliCola is seeking more information about the transitional housing project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mosqueda Challenger Rails Against “Ghetto-Type Paintings,” Durkan Proposes Moving Homeless Outreach Team to Parks Department

1. Ever since an unknown civil engineer named Kenneth Wilson eked out 16 percent of the vote to come in second in the August council primary, the conventional wisdom has been that City Council District 8 incumbent Teresa Mosqueda (who in actual fact won with 59 percent) is facing “a more competitive race than expected,” thanks to a “surprise” upset by a  “frugal,” “competent” “fresh face” whom one pundit called just the kind of “Mr. Fixit” that the council “badly need[s].”

As compelling as those arguments may seem, we’d like to offer a counterpoint: Wilson’s own words.

During his closing statement in a debate last weekend moderated by PubliCola’s Erica Barnett, Wilson explained that one of the reasons he started “becoming political” was the presence of “ghetto-type paintings everywhere” (presumably: Graffiti-style murals), which he associated with crime. In her own closing statement, Mosqueda responded that Wilson, “as someone who says they’re analytical, should analyze how that statement is not a good thing to be saying.” She also pointed out that Wilson constantly talked over and interrupted the moderator, which he did.

In response to a question about how he would deal with the confirmation process for and appointment of a permanent director for the city’s arts office—a process Mayor Jenny Durkan upended by appointing a new temporary director to replace one she appointed earlier, all without input from the arts commission or the advisory body set up to advise her on the selection—Wilson responded: 

“So, first, first and foremost, the arts and culture are so fundamental to our life. We saw the great impact that we lost with what happened in COVID. So many things shut down. So having this important position is valuable to our community and something that we need to build upon. So I would take that very seriously. … I know we had questions even about what’s your qualifications for a position to teach in school. I think some of these jobs have a background to them but an educator, even having some of your background in arts and doing these things firsthand. So being a performer and how we’re going to select this and criteria that we would add to our thing is really valuable to me.”

Sometimes it really is okay just say you don’t have enough background to answer the question and leave it at that.

Finally, at a forum sponsored by Seattle Fair Growth, Wilson responded to a question about preventing displacement by suggesting that someone who makes $50,000 a year and can only afford a $1,600-a-month studio apartment in Seattle should take advantage of their “mobility” and “use their $1,600 maybe down at Angle Lake and get a three-bedroom apartment. Here in Seattle, we’re having other challenges.” Moving away from an urban neighborhood where you’ve lived for a long time to a suburb 20 miles away is pretty much the definition of displacement, not its solution.

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said the city planned to “loan” the HOPE Team’s system navigators to the Parks Department, where their job will consist of being “present on the day of a clean to offer shelter to the one or two people that are left there.”

Wilson has raised about $62,000 in his bid to unseat Mosqueda, and so enchanted Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat that Westneat devoted an entire column to his virtues. The Times did not endorse in the primary, expressing astonishment that the popular incumbent did not draw “stronger” challengers.

2, As the city’s homelessness services move over to the new regional homelessness authority, one major unanswered question is: What will happen to the HOPE team?

The team, whose acronym stands for Homeless Outreach and Provider Ecosystem, was supposed to be a less-punitive replacement for the Navigation Team, which was primarily responsible for removing encampments. In reality, the team became a kind of vanguard for the Parks Department, which now conducts most of the city’s sweeps. Continue reading “Mosqueda Challenger Rails Against “Ghetto-Type Paintings,” Durkan Proposes Moving Homeless Outreach Team to Parks Department”

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.”

Unannounced Lake City Sweep Impacts Nearby Encampments; Report Highlights SPD’s Risky Gun Storage Practices

1. Last week, the Seattle Parks Department removed an encampment next to the Lake City Community Center without prior notice, removing tents and possessions in the middle of the day, when many residents were reportedly away. According to Mike Mathias, a volunteer who’s working to house about 50 people living on Seattle School District-owned land on the south shore of Bitter Lake, three miles away, the sweep has had spillover effects. When people are removed from one location, Mathias said, “they go into areas in the immediate vicinity and have conflicts with those people, and it trickles down. It’s almost like a wave, and we knew it was coming.”

Mathias’ organization, Anything Helps, has been out at the Bitter Lake encampment daily for more than a month, trying to connect residents with services, diversion, and housing, but more people keep arriving every day. Currently, despite Mathias’ efforts to prevent people from setting up additional tents, there are more people living at the Bitter Lake encampment, 56, than there were last month, when the school district set a goal of moving everyone off the property by September 1.

As we’ve reported, the city of Seattle has refused to send outreach workers to the Bitter Lake encampment, because the city doesn’t own the property; Mayor Jenny Durkan has suggested that the school district dip into its reserves to set up a parallel human services system to help the people living on its property. Recently, a large sharps container appeared by the restrooms at the city-owned park right next to the school district land, and residents said the city has started picking up their trash.

According to a Parks Department spokesperson, the department removed the encampment without providing prior notice to its residents because tents were “set up in parking spots,” and because someone had connected electrical wires through the roof of the Lake City Community Center, which is closed. “Parks stored property as per the City storage policy,” the spokesperson said. The parks department did not immediately respond to a separate request for information about the sharps container and trash pickup on Monday.

The community center sweep was the second in Lake City in less than a week; on July 29, the city removed a longstanding encampment at the Lake City Mini Park, prompting a protest by advocates for people experiencing homelessness. Unlike the removal last week, the city provided advance notice to the Mini Park residents.

2. A newly released audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) casts light on risky firearms storage practices at the Seattle Police Department’s training facilities that enabled an 18-year-old participant in an SPD program for young people interested in law enforcement to steal a handgun from a storage room in 2019.

The thief was a teenage participant in SPD’s Law Enforcement Exploring Program who subsequently threw the handgun off a bridge while driving; SPD eventually found the gun on a nearby roof.

The audit, which began in January 2020 but was delayed when the OIG shifted attention to SPD’s protest response, discovered that the department may have violated the city’s gun storage rules by failing safely store firearms at two training annexes.

The problems came to light when an officer leading a training for SPD’s Law Enforcement Exploring Program—which offers courses on police procedures and tactics for 14- to 21-year-olds—discovered that his handgun was missing from the training facility’s storage area. The thief was a teenage participant in the LEEP program who subsequently threw the handgun off a bridge while driving; SPD eventually found the gun on a nearby roof.

When the OIG eventually reviewed the gun storage systems in SPD’s training annexes, investigators discovered obvious shortcomings. In one annex, officers stored their guns in a metal cabinet secured with a single padlock; in the other, officers stored their firearms in room protected by a padlocked door. “If the padlocks are inadvertently not used, left unlocked, or the keys are not secured,” investigators wrote, “anyone accessing the [storage cabinet or room] would be able to access every firearm inside.” Even the padlocks themselves, investigators added, can easily be picked with common tools. Continue reading “Unannounced Lake City Sweep Impacts Nearby Encampments; Report Highlights SPD’s Risky Gun Storage Practices”

County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack

Seattle - City Hall Park & King County Courthouse 05
Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

1. The King County Council added $248,000 to the county’s budget last week to hire a new recruiter for the King County Sheriff’s office in response to two years of unusually high attrition. The council eliminated the position last year.

In the past two years, the sheriff’s office has seen roughly 15 percent of its sworn officers resign or retire. Fifty deputies have resigned from the department in 2021, setting the county on pace to surpass the 69 deputies who left in 2020. Last year’s attritions marked a 42 percent increase from 2019. “Because these aren’t vacancies we planned for,” council president Claudia Balducci said, the sheriff’s office should be able to restore its ranks while the county considers whether to downsize the office in the future.

The council’s 2021-2022 budget included funding for 41 sworn positions in the sheriff’s office that are currently unfilled, but few qualified candidates have applied for those positions. Of the 351 applicants to entry-level positions in the sheriff’s office since January, only 79 have met basic hiring criteria, including a clean criminal record and bill of health.

But not every member of the council thought that funding the recruiter position should be a priority for the council. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, cautioned his colleagues against dipping into the county’s general fund until the council can look at its budget with fresh eyes after American Rescue Plan Act dollars dry up. “If I looked all around county government looking for one more position we could fund,” he said, “it wouldn’t be this one.” Upthegrove, along with council members Joe McDermott, Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay, voted against funding the position.

In the same meeting, the council also voted to set aside $5.6 million to provide refunds for King County residents who have paid legal financial obligations for drug possession convictions that the Washington State Supreme Court rendered void with the landmark Blake decision in February. The state will reimburse counties for any spending on Blake-related refunds.

2. In response to complaints about public safety at the downtown King County Courthouse—including, most recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself—the city is reportedly planning to remove an encampment in City Hall Park next door. A sweep could happen as early as this week. Although the alleged courthouse assailant has no known connections to the park, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn and other officials have made the connection; in a statement about the attack last week, Dunn called for “the immediate closure of City Hall Park and the danger it poses to our employee[s], residents, and the community.”

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REACH has been doing outreach in the park for the past several weeks, with the goal of moving people from encampments into hotels through JustCARE, a program that provides hotel rooms, case management, and services to people living unsheltered in Pioneer Square and the International District. Last week, the city signed a contract with the JustCARE alliance to fund 89 more JustCARE slots, which the PDA had hoped to use to shelter the people living in the park.

In a statement Sunday, the alliance, which includes the Public Defender Association, the Urban League, and the Asian Counseling and Referral Alliance, among others, said that “many of the people in the park arrived there after being removed from other locations without offers of non-congregate shelter that matched their situation”—a reference to ongoing encampment sweeps by the city. “Those who are rightly upset about conditions in the park should join the many voices opposing shuffling people around the city—that practice contributed significantly to this situation,” the letter says.

“Moving people out of the park to no clear destination will not solve courthouse or neighborhood safety, or address the situation of anyone currently living there,” the letter concludes. “It feels like action—but it actually makes matters worse.”

For years, the city has presented unsheltered people with “offers” of shelter that are less appealing than sleeping outdoors, including beds in congregate shelters that lack the privacy or security of a private room, and dispersing them to other locations when they “refuse” these offers. Sweeping people from City Hall Park will only displace them to new locations—which is how many of them ended up in the park in the first place.

3. One of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s most senior cabinet members, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong, is leaving the city later this month for a new job as Chief Recovery and Resilience Office for Snohomish County.

Durkan, who announced she would not seek reelection in January, is leaving office at the end of this year after a single term. She currently has two deputy mayors, both appointed after their predecessors left for new positions. Tiffany Washington, the former head of the city’s homelessness division, replaced Shefali Ranganathan, and David Moseley, a former deputy mayor, came out of retirement to replace Casey Sixkiller, who quit to run for mayor. Continue reading “County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack”

Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech

1. When the city initially denied a permit for a June event celebrating the art of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (relenting at the last minute after the ACLU of Washington threatened to sue), the department said it did so because of an “emerging concern” that any event commemorating CHOP could be “disturbing or even traumatic” to community members.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department told PubliCola, “We will not be issuing a permit for this event as we have heard from community members expressing concerns that any events celebrating or commemorating the events that occurred at Cal Anderson in summer of 2020 would be disturbing or even traumatic to the community.”

But emails PubliCola obtained through a Parks Department records request reveal that this “emerging concern” consisted of emails from a relative handful of individuals, mostly people suggesting that an anniversary event would lead to graffiti, vandalism, and crime in the park. Three of the emails from members of the public mentioned trauma as a concern.

The emails also suggest that the mayor’s office wanted to deny the permit from the beginning, and landed on a number of different justifications for doing so before the city ultimately landed on “community concerns” as the official reason. (The mayor’s office has not provided records yet in response to a similar request.) In addition to the concern about community “trauma,” the mayor’s objections, as Parks staffers described them, included, at various time, concerns about COVID-19 protocols, the impact of closing down a street for the event, and the “safety and security” of people in the area.

According to the emails, Durkan’s office began raising concerns about the CHOP Arts event as far back as early May, and met with high-level staff in several departments on May 20 to discuss the event. Parks staffers came away from the meeting with the impression that the mayor’s office wanted them to deny permits for the event, and any event related to the anniversary of CHOP, because of the association with last year’s protests alone.

Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, confirmed that she convened the meeting. Her message to department leaders, Formas told PubliCola, was “We’re not permitting an official city event that violates the Governor’s order, shuts down multiple blocks of the City for a block party celebrating CHOP, and could be a security and safety concern if there’s permitted and unpermitted events occurring at the same time with thousands of people.”

Organizers did change their plans for the event several times, but the final version of the application, which Parks had received by June 4, did not propose blocking off any streets.

Formas suggested that COVID protocols were the mayor’s primary concern at the time.

“In mid-May, we were in the midst of planning for special events permits for May and June and planning for expected unpermitted protests around downtown and Cal Anderson,” Formas said. “We understood that there would likely be many unpermitted protests and marches downtown and on Capitol Hill, which did in fact occur, and we were planning for allowing permitted events that met the Governor’s restrictions. So ultimately the question was how do we balance COVID-19 safety and security of both planned and unpermitted events.”

Emails between parks employees, however, suggest that Durkan’s main concern was that the city shouldn’t appear to be acknowledging or commemorating the anniversary of CHOP, a long-term protest zone that formed around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct after SPD abandoned the precinct amid protests against police violence last summer. The incident became a significant embarrassment for Durkan and the police department, which refused to say who gave the order to abandon the precinct; reporters at KUOW unravelled that story earlier this month.

The Parks Department came away from the meeting with Formas believing that the mayor’s direction was clear: Avoid permitting any event associated with CHOP, period.

For example, on May 20, the Parks Department’s recreation division director, Justin Cutler, wrote in an email to Parks staff that “the Mayor’s Office has given direction that we are not to permit events at Cal Anderson at this time. More specifically any event that would be celebrating CHOP.”

In a May 20 email to parks staffers about upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park, Parks Commons Program director Randy Wiger described the CHOP Arts event as “canceled as per mayor.”

In a Powerpoint distributed on May 23, the CHOP Arts event is “X”d off a list of upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park; the document cites ‘New direction from Mayor’s Office’ as the reason.

And on June 3, Wiger reiterated on a different email chain that “the direction from the Mayor’s Office is ‘no celebration of the CHOP zone.'”

The CHOP Arts event, which organizer Mark Anthony described as a kind of “Black renaissance fair,” went ahead as scheduled on the weekend of June 11. It did not result in a new protest zone.

2. On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced a clerk file—a type of clarification for earlier legislation—that would designate facial recognition as a form of “surveillance technology,” closing a loophole in the city’s surveillance regulations that came to light after a Seattle police detective used an unapproved facial recognition software in at least 20 criminal investigations.

The bill would augment Seattle’s three-year-old surveillance ordinance, which requires the council to approve surveillance technologies before a city department can put them to use. When the council passed the ordinance in 2018, they defined surveillance as any method of tracking or analyzing the “movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals.”

In November 2020, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigated South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes for using the controversial facial recognition software Clearview.AI without his supervisors’ knowledge. In his defense, Kartes argued that the surveillance law does not cover facial recognition. Continue reading “Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech”

City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park

A forest of angry hands rises in the Broadview-Thomson K-8 School cafeteria.

By Erica C. Barnett

During an often rowdy public forum in the cafeteria of Broadview-Thomson K-8 school last week, Seattle Public Schools deputy director Rob Gannon said the school district is working slowly toward a plan for moving more than 50 unsheltered people off school district-owned property behind the North Seattle school. The city of Seattle has refused to assist the school district in sheltering or housing people living on the property, and the district has turned to a small nonprofit called Anything Helps, with the goal of getting everyone off the site by September. 

“We got caught in a difficult situation and … with a rather large encampment and no resources to be able to address how to return that area to its original intended purpose or how to respond to the needs of the people living on that property,” Gannon said. “For the past two months, we have been actively seeking partners to help us address that situation, and only recently have we started to find traction to begin to help people move off that property.”

Emails from city officials show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

Although the school district property is directly adjacent to city-owned Bitter Lake Playfield and has historically been maintained by the Parks Department, Mayor Jenny Durkan has said that Seattle bears no responsibility for the encampment because it isn’t on city property. In May, Durkan suggested that if the chronically underfunded district wants the encampment gone, it should “stand up” its own human services system.

Durkan has repeatedly suggested that people living behind the elementary school made a conscious decision to move away from property owned by the city, and have therefore chosen to be beyond the city’s help. But emails from city officials obtained through a records request show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

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In an email on July 8, 2020, for example, a recreation specialist with the city’s Parks Department told a school facilities staffer that the department would be removing and replacing lights in the park and would be asking “several campers in the area” to “relocate during construction.” Those “campers,” the parks staffer wrote, “may move elsewhere or around the SW corner of [Bitter Lake Lake which I understand is SPS property with Broadview Thompson [sic] School up the hill to the west. We never know what we will get when requesting a move of their ‘home.'”

Liza Rankin, the school board director for North Seattle, said that “seeing these communications now from a year ago, it’s really frustrating to know that had there been a prompt and appropriate response instead of sweeping people from the park at that point—offering services or shelter or even just an alternative location— this whole thing could have been avoided.”

After the city told the people living at the playfield that they had to leave, they did exactly what the city predicted, setting up their tents on the school district property a few feet away. “As we’ve seen where other encampments have sprung up, it’s not random,” Rankin said. “People are setting up tents where there’s a community center nearby, where there’s transportation nearby, where there’s other resources.” If the city hadn’t “shooed away” people camping on park property, or if they’d responded to the encampment behind the school when it was small, Rankin continued, “I think there would still be an encampment at Bitter Lake— I just think it would probably be by the community center” and not next to the school. Continue reading “City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park”

Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park

The Northwest African American Museum and Jimi Hendrix Park on Thursday. Photo by Paul Kiefer

1. Restrooms at three Seattle Public Library branches—Ballard, Capitol Hill, and the Central Library—that have will be open to the public fewer hours beginning July 21, a loss of access that will largely impact people experiencing homelessness in those neighborhoods. Most library branches have reopened on a limited basis, in many cases just two or three days a week.

In response to widespread restroom closures during the pandemic, the city’s library system opened restrooms at five branches from 10am to 6pm seven days a week last April; the goal, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan, was to provide “additional vital hygiene resources to people living unsheltered.” Now, restrooms will only be available when the libraries themselves are open; currently, all three libraries are open limited hours, meaning that restrooms will be closed at times when they used to be available.

The parks department confirmed that police do routinely accompany them to encampment removals “any time there are safety concerns during their work.”

The impact will be the greatest at the Capitol Hill branch, where people will no longer have access to restrooms on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday mornings from 10 to noon. In Ballard and at the central library downtown, restrooms will now be closed on Sundays and Mondays. 

Library spokeswoman Laura Gentry said daily access to library restrooms “was always meant to be a temporary standalone service until we could provide more restroom access through reopening libraries. Now that city and state COVID-19 restrictions are being dropped, more restroom options have become available to the public, and many more Seattle libraries are reopened, we believe it’s important to focus Library staffing efforts on reopening the last of our closed neighborhood libraries and supporting pre-pandemic service levels and hours.”

To library users who haven’t been able to go to their local branches in more than a year, accessing local libraries even two days a week will be an improvement. But to people living unsheltered who rely on regular restroom access at the three branches where hours are shrinking, the existence of open restrooms in other neighborhoods is surely a cold comfort.

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2. Signs that appeared around Jimi Hendrix Park near the Northwest African American Museum announcing that the city planned to come in and remove any belongings that remained on site yesterday morning had nothing to do with the longstanding protest encampment in front of the museum, a Seattle Parks Department spokeswoman said Thursday. Protesters showed up at the museum and blocked the entrance after word went around on social media about a potential sweep.

Instead, Parks showed up Thursday morning to dismantle a garden shed and remove a garden planted by Black Star Farmers, a group of land activists who established their first garden in Cal Anderson Park during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Continue reading “Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park”

No Charges Against Cops Who Violated Voting Law; City Finally Buys Shower Trailers

1. Eight Seattle police officers who registered to vote using the addresses of Seattle Police Department precincts instead of their home addresses—including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan—will not face criminal charges. Instead, after an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), two of the officers (including Solan) received one-day unpaid suspensions and three received oral reprimands; the remaining three officers retired or resigned before the investigation ended.

The South Seattle Emerald first reported that eight SPD officers had registered to vote using their precinct addresses in July 2020, after a search of county voting records found at least one officer registered at each of the department’s five precincts. Because registering to vote using an incorrect residential address is a felony in Washington—one punishable by a five-year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine—the OPA initially referred the case to SPD for a criminal investigation.

The department decided not to investigate; according to the OPA’s report on the case, an SPD captain justified the decision by noting that the officers were already under investigation by the King County Department of Elections, and by claiming (incorrectly) that all of the officers lived in Seattle.

While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

In lieu of an investigation, the OPA began its own investigation of the officers’ alleged policy violations, ultimately ruling that all eight officers violated SPD’s professionalism policies, as well as a policy prohibiting officers from using their precinct addresses for personal business. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg didn’t say whether he believed the officers knowingly violated state law, though he noted that King County Elections’ investigation will eventually resolve the question. “Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” he wrote in his report. “This is especially the case for police officers who are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing it.”

If the elections department does rule that the officers knowingly broke state law, county election officials told the OPA they are unlikely to press charges—the law targeting incorrect voter registration addresses is frequently broken and rarely enforced.

Only five of the officers agreed to interviews with OPA investigators. While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

2. The city will replace two rented shower trailers, which have been stationed at Seattle Center and King Street Station in Pioneer Square since last fall, with trailers it bought from a Pittsburgh-based company called Restroom2Go Restroom Trailers. According to a Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman, the trailers cost the city just over $188,000.

As the COVID pandemic abates, the city has begun closing down and relocating facilities and services for people experiencing homelessness, including “de-intensified” mass shelters and hygiene facilities like the two shower trailers. For now, the spokeswoman said, people will still be able to shower at King Street Station, but the shower trailer at Seattle Center will have to move as summer programming returns to the former World’s Fair grounds. A temporary shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall has already started shutting down, with residents moving back into the Navigation Center (a congregate shelter in the International District).

Another DESC shelter whose residents moved to Exhibition Hall during the pandemic, the Queen Anne Shelter, remains closed.

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As PubliCola has reported over the past year, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was reluctant to provide mobile showers for people experiencing homelessness even before the pandemic. Although the city council provided funds to purchase shower trailers in 2019, SPU, under Durkan, didn’t spend the money, forcing a mad scramble to rent trailers at an exorbitant cost once the pandemic began. (Even then, the city took months to actually deploy the trailers.) Eventually, the city ditched its gold-plated trailer provider for a more affordable service.

According to SPU, the city is still looking for a place to move the Seattle Center trailer “on the campus,” and is also working out what to do with the two trailers in the long term. “City staff are considering exploring the best options for the trailers, including making them mobile, keeping them stationary or a hybrid approach, to meet the needs of our clients and maximize utilization.”

Even with the two trailers remaining in service, there are very few options for people living unsheltered to take a shower citywide. Lack of access to hygiene is a major quality of life issue, and a barrier to accessing public facilities like transit and libraries, not to mention applying for a job. According to the city’s current hygiene map, there are just 14 places in the city that offer free showers, most of them concentrated near the downtown core; neighborhoods south of I-90, including all of West and Southeast Seattle, have just one shower location each.

3. Someone—perhaps the same brave long-lens photographers who add images of unsheltered people to Google Maps results for various Seattle parks—took the time recently to rename the Ballard Commons Park “Straussville” in Google Maps.

Dan Strauss is the city council member for District 6, which includes the Commons; unsheltered people have lived and congregated in the park, which is next to the Ballard branch library, for many years, but have become more visible during the pandemic as the city decreased encampment sweeps. As of Monday morning, the fake park name had been removed.