Category: Parks

Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park

By Erica C. Barnett

The area around City Hall Park in downtown Seattle—a rough rectangle of rare urban green space located across an alley from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue—has never been a shiny tourist destination. Located at the heart of one of the city's most historic districts, Pioneer Square, the area is also home to many of the city's homeless shelters and day centers, the King County Jail, several bus stops, and, of course, the courthouse itself. The city-owned park—for decades, a place for people who are homeless, marginally housed, or low-income to hang out—became the site of a homeless encampment that grew larger and more chaotic as the city of Seattle swept unsheltered people from other parts of downtown.

Periodically, judges at the courthouse have led the charge to implement new security measures in the area, arguing that the presence of so many visibly poor people and people involved in the criminal justice system presents a danger to innocent passersby and non-criminal courthouse users. A Seattle Times story from 2005, for example, began with a litany of the kind of people who use the courthouse: "Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters." (As that same Seattle Times story noted, the park was known as "Muscatel Meadows" as far back as the 1960s).

More recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself prompted a work-from-home order and demands from King County Superior Court judges to shut down the park, which had become the site of a large, often chaotic encampment that grew dramatically as unsheltered people were swept there from other parts of downtown Seattle.

"If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."

This past August, the judges got their wish: The park is now walled off by a high chain-link fence, accessible to no one. Earlier this month, the King County Council voted 7-2 to take it over, arguing that they could succeed where the city "failed" to keep the park safe and clear of encampments. If the Seattle City Council adopts similar legislation next year, the city will hand the park over to King County in exchange for several county-owned properties, and the county will get the final say over what becomes of the space. Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the swap last month.

Joe McDermott, one of two county council members who voted against the land transfer (the other was South King County council member Girmay Zahilay), says his colleagues are misguided if they believe a county takeover will solve the decades-old issues in and around the park.

"It’s a false sense of security," McDermott said. "If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."  

"The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."—Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square

While the county could decide to retain the park's use as a park, the legislation also leaves open the possibility of turning it into part of the larger "civic campus" that includes the county jail, the courthouse, and the King County Administration Building, depriving hundreds of people who live in and around the area of the only piece of urban green space in the neighborhood. Some council members, including East King County representative Reagan Dunn, have even suggested—in McDermott's view, fantastically—reorienting the courthouse to the south and "restoring" its original entrance on Jefferson Street.

Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said shutting down the park will deprive hundreds of low-income neighborhood residents of access to green space. "In the two blocks surrounding the park, there are 600 extremely low-income units, and in the next six to eight months, there will be 760, and most of those individuals are very low-income, high-needs individuals who need access to outdoor space," she said. "The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."

The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents downtown businesses and has worked to activate a number of downtown parks, including nearby Occidental Square, also opposes closing down what DSA director Jon Scholes calls "precious" and irreplaceable public space downtown. "We've been ineffective at creating a space that is welcoming to all and delivering on its intended use," Scholes said, but closing the park permanently would be "a big mistake. We could have done that 10 years ago in Westlake Park too, and put in all kinds of uses and buildings and structures that were not consistent with the regional vision for [Westlake] as a publicly accessible park, but we didn't." Continue reading "Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park"

Pending Sweep Defies “New Approach to Encampments” Narrative, Ann Davison Names Top Staff, and More

1. On Monday, December 20, the city will remove a large RV and tent encampment along West Green Lake Way North, close to the lawn bowling area of Lower Woodland Park. Notice for the removal went up on Thursday and the city’s HOPE team—a group of city employees that does outreach to encampment residents in the immediate runup to a sweep—began its usual pre-sweep process of offering shelter beds to the people living there earlier this week. 

According to outreach workers in the area, most of the RV residents plan to move their vehicles about a block, to an area of Upper Woodland Park where the city has indicated they will not remove tents and RVs until next month. 

The encampment, which has persisted for many months, was the backdrop for a pre-election press conference by then-candidate Bruce Harrell, who said that if he was elected mayor, he would have the authority to “direct mental health counselors and housing advocates down here [and] bring down individualized case management experts” to find shelter or housing for the people living at the site.

Last week, City Councilmember Dan Strauss said the city planned to expand the “new, person-centered approach” used to shelter people living at the Ballard Commons into other encampments in his North Seattle district, including Lower Woodland Park. Outreach workers say that what they’ve seen instead is a business-as-usual approach that consists of putting up “no parking” signs and notices that encampment residents have 72 hours to leave.

“Every single one of these people was swept from another site, and I know that most of these people have been swept over and over.”

As PubliCola noted (and Strauss acknowledged) last week, the approach the city took at the Ballard Commons was successful thanks to an unusual flood of new openings in tiny house villages and a former hotel turned into housing in North Seattle, making it possible for outreach workers to offer something better than a basic shelter bed to nearly everyone living on site. Now that those beds are mostly full, the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team is back to offering whatever shelter beds happen to become available, including beds at shelters that offer less privacy, require gender segregation, or are located far away from the community where an encampment is located.

PubliCola contacted the Human Services Department on Friday and will update this post with any additional information we receive about the encampment removal.

Jenn Adams, a member of a team of RV outreach workers called the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, said the people living in RVs in Lower Woodland Park ended up there after being chased from someplace else. “Every single one of these people was swept from another site, and I know that most of these people have been swept over and over,” Adams said. She estimates that between 25 and 30 people will have to move when the city comes through to enforce its no-parking signs on Monday.

2. City attorney-elect Ann Davison announced two key members of her administration on Thursday. Scott Lindsay, a controversial 2017 city attorney candidate who authored an infamous report that became the basis for KOMO TV’s “Seattle Is Dying” broadcast, will be deputy city attorney. Although Lindsay, who advised Davison on her campaign, was widely expected to receive a prominent role in her office, his appointment was met with groans from allies of former city attorney Pete Holmes, who defeated Lindsay four years ago by a 51-point margin.

Lindsay has a scant record, including virtually no courtroom experience. He also tried and failed to get the job Davison won, making him a deputy who considers himself fully qualified for his boss’s position.

Lindsay’s views on crime and punishment (in brief: More punishment equals less crime) are largely in line with statements Davison, a Republican, has made during all three of her recent runs for office. As public safety advisor to Ed Murray, Lindsay was the architect of the “nine-and-a-half-block strategy” to crack down on low-level drug crime downtown; he also came up with the idea for the Navigation Team, a group of police and outreach workers who conducted encampment sweeps. (The HOPE Team is basically the Navigation Team, minus the police.) Lindsay has a scant record, including virtually no courtroom experience. Importantly, he also tried and failed to get the job Davison won, making him a deputy who considers himself fully qualified for his boss’s position.

In contrast, Davison’s pick for criminal division chief, former King County deputy prosecuting attorney Natalie Walton-Anderson, prompted sighs of relief among advocates for criminal justice reform. As the prosecuting attorney’s liaison to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, Walton-Anderson “was instrumental in the success of the LEAD program for many years,” prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said in a statement. LEAD provides alternatives to prosecution for people engaged in low-level nonviolent criminal activity.

To emphasize the point, Satterberg’s office distributed an email chief deputy prosecuting attorney Daniel Clark sent around to the criminal division on Walton-Anderson’s last day earlier this year, when she left the office to join the US Attorney’s office earlier this year. In the memo, Clark called Walton-Anderson “braver, smarter, wittier, wiser, and savvier than anyone can convey in an email. And her impact on our community, our office and on the many people whose lives she has touched along the way is far greater than I can write.”

LEAD program director Tiarra Dearbone told PubliCola Walton-Anderson “has shown that prosecutors can make discretionary and creative decisions that support community based care and trauma informed recovery. She has made herself available to others across the nation who are trying to stand up alternative programs that create community safety and well-being. This is a really hopeful development.”

Davison’s announcement includes no testimonials on Lindsay’s behalf. According to the press release, Lindsay will work to “coordinate public safety strategies in neighborhoods across the city.”

3. Former City Budget Office director Ben Noble—whose departure announcement we covered last week—is staying on at the city, but moving from the CBO (an independent office that works closely with the mayor to come up with revenue forecasts and budget proposals to present to the council) to be the first director of the new Office of Economic and Revenue Forecasts, which will answer to a four-person body made up of two council members, the mayor, and the city finance director. Continue reading “Pending Sweep Defies “New Approach to Encampments” Narrative, Ann Davison Names Top Staff, and More”

A “New Approach to Encampment Removals” Is Limited by a Lack of Places for People to Go

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”

But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.” 

While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”

Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.

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At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.

The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.

The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter. 

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”

For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?

 

Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.

What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.

As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight

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

By the end of this week, dozens of tents that have dotted the hillside behind Broadview Thomson K-8 School will be gone, and the former campground, which borders the south side of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, abandoned except for the security guards who will ensure that no more unsheltered people move in. Many of the residents have moved into the Low Income Housing Institute’s new Friendship Heights tiny house village nearby, where 22 tiny houses are reserved for Bitter Lake residents. Another 18 have moved into the new Mary Pilgrim Inn, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, nearby.

In a letter to parents at the end of November, school principal Tipton Blish wrote, “With active support from the City of Seattle, the people who have been living at the camp now have an opportunity to move out of the elements and onto a path to break the cycle of homelessness.”

It’s a positive outcome for dozens of people who have spent more than a year waiting for services and support that never came.

But the past year at the Bitter Lake encampment, which culminated in disturbing allegations against the nonprofit director the school district tapped to relocate encampment residents, highlights ongoing policy questions about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, including the role that local government and nonprofits play in deciding which encampments get resources, and which get ignored.

It also raises a number of questions for the school district, the city, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Why did Seattle Public Schools place so much responsibility in the hands of an untested, brand-new nonprofit run primarily by a single volunteer? Should the district have done more to monitor what was going on at the encampment, including the power dynamics between the nonprofit and encampment residents? Why did the city take so long to step in and help encampment residents? And how did 14 housing vouchers end up in the hands of an unvetted nonprofit with no track record—or staff?

 

People began setting up tents at Bitter Lake shortly after the pandemic began, attracted by both the bucolic lakeshore location and the site’s proximity to a restroom in the city park next door. Walking to the site from the Bitter Lake soccer field, you might not realize you’ve crossed an invisible border from city property to school property; even the public boat ramp is technically on school district grounds, contributing to the sense that the lakeshore is part of the park itself.

But while the public may not have found the distinction meaningful, the city did, and when the school district asked for help picking up trash and providing services to the several dozen people living at the encampment earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was not the city’s problem, suggesting that perhaps the school district might want to use its “reserves” to set up its own human services department to provide outreach, case management, and housing to encampment residents.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps.

Casting around for allies, the school district settled on a new, but highly engaged, nonprofit called Anything Helps, led by a formerly homeless outreach worker named Mike Mathias. Within weeks, the school district had charged Mathias with the herculean task of finding shelter or housing for everyone on site. His plan, which involved enrolling every encampment resident in the state Housing and Essential Needs program, proved more challenging than either Mathias or the school district expected and ultimately didn’t pan out.

Instead, after many months of inaction, the city finally stepped in earlier this month, connecting encampment residents with shelter and housing through a very conventional avenue: The HOPE Team, a group of city employees that offers shelter and services to encampments that the city is about to sweep, started showing up and providing referrals to two new tiny house villages and a hotel-based housing project that recently opened nearby. Outreach workers from other nonprofits, who had mostly stayed away from Bitter Lake to prioritize people living in worse conditions elsewhere, showed up as well, and in the end, almost everyone on site moved into temporary shelter or housing.

Outreach workers, volunteers, and one school board member who spoke to PubliCola on background said they were relieved that encampment residents were finally able to leave, noting that the situation at the encampment had been deteriorating for some time.

Last week, volunteers for Anything Helps sent a letter to community members, the school district, and other homeless service providers making a number of disturbing allegations about Mathias. Among other charges, the letter alleges that Mathias used some of the money Anything Helps received from the school district and individual donors to pay for drugs; that he threatened and used federal Emergency Housing Vouchers as leverage over several women at the camp; and that he engaged in “verbal aggression, threats, and retaliation toward staff,” including accusing one volunteer of stealing money.

Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no paid case managers.

Mathias told PubliCola that “a lot of these allegations are false,” except for one that he declined to identify until he could talk to an attorney. He also said he would “step away from the project completely” and had appointed an interim executive director, former Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness outreach specialist Curtis Polteno, as his replacement. PubliCola was unable to reach Polteno to confirm his new role.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps, according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens. “These are very serious allegations that need to be investigated,” Martens said. Mathias had not officially assigned any of the vouchers to specific encampment residents yet when KCRHA froze the vouchers.

The city’s Human Services Department, which runs the HOPE team, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about the allegations.

The survey Mathias submitted as part of Anything Helps’ voucher application, which suggested the fledgling organization had a case management staff similar in size to longstanding service providers such as the YWCA, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, and Africatown, did not apparently raise eyebrows at the homelessness authority.

For months, Mathias and a handful of volunteers have been out at the encampment daily, setting up a makeshift “headquarters” that has consisted of a portable awning, some card tables, a few laptops, and a printer. None of the volunteers, who Mathias referred to as “volunteer staff,” received a salary, including Mathias. Nonetheless, on his application for vouchers, Mathias wrote that Anything Helps had seven “FTE case managers,” or the equivalent of seven paid full-time case managers, on staff. Continue reading “As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight”

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

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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”