Category: The C Is for Crank

Other US Transit Agencies Stiff Riders on Restroom Access. Sound Transit Should Defy the Trend.

An earlier version of this graphic, from 2019, touted 18 future stations; the two non-Sound Transit stations (in gray, and added to Sound Transit’s own facilities here) are at the ferry terminal in Mukilteo and at the Tacoma Dome.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit’s current plan for public restrooms at its light-rail stations calls for a grand total of 14 agency-operated restrooms between Lynnwood and Tacoma Community College more than 50 miles away—a sparse distribution that will leave many riders, including those in Seattle and most of the Eastside, with little or no restroom access.

The restrooms, when they open, will be for customers only, and may require riders to ask a security guard to unlock the restroom for them. Currently, the only public restrooms Sound Transit provides in the city of Seattle are at Union Station (upstairs from the Chinatown/International District station, and only open until 5pm) and Northgate (accessible only by requesting access from a security guard.)

Lack of access to restrooms impacts everyone using transit, but the problem is particularly acute for people with travel patterns that don’t mirror traditional home-work-home commutes, including but hardly limited to: People with disabilities that require regular restroom access; women, who tend to use transit for household errands that require many individual stops; students; people experiencing homelessness; low-income people and others who use transit to access services; and anyone who wants to rely on transit for more than a few hours at a time, in a city where restrooms for the general public are already few and far between.

Additionally, requiring riders to seek permission to relieve themselves from security guards is a barrier to anyone who doesn’t speak English or prefers to avoid encounters with law enforcement.

On Thursday, Sound Transit staff justified the sparse restroom distribution by noting that only a few locations met the criteria the agency established—a circular argument that makes it seem as if Sound Transit has no authority over its own rules. To merit a restroom, a station must be the served by at least five transit routes, have at least 10,000 boardings a day, and be at least 20 minutes away from the nearest station with a restroom by train. This standard assumes that many people—those whose final destination isn’t a station with a restroom—will plan extra time into their day to ride the train to a station with a restroom, use it, and then board another train to go on to their destination.

Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue and much of the Eastside on the King County Council, pointed out on Thursday that “when you apply these criteria, you end up with an entire section of our system that has truly no restroom access, which I don’t think we were going for.” Board chair Kent Keel, a member of the University Place city council, added, “When I look down at Pierce County as well, there’s none. I see the gray one at the Tacoma Dome—one of two restrooms provided by other public agencies Sound Transit has included on its own list—but that’s been there forever.”

Public-transit restrooms, which are ubiquitous in other countries, are relatively rare in the United States. Sound Transit staffers noted Thursday that they had looked at nine other “peer” transit agencies, including New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Los Angeles, and all offered very limited restroom access, within fare-paid zones and at major transit hubs; all require passengers to seek out a staffer to unlock the restrooms for them. To people from countries where using transit is the norm, depriving riders of such a basic amenity smacks of barbarism; in 2015, he UK Guardian described the lack of public restrooms in US transit systems as a sign that we lack “urban civilization.”

Historically, Sound Transit has rarely chosen to blaze trails when it comes to passenger access, comfort, or accessibility. For years, the agency mostly ignored complaints about its punitive fare enforcement policies, which can lead to crushing fines and even criminal charges, and continues to maintain that it must crack down on “fare evaders” because otherwise, everyone might decide to ride for free

In the case of restrooms, though, there’s still plenty of time to revamp existing policy. Instead of making restrooms rare and inaccessible, Sound Transit could decide, today, to make restroom access part of its commitment to customer service, by providing restrooms not just at far-flung transit hubs but throughout the system. Doing so would not only improve passenger comfort; it would also send a message that all kinds of people are welcome to use the system at all times of day, to go anywhere they want—whether it’s commuting straight from home to work or exploring the region from Bellevue to Ballard to Federal Way, with no particular destination in mind. Isn’t that also what transit is for?

Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes

This post was originally published at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, a 35-year-old man who had been released from jail less than one week earlier attacked a county employee in a women’s restroom at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. The assailant, a Level 1 sex offender with a history of attacking women, is homeless and told detectives he had smoked “homemade meth” immediately before the attack. A police report filed after the incident indicates the attacker may suffer from mental illness.

The particulars of this case might lead a reasonable person to conclude that people who commit sex offenses need closer monitoring once they’re released from custody, along with access to housing and mental health care to prevent them from reoffending once they’re released.

Instead, the assault became a symbol for conservative officials, who suggested “solutions” that included sweeping dozens of homeless people from a nearby encampment and directing women to change the way they behave in public.

In a message that went out to all courthouse employees, the county suggested that employees who might be vulnerable to sexual assault could avoid being attacked by following a list of “tips… to enhance your personal safety and avoid potential trouble” while downtown.

The “personal safety tips” will be familiar to many women, who are often told that we must restrict our movements and remain hypervigilant in order to prevent our own sexual assault: Leave all personal belongings behind when you leave your car, or “if you must carry a purse,” hug it close to your torso; wear flat shoes and loose clothing that will allow you to run; don’t walk outside and take a security escort if it’s dark out; use underground tunnels to completely “avoid surface streets” downtown; huddle near buildings while waiting for crossing signals so no one can sneak up from behind; don’t use headphones or look at your phone; and avoid “shortcuts,” including “parks, parking lots, garages and alleyways.”

Telling women to live in terror is easier than teaching men not to be rapists. Telling homeless people to stop existing in public is easier than giving everyone a home.

I don’t remember the first time I was told to never walk to my car alone, to stay home at night, to keep my back against the wall, or to keep a key lodged firmly between my middle and index fingers in case I need to stab an assailant in the eye. I just know that I internalized the lesson that I can prevent my own sexual assault, and its corollary: If I’m assaulted, it’s because I did something “wrong.” I wore my purse on my shoulder, instead of clutching it to my chest with both arms. I listened to music instead of my surroundings. I didn’t identify every potential exit route. My female body was the problem, and I failed to follow all the restrictions imposed on its movements.

It’s a comforting idea, especially if you’re a policy maker who wants to shift blame from systems to individuals. If we can make women “safe” from assault by convincing them to move through the world in a certain way, there’s no need to address the larger question of why some men feel entitled to women’s bodies, or why the punishment for sexual offenses is, too often, incarcerating men and releasing them with no support system in place to prevent them from offending again. If we can identify the problem as “homeless people” rather than “homelessness,” the solution becomes much simpler: Make the people go somewhere else. Problem solved. Continue reading “Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes”

The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle

Image via

By Erica C. Barnett

In November, Seattle voters will (almost certainly) vote on whether to adopt Charter Amendment 29, an initiative that would require the city to divert public funds to add 2,000 new shelter beds while keeping parks and streets “clear of encampments,” according to the text of the amendment. The campaign is called Compassion Seattle, a name that suggests that by passing the initiative, voters will be supporting a compassionate approach to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness across the city.

In reality, the measure is an unfunded mandate that would force the city to create 2,000 new shelter “units” (beds) at the lowest possible cost, by diverting money from other city functions into a new fund aimed at moving unsheltered people out of places where they are visible and into places where they can’t be seen—”clearing” parks for housed people to use while spending the usual pittance to house, treat, and serve people with complicated needs.

Because initiative supporters are claiming that the measure will finally fix homelessness in Seattle, it’s extremely important to distinguish between what the charter amendment actually says and what supporters claim it would do. Here’s a cheat sheet to help inform your vote this fall.

Claim 1: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to build housing and provide needed services, including addiction treatment and mental health care, for thousands of unsheltered Seattle residents.

Compassion Seattle leader Jon Scholes, director of the Downtown Seattle Association, said during a recent forum that the amendment “mandates…  that we invest in treatment, mental health and emergency housing and the set of services that we know are important to bringing people inside.”

This claim is simply false.

In fact, Charter Amendment 29 does not mandate any city spending on treatment, mental health care, or any specific “set of services.” Instead, it says the city “shall help fund low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services” in conjunction with King County—something the city already does through its annual budget and will continue to do as a major funder of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

Claim 2: We don’t need additional funding to fix homelessness; it’s just a matter of priorities.

Not only does Charter Amendment 29 fail to prescribe any specific solutions, it provides no new funding to address homelessness. Instead, it requires the city to set aside 12 percent of its existing general fund, which works out to a reallocation of about $18 million a year based on recent budgets, to support “the human services and homeless programs and services of the City.”

That’s right—all of the human services programs the city runs, which include youth and community safety programs, programs to combat domestic violence, services for elderly and disabled people, child care programs, funding for the Nurse Family Partnership, and, starting this year, a new division that will take over some functions of the police department. So if you hear an initiative supporter saying it will add another $18 million to homelessness programs, tell them it doesn’t—it creates a generic “human services” fund that can be spent for any human services purpose.

And even if every penny of the reallocated $18 million went to homelessness, it would barely scratch the surface of the problem. Nonetheless, initiative proponents continue to claim that $18 million would be enough to pay for comprehensive care, including individual housing and shelter.

DSA director Jon Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise.

Claim 3: Compassion Seattle will fund hotels and evidence-based, high-quality services throughout the city.

DSA director Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise, because JustCARE isn’t cheap—certainly not cheap enough to provide hotel rooms, case management, and comprehensive wraparound services on a budget of $18 million a year.

Do the math: At $50,000 a person (the amount JustCARE supporters say the program would cost “at scale“), annual funding of $18 million would be enough to serve an additional 360 people. The initiative claims it will get 2,000 people off the streets in the first year alone. There’s simply no way supporters can justify the promises they’re making about the quality of care their budget-adjusting measure will pay for.

Claim 4: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to finally invest in real housing solutions for unsheltered people.

Supporters, including several mayoral candidates, have said they’re backing the initiative because it represents a new commitment to housing, forcing the city to provide individual shelter rooms and permanent supportive housing to people living outdoors. Mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell, for example, told the Seattle Times she considers the measure “the consensus path of what we need to do around homelessness,” because it would require “interim housing, more services, more permanent supportive housing.”

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

This is a common misinterpretation of what Charter Amendment 29 would do. The amendment includes a lot of words about providing appropriate services and permanent, individualized housing options, but that language is aspirational (“it is City policy to…”); it doesn’t implement any actual policy. In fact, much of what’s in the amendment is already city policy, including a section stipulating that the city supports housing and services that are “tailored to individual needs and cultural differences.” (For example, HSD already has policies in place committing the department to provide culturally responsive services to diverse populations.) Saying that something is city policy and mandating spending on specific solutions are very different things.

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

Thousands of shelter beds might put homelessness out of sight for groups like the DSA that are concerned about the impacts of tents on businesses, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that thousands of people in our region lack a permanent place to live. City and regional leaders have known for many years that the old shelter-first model is an ineffective way to get people housed, which is why “housing first” is now considered a best practice. And the proposal doesn’t mandate spending on services beyond what the city is already doing. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle”

Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Olga Park, a small swatch of green space near Ravenna and Cowen Parks in Northeast Seattle, has been the site of a fairly small but disruptive encampment for about a year. Neighbors in nearby apartments and houses have complained frequently to the city about noise, drug use, and hostile treatment from the people living there—typical points of friction between housed and homeless people in densely populated residential areas.

But many in the neighborhood have also worked to find alternatives that wouldn’t simply displace the encampment residents, meeting with outreach workers from REACH who have developed relationships with people living in the park to discuss options that would keep them in the neighborhood. “My ideal approach so far, which we’ve been advocating with the city to do, is something like the JustCARE program, where people move into hotels on a voluntary basis,” Teresa Barker, from the Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance, said.

Those conversations came to an abrupt halt last week, when the city decided to sweep the encampment after a man who lived elsewhere shot and killed an encampment resident. Those living in the park got about two days’ notice; two accepted referrals to the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and one got a referral to Otto’s Place, a 100-bed shelter in Pioneer Square. The rest moved elsewhere, leaving behind tents, property, and trash for the Parks Department to haul away.

The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the University Heights Center, said.

Neighbors who’ve been asking the city to address the encampment for months were relieved that it’s gone, but said they also understand that the city isn’t solving anything by moving traumatized people from place to place. The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the nearby University Heights Center, said. “It’s unfortunate that we wait to drop the hammer and force people out when they already traumatized by the murder.” 

Both Ewing and Barker said the city needed to do something about the encampment; both pointed out numerous examples of aggressive behavior and dangerous incidents, including a large fire, screaming fights, verbal threats, and a man who climbed 40 feet up a tree and wouldn’t come down. But they both said that most of the neighborhood wanted the city to provide alternatives that would actually work for the encampment residents, rather than a standard-issue sweep, in which people are offered whatever shelter happens to be available at the moment.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood.” —Theresa Barker, Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood,” Barker said. “The challenge is that in a few weeks we’ll see them back—if not at that site, they may be down the street or at the playground or playfield, with even more defense mechanisms because of the trauma that just happened to them.” Continue reading “Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park”

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

Image via Rail House Apartments.

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The C Is for Crank: God Doesn’t Care How You Protest

By Erica C. Barnett

Before a press conference last week responding to the guilty verdict in the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, Mayor Jenny Durkan handed the mic over to the Rev. Leslie Braxton, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship church in Kent, “for a prayer and some words of wisdom.”

Braxton, who is Black, had the unenviable job of setting the tone for a government press conference responding to a rare case of justice delivered in a system that continues to allow police to kill Black men and women with impunity. Durkan and SPD responded to the protests sparked by Floyd’s murder last year with an overwhelming show of force, and by barricading two police precincts behind concrete walls.

In his remarks, Braxton urged protesters to be peaceful and obey the law. “There’s no reason for anyone to burn anything, to loot anything, or be unnecessarily confrontational,” he said. He asked God to “be with us all, and let us all behave in such a way that might make others think that we know you ourselves.”

Later, interim Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz provided some secular reinforcement to Braxton’s plea: The police had no problem with demonstrations, he said, but “we cannot let the city burn.” 

The same afternoon, in a press release, Durkan declared a citywide prayer. “The City of Seattle – in coordination with faith leaders – will be hosting a citywide prayer and moment of silence at 7 pm,” Durkan announced.

Seattle has not “burned,” either last week or last summer. Nor is this the first time the city has participated in an state-sanctioned prayer—a right the US Supreme Court effectively upheld in 1983, when it found that prayer at government meetings was “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

However: Just because the mayor of Seattle has the right to hold a prayer at a press conference, and just because she can declare a citywide prayer, that doesn’t mean she should.

Enoka Herat, Police Practices and Immigration Counsel for the ACLU of Washington, said Durkan’s call to worship was a distraction from the real issues facing elected leaders and SPD, including police violence and racial bias in policing.

Any prayer that conscripts God to advocate for a government directive or discourage civil disobedience against objectionable policies is inherently political, a violation of church-state separation in spirit if not law.

“Whether, when, and how to pray is a deeply personal decision, and the government should not intrude on it,’ Herat said. “The city should be putting its energy into eliminating the racial injustice inherent in the way it currently polices its communities.”

Washington state is one of the least religious states in the country, with about half the population saying they don’t practice any religion. In another poll about religious affiliation, only about half of Seattle residents even nominally identified as Christian, and 37 percent had no religious affiliation. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: God Doesn’t Care How You Protest”

The C Is for Crank: Durkan’s Performative Trash Pickups Amplify Toxic Narrative

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the most consistent characteristics of the Durkan Administration has been their tendency to put out numbers that present a positive story, no matter what external reality they reflect. In Durkan’s world, the trend is always positive; the arrow of good news points eternally up and to the right.

For example: When the COVID pandemic forced shelter providers to provide more sleeping space for clients, Durkan claimed the city had created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for people experiencing homelessness—even though all but 95 of those were either existing shelter beds that had been relocated or spots at COVID isolation and quarantine sites for the general public.

When the mayor claimed in her state of the city address that the city had moved 7,400 households into permanent housing, PubliCola reported that that number reflected those who remained in permanent housing plus the number of exits from individual programs, forcing Durkan’s Human Services Department to walk back that claim.

And PubliCola readers will recall the many revisions the mayor’s office has made to the number of public restrooms the city claims are open for people experiencing homelessness—revisions that, as I’ve documented, have included the addition of many portable toilets that lack handwashing facilities to the list of “open restrooms,” improving the numbers.

The latest good-news story from the mayor’s office is about the Clean City Initiative, a $3 million “surge” in trash and graffiti removal in public spaces, with a particular focus on encampments and locations where unsheltered people sleep outdoors, such as greenbelts and doorways.

Consider a counterfactual: The city launches a massive campaign to expand the trash pickup at homeless encampments so that people living unsheltered actually have an opportunity to legally dispose of their trash—much as housed people do

The mayor’s office has quantified progress for the initiatives in terms of pounds of trash collected, among other metrics; every week, Seattle residents can visit a “dashboard” where the city reports its week-to-week improvements—millions of pounds of trash removed, thousands of needles collected, thousands of square feet of graffiti power-washed away.

These numbers are out of context and misleading, because they tell a fraction of the story. But they also contribute to a politically noxious narrative that feeds into the dehumanization of unhoused people. For years, the Seattle Is Dying crowd has been framing homeless people, rather than homelessness itself, as the problem. Durkan’s emphasis on the physical detritus produced by people who lack safe places to sleep capitulates to this agenda by focusing on the symptom—litter—rather than the cause.

The Clean City program started earlier this year, but the city’s executive departments have ramped up their promotional campaign in recent weeks, via press releases, Instagram posts, and dozens of tweets featuring “before” and “after” site photos.

As a journalist, I live on Twitter, which is where I started noticing the trend this month. Here’s a tweet from the city’s Parks Department, showing workers with shovels standing inside a Pioneer Square fountain usually surrounded by people, some of them homeless, and filled with litter. In the image, the fountain has been temporarily cleansed of both trash and people.

Another tweet, also from Parks, shows before and after shots outside an unidentified building. The text reads: “The Clean City Initiative includes the Purple Bag program, trash pickup serving the unhoused. From Feb. 15-21, crews collected 71 purple bags from encampments. Added to other cleanup results, the week’s totals came to 142,575 lbs of trash & 6,605 needles.”

The photo does not show an encampment, any visible needles, or purple bags, but the implication is clear: This trash was produced by homeless people who failed to clean up after themselves; fortunately, the city came along to pick up after them.

What the mayor’s (and her departments’) obsession with numbers and before-and-after photos reflects, even if unintentionally, is less a story of constant improvement than one of ideology. By pushing the narrative that the city is altruistically cleaning up after people who can’t, or refuse to, clean up after themselves, the mayor’s office and her executive departments are contributing to the widespread, mainstream, and increasingly popular narrative that homeless people and the encampments where they live are themselves a blight that needs to be “cleaned up” or eradicated—by force if necessary. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Durkan’s Performative Trash Pickups Amplify Toxic Narrative”

Renton City Council to Homeless: No Room at the Inn

The Renton City Council, plus Mayor Armondo Pavone (upper left), City Clerk Jason Seth (third row, middle) and Sr. Assistant City Attorney Leslie Clark (bottom)

By Erica C. Barnett

Tonight, the Renton City Council voted 5-2, with council members Kim-Khanh Van and Ryan McIrvin casting the dissenting votes, to adopt a sweeping new law that will evict about 235 homeless people from the city’s Red Lion hotel, where they have been staying since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in two stages. The first will come at the end of May, when the shelter provider, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, will have to reduce the total population in the hotel to 125. The second will come next New Year’s Eve, when the remaining residents must also vacate the premises.

The new law, which was passed as “emergency” legislation, also creates a special zoning designation for homeless services, and imposes restrictions on service providers that will, advocates and providers say, have the effect of banning all homeless services from the city. Among other new regulations—imposed, supporters on the council said, because the city needs to have some way to restrict land uses with negative impacts—the law bars any homeless service provider from helping more than 100 people, imposes a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service providers, and requires service providers to monitor and regulate the behavior of their guests.

I described the impacts of the legislation last week, along with some of the changes the council made to the bill since its first introduction in November and; those included a number of new “whereas” clauses that emphasized the supposed violent nature of some of the Red Lion’s residents and the negative impact they have supposedly had on the surrounding community, which consists—in the Red Lion’s immediate vicinity—of a Walmart Supercenter, several car lots, and the South Renton Park and Ride.

I also covered the blow this vote represents to the hope for a “regional approach to homelessness,” on which many King County leaders, including County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have placed all their bets.

And I live-tweeted the public comment, both hateful and heartfelt, on both sides of the debate—from homeowners furious that “the activist class” has a right to speak in public meetings to formerly homeless people who spoke movingly about how access to a private room and shower could have changed their lives and gotten them on the path to housing and stability years before they found a way out.

This week, I’ll just note what happens next, now that Renton has said emphatically: We don’t want those people here. Currently, King County, DESC, and the Red Lion owners are locked in litigation over a separate zoning case, in which Renton says they are violating the city’s zoning laws by giving homeless people literal room at the inn. (That inn, they say, is a hotel, which is supposed to charge people for rooms, not shelter people displaced by a pandemic.) That litigation is ongoing, and more could follow soon now that the council has taken its vote.

In the meantime, the 235 men and women living at the Red Lion, including many for whom access to a private room and shower made health, stability, and recovery possible, are on a six-month timeline. Come June 1, about half of them will be selected to leave. Some of them, perhaps most, will have nowhere to go. Six months later, in the middle of winter, the rest will be forced to leave as well. Some at tonight’s council meeting, including Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone, seemed unwilling to acknowledge that their action constituted an eviction. The council, Pavone insisted, had “no intent” of “kicking anyone out” of the Red Lion. Moments later, he watched as the council voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill that does just that.

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward

Seattle Police Department officers—identifiable as members of the Navigation Team by their khaki pants‚look on during an encampment removal in Ballard earlier this year.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis introduced a proposal that would restore funding for outreach to homeless encampments and lay the groundwork for what Lewis described as a new city “unsheltered outreach and response team” that would replace the controversial Navigation Team.

The surprising part is that the council and mayor’s office worked together on the legislation. 

It’s a whiplash-inducing turn, given the mayor’s vehement opposition to the council’s efforts to dismantle the team and spend the savings on outreach workers. But it isn’t entirely unexpected. For weeks, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller has been working with council members and service providers to craft a new approach, one that may be at odds with the mayor’s own personal views about how to tackle unsheltered homelessness.

To recap: Late last month, Durkan’s office sent a scorched-earth letter to the council informing them that, in response to their budget direction, she would immediately disband the Navigation Team and suspend the city’s outreach and engagement efforts. In a statement, Durkan said that the city’s Human Services Department “will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions.” Indignant council members responded that they had never suggested eliminating outreach altogether, and in fact had allocated $1.4 million specifically for that purpose—but that Durkan had declined to spend it. The mayor’s office contends that this money never existed, since using it would require laying off staffers who work on 

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Since then, deputy mayor Sixkiller has been attempting to mend fences with the council and homeless advocates, by quietly working with council members Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Lisa Herbold on the compromise proposal Lewis introduced on Monday. That plan includes a new team inside the city’s Human Services Department that would serve as a kind of coordinating body for nonprofit outreach providers’ work in the field, plus funding for those outreach providers to expand their work. (The exact extent of the internal team’s coordination role, and their authority over the work of city contractors, remains unclear).

The goal of the new joint effort would be twofold: improving safety and safety and hygiene at existing encampments, and moving unsheltered people quickly into permanent housing. By utilizing new hotel-based shelters and triaging people quickly into services, case management, and appropriate housing, the new approach could, in theory, house a lot more people than the old approach of sweeping encampments and providing shelter referrals to their displaced residents.

That’s the plan, anyway. But there still are plenty of potential pitfalls and points of contention. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward”