Tag: Andrew Lewis

Harrell’s Proposal to Expand Park Ranger Program Sparks Controversy

Victor Steinbrueck Park
Victor Steinbrueck Park in downtown Seattle; photo by Wknight94; CC-by-SA 3.0 license

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to restart the mostly moribund Park Ranger program by hiring 26 additional rangers to patrol Seattle’s downtown parks has run into opposition from advocates who have argued that the rangers will be “park cops” deputized to kick homeless people out of public spaces.

But some city council members say the rangers are meant to be a civilian alternative to police, and point to measures the city has taken to ensure that rangers can’t facilitate arrests or exclude people from parks except in extreme situations—specifically, a 2012 policy that restricts park rangers’ authority.

Councilmember (and parks district board chair) Andrew Lewis said that during a recent “ridealong” with one of the city’s two park rangers, “it was made really, really clear to me that they are greatly dissuaded from using their authority to trespass or exclude—their job is to tell people what the rules in a park are, and usually that’s enough.”

On Monday, Lewis will release his own parks district plan, which will include Harrell’s park ranger proposal. “But,” he added, “we want to make sure we put some fetters on what they can do,” in the form of a resolution accompanying the parks district spending plan “acknowledging the current policy and making it clear rangers will not participate in removals of encampments.”

The debate over park rangers is only the latest salvo in a battle over behavior in parks that goes back decades.

Back in 1997, the city adopted a controversial law called the Parks Exclusion Ordinance, which allowed police to ban people from parks for violating local laws—anything from skating too fast to public inebriation to “camping”— could get a person excluded from all parks in one of 12 geographic “exclusion zones.” If a person was caught in any parks in that area during their exclusion period, they would face an escalating series of exclusions; on the third offense, they would be banned from every park in the city. Thousands of people were excluded from parks under the law, usually for minor offenses; during the first year the law was in effect, 53 percent of exclusions were for public inebriation and 22 percent were for sleeping in parks overnight.

Advocates like the ACLU and the Public Defender Association opposed the program, noting that it disproportionately impacted people who were homeless or poor; it also led to some absurd results.

The park ranger program started in 2007, when the city hired six rangers to “rove downtown parks and alert police to any illegal activity,” according to a Seattle Times report. The rangers also had the ability to enforce the exclusion ordinance.

The parks exclusion ordinance remains on the books. However, in 2012, it was superseded by a new “trespass warning” policy. Under that policy, park rangers or police can issue a warning when they see someone violating park rules or a state or local law; if they’re caught violating a law or park rule again, they can be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. People can also be excluded from a park zone—they still exist!—for up to a year for committing a felony or weapons-related violation. In 2015, the PDA wrote a letter to interim parks director Christopher Williams applauded the department for using the law judiciously and asking him to take a similar approach to the ban on smoking cigarettes in parks.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose onetime boss, former councilmember Nick Licata, opposed the original parks exclusion law, said current efforts to paint parks rangers as anti-homeless cops diminishes the hard work of activists who pushed for the 2012 policy change. “Advocates fighting for their clients did something important, with principled persistence, that we couldn’t accomplish legislatively…and it’s lasted for ten years,” Herbold said. “This opposition campaign is devaluing that victory.”

So far, according to the Public Defender Association, the city has abided by its commitment not to indiscriminately trespass people from parks over minor issues. In the last year, according to the parks department, the two parks rangers issued 388 informal verbal warnings, one written warning, one citation for trespass, and two exclusions, both related to people shooting guns at Discovery Park.

The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

“The City Parks Ranger program was created during a time when we’d achieved an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of criminal penalties for minor parks use issues and for camping,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “Their role is rarely to exclude—and then only for immediate legitimate safety threats—and mainly to be problem-solvers and caretakers. It’s obviously important to watch how an investment like this actually plays out on the ground, but to date, rangers have not catalyzed parks bans or arrests.”

A policy is less binding than a law, and open to interpretation by the mayor and his advisors; Harrell’s top public safety advisor, former Councilmember Tim Burgess, proposed criminalizing “aggressive panhandling” as a councilmember and, more recently, backed an aborted effort to have police use an obscure law governing behavior on buses to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” such as drinking, gambling, and amplified music around a former bus stop at Third and Pine. In other words: The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

Initially at least, the 28 park rangers would only work in parks downtown, under a 2008 agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild that prohibits them from operating elsewhere. According to Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen, “The initial focus on the park ranger program would be on downtown parks as rangers are hired, additional capacity is built, and the program is scaled up. While expanding beyond downtown is something we would like to consider after the program is reestablished— dependent on bargaining—there are plenty of parks downtown where rangers could provide needed services.”

More Details On Proposal to Double Parks District Funding: Encampments, Park Security, and Pickleball

Interim parks director Christopher Williams speaks at a parks district press conference last week.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle voters approved the Seattle Metropolitan Parks District, a special taxing district that enables the city to raise property taxes by as much to .075 percent without a public vote, in 2014 over the objections of the Seattle Times editorial board and other anti-tax advocates who argued that it would create a “permanent tax” with no accountability.

The parks district, which imposed an initial property tax of 0.02 percent (or 20 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation) replaced a system that required Seattle residents to vote on a parks levy every six years. If they didn’t, the city would forfeit much of its ongoing funding for things like community center and pool maintenance, landscaping, and new park acquisition. The Times didn’t like the old system much, either, but they really hated the idea of a tax that couldn’t be defeated at the polls.

So it’s interesting, this time around, that usual suspects aren’t lobbying the council at top volume to reject Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal for the second cycle of parks district funding, which would almost double the size of the levy from 20 cents per $1,000 to 38 and increase Seattle parks’ reliance on funding from the tax from 20 percent of the total parks budget to about one-third.

Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments.

Maybe that’s because the Times supports Harrell and his vision. In addition to more funding for things like renovating and decarbonizing community centers, keeping parks restrooms open year-round, and pickleball, Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments. (The funding mechanism is a money swap that puts the program in the base budget for parks while swapping money that pays for parks utilities from the city budget into the parks district).

The Clean City Initiative was originally funded with federal COVID response dollars as a “surge” program to clean up trash and litter, but it has always been strongly associated with encampment removals. By bringing this work under the UCT and making it part of the department’s base budget, the mayor is proposing to make a temporary response to encampments in parks permanent.

Similarly, Harrell’s proposal would revive the moribund Parks Ranger program by deploying 26 new rangers in city parks. The rangers, who are uniformed but unarmed, have historically patrolled parks in downtown Seattle and on Capitol Hill, providing security and occasionally helping the Seattle Police Department remove encampments, issue trespass warnings, or kick protesters out of public spaces, as they did at Westlake Park during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2011.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the parks district board, said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the size of the tax increase during the town halls the board held this summer around the city. “I think it’s just a reflection of how much need there is for investment in our parks and how our old system was not sufficient to meet it,” Lewis said. Having the certainty of an ongoing tax, he added, enables the city to bond against parks district revenues for longer periods, because the city doesn’t have to worry about funds running out if voters decide not to renew the tax.

“We can do more community centers and climate resiliency [projects], because we can bond more of this,” Lewis said. The proposal includes funding for a number of capital projects that wouldn’t be affordable without longer-term bonds, including renovations and upgrades at four community centers.

Harrell’s office, in contrast to his historically secretive predecessor Jenny Durkan, provided a detailed preview of his parks district proposal that included information about some parks-related adds in his upcoming city budget proposal. This appendix provides a good high-level summary of the plan, which, flower enthusiasts will be bummed to learn, will “not include the [Board of Parks and Recreation Commission] recommended investment of approximately $270,000 to fund hanging baskets and other park beautification efforts.”

Despite Concerns, Homelessness Authority Approves Budget that Funders “Have No Realistic Ability to Pay For”

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, after a half-hour of discussion, the governing board of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority voted unanimously to move forward with a 2023 agency budget that would require Seattle and King County to come up with $209 million next year to fund the authority—$90 million more than its current “base” budget of $119 million.

Seattle, which provides about 60 percent of the authority’s direct local funding, just received a six-year budget forecast that includes cascading budget shortfalls after next year, including projected operating deficits of $146 million in 2024 and 2025. Seattle’s budget planners are currently discussing ways to reduce such shortfalls in the future, through better long-term financial planning, reducing the number of times departments can change their adopted budgets throughout the year, and making the budgeting process more transparent.

Seattle and the county are the only local funding sources for the regional authority, which also receives some federal funds, including short-term COVID dollars the authority is using to fund some ongoing programs. The Sound Cities Association, representing nearly 40 suburban cities, has voting representatives on the authority’s implementation and governing boards but does not contribute financially to the authority. The city and county agreed to this financial and power imbalance in 2019, when they signed off on a heavily amended agreement that also barred the authority itself from ever raising revenue or issuing debt to pay for homelessness programs.

My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Seattle City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, who sit on the governing board, tried to pass an amendment to the budget clarifying that the proposal was unrealistic without additional funding and “that without such additional funding, the parties to KCRHA’s interlocal agreement will need to make adjustments to reduce” the proposal. The amendment, sponsored by Lewis, also asked the authority to list new spending requests in order of priority “when expenditures are anticipated to exceed current resources” in the future.

After representatives from suburban cities pushed back on the budget amendment—including Redmond Mayor Angela Birney, who said statements about funding required a “broader conversation—Lewis downgraded it to a nonbinding resolution, which passed. But Lewis said that in the future, the authority needs to stop sending the city and county budgets that it knows are unaffordable.

“My constituents and my stakeholders, in my district and also in my city, are tired of being put in the position where we have to be the ones to say no to aspirational budgets and aspirational regional plans,” Lewis said. “If we’re going to pass a budget we know we have no realistic ability to pay for, it puts the city in the position where we draw regional criticism and criticism from the media for not fully funding requests that we were never in a realistic position to be able to do on our own.”

The KCRHA’s budget request includes funding for safe parking spaces for up to 130 vehicles; a wage supplement for nonprofit homeless service providers; a new “high-acuity shelter” serving up to 55 people with significant behavioral and physical health needs; and “emergency housing,” a kind of intermediate housing between shelter and permanent housing, for up to 345 people.

Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to “identify” 1,000 new shelter or housing beds in the first six months of his term, plus an additional 1,000 beds by the end of the year. On Tuesday, he plans to make an announcement about progress toward that goal, which could include housing and shelter that was already in progress before he took office. Harrell will also unveil a new “dashboard” that could include the location of encampments in Seattle—an idea that many homeless advocates oppose, because they worry it will open unsheltered people up to additional harassment.

Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People

Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.
Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

As part of an effort to substantially reduce the number of unsheltered people living in downtown Seattle before summer, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is working on a plan to relocate as many as 600 people into sanctioned encampments around the city.

In an email sent last week to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of strategic initiatives Tim Burgess, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, lobbyist Ryan Bayne, and former city council member Sally Bagshaw, plus aides for Lewis and Harrell, Lewis laid out “a short-term displacement plan for visible pre-Memorial Day progress” that would involve removing and relocating unsheltered people from downtown Seattle into as many as 10 fenced-off encampments elsewhere in the city.

These encampments, which might be located on property owned by the city, Sound Transit, local churches, and the Port, would include case management (along with toilets, food, and showers), and could be up and running in as little as four weeks, Lewis said in his email. After people are relocated, Lewis continued, the tents could gradually be replaced by pallet shelters or tiny houses, with the goal of moving everyone rapidly from encampments to housing, such as the Health Through Housing hotels King County is working to open, within a year to 18 months.

“The strategy I am proposing here is to make a practical acceptance that more permanent housing and sheltering options likely won’t be available until the fall,” Lewis wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “THE WAITING ROOM WILL EITHER BE UNSANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS OR SOME INTERIM STRATEGY LIKE THIS. That is the choice we face.”

Why Memorial Day? According to Lewis’ email, visible homelessness always spikes during the summer; “If we still don’t have a policy to prevent unsanctioned encampments from putting down roots before Memorial Day, they will grow and make the problem even more difficult to mitigate.”

“The summer has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The proposal to move most of the homeless people downtown into sanctioned encampments in the span of a little more than three months comes in the context of an announcement last week that a group of private foundations and local corporations will donate $10 million to help kickstart a plan to move about 1,000 people living unsheltered downtown into shelter or housing elsewhere. That plan has five phases, culminating in a “hold steady” phase once most encampments are removed from downtown streets. The proposal to relocate unsheltered people from tents on the sidewalk to tents in sanctioned camps suggests one way the city might achieve its goal of an encampment-free downtown.

“It’s clear the [Harrell] administration has a policy where they do not want to have encampments in the downtown business district,” Lewis told PubliCola Monday. “It’s the prerogative of the executive to do those removals, and we need something to fill that gap.”

Marc Dones, the head of the regional homelessness authority, said Tuesday that the authority had nothing to do with the encampment proposal and that they had only heard about it through a forwarded email last week. Dones said they had asked Harrell’s office for more information about the proposal.

In his email, Lewis said removing encampments would be a necessary part of downtown recovery after two years of COVID. “The summer has to be the summer of recovery,” Lewis wrote. “It has to show people returning to work, tourists, and the local media that Seattle is capable of swiftly and compassionately managing our homelessness crisis. It has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”

Lewis told PubliCola he doesn’t consider the encampment idea a “perfect” or even a permanent solution to unsheltered homelessness downtown.  “One of the things [outreach provider] REACH says all the time is, ‘Give us something better” [to offer unsheltered people],  and this would be something better. Not something perfect and not something great, but something we could work with and improve over time.” REACH director Chloe Gale said she was unaware of the proposal on Monday.

“If it were up to me and I could wave a magic wand, we’d do a bunch of tiny house villages,” Lewis added, and pointed to Nickelsville as an example of an encampment that eventually evolved into a tiny house village. “All of our tiny house villages started out as sanctioned encampments,” Lewis said.

Bagshaw, who recently returned to Seattle after a fellowship at at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, pointed to the recent removal of a longstanding encampment in Boston as an example Seattle should try to emulate. People living in the encampment, known as “Mass. and Cass,” were offered shelter, including some rooms in a local hotel, reunited with family, or simply told to leave, according to local media reports.

“They offered them two or three options and said ‘We’re going to give you a supported hotel room or a supported apartment, but “no” is not an option,'” said Bagshaw, who lives downtown and has no formal position at the city. “They said, ‘We’re trying to live in a civilized space for everybody, and it’s not okay for you to pitch a tent wherever you want and however you want and to steal to support your habit. You’re not going to be able to stay here, and we’re going to give you 72 hours to figure it out.”

Both Lewis and Bagshaw pointed to JustCARE—a service-rich program that provides temporary housing and case management for people involved in the criminal legal system—as an example of the kind of approach that works for people who have many barriers to housing, including substance use, outstanding warrants, and long-term homelessness. “JustCARE is what we need, but we can’t wait until JustCARE has 600 units,” Bagshaw said.

“Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard

In theory, people who need extensive services could be channeled into JustCARE over time. In practice, funding for JustCARE expires at the end of June, and the program is no longer taking new clients beyond the 230 it currently serves.

In his email, Lewis estimated that the encampments would cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year to operate, for a total of $8 million to $12 million a year, not counting capital costs. “The hardest part will be case management and services. But even there, I don’t know how daunting the numbers truly are,” Lewis wrote.” If we assume a ratio of one case manager to every 20 campers, and a maximum capacity of 600 people, the whole operation requires 30 case managers organized across our entire spectrum of providers. We should be able to manage it with a ramp up of several weeks.” Continue reading “Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People”

Council Considers Backing Out of SPD Funding Fight

SPD West Precinct

By Paul Kiefer

With less than a week of budget deliberations to go, the Seattle City Council will consider a trio of amendments on Thursday that could quash the ongoing battle with Mayor Jenny Durkan over the details of the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget.

The amendments would fully or partially walk back a plan, introduced by council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, to reduce Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed SPD budget by $10 million. Within hours of the plan’s debut last Tuesday, both Durkan and mayor-elect Bruce Harrell condemned the plan as an outright “cut” to SPD’s budget; at a press conference the following day, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz claimed that the council’s proposed reductions would effectively “eliminate” more than 30 officers from his department’s ranks.

Mosqueda’s initial budget proposal would not have actually resulted in layoffs or reduced SPD’s existing budget. Instead, it would have reduced the size of Durkan’s proposal by not allocating funds for salaries for positions that the council doesn’t believe SPD will be able to fill next year and by reducing Durkan’s proposed budget for officer overtime by $3.2 million.

While Durkan and SPD estimated that just 94 officers would leave the department next year, Mosqueda’s budget proposal assumed a loss of 125 officers, including at least a dozen unvaccinated officers who will likely lose their jobs by January. If Mosqueda’s assumption is correct, SPD would lose as many officers as it plans to hire in 2022, leaving the department with 31 more vacant positions—and $2.7 million more in unspent salaries—than Durkan anticipated.

The most sweeping proposal, sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen, would leave Durkan’s plans untouched, re-introduce funds for hiring incentives and the CSO program expansion, and adopt the mayor and police chief’s more optimistic hiring and attrition projections.

Mosqueda’s proposal would also have maintained, rather than expanded, funding for SPD’s Community Service Officer (CSO) program—a civilian unit that handles outreach and some non-emergency calls. Her plan also nixed $1.1 million set aside for SPD to pay hiring incentives to new officers in 2022, which Diaz says are necessary to attract recruits in a region where hefty hiring bonuses are becoming the norm.

A final, less-controversial reduction would come from SPD’s technology budget, preventing the department from launching two new software projects in 2022: a body-worn video analysis system used to assess racial disparities in policing and a wearable biometric monitor that would track police officers’ vital signs to flag officers at risk of using excessive force or acting erratically because of stress.

The three amendments on Thursday’s agenda would each restore at least one component of Durkan’s original SPD budget proposal; because they are mutually exclusive, only one can pass.

The most sweeping proposal, sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen, would leave Durkan’s plans untouched, re-introduce funds for hiring incentives and the CSO program expansion, and adopt the mayor and police chief’s more optimistic hiring and attrition projections, To keep the budget balanced, the amendment would remove $10 million from the city’s revenue stabilization fund and return it to SPD.

Continue reading “Council Considers Backing Out of SPD Funding Fight”

As Council Moves to Fund Alternatives to Police, Durkan Proposes Big Bonuses for SPD Hires

1. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issued an emergency executive order on Friday introducing hiring bonuses as a recruitment tool for the Seattle Police Department and the Community Safety and Communications Center, which houses the city’s 911 dispatch.

The order will allow SPD to pay officers who transfer from other departments up to $25,000, and new recruits from the academy up to $10,000, during the remainder of 2021. The CSCC will be able to offer the same bonuses to lateral transfers and new hires, respectively. The city council has repeatedly rejected attempts by Durkan and her allies to fund new police hiring incentives this year, including a July proposal to restore a hiring incentive program halted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a pair of proposals Councilmember Alex Pedersen introduced with Durkan’s support in early September.

In a statement Friday, Durkan said the bonuses would help SPD refill its ranks after two years of record-breaking attrition. According to SPD strategic initiatives director Chris Fisher, the greatest challenge to SPD’s ambitious plan to hire 125 officers in 2022 is convincing prospective officers to fill out applications; the generous bonuses are intended to sweeten the deal.

Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) President Mike Solan criticized the mayor’s order on Saturday, writing in an open letter that “dangling money to recruit new or lateral hires won’t get the job done.” Instead, he argued that the next mayor’s priority should be retaining existing officers.

The CSCC, which launched quietly over the summer as the city’s newest department, is also dealing with a staffing shortage at the 911 call center. The call center has spent 40 percent more on overtime this year than it had by the end of October 2020 as the department struggles to fill vacant call-taker and supervisor positions. Starting on Friday, Seattle residents who call the city’s non-emergency phone number will occasionally be met with a pre-recorded message suggesting alternative resources; that message will only appear when the 911 center has to assign all of its call-takers and dispatchers to emergency calls.

During discussions of the department’s 2022 budget on Tuesday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold reiterated that plans to use $1 million of the department’s unspent salaries for hiring incentives next year—a separate proposal included in the mayor’s 2022 budget plan—should factor in the need to fill vacancies across all city departments.

2. A $13.9 million amendment to Seattle’s 2022 budget would allow the city’s mobile crisis teams—mental health professionals who respond to crisis calls, mostly in and around downtown Seattle—to operate around the clock.

The amendment, sponsored by Councilmember Dan Strauss, would expand the 43-person mobile crisis team, operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), enabling DESC to expand its services city-wide and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who signed on as a co-sponsor of Strauss’ amendment, called the mobile crisis team an example of the kind of investments in alternatives to traditional police response that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget mostly lacks.

Durkan has proposed creating a new “Triage One” mobile unit to respond to about 7,000 annual non-emergency calls about people sleeping or unconscious in public places, but that still “leaves more than 30,000 calls that will default to police response without an alternative funded at scale,” Herbold said. After a review of SPD’s emergency responses by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform earlier this year suggested moving half of the department’s call volume to other responders, Durkan endorsed a less-ambitious plan to divert another 40,000 calls to non-police responders each year—though her budget proposal didn’t create a plan for how to divert most of those calls.

The amendment would also scale up other mental health crisis services, including $1.5 million to pay for 15 new positions with DESC’s behavioral health response teams, which provide follow-up support for people in crisis after their initial interaction with the mobile crisis teams. At the moment, the follow-up team has only four members.

The largest portion of the proposed budget amendment—$8.5 million—would go to the DESC’s Crisis Connections Center, which currently relies on the county for funding; the amendment would not come at the cost of county funding. The money would double staffing for the center, which DESC hopes to move into a larger building.

3. On Tuesday, Councilmember Andrew Lewis introduced a $360,000 amendment to the mayor’s proposed budget that would, among other things, set aside $100,000 to create a “victim compensation fund” that would reimburse individuals and small businesses for stolen inventory, minor property damage, and other misdemeanor-related losses.

The goal of the fund, Lewis told his colleagues, is to replace a restitution process that rarely gets money to victims. “Under the current system,” he said, “an overwhelming majority of the defendants in the municipal court are indigent and, unfortunately, likely to remain indigent.” Of the roughly $191,000 that municipal court judges ordered defendants to pay between 2018 and January 2021, Lewis said, crime victims received just over a third.  Another $250,000 would go towards other “restorative justice” causes, including outreach to crime victims who don’t typically request or receive restitution—particularly people of color. 

The proposal to re-invent Seattle’s restitution system dates back to July, when City Attorney Pete Holmes and a group of advocates for court fee reform  pitched the concept of a “victim compensation fund” to the council. Though Holmes advocates for the fund as a more reliable way to compensate victims of crimes, the proposal is also a response to a recent Seattle Municipal Court analysis that found that judges were more likely to require Black and Indigenous defendants to pay restitution to victims than white clients.

Lewis’ amendment includes some nonbinding policy recommendations that resemble reforms Holmes has already adopted. Most notably, the amendment says the city attorney’s office must allow defendants to go through diversion programs or community court even when those options release defendants from their restitution requirements.

The non-binding policy recommendations in Lewis’ amendment are aimed at whoever takes office in January, although Holmes spokesman Dan Nolte noted that the next city attorney would be able to toss those policies aside without the council’s input.

—Paul Kiefer

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

Effort to Expand Hotel Shelters Has Broad Support, Recycled Statements Replace False Endorsement Claims on Compassion Seattle Website

1. City council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis introduced legislation this week that would lift spending restrictions on $12 million the council allocated earlier this year for hotel-based shelters, in the hope that Mayor Jenny Durkan will finally agree to invest in JustCARE, a county-funded program that has been moving people from tents to hotels in the Chinatown/International District, or other hotel-based shelter programs.

The bill, which Lewis hopes to fast-track to a vote on June 14, “no longer makes seeking FEMA reimbursement a strict requirement” for the money, Lewis said Monday. As PubliCola has reported, Durkan has declined to seek federal FEMA dollars set aside for noncongregate shelters, such as hotels, arguing that this form of federal funding is a risky proposition.

Lewis told PubliCola the city could use a number of new, non-FEMA sources to pay for hotel rooms, including $40 million in unanticipated 2021 revenues, additional American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding that’s coming next year, or the $10 million fund Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri created to provide an insurance policy for cities that open non-congregate shelters.

The Downtown Seattle Association and Seattle Metro Chamber are supporting the legislation, which Lewis has described as a way of improving the climate for workers and tourists downtown while actually helping people living unsheltered instead of sweeping them from place to place. Five council members, including socialist Kshama Sawant, are sponsors.

“There’s no such thing as a cheap program for people who have really really chronic public health challenges. There’s no way for us to say we’re only going to assist these people if it comes at a certain price point.”—Seattle Councilmember Andrew Lewis

“For all the talk about division in Seattle, and all the acrimony and everything else, this is an issue where the Chamber of Commerce will stand shoulder to shoulder with Kshama Sawant, and I think that speaks to the good work that this consortium of providers have done in creating the JustCARE model,” Lewis said.

JustCARE provides hotel-based shelter to unsheltered people with high needs and multiple barriers to housing and provides intensive case management and services to put them on a path to housing. Durkan’s office has frequently derided the approach as too expensive, claiming a per-client cost of well over $100,000, which the organizations behind the program dispute. Whatever the actual cost, Lewis said the city needs to “come to terms with the fact that there’s no such thing as a cheap program for people who have really really chronic public health challenges. There’s no way for us to say we’re only going to assist these people if it comes at a certain price point.”

Lewis said he hopes to pass the legislation, and for the mayor to spend the money, before Seattle’s economy officially reopens on June 30, when the statewide eviction ban is also scheduled to expire.

A spokeswoman for Durkan said the mayor’s office “won’t be able to comment until we’ve had time to review the legislation.”

2. Compassion Seattle, the group supporting a ballot measure that would impose an unfunded mandate for the city to build more temporary shelter beds in order to keep public spaces “open and clear of encampments,” was forced to take down its “endorsements” page last week because the homeless advocates and service providers listed there had not actually endorsed the measure. Tim Burgess and Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith, who talked up the measure on a Geekwire panel last week, waved away the story, suggesting that the groups just had to go through their own endorsement “processes” before officially signing on.

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So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

This week, Compassion Seattle updated its website, replacing the “endorsements” page with one called “What People Are Saying” that uses quotes from the leaders of homeless service organizations to strongly imply endorsement while no longer overtly claiming their support. The page now includes quotes from the leaders of Evergreen Treatment Services (which runs the REACH outreach program), the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and the Chief Seattle Club, all taken from an April 1 press release announcing the campaign.

The Chief Seattle Club said they do not plan to make an endorsement, and the director of DESC, Daniel Malone, said that although he “stands by the statement I made,” the group is “not working on a formal endorsement process right now.

3. On Tuesday, the ACLU of Washington announced their opposition to the initiative. In a statement, the civil-rights group said the measure focuses on “stopgap measures” like temporary shelter to get unhoused people out of public view while doing nothing to fund long-term solutions—most importantly, housing. Continue reading “Effort to Expand Hotel Shelters Has Broad Support, Recycled Statements Replace False Endorsement Claims on Compassion Seattle Website”

Fizz: Hotel Shelter Debate Continues, City Labor Negotiator Resigns, Poll Tests Mayoral Messages

1. City council member Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, told PubliCola Monday that he’s working on legislation that would authorize funding for new non-congregate shelters, such as hotels, that could be reimbursed by FEMA—which, as we’ve reported, is now paying for all reimbursable expenses, including most shelter services, at 100 percent.

The legislation, which Lewis said won’t be baked until late this week at the earliest, would respond to some of the objections Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has raised about seeking FEMA reimbursement, which include “onerous” paperwork requirements, a competitive procurement process, and pre-approval from the federal agency.

In addition to those issues, Durkan’s office has said that FEMA will not pay for shelter services of any kind, a claim that is not borne out through the experience of cities like San Francisco, which has received full reimbursement for about 85 percent of the cost of hotel-based shelters and recently announced it was opening 500 new hotel-based shelter rooms using FEMA money.

“We are in a crisis that is exacerbated because of COVID,” Lewis said. “It is totally legitimate for us to seek FEMA reimbursement.”

“We are in a crisis that is exacerbated because of COVID. It is totally legitimate for us to seek FEMA reimbursement.”—City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Lewis noted that the issue of FEMA reimbursement has been somewhat conflated with funding for JustCARE, a hotel-based shelter program for high-needs individuals with a high impact on the neighborhoods where they live. Among other issues, the mayor’s office has said that JustCARE wouldn’t qualify for FEMA funding because reimbursement requires a competitive contracting process.

“The goal with this legislation is going to be to take a step back and assume that we’re making something new from whole cloth that is defined around the fact of what we need to do for FEMA reimbursement,” Lewis said. “If hotel rooms are a problem for some actors in city government, there are other types of non-congregate shelter we can seek FEMA reimbursement for.”

Durkan has strongly resisted proposals to shelter unhoused people in hotels since the beginning of the pandemic, long before the current FEMA reimbursement debate. Last year, for example, her office consistently responded to questions about why the city wasn’t opening hotel-based shelters by deflecting, noting that the city did contribute funding to the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel-based shelter in Renton.

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The mayor has been more open to funding tiny house villages—encampments made up of small wooden structures about the size of garden sheds— during the pandemic, and Lewis has separately proposed opening eight new villages around the city. Unsheltered people consistently prefer a tiny house to a conventional shelter bed, but hotels offer a number of stabilizing amenities that tiny houses do not, including television, private kitchenettes, beds, and a private place to bathe and relax. Hotel-based shelters also provide revenue for an industry that has been hard hit by the pandemic.

As for JustCARE: County funding for the program is scheduled to run out on March 15, but the county is reportedly working on another stopgap solution to keep the program running in the absence of any city support. Durkan’s office considers JustCARE, which is run by Seattle-based service providers and focused on encampments in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, “a county program.”

2. Jana Sangy, the city’s director of labor relations, announced last week that she’s leaving her position in early June.

Although Sangy’s announcement didn’t include much information about why she’s leaving, staff from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had reportedly intervened at a micro, line-item level in individual city contracts in a way that previous mayors have not—which could certainly make the job of a labor relations director more challenging. Labor Relations, which is part of the city’s Department of Human Resources (SDHR), ultimately answers to the mayor and represents the executive’s perspective in labor negotiations.

Sangy’s resignation comes as the city prepares for contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the city’s largest police union and one of the key challenges for the labor relations unit.

“There is not a very deep well of stability to fall back on during this transition to yet another interim director. It begs the question why this mayor has had such difficulty retaining solid talent in such a critical role.”

—Peter Nguyen, who represented Labor Relations in SPOG negotiations in 2018

SPOG’s last city contract expired at the beginning of 2021, but the bargaining process won’t begin until the Labor Relations Policy Committee—a group made up of five council members, SDHR Director Bobby Humes, and City Budget Office Director Ben Noble—finishes deliberating on the city’s negotiating priorities and strategy. complete their deliberations. During preparations for bargaining with police unions, representatives from Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability and Office of the Inspector General join the LRPC. Once bargaining begins in earnest, a negotiator from the Labor Relations unit will serve as the city’s labor law expert at the bargaining table.

Sangy started in June 2019, becoming the third person to fill that role since 2017; her immediate predecessor, Laurie Brown, was an interim director appointed by Durkan in December of the previous year. According to an email from Humes to city employees last week, Sangy’s interim replacement will beJ eff Clark, who currently serves as one of the unit’s negotiators. Lisa Low, a spokesperson for the city’s HR department, told PubliCola that department leaders “do not anticipate any impacts to the timeline for SPOG bargaining.”

But Peter Nguyen, who represented the Labor Relations unit during the last round of bargaining with SPOG in 2018, thinks that Sangy’s departure ahead of one of her unit’s most crucial performances is a sign of a struggling unit. “The resignation of the city’s Labor Relations Director is troubling,” said Nguyen. “There is not a very deep well of stability to fall back on during this transition to yet another interim director. It begs the question why this mayor has had such difficulty retaining solid talent in such a critical role.”

Sangy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

3. Seattle residents received two more polls centering on mayoral candidate (and city council president) Lorena González over the last week, both testing positive and negative messages about González, her current and likely opponents, and groups like “the Chamber of Commerce” and “the Black Lives Matter movement.” One poll was an online survey, the other a live poll, but the similarities between them suggest they are versions of the same poll put out by the same campaign or group.

The specific messages the polls were testing were less interesting than what they suggest, cumulatively, about the upcoming election, which will pit González and Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk—the two current frontrunners—against a long list of other candidates that could include former city council member Bruce Harrell, current deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and former state legislator and 2017 mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell. Continue reading “Fizz: Hotel Shelter Debate Continues, City Labor Negotiator Resigns, Poll Tests Mayoral Messages”