Tag: COVID-19

Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round

1. Last year, after the COVID pandemic forced the closure of most public and publicly accessible restrooms across the city, advocates for people experiencing homelessness suggested a creative approach to help stop the spread of COVID: Cheap, portable handwashing sinks that could be installed in any location with access to a public water outlet.

The first Street Sink, a collaboration between Real Change and the University of Washington College of Built Environments, was installed outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District last May. The prototype consisted of a basic utility sink with a soap dispenser that drained into a steel trough filled with soil and water-loving plants.

The Seattle City Council added $100,000 to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget for a street-sink pilot project last November, hoping to capitalize on the success of the prototype and expand the sinks to neighborhoods across the city. Since then, though, the project has stalled.

According to communications between staff for Seattle Public Utilities, the Department of Neighborhoods, and street-sink proponents, the city has a range of outstanding concerns, including the environment (the soil-based system is not equipped to deal with “blackwater,” or unfiltered human waste), the weather (if left unwrapped, the sinks’ pipes may not be able to withstand a hard freeze), and accessibility (the sinks, though wheelchair-accessible, are not fully ADA compliant. Neither, for that matter, are many of the city’s public restrooms).

“It’s incredibly frustrating, because we’re getting bogged down in process instead of acting with urgency” to provide people living unsheltered with soap and water to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, said. Since the pandemic began, there have been repeated outbreaks of hepatitis A and other communicable diseases among the city’s homeless population; in the case of a recent shigella outbreak, the rise in cases coincided with the regular winter closure of public restrooms with running water. The city provides portable toilets in locations where restrooms are closed, but these “sanicans” are not equipped with sinks and often lack hand sanitizer.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. 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.

The prototype for the Street Sink cost about $400. A more detailed budget puts the cost of each sink at just over than $750. More elaborate sinks with sewer connections or barrel collection systems would cost significantly more; last year, for example, Seattle Makers proposed a stainless-steel handwashing station that includes collection barrels, electronic sensors, a GPS connection, and components “built to withstand abuse from hammers,” for whatever reason, all at a cost of $7,250 per sink.

McCoy says $100,000 would fund the installation of 63 street sinks around the city. But the city seems unlikely to use the prototype her group designed. Instead, according to emails from the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, the city is planning to “pivot” away from the Street Sink project to a new “expanded mutual aid opportunity – the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot” that will “facilitate solutions that meet our safety and regulatory guidelines. For example, we will match sink prototypes without safety and blackwater issues to Real Change, or another implementing organization.”

PubliCola has reached out to the mayor’s office to find out more about the Community Water and Waste Innovation Pilot and to see if there is any timeline for the city to actually deploy the handwashing stations funded last year.

2.The Renton Chamber of Commerce issued a statement on Facebook over the weekend defending the organization and its director, Diane Dobson, against unspecified allegations of racism.

The statement read, in part, “The Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce, Diane Dobson, has been a tireless champion in standing against racism and bias. She has worked to drive diversity, equity and inclusion through numerous community events and actions aimed at addressing racism in our community. The Chamber Board of Directors unanimously stands with and supports Diane as she continues to make a meaningful, positive difference in our community and region.”

A look through the comments on the post clarifies what it’s about. During the recent snowstorm, a woman (identified in by her male companion as “Robin”) threw snowballs at the car of an Asian-American passerby and—according to the text accompanying the video he took after he got out of his car to confront her—called him a “fucking ch*nk.” In the video, posted on the Youtube channel RevealKarens, the man asks the apparently intoxicated woman repeatedly why she used that term, as she grows more and more agitated and finally says she did it because he was being “a dick.”

Eventually, according to the man’s account, Dobson came by and convinced the woman to leave. In subsequent comments on the Facebook thread, the person behind the Chamber account responded to criticism by praising Dobson in increasingly lavish terms, describing her “wonderful” work in the community and referring to “reports we have received of her donations of masks to the School District for teachers and staff and many of the front line workers in essential nonprofits as well.” The responses became so focused on Dobson, the person, rather than the Chamber as an entity that many commenters assumed that the  person posting for the Chamber was Dobson herself.

Dobson’s name has appeared in PubliCola before. She has been a vocal opponent of a shelter at the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Renton and onto city streets, blaming its homeless residents for the economic downturn in downtown Renton, and reportedly threatened to revoke an LGBTQ+ organization’s Chamber membership over their advocacy in favor of the shelter.

3. Lightning-round election news:

Brianna Thomas, a legislative aide to council president and mayoral candidate Lorena González, will make her candidacy for González’ position official later this week. (González is relinquishing her seat to run for mayor.) Thomas ran once before, in 2015, for the West Seattle council seat now occupied by Lisa Herbold. Continue reading “Street Sinks Stalled, Racism in Renton, and an Election Lightning Round”

City’s Hotel-Based “Shelter Surge” in Jeopardy Over Financial, Logistical Concerns

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s plan to use federal COVID dollars to move unsheltered people to hotels, then housing, has hit a serious snag—several, actually—that could put the centerpiece of the city’s planned 2021 “shelter surge” in jeopardy.

Last year, after a bruising budget season, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a $34 million plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant (COVID) grant dollars to create hundreds of new shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness, including 125 new enhanced shelter beds in traditional congregate settings and 300 hotel rooms that would be repurposed as noncongregate shelter.

According to a request for qualifications for the funding, the grant money is supposed to pay for programs that “assist those experiencing homelessness in finding safe alternatives through investment in shelters/hotels that result in permanent housing through Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing.” The idea is that homeless service providers will move hundreds of people out of encampments and into hotels, from which they’ll emerge on one of two tracks: Permanent supportive housing (for those who require comprehensive, 24/7 support) or market-rate apartments (for everyone else.)

The surge was also supposed to include 125 new 24/7 congregate shelter beds. So far, the city has only granted funding for the hotel-based shelters, and it’s unclear whether any agencies applied for the additional shelter funding.

The hotels were supposed to be up and running “beginning in December 2020.” None have opened, and a number of serious issues remain unresolved. The first is a $17,000-per-unit spending cap, established by the city budget office, which will limit what services and amenities are available to clients staying in the rooms. (The city is paying for the rooms themselves separately using the federal ESG funds.) The mayor’s office has said they expect the hotel units to turn over as people move rapidly through the hotel rooms and on to permanent housing, so the $17,000 cap is for each unit, not each client. 

From that money—a total of around $5 million, assuming the city eventually opens all 300 rooms—the service providers must pay for food, supplies, janitorial services, security, protective equipment, and salaries for the onsite case managers who will be charged with setting clients up for success in housing. So far, the city has offered contracts to two providers, Chief Seattle Club and the Public Defender Association, to run the hotels. The agencies have reportedly balked at this spending cap, which could make it difficult to provide the kind of high-touch services necessary to deal with the complex behavioral health issues, including addiction, that are common among people living unsheltered, especially those who are chronically homeless.

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

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. 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.

Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said a typical enhanced shelter or tiny house village unit costs between $16,000 and $22,000 a year. “We are in active contract negotiations with multiple providers to operate new hotel shelter units,” Lemke said in a statement. “As expected, each provider has a different proposed approach and we are working through those details now. …Program approach and associated costs are key drivers.”

The city has set aside almost twice as much money, $9 million, for the rapid rehousing component of the program, which it has dubbed “Street to Housing.” The city has picked Catholic Community Services as its rapid rehousing provider, in addition to the Chief Seattle Club’s own rapid rehousing program. The city plans to use those funds to move 231 single hotel shelter clients into market-rate apartments and subsidize their rent for up to 12 months. As PubliCola has reported, the premise behind rapid rehousing programs is that many, perhaps most, people experiencing homelessness need only minimal assistance, including rent subsidies and financial counseling, to afford an apartment.

The people who provide rapid rehousing tend to disagree with this optimistic assessment. They say the clients who do best in rapid rehousing are the ones who have just become homeless, who are already employed or  recently lost a job, and who don’t require intensive case management or other services, such as mental health or addiction treatment. People with addiction, untreated mental illness, or other temporarily disabling conditions often need more than a short-term financial boost, but don’t require the comprehensive, long-term services offered in permanent supportive housing programs. There simply aren’t many programs for people who fall into that gap.

Another issue with the hotels the city has chosen is that the rooms are not set up for long-term residents. Neither of the two hotels the city is currently considering—King’s Inn, a block away from Amazon headquarters, and the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown—offers in-room kitchenettes or microwaves, meaning that the providers will have to either purchase microwaves so people can heat up food they bring in (impossible in the case of the Executive Pacific, whose wiring is apparently too old to withstand microwaves in every room) or pay for catering at significant expense.

Additionally, the Executive Pacific is in the middle of downtown, and offers no common area for residents to gather, making it likely that they will congregate outside and contribute to the sense of “disorder” that causes business groups and law-and-order activists to call for crackdowns. Both hotels are clearly better than nothing, but they need to be places people want to stay. It’s unclear the city is setting either up for success.

Ultimately, the question the city has to consider is this: What is the point of these new shelters, and is a program that skimps on direct services while investing lavishly in a market-based solution likely to lead to that result?

If the point is to simply create the appearance of responding to the homelessness crisis  during a global emergency that—like Durkan’s term— will have largely ended by the time the grant runs out, then limited-service shelters that spit chronically homeless people into the private market may do the trick. But if the goal is to actually move people facing complex, persistent challenges into housing where they will thrive, it will take more than a single “shelter surge,” and very likely more than a few thousand dollars a person, to get there.

The mayor’s office will provide a “Status Update on 2021 Homelessness Investments” at the city council’s Homelessness Strategies and Investments meeting today, Wednesday, at 2pm.

Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

Support PubliCola

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

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. 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.

City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

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.

Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened

1. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month that the city would repair, rather than replace, the damaged West Seattle Bridge, she made an offhand comment that could have major implications for Sound Transit’s light rail project if it turns into policy: The new light rail bridge connecting downtown to West Seattle, she said, should include crossings for pedestrians and cyclists as well as light rail itself. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said.

Sound Transit is facing a revenue shortfall of $8 billion to $12 billion over the life of the Sound Transit 3 program due to the COVID-fueled economic downturn. Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Durkan’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation Staff “informed us of the mayor’s idea prior to her announcement but there were not any substantive discussions” about how the bridge would need to be revamped to accommodate other, non-light rail modes and how much additional time and cost such changes would add to the project.

Sound Transit is scheduled to publish the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project in mid-2021; that document will only include the light-rail-only options that the agency has considered so far, “consistent with the ST3 plan,” Cunningham said. During their conversations with the mayor’s office, “Sound Transit staff noted that the voter-approved ST3 plan only authorizes construction of a light rail bridge. Changing that plan to a multi-modal crossing would require additional funding from alternative sources as well as additional planning time” to accommodate things like supplementary design work and additional environmental review.

The steep grades required for an elevated rail line across the Duwamish River crossing could be an issue for people walking, biking, or rolling as well. Any changes to the current plan would likely require review and action by the Sound Transit board, Cunningham said.

2. In a promotional email sent on Tuesday, Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan wrote that his new podcast could become “an effective tool to push back against the progressive march to socialism.” The first episode of Hold the Line with Mike Solan (rhymes if you say it with a Southern accent!) appeared on YouTube the same day; the featured guest was Victoria Beach, the chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council.

Solan opened his debut appearance with a call for unity, then pivoted to denounce a legislative proposal by city council member Lisa Herbold as a “preposterous” attempt to “legalize most crime.” (The legislation he was referring to would not “legalize most crime”; it would create new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder). But, Solan added, he’s open to bringing Herbold on the podcast to “talk it out.”

After a jarring transition involving a clip from the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day, Solan introduced Beach, a close ally of retired Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best who made periodic appearances at protests on Capitol Hill this summer.

Beach, a lifelong Seattleite, told Solan she “grew up hating police.” Her nephew was beaten bloody more than a decade ago; in 2000, two SPD officers pointed guns at her 5-year-old daughter while responding to an erroneous call from a white college student about a stolen car. Solan interrupted her as she told this story to explain why officers might point guns at children during “high risk felony stop[s],” but Beach forged ahead. “I’ve never had a positive experience,” she said. “Nothing positive?” he asked, sounding hurt.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. 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.

During an hour-long conversation, Solan occasionally ventured toward self-reflection, at one point noting that his hunger as a rookie patrol officer for “action” and car chases in  the Rainier Valley was immature. But he also repeatedly minimized the significance of race in policing: he expressed discomfort with the “social justice term ‘white privilege'” because of his hard-working two-parent upbringing; he dismissed racial profiling by police as the consequence of inexperienced cops with “bad intuition”; and he lamented the public’s tendency to focus on “about 30 cases a year” in which police kill unarmed Black people when “most people killed by police are white.” When Solan commented that “there are racist cops, but there are racist plumbers and racist teachers,” Beach intervened. “But plumbers and teachers don’t carry weapons,” she said.

3. King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin—whose press conferences often feature stark reminders about COVID morbidity and phrases like “unprecedented death and devastation”—said Friday that even if the health department gets access to a vaccine, it may have to lay off the workers who would administer it to low-income and homeless people around the county. Continue reading “Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened”

After LIHI Moves 15 Into Tiny Houses, City Accuses Agency of “Circumventing” Process Meant to Ensure Equitable Shelter Access

Image via Seattle.gov

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the weekend, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat argued that the solution to homelessness in Seattle—a problem that afflicts more than 12,000 people in King County—was to build 1,000 new tiny house villages and “enforce the laws” against “camping” in public areas by removing the people who remain.

To demonstrate his point, Westneat used the example of John C. Little Park, Sr. in the New Holly mixed-income housing complex, where more than a dozen tents have occupied a space near the restroom and a playground used by the community. In Westneat’s telling, workers from the Low Income Housing Institute showed up at the camp and offered them spots in tiny house villages—encampments that offer case management, privacy, and a sense of safety and community—and within “15 minutes,” nearly everyone had agreed to leave.

All that is true. But there is much more to the story. And the debate over what happened at John C. Little, Sr. Park is a microcosm of the issues Seattle will face in transitioning city-led homeless outreach from a system led by the Navigation Team to one led primarily by providers but housed, as before, inside the city.

“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available. They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”—District 2 Council Member Tammy Morales

The first thing to know about the John C. Little encampment LIHI didn’t discover the encampment by accident—they were asked to go there by city council member Tammy Morales, who represents New Holly, at the behest of residents whose kids haven’t been able to use the playground in months. Morales said she saw her approach as a win-win: New Holly residents “got their playground back for their kids who are at home,” and 15 people, including one man who had just returned to the encampment from Harborview with a diagnosis of pneumonia, got safer places to stay.

“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available,” Morales said. “They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”

The relocation of the people living in the park was a win for LIHI too: Proof that people prefer to move to tiny houses over traditional shelter, and that LIHI—although not authorized by the city to do outreach in encampments—is well-positioned to do so. After the move, LIHI director Sharon Lee sent a letter to HSD director Jason Johnson, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and Seattle Parks Department director Jesús Aguirre touting their success at John C. Little as an example of “a new way of doing outreach.”

“LIHI failed to report and  bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources.”—Seattle Human Services Department

“LIHI staff includes people with lived experience and outreach skills who are effective at working directly with unsheltered homeless people,” Lee wrote. “We understand LIHI is not currently being paid by HSD for ‘outreach’ nor included by HSD staff in outreach planning, but we believe, as shown by last week’s example and our work at CHOP that we are particularly effective in the field.”

LIHI’s decision to move people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone directly into tiny house villages in July exasperated HSD, whose director, Jason Johnson, argued that LIHI was cherry-picking clients for tiny houses that should have been available to any outreach provider in the city, not just LIHI. LIHI countered that they had to act quickly because the Seattle Police Department had threatened to remove people from the park—people that, she said, the Navigation Team had failed to shelter before LIHI came along.

Lee’s letter touting a similar action at New Holly sparked a similarly frustrated response from HSD. In an email to city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, an HSD staffer, speaking for the agency, wrote:

LIHI is required by contract to report vacancies at tiny house villages and the Lakefront Community House to HSD, so that folks living unsheltered in tough conditions across Seattle may access these sought-after public resources.  In this instance LIHI failed to report and  bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources.  By circumventing this process, eleven individuals were prioritized for referrals as a result of a location-based outreach effort—potentially taking those highly sought after shelter resources away from other unsheltered individuals with higher needs in other parts of the city. …

It’s also worth mentioning that LIHI is not contracted by the City to do outreach, nor to decide who can or cannot access tiny houses and enhanced shelter. At times, LIHI has shied away from taking in more high-need individuals into their shelters, leaving very vulnerable people on the streets—which is one of the reasons why outreach is conducted by professionally trained outreach agencies like DESC’s HOST program, Chief Seattle Club, Urban League and REACH. This system-wide perspective is something contracted agencies on their own do not have, but would continue to be leveraged  by the Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team or HOPE team, in partnership with providers, this year and beyond.

The new HOPE program, which was part of a compromise between the mayor and council on homelessness outreach and engagement, is supposed to serve as a sort of governmental nerve center connecting outreach providers in the field with the most appropriate shelter and service referrals for unsheltered people they encounter in the field.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, no secondary businesses behind the scenes.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. 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.

Whether it will work that way is an open question. Transitioning to a system where outreach providers use a city-run system to make referrals will require significant resources as well as major culture shifts within agencies accustomed to seeing the city as a roadblock. LIHI’s decision to go around the process the city is working to establish is just one example of how agencies may choose to circumvent a new centralized system that, in the interest of fairness to people living unsheltered, creates an extra layer of process.

Lee, who had been unaware of HSD’s response to her email touting LIHI’s success at moving the park residents into tiny houses, said she doesn’t understand why HSD doesn’t see LIHI’s actions at both John C. Little and in Cal Anderson Park—which, after all, result in fewer people sleeping in parks, regardless of which particular people they are—as a positive outcome. Continue reading “After LIHI Moves 15 Into Tiny Houses, City Accuses Agency of “Circumventing” Process Meant to Ensure Equitable Shelter Access”

Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted

By Erica C. Barnett

Renters across Washington state have existed in a kind of financial and legal limbo since mid-March, when Governor Jay Inslee issued the first statewide eviction moratorium, declaring that the temporary measure would “help reduce economic hardship and related life, health, and safety risks to those members of our workforce impacted by layoffs and substantially reduced work hours or who are otherwise unable to pay rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the time, no one knew how long the pandemic would continue or the impact it would have on the state and national economy. Since then, Inslee has extended the moratorium four more times, most recently in October, when he set a new expiration date of December 31.

But despite the moratorium, commonly referred to as an “eviction ban,” renters are still being evicted. Last month, nearly 40 people were evicted through the court system in King County, up from just 8 in April. (We know the numbers for King County because they’re tracked by the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, but a similar trend is almost certainly happening across the state). Added to that are an unknown number of people who are informally evicted through methods that, while not technically evictions, still have the same effect, their numbers never counted in the total of people forced to move—or made homeless—during a worldwide pandemic.

One reason more renters are being kicked out, tenant advocates say, is that Inslee has gradually added more and more exemptions to the “ban.” Most consequentially, in June, Inslee added a section to the moratorium in June allowing landlords to give tenants’ 60 days notice that they plan to sell a unit or move into it.

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Jim Baumgart, a senior policy advisor to the governor, said the exemption is intended to help people who own multiple properties and need to move into one or sell “because they don’t want to be a landlord anymore, or because their family’s been materially affected by COVID and they need that money.” For example, people in the military, who move around often, might need to move back to their hometown and have no choice but to move into a house they had been renting out, or a landlord who owned just one or two rental units might need to sell a property to stay afloat.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents rental property owners and has been critical of the eviction moratorium, argues that the sale or move-in exemption provides a necessary escape hatch for the smallest landlords. Kyle Woodring, RHA’s director of government affairs, says the RHA has been hearing from “more people working through the process of selling their property” than usual, because their income (from rent or other sources) has dried up and “they need to get some cash out of that property.

“It’s easy for local governments and state governments to protect tenants, and much harder to protect people who pay mortgages and the lending institutions, because those are generally federally regulated,” Woodring said. “Short of giant bailouts, I think we’re going to see more and more people looking to sell.” Continue reading “Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted”

Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

By Debra Russell and Jessica Tousignant

The lockdown was a necessary step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we couldn’t predict what it would mean for businesses. Restaurant owners didn’t know what to expect.

We were so grateful when Seattleites stepped up and supported us by ordering food for takeout. You were patient and generous as we built an entirely new business model. It was a bumpy transition, but you reminded us that we’re all in this together. Even now, your takeout orders are keeping many of us afloat.

But we can’t forget that our members who are hanging on are the lucky ones. One of the most frustrating aspects of the current economic downturn is that we don’t have enough data to understand exactly how bad things really are. It’s unclear how many neighborhood businesses have closed permanently since March.

The clearest overview of the economic impact on businesses nationwide arrived in a recent report from Yelp, which showed that of all the businesses that closed since March , about 61 percent have now closed permanently. That’s 97,966 businesses wiped out nationwide. Due to the customer-driven nature of Yelp’s reporting, this almost certainly represents an undercount—and in Washington, the numbers are likely even worse.

When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

The Yelp data confirms what we have suspected to be true: We’ve already lost half the businesses that had to temporarily close for lockdown, and the rest are imperiled. A majority of Seattle’s neighborhood restaurants will likely close by the end of the year.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t on our customers. They’ve done more than their part to keep us afloat. But the people and organizations who are supposed to use their resources and visibility to stand up for and protect small business have been entirely absent.

Local leaders claimed we should wait for the federal government to lead the way in the economic response to the pandemic. But the US Senate adjourned for vacation until September 8 without any agreement on a new stimulus plan. Since the additional $600-per-week unemployment benefits written into the last stimulus package were allowed to expire, some of our members report business has dropped by as much as 25 percent. When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.

The federal government told states and cities that they’re on their own, and local leaders have failed to step up to fill the void. Mayor Jenny Durkan, for instance, vetoed the expenditure of emergency funds—as though this economic collapse isn’t the biggest emergency most Seattleites have ever seen. (The city council subsequently overturned that veto, but Durkan’s budget would reallocate the money for other purposes.)

Continue reading “Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Stay Healthy Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”