Tag: COVID

Bill Would Force State Agency to Improve Access to Services or Stop Cutting Off Benefits

DSHS Rainier Community Service Office
Rainier DSHS Community Service Office in Seattle. Image via Google Maps.

By Erica C. Barnett

When the pandemic shut down in-person offices across the state in March 2020, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was no exception; the department, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps, shuttered all 181 of its local offices and began offering services only online or over the phone.

In the two years since, many state, regional, and local government offices that serve the public have reopened, including public libraries, city customer service centers, and many local courts. But DSHS still requires anyone seeking assistance to use their online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. People who are unsheltered, those without reliable cell phone service, and those who don’t speak English (who are instructed to “leave a voicemail with your phone number and the language you speak”) are especially ill-served by this patchwork system.

“Essentially, if you have internet service, and unlimited minutes, and time to wait on hold for two or three hours or longer, you can access services, but if you don’t… you cannot,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which is backing a bill that would require DSHS to either provide better customer service or stop penalizing people who can’t access their system.

For social service providers seeking services on behalf of homeless clients, Eisinger said, “it does no good to stay on hold for three hours, only to be told, ‘We’ll give you a call back next week,’ because when the call comes, the outreach worker is one place and the person they’re trying to help is who knows where.”

“It’s pretty straightforward: They literally can’t sit on a phone for three or four hours. They don’t have a place that’s warm and safe and dry to do that, they don’t have a phone charger that allows them to do that, they don’t have a space that works—and even if it did work, so many are in states of mental health crisis or have other barriers that a phone interview is just not gonna do it.”—HB 2075 sponsor Rep. Strom Peterson

State Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), who is sponsoring the legislation, said that while he was initially reluctant to support a bill penalizing a short-staffed agency for poor customer service, “the issue came in focus more and more” as he heard from homeless service providers and other advocates for people who rely on basic services and can’t easily access them online or over the phone.

Nightmare stories abound. “One of the advocates told me about a Nigerian immigrant who was almost entirely deaf… so between his accent and his inability to hear somebody on the phone, it was clear that there was no way he could get the services that he so desperately needed” using DSHS’ current system, Peterson said. Other advocates highlighted additional barriers for people suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, who can have difficulty processing complex information over the phone.

“It’s pretty straightforward: They literally can’t sit on a phone for three or four hours. They don’t have a place that’s warm and safe and dry to do that, they don’t have a phone charger that allows them to do that, they don’t have a space that works—and even if it did work, so many are in states of mental health crisis or have other barriers that a phone interview is just not gonna do it,” Peterson said.

If DSHS is unable to meet any of the new standards—a distinct possibility, since the bill doesn’t include any additional funding—the legislation would bar the agency from reducing or eliminating any client’s benefits.

The bill would impose several new mandates. First, it would require DSHS to “ensure that clients may apply for and receive services in a manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, [including] needs related to technology, language, and ability.” Second, it would require DSHS to reopen all its in-person service centers for all services, not just the current limited menu. (Somewhat perversely, people can show up at service centers in person to call DSHS on a designated land line or access online services on a DSHS computer.) Third, it would require the department to reduce call times to no more than 30 minutes.

Finally, if DSHS is unable to meet any of the new standards—a distinct possibility, since the bill doesn’t include any additional funding (which could make it untenable during the 60-day “short” session)—the legislation would bar the agency from reducing or eliminating any client’s benefits.

A DSHS spokesperson told PubliCola on Monday that the agency was just starting to analyze the bill and would have more detailed comments about its impacts later this week.

State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), who is co-sponsoring Peterson’s bill, acknowledged that DSHS, like many government and nonprofit agencies that serve vulnerable clients, has been understaffed since the beginning of the pandemic, a situation that was exacerbated by a yearlong hiring freeze between May 2020 and April 2021. Continue reading “Bill Would Force State Agency to Improve Access to Services or Stop Cutting Off Benefits”

Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month

King's Inn
King’s Inn in Belltown

By Erica C. Barnett

With less than three weeks remaining before their contracts expire, the organizations that run two hotel-based shelters the city funded last year are scrambling to find housing for more than 100 homeless clients. One, the Chief Seattle Club, needs to relocate about 60 people from the King’s Inn shelter in Belltown; the other, the Low Income Housing Institute, must find shelter or housing for about 90 people still staying at the Executive Pacific hotel downtown.

Under their current contracts, which the King County Regional Homelessness Authority took over and declined to extend late last year, both hotels must empty out on January 31. (The actual contracts last another month, to give the agencies time to clean and repair any damage to the properties.) Both agencies stopped accepting new clients last year, and LIHI started moving hotel guests into other properties it operates, including tiny house villages, shelters, and permanent housing. Chief Seattle Club, meanwhile, made plans to move people from King’s Inn into two housing projects it had under development, including one, ?al?al, that was supposed to open in October.

Since then, however, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question. Anne Xuan Clark, a development consultant for Chief Seattle Club, described a cascade of delays that have pushed back the opening date for ?al?al again and again: Rescheduled fire inspections, the discovery of an underground conduit that upended the schedule to pour a sidewalk outside the building, interminable waits for utility hookups. “Every construction project in the city is facing delays,” Clark said.

Not every person at King’s Inn will move into Chief Seattle Club’s own housing; some will use federal emergency housing vouchers, and some will use short-term rapid rehousing subsidies; the same is true for those currently staying at the Executive Pacific, and those have stayed at both hotels in the past and moved into other shelter or housing.

Since last year, the upsurge in COVID cases have combined with a longstanding shortage of construction industry workers to delay ?al?al and other housing projects and put the agencies’ timelines in question.

LIHI is facing similar challenges, its director, Sharon Lee, said; if several new projects where LIHI had hoped to move hotel guests aren’t finished by the end of January, “we may have to put some people in another temporary [shelter],” such as a hotel. “We don’t think that’s the best solution either—to move them from one hotel to another hotel.”

The problems LIHI and Chief Seattle Club are facing as they wind down their hotel-based shelters are only partly the result of housing construction delays. In fact, the biggest challenges were baked into the contracts from the very beginning. Former mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially resisted accepting federal COVID relief dollars to move people from the streets to hotels, agreed to a very limited hotel-based shelter program last year on the condition that the hotels would serve as way stations for people moving swiftly into housing, rather than long-term shelter. The idea was to move people from encampments to hotels to market-rate apartments, using “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between unsheltered, often chronic, homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Rapid rehousing is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds.

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is most effective for people with minimal barriers to housing and employment—those who can get jobs quickly and earn enough to afford an apartment in Seattle. It is generally a poor fit for people who have been living outdoors for a long time or those with conditions that make it hard to work. Yet those are precisely the people the city prioritized for the new hotel-based shelter beds. As a result, people did not tend to move from hotel rooms to apartments; instead, they ended up back on the streets, moved into other forms of shelter like tiny house villages, or stayed put. Continue reading “Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Racing Against Deadline to Close at the End of the Month”

City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday evening, a coalition of Seattle city employee unions reached a tentative agreement with the City of Seattle about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy.  The agreement, which outlines rules for vaccination exemptions and offers paid time off for vaccinated employees, now needs the approval of both the unions’ membership and the city council. Union members will vote on the agreement this weekend.

On Friday, both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city labor leadership heralded the agreement as a key victory in the city’s fight to control the spread of COVID-19. Karen Estevenin, the executive director of PROTEC17, which represents employees across multiple city departments, told PubliCola the union coalition didn’t object to the vaccine mandate itself, but wanted to give city employees a hand in shaping how the mandate will play out in their workplace.

“One of the key benefits of having a union is that workers have a voice on policy changes that affect their workplaces and their livelihoods,” she said. “By negotiating the terms of the vaccine mandate, we wanted to ensure that this was a fair, transparent, and equitable policy for all City employees.”

Behind the scenes, labor organizers convinced nearly every public employee union to buy into the agreement, including the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains in the Seattle Police Department. One key holdout is the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and is still negotiating its own arrangement with the city. Public safety employee unions have negotiating options that other public sector unions lack, so it is not uncommon for SPOG and other unions representing public safety employees to bargain separately from the larger coalition.

The agreement, which the mayor’s office announced publicly on Friday, will guarantee a floating vacation day in the next year for all employees who submit proof by October 5 that they are fully vaccinated or that they will be vaccinated by the October 18 deadline. Vaccinated employees will also receive another 80 hours of paid leave to deal with COVID-related emergencies, including recovering from vaccination or taking care of newly vaccinated family members.

As negotiations wound to a close this week, the coalition ran into two sticking points: whether to replenish the sick day allowance for employees who took time off work to get vaccinated earlier this year and whether the mandate would cover city contractors. The agreement reached on Thursday will allow employees to restore three days of sick leave they used to receive the vaccine before Durkan announced the mandate, and it specifies that the city will apply the vaccine mandate to any contractors and vendors who work on city construction sites or in close proximity with city staff. Continue reading “City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come”

As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites

Kent isolation and quarantine facility
Screenshot: King County Youtube

By Erica C. Barnett

An alarming increase in COVID cases among people experiencing homelessness has been exacerbated in recent weeks, homeless service providers say, by rumors that if people enter a county-run isolation and quarantine site, they won’t be allowed to leave.

And even before these rumors began circulating widely, many unhoused people who tested positive for COVID were reluctant to enter isolation and quarantine, for reasons that ranged from active substance use to the fear that if they left an encampment, they would lose everything they had—a not unreasonable assumption, given the recent uptick in encampment sweeps.

“The resistance, in my experience, has been across the board,” Dr. Cyn Kotarski, medical director for the Public Defender Association, said. “I haven’t met anyone so far who doesn’t have some fear and some resistance to go, and that’s mostly just because it’s overwhelming. It can feel pretty scary to think that you don’t know where you’re going or why, especially when you’re taking someone out of their own environment and their own community,” Kotarski said. The PDA is a partner on several efforts to move unsheltered people into hotels during the pandemic, including Co-LEAD and JustCare.

Although early reports suggested that people living outdoors are less susceptible to COVID infection than those living in group quarters like congregate shelters, the more contagious delta variant could lead to more infections in both indoor and outdoor locations. During the week that ended September 10, King County counted 41 people experiencing homelessness who tested positive for COVID—an undercount, since it only accounts for county testing events.

According to King County Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole, as of last week, there were 22 active COVID cases associated with encampment outbreaks, defined as two or more people who have tested positive at an encampment—an “increase from baseline” of “one to four cases per month associated with encampments.” A review of the county’s weekly reports shows a steady increase in cases that began in early August and hasn’t abated.

“The facilities are not secure, and staying is totally optional. When people come in, we say, ‘Your isolation period is this long, your quarantine period is this long. If you do not want to stay the whole time, let’s talk about it.'”—Hedda McClendon, King County

The increase in COVID cases has impacted every part of the county’s service system. The county’s public health department offers testing and transportation for people who test positive, but service providers and county officials say the system is stretched thin, with long waits for transportation and even testing. According to Cole, the current wait for a test by the county’s HEART E Team, one of two teams that performs testing at homeless encampments, can be as long as five to seven days. When someone living in an encampment tests positive, an outreach provider often must wait with them for hours until a county vehicle arrives to take them to isolation and quarantine, increasing the likelihood that they’ll give up and decide not to go. 

Just getting someone on the phone, outreach workers say, can be a challenge. “You call in and they take your number, but if you call back, it’s an automated line and you have to try to reach the person you were talking to,” Dawn Shepard, the south district outreach coordinator for REACH, said. If an outreach worker or unsheltered person misses a call from the county’s COVID hotline, Shepard says, they’ll have to start the whole process over again, “and by that point the person’s just losing interest.” Currently, Shepard added, “It’s taking us about eight hours from coordination to pickup.”

The county, through a partnership with T-Mobile, has handed out about 500 cell phones for outreach providers to distribute to clients, according to Cole, but Stewart says they need more, along with rapid COVID tests so that people don’t have to wait for days to get tested. Currently, rapid tests are hard to come by and expensive when they are available.

Meanwhile, the number of people staying at the Kent isolation and quarantine site, where 60 rooms are currently available, has increased from zero to 50 virtually “overnight,” King County COVID Emergency Services Group director Hedda McClendon said, stretching resources thin. If all the rooms fill up, the county will have to start triaging people based on test results, exposure, and other qualifications, turning people away if their cases aren’t severe.

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Shepard said that in the early days of the pandemic, “we really didn’t see folks that were living outside contracting the disease…  largely because the viral load is much lower when you’re outside. Now, though, I think it’s safe to say that with the delta variant, our clients don’t have the same protection, because we’re seeing it all over the city.”

Shelter providers, including Compass and WHEEL, also confirm that they’ve seen an increase in cases; according to WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand, COVID “is ripping through many, many homeless programs and communities,” including WHEEL’s women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has seen at least 11 positive cases in the past few weeks. “We’ve had to stop doing intakes now because of this outbreak,” Marchand continued, adding that the organization is seeking funds for hotel vouchers “to meet the immediate need during this current crisis.”

Charlene Mitchell, the program manager at the Compass Housing-run women’s shelter Jan and Peter’s Place, said that the shelter requires people who test positive to stay “in their bed area” while they wait to be taken to the site in Kent, a process that’s considerably faster than testing and moving people living unsheltered. (Currently, the county uses Yellow Cabs for this purpose). She can remember one recent case when a woman left the shelter for the Kent site and decided not to stay. “She turned around [after arriving] and stayed outside in the streets and at the bus stop” after family members refused to take her in. “She recovered, but I don’t know who all she infected” while she was contagious, Mitchell said.

Shepard says that she’s encountered an increasing number of unsheltered people who tell her they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t want to be tested or go into isolation and quarantine because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed to leave. “There was this big push, when isolation and quarantine opened, that they were not going to hold people against their will, but now there are stories coming out about that happening to people.” Shepard says she takes these stories “with a grain of salt—when I’ve asked who has had that experience, it’s just like, ‘everyone knows'”—but says they’ve had an impact nonetheless. “The big thing I’m hearing right now is, ‘No, I don’t want to go because they won’t let me leave.'” Continue reading “As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites”

Maybe Metropolis: Time Share

Instead of letting new spaces languish during “off hours,” let’s time share the public right-of-way throughout the day.

by Josh Feit

All summer, I’ve been setting up my computer and working afternoons at a picnic table under one of those outdoor dining canopies—one of the approximately 230 that have sprung up during the pandemic. My impromptu afternoon office is at E. Harrison St. on Capitol Hill next to Rione XIII, an Italian spot that seats diners outside under the plywood and plastic roofing all evening. When I settle in there, the restaurant is closed. Typically, I’m the only one using the space at that time of day. I did walk by on Tuesday night last week—the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday nights—and notice that a singer-songwriter with a PA, microphone, and guitar had commandeered the place for a performance; a small audience had gathered.

Turning city right-of-way into curbside seating instead of parking spots is one of the ways we’ve reconfigured city space during the pandemic—and not just for sanctioned dining it seems, but also for DIY uses such as music performances and potential co-working spots.

This amorphous moment has created an opportunity for the city to harness a relatively untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times—like applying the concept of “adult swim” to city spaces— could remake Seattle, particularly if we apply the time-share concept with sustainability and social justice in mind. I’m definitely not talking about Ping-Pong in the Park.

We saw some examples of businesses using time creatively during the pandemic—senior-only shopping hours at grocery stores, for example. But pre-pandemic, with only a handful of exceptions, the city has never truly (or formally) explored the tactic of reserving the same space for different uses at different times. Closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on summer Sundays—and opening it for people to walk, bike, and roll—is perhaps the most notable, and coolest, example, along with (briefly) making a few blocks of Capitol Hill’s nightlife district pedestrian-only on weekend evenings, and turning Ballard Ave. over to a farmers’ market on Sundays.

We have an opportunity to harness an untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times could remake the city for the better.

Generally speaking, Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development Interim Director Rico Quirindongo is excited about the way the pandemic has upended traditionally designated uses.

Prior to COVID-19, he said, “the public realm was owned by single-occupancy vehicles,” and “parking was king. What has happened in a time of COVID is a transformation of that, where [the public realm] was assessed differently. The necessity was around public health. We couldn’t gather indoors. So there was a land grab, if you will, where we the people took it back. We took it back for gathering, we took it back for protest, we took it back for celebrating, we took it back for retail. Are all those things that we want to keep? Hell to the yes.”

As the former chair of the Pike Place Market PDA Council, Quirindongo says he sees the potential for divvying uses up by time. The idea is already afoot organically in the Market, he says. “With Pike Place Market, the lines have been blurred between around to whom does the space belong, and when does it belong to whom. Sometimes it is a marketplace, sometimes it is closed. Sometimes people are walking down the middle the streets, sometimes it is a loading zone. Sometimes it is single-occupancy vehicles. And when and how that happens, is just left up to the organic nature of people and time.” He notes, though, whenever the PDA broached the idea of formally closing the the block to cars in favor of pedestrians, the businesses told them no. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Time Share”