Tag: Department of Social and Health Services

Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate

1. Last Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation (HB 2075) that would have required the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to meet minimum service requirements by keeping their physical offices open, come up with a plan to achieve phone wait times of 30 minutes or less, and generally ensure “that clients may apply for and receive services in a reasonable and accessible manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, including but not limited to, technology, language, and ability,” according to a staff summary of the legislation. The bill passed both houses with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, adding to its sponsor, Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21) surprise at Inslee’s veto.

“I had zero idea that this [veto] was even being considered, so getting over the initial shock and confusion took at least half a day,” Peterson said.

The legislation was aimed at addressing a persistent problem at DSHS, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps: Because DSHS, unlike most other government agencies, had never reopened its physical offices, clients—many of them homeless—could only access the agency by phone, and wait times were often several hours.

DSHS secretary Jilma Meneses agreed to reopen most of the agency’s 181 physical offices in March, which eliminated much of the cost associated with the legislation; eliminating a 30-minute wait time mandate and replacing it with language saying DSHS should “strive for” 30-minute wait times made that issue a debate for a later time and reduced the bill’s short-term cost to nothing. 

“We all know a significant investment needs to be made into upgrading the systems that they use—the phone system, the ability for people to access [DSHS] online, and the in-person service, which was the crux of the bill,” Peterson said. He said he trusts that Menenses will keep her word and keep the offices open, but added that the legislation provided a guarantee that would have lasted beyond the tenure of a single DSHS secretary.

In a statement, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said, “We wish we had not had to advocate so forcefully to get the CSOs to reopen, and that the governor had not vetoed this commonsense bill. Together with our service and advocacy partners across Washington, we look forward to working with the governor, DSHS Secretary Meneses, and the legislature in 2023 to guarantee that never again will the state lock its doors on people in need of services, especially in an emergency.”

Inslee’s veto message shed little light on the reasons for his veto. “The executive branch always strives to manage state programs in the best manner possible, within the authorization and resources provided by the legislative branch,” Inslee wrote. “Identifying specific performance metrics, in particular without the necessary resources, is an overreach in our respective roles.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Inslee, said the “performance metrics” Inslee referred to in his veto letter include “not only having offices open but also tracking call wait times and dropped calls with the aspirational goal of keeping that response time to 30 minutes or less. Costing that out is very difficult. … Secretary Meneses has her team working on outreach to advocates and those who access our systems to determine what the buildout should look like.”

2. Back in February, as state legislators were working on a capital budget that would include hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) proposed—and Rep. Noel Frame’s (D-36) office set up—a meeting between King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones and the 45 members of King County’s legislative delegation (not all of whom were expected to attend). Until that point, legislators had not met formally with Dones, and the KCRHA had not provided a list of legislative priorities for the 60-day session.

The meeting was set for 12:30 on February 17. At 9:40 that morning, KCRHA intergovernmental relations manager Nigel Herbig sent an email to the 45-member delegation to cancel.

“As you may have read in the Seattle Times this morning, the KCRHA will be making an announcement about our plans to address unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle,” Herbig wrote. As we reported, the announcement was about private donations totaling $10 million to fund, among other things, 30 “peer navigators” in downtown Seattle.

“Because of this announcement, and how busy you all are right now with session, we are canceling today’s 12:30 meeting,” Herbig continued. “We appreciate your understanding, and look forward to opportunities to introduce ourselves and answer any questions you have about us or our work after Sine Die,” the end of the legislative session.

“I am inferring from your cancellation [that] KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”—State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), in an email to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Macri, who works for the Downtown Emergency Service Coalition when the legislature isn’t in session, called the cancelation “a slap in the face” in an email response to Herbig. “Tell me why I should not read it as this—’Sorry, elected officials, we have no time for you because some billionaires are giving us a small shiny thing, which they can only do it on the one day we have a meeting with the group who collectively represents the interests of 2.3 million people from our region,'” Macri wrote.

“I am inferring from your cancellation,” Macri continued, that “KCRHA is not interested in engaging with legislators who will have a big influence in these budget considerations. Perhaps your friends in philanthropy will address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and you have no need for legislative action?”

In a followup email, State Sen. David Frockt (D-46) added, “Our proposed Senate capital budget has over 470m for housing and stabilization investments, so I concur with Rep. Macri it would be good to connect since I presume KCRHA and key agency partners will be seeking some of this money at some point. … [P]artnership with the key budget writers and the former speaker,” Frank Chopp (D-43), “would be helpful and will help me relate to all of my more conservative colleagues in the Senate why these investments toward King County are worthwhile.” Continue reading “Inslee Vetoes Bill Requiring Minimum Standards for State Services, Homelessness Authority Canceled Meeting with Legislators Amid Budget Debate”

DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons

1. Proponents of a bill (HB 2075) that would force the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to offer services in person scored a victory this week, as the agency agreed to reopen almost all its community services offices—key access points, prior to the pandemic, for people seeking services ranging from food stamps to cash assistance.

Since 2020, DSHS has required people seeking services to use an online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. The department opened the community service office lobbies late last year so that people seeking services could call the department on a land line or use a computer to access its online portal, but only agreed to offer services in person again after months of pressure from advocates for low-income and homeless people.

In a letter to stakeholders last week, DSHS Community Services Division director Babs Roberts wrote, “we have heard clearly from many of you and agree that some elements of our plans will not sufficiently meet the needs of all the people we serve, particularly those experiencing the deepest impacts of poverty and homelessness. Thus, we are making changes.”

However, Roberts added, short-staffing and social distancing requirements may result in “limited waiting space and possibly long wait times in our lobbies. This moment (like so many before) will require flexibility and patience.”

As PubliCola reported in January, the closure of in-person services made it essentially impossible for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unsheltered people, to access critical services to which they are entitled, including food stamps, cash assistance, and housing subsidies.

Advocates are still pushing for the bill, which would direct DSHS to “strive to ensure” telephone wait times of no more than 30 minutes and would bar DSHS from restricting the kind of services clients can access in person. Friday is the cutoff date for the bill, which is currently in the senate rules committee, to pass out of the senate.

2. After a surprisingly contentious process, the Seattle Public Library Board unanimously appointed interim library director Tom Fay as the city’s Chief Librarian yesterday, rejecting another candidate, former Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library director Chad Helton, who resigned from his previous job amid criticism over his decision to work remotely from Los Angeles.

The vote, coming after a process that was mostly invisible to the public, shed little light on why the board chose Fay over Helton. (The two men were the only candidates that made it to the public stage of the vetting process.) During his one public interview, Helton defended his decision to run the Minnesota library system from California, saying he was just one of many people who started working from home during the pandemic. “The staff wasn’t really aware” that he lived elsewhere, Helton told the board, adding, “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary.” Fay lives in Pierce County.

As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported last week, Helton resigned from his position on February 1, after the Hennepin County Board of Supervisors passed a law, effective January 1, requiring the heads of public-facing departments like the library to live inside the state. Helton received $60,000 for “emotional damages,” plus $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, as part of a settlement.

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

3. Hours after the vote, Fay gave a presentation on library operations to the Seattle City Council’s public assets and homelessness committee. Although the presentation was mostly a high-level look at how the library spends its money, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used the opportunity to ask Fay whether the library would consider allowing social-service providers to open and operate library branches as day centers during rare weather emergencies like last year’s Christmas snowstorm, when most library branches were closed.

“Does your plan [for emergency weather operations] consider the possibility of opening as a [day] shelter only, not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter, like we do [when] we open up City Hall as a shelter?” Herbold asked. Continue reading “DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons”

Hotel Shelter Closes, County Debates Jail Releases, State Mulls Human Services Mandate, and Harrell Appoints New Directors

1. On Friday, January 29, the Executive Pacific Hotel concluded its service as a homeless shelter. By the end of the day, the Low-Income Housing Institute had relocated almost everyone still living there to permanent housing, shelter, or another hotel. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, just one resident declined to engage with agency staffers and returned to unsheltered homelessness. Overall, 79 of the 91 households (totaling 99 people living in the hotel as of last October moved (or will move) into permanent housing, five now live at one of LIHI’s tiny house villages, and one moved into transitional housing. Just six left without a specific destination. 

That’s a positive outcome, especially compared to the worst-case scenario: Dozens of people back out on the street in the coldest months of the year. But it isn’t the outcome former Mayor Jenny Durkan wanted when she agreed, reluctantly, to spend federal COVID relief dollars on the hotels. Under the administration’s ambitious, highly unrealistic plan, the hotels would serve as short-term way stations rather than traditional shelters. People would move in off the street, sign up for services, and move swiftly into market-rate housing using short-term  “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between living on the street and self-sufficiency. 

The reasons this ambitious plan was a failure were obvious from the beginning. Rapid rehousing works best for people who have few barriers to housing, such as people who recently became homeless because of job loss or another temporary condition. The hotel, in contrast, served many chronically homeless people with complex physical and mental health conditions that contributed to their homelessness, including people the city referred there during its regular encampment sweeps. “It was a poor design, because the people who were moved into the hotel did not match the profile of who would be successful in rapid rehousing,” Lee said.

By the end of its ten-month contract, LIHI and its rapid-rehousing partner, Catholic Community Services, had enrolled just 33 people in rapid rehousing. Enrollment, as we’ve reported, is just the beginning of a lengthy process that may not ultimately lead to housing.

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee meeting last Friday, committee chair Andrew Lewis said he hoped the city’s Human Services Department would provide “a pretty detailed after action report on the rapid rehousing function, to determine what lessons we can learn and transition over to the King County Regional Homelessness authority,” which has taken over HSD’s former responsibilities as the chief homelessness agency in the region.

2. The King County Council held a public hearing on Tuesday about several possible options to reduce the number of people in county jails in response to a surge of COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff. King County Executive Dow Constantine, the county prosecutor’s office, and King County courts all have a say in various aspects of who is booked into or released from jail.

The hearing centered on demands from unlikely allies: As case numbers skyrocketed in early January, the unions representing King County’s public defenders and correctional officers joined forces to sound the alarm about deteriorating jail conditions that have left inmates unable to attend court hearings and overworked guards sleeping in empty cells. The unions asked the county to immediately stop booking people into jail or issuing warrants for nonviolent offenses, and to release everyone currently held in jails for nonviolent offenses.

Elbert Aull, a felony attorney with the King County Department of Public Defense, told council members that the constant “churn” in and out of King County jails has exacerbated the spread of the virus behind bars. Aull added that many defendants will have their cases dismissed by a judge or dropped by a prosecutor once they make it to court. “Implementing booking restrictions would mean that people who are going to be released anyway won’t sit in jail for half a week while they wait for a judge or prosecutor to do the inevitable,” he said.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg countered that the county has already reduced the county’s jail population dramatically, from roughly 1,900 to 1,350, and argued that those who remain in jail are incarcerated for good reason. More than 70 percent of jail inmates in King County, Satterberg said, are charged with either a violent crime or a “serious” felony like violating a protection order; all but 12 of the 1,350 people in county custody face felony charges.

Council president Claudia Balducci, who previously ran the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, also argued that the council could hire more corrections officers. “Whatever we do temporarily will not be fixed long-term until we can get staffing to where it needs to be,” she said.

“It is always the department’s intent to provide excellent customer service,” DSHS director Babs Roberts told the committee, but “in order to provide the service levels this bill demands, DSHS must have adequate, modernized infrastructure and sufficient staffing levels in place, and we do not.”

3. The state Department of Social and Health Services responded briefly to legislation that would force the agency to improve access to its services during a meeting of the state house’s Housing, Human Services, and Veterans committee on Tuesday, but did not come out against the proposal. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) would require DSHS to reduce phone hold times to 30 minutes or less, reopen its service centers to walk-in clients, and “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.” If DSHS failed to meet any of those standards, the bill would prohibit the agency from cutting off clients’ benefits.

“It is always the department’s intent to provide excellent customer service,” DSHS director Babs Roberts told the committee, but “in order to provide the service levels this bill demands, DSHS must have adequate, modernized infrastructure and sufficient staffing levels in place, and we do not.” Last week, bill cosponsor Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola that she sympathized with the agency’s staffing crunch, but added that the agency has not asked the legislature for funding to help them recruit and hire more workers.

Catholic Community Services deputy director Dan Wise told the committee, which Peterson chairs, that the 4,000-employee organization she represents has faced challenges similar to those at DSHS. “I totally understand the difficulty of hiring and maintaining a trained workforce,” Wise said. But, she added, CCS has “continued to offer in-person services” throughout the pandemic. “It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been safe. It has been absolutely necessary,  because I know that if we limit our in-person service like DSHS has done, the people who fall thru the cracks are in the depths of poverty.” The bill is scheduled for a second committee hearing at 10am on Friday, February 4.

4. Mayor Bruce Harrell announced three new additions to his administration on Tuesday. Former mayoral candidate (and ex-state legislator) Jessyn Farrell, who endorsed Harrell after failing to make it through the 2021 mayoral primary, will head up the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, which deals with overall environmental policy in the city.

Markham McIntyre, the current vice president of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the head of CASE, the Chamber’s Amazon-backed independent expenditure committee, will direct the Office of Economic Development. CASE sat out the most recent election after its attempt in 2019 to unseat left-leaning city council members, including Kshama Sawant, backfired spectacularly; in 2017, the business group spent more than $600,000 to help former mayor Jenny Durkan get elected.

Greg Wong, an attorney at Pacifica Law Group, will lead the Department of Neighborhoods. According to the announcement, Wong is a former schoolteacher who “led school levy campaigns, helped establish the City’s high-quality, affordable preschool program, and served in executive board roles with several community nonprofits.” He is the only one of the three directors announced Tuesday who will replace a permanent, rather than am interim, department head; former DON director Andrés Mantilla had already told the Harrell team that he was leaving prior to Tuesday’s announcement.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer

Appeals Court Rules State Must Pay When People With Disabilities Wait in Jail for Services

A “rubber room” at the Snohomish County Jail in 2013, used to hold people with serious mental illnesses in isolation.

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) won’t appeal a ruling by state Court of Appeals that could enable people held in jails for weeks while awaiting mental health evaluations to receive financial compensation for their lengthy, and possibly unconstitutional, confinement.

The ruling signals a possible turning point in a push by public defenders and disability rights advocates to overhaul how Washington’s criminal legal system treats jailed people with serious mental illnesses.

When someone’s mental health during and after an alleged crime comes into question, the state gives them a “competency evaluation” to determine whether they are competent to stand trial. If they’re not competent, their case can be paused while they are treated at a state facility, where staff can “restore” them to competency by using medication and therapy to treat their mental illness. The goal of restoration is to return people to a point where they can understand the charges against them, return to jail or the community, and eventually go to trial.

The ruling, which the Court of Appeals issued at the end of November, centered on Shymila Luvert, who spent four months languishing in a jail cell last year while awaiting a mental health evaluation that never came. Luvert, charged with a second-degree assault and booked into King County’s Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent last spring, didn’t appear to understand what was happening to her.

The push to force DSHS to compensate individuals with disabilities for long wait times is new, but the underlying problem is not. The number of people with mental disabilities and illnesses left waiting for mental health services in jails across Washington has risen steadily for years.

A King County judge ordered that Luvert receive a competency evaluation in her jail cell. When she refused to engage with the evaluators from DSHS, the court changed strategies, directing the department to move her to Western State Hospital in Lakewood for an inpatient evaluation within a week.

As Luvert waited for a bed to open, she sank deeper into her mental health crisis. “It was clear that she was not understanding what I was doing there, or what I was talking about,” said Ramona Brandes, the King County public defender who represented Luvert. “She was just sitting in jail, and she didn’t understand why. It was doubly sad because I couldn’t move her case forward in any way and I couldn’t get her the services she needed.”

As weeks turned to months, the court gave the department an ultimatum at the end of July: Find a bed for Luvert in less than a week or temporarily release her. When DSHS didn’t comply, the court ordered the department to pay Luvert $250 for each day she spent in jail beyond the first two weeks of her stay.

The push to force DSHS to compensate individuals with disabilities for long wait times is new, but the underlying problem is not. The number of people with mental disabilities and illnesses left waiting for mental health services in jails across Washington has risen steadily for years. Many spend their time in isolation cells with only occasional visits from mental health care providers, and their mental and physical health often deteriorates as time drags on. Some people spend more time in jail waiting for evaluation than they would have if they were simply convicted of the crime and sentenced to jail time.

In 2014, a group of public defenders and mental health advocates sued DSHS and its two major hospitals in federal court on behalf of more than 100 defendants statewide who had languished in jail while waiting weeks or months for evaluation or to have their competency “restored.” That case, known as Trueblood—named for one of the public defenders who filed the lawsuit—appeared to mark a turning point.

“Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates,” US District Judge Marsha Pechman wrote in her ruling in April 2015. The court ordered the state to complete initial in-jail mental health evaluations within two weeks, and to transfer anyone who does not appear mentally competent to a state psychiatric hospital within seven days.

But in the years since the case, DSHS hasn’t been able to consistently reduce wait times for people in need of competency evaluations or restoration. “[Trueblood] gave us all this hope that there is going to be a change, that things were going to get better,” Brandes said, “and that DSHS was going to start transporting people in a timely fashion. And then they didn’t.”

Instead, the department has paid more than $85 million in contempt fines to the federal court, along with millions to county courts. Those dollars were set aside to pay for new mental health services, staff and facilities, both in county jails and in DSHS hospitals. In 2018, DSHS reached an agreement with disability rights advocates in federal court to take a new approach. Rather than paying contempt fines, the state agreed to devote more resources not only to meeting the court’s intake timelines, but to scaling up diversion and crisis intervention programs. The court didn’t fully waive contempt fines; instead, DSHS has accrued another $100 million in fines that it will need to pay if it can’t meet its promises to improve wait times and diversion programs.

“[Trueblood] gave us all this hope that there is going to be a change, that things were going to get better, and that DSHS was going to start transporting people in a timely fashion. And then they didn’t.” —King County public defender Ramona Brandes

Kim Mosolf, the director of the treatment facilities program at Disability Rights Washington—the nonprofit that negotiated the settlement with DSHS in 2018—said the new emphasis on diversion, which keeps people out of both jails and hospitals, is a way to stem the flow of people with disabilities into jail and psychiatric hospitals. DSHS, she said, “had been trying to build their way out of the Trueblood contempt fines for several years without luck,” opening hospital beds slower than the demand for them rose.

The number of people who need in-patient evaluation or restoration outpaced the department’s ability to open new hospital beds and hire staff, keeping wait times long for people awaiting transfers from jails. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Western State Hospital to temporarily pause intake to contain an outbreak, only exacerbated delays.

Mosolf added that adding beds to speed up the process of competency restoration isn’t a long-term fix. “Restoration is not treatment in the way that most people consider treatment,” she said—the purpose of restoration is to make a patient competent enough to stand trial, even if their improvement is temporary. “The state’s own data shows that experiencing restoration does not lead to longer-term stability and health for people—so investing in more inpatient restoration beds is actually a very bad investment in terms of the returns.” Continue reading “Appeals Court Rules State Must Pay When People With Disabilities Wait in Jail for Services”