Tag: DESC

Mayor’s Office Defends Hotel Shelter Plan as Council Pushes for Tiny Houses: UPDATED

Yep, this hotel again.

By Erica C. Barnett

UPDATE Thursday, Jan. 28, 6:30pm: The city has reportedly rejected the Public Defender Association’s plan to operate hotel rooms using the model established through its county-funded JustCare program after yesterday suggesting that the model was too expensive. The PDA’s application for the hotel-based shelter contract, which we first reported on last November, requested around $28,000 per room to pay for food, case management, and behavioral health services. That number was similar to the amount requested by another applicant for the same program, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

According to providers, the city is seeking to cap expenditures on services at $17,000 per room, or about $5 million—a little over half what the city plans to spend on rapid rehousing subsidies for hotel-based shelter clients, many of whom will likely be people with disabling physical or behavioral health conditions. This is a developing story.

On Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller assured city council members that the mayor’s office was moving forward on schedule with plans to open 300 new hotel rooms, 125 enhanced shelter beds, and new tiny house village spaces as part of a “shelter surge” proposal announced last fall.

But the details he provided, in response to council questions about issues with the program that PubliCola reported exclusively yesterday, largely confirmed that the city is at an impasse with the providers it has chosen to run its two hotel-based shelters. The issues are financial—as we reported, at least one of the two providers has informed the city that they can’t serve high-needs homeless clients for the amount the city is willing to pay—and logistical: The hotels, the Executive Pacific downtown and King’s Inn near South Lake Union, have small rooms that lack kitchenettes, microwaves, and other amenities that would make them better suited to serve as long-term living spaces.

Asked why the city budget office (which reports to the mayor) capped the total cost of services for each hotel unit so low—at $17,000 a year, although Sixkiller erroneously cited a slightly higher number—Sixkiller said that the service providers knew what they were getting into when they responded to the request for qualifications with proposals. Besides, he added, the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been running a hotel in Renton (a hotel, he hastened to add, that the city has supported financially) for less than $19,000 per bed, and that hotel serves some of the highest-need clients in the region.

“I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than [$17,000 per room], but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” — Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

“When we just look at the services column, we have been able to really zero in on what works,” Sixkiller said. “I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than that, but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” Getting more specific, he cited costs of “$100,000 a room” for another, unnamed hotel shelter provider.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda countered that one reason DESC’s costs are lower is that they aren’t able to pay staffers a living wage, resulting in high turnover. “I don’t want to use as a benchmark something that is too low due to the city outsourcing and under resourcing these services for far too long,” Mosqueda said. Mosqueda also noted that the city rejected DESC’s proposal because it was “nonresponsive,” in that it would have moved people already in shelter at Exhibition Hall to a hotel, freeing up more shelter space at Exhibition Hall.

Sixkiller’s reference was clearly to the Public Defender Association, which since last year has run a King County-funded program called JustCare that moves people from encampments to rooms in hotels around the region. The PDA’s proposal for the shelter surge program, which is one of two the city accepted (the other was from Chief Seattle Club), is for an expansion of JustCare, which includes behavioral health care and 24/7 wraparound services for its high-needs clients.

And the high figure Sixkiller cited was apparently extrapolated from just the second month of the program, when it was ramping up, hiring new staff, and moving people indoors on an emergency basis; the program includes intensive wraparound services similar to what clients would receive in permanent supportive housing, which is beyond the scope of the city’s proposed hotel program.

The PDA’s actual proposal requested around $28,000 per bed—not the “$100,000 a room” Sixkiller cited.

As it turns out, DESC submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year.

As for DESC’s purported ability to provide hotel services on a much tighter budget of around $18,000 a year (still higher than the city’s $17,000 cap? As it turns out, DESC actually submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year, right in line with what other providers such as the PDA said they needed to operate hotel-based shelters in the city.

“The thing about the Renton situation is that there are a number of costs involved with that operation that the county has picked up directly” that DESC doesn’t have to factor into its contract, such as meals and utilities, Malone said. “I’m guessing that the city is relying on… a cost profile for what we’re doing at the Red Lion that is not reflective of all the costs involved” in running the Renton shelter.

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates eight tiny-house villages around the city, also applied for the hotel contract. LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, said she never heard back from the city on that application or LIHI’s application to provide the 125 enhanced shelter beds.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, the city’s plan is to invest about twice as much—$9 million—in short-term rapid rehousing subsidies as they are on services at the hotels.

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Council members asked for a progress update on tiny house villages. Sixkiller said the city added 95 tiny house units last year, and hopes to add another 120 this year, although only one site, on Sound Transit-owned land in the University District, has been identified. (Sixkiller said the mayor’s office was “doing a deep analysis” of two additional sites “that I’m not prepared to talk about right now.”) When Durkan’s became mayor, she vowed to build 1,000 new tiny houses in her first year. More than three years later, there are fewer than 300.

Andrew Lewis, the chair of the homelessness committee, rolled out a plan this week, which he’s calling “It Takes A Village,” to create up to 12 new tiny house villages citywide, using a combination of funding the council allocated for tiny houses last year (about $4 million) and another $7.2 million in private funding, some of which the city has already secured. The private dollars would pay for one-time capital costs to set up the new villages; the rest of the money, and additional ongoing funds from the city budget, would pay for operations.

Image via LIHI.

Tiny house villages provide temporary, non-congregate shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and are one of the most sought-after forms of shelter, in large part because they provide more privacy than dormitory-style shelters.

Lewis told PubliCola he hopes to use the villages to fill a gap or serve a “niche” that isn’t captured by the hotel-based shelters or enhanced shelters the city hopes to add this year. “I don’t know if I’d be leaning into them quite this hard if the situation wasn’t as bad as it is,” Lewis said. “What it really comes down to for me is, it is going to be years—it is going to be years!— until we have the types of housing options at the scale required to have a measurable impact on what we’re seeing on the street, and in the meantime we need to do something” about encampments.

Right now, just two of LIHI’s tiny house villages operate on a “harm reduction” model that allows residents who are in active addiction, but “we know that HSD wants the next few villages to be for adults and couples (no minors) operated with a harm reduction model,” Lee, from LIHI, said said. The median length of time a client stays at a LIHI village is seven and a half months, according to Lee, which is more than twice as long as the 90-day “performance minimum” the city sets for authorized encampments.

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.

Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The Renton City Council will take final action next week on legislation that would require the Downtown Emergency Service Center to kick out about half the population of its shelter in the Renton Red Lion at the end of May, and evict the remaining shelter residents by the end of 2021. PubliCola covered the council’s initial discussion of the proposal last month.

The legislation also creates a restrictive new land use designation for “homeless services,” limits the number of clients any homeless service location can serve to 100 people, and imposes a number of requirements on service providers and people experiencing homelessness in Renton, including a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service provider. Homeless service providers say the restrictions—modeled on legislation in other cities that continue to lack permanent shelters, like Bellevue and Puyallup—effectively bans non-emergency shelters from Renton.

A hearing on the legislation Monday night brought out a mix of supporters (who pointed to the incredible improvements people living at the hotel have experienced and pointed out that without shelter, people die) and opponents (who expressed “empathy” for homeless people right before suggesting that these homeless people ought to be arrested, or shipped “back” to Seattle, or taught the value of hard work). Although the vote was a foregone conclusion, some council members did suggest extending the date of the shelter’s eviction notice and increasing the number of people the shelter can accommodate from 125 (100 in the initial version of the bill) to 175. Those proposals failed.

In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density.

For months, Renton has maintained that the use of the Red Lion as a shelter violates its zoning laws, which don’t include a specific designation for shelter. Renton has interpreted this lack of special shelter zoning to mean that shelters are currently banned every in Renton, but this is an interpretation that assumes that unless a special designation exists for a land use, it isn’t allowed. In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density. Renton is acting like it’s doing homeless service providers a favor by adding a zoning designation that might, theoretically, allow a very small shelter to operate somewhere in a non-residential part of the city, but in reality it’s creating new restrictions that didn’t previously exist.

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There were a number of changes between the version of the legislation released in November and the version the council considered this week. The wordiest of these was the addition of more than 20 “whereas” clauses, most of them arguing that the shelter’s residents, by virtue of their “violent” nature and the fact that so many are living in proximity to each other, are dangerous to the surrounding community and to each other. The legislation now argues even more explicitly that DESC and the county have been breaking the city’s zoning laws by operating the shelter, a claim that is currently being litigated. Continue reading “Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton”

A New Criminal-Justice Approach That Acknowledges “Addiction Isn’t a Choice”

This story originally appeared in the August issue of Seattle magazine.

On a day in late spring, David Lucas, 26, is standing in front of Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid, waiting to find out if he gets to go home.

Lucas (not his real name) has been locked up in the King County Jail in downtown Seattle for nearly a month. Today, he’s facing a charge of trespassing at a grocery store—the same store where he’s been arrested many times, usually for stealing food. He’s been homeless off and (mostly) on for about a dozen years, and has a chronic mental illness that’s been exacerbated by his habit of smoking meth. Unless he can convince Shadid that he’ll stay out of trouble, he could be going back to jail for a while.

Lucas is part of Seattle’s visibly homeless population, the cohort featured in a KOMO-TV special called “Seattle Is Dying,” which aired in the spring. Although this group makes up a small percentage of the city’s overall homeless population, its members commit an outsize percentage of the kind of low-level drug and property crimes—such as shoplifting, trespassing and public urination—that KOMO highlighted in its special, which amplified the conversation about this subset of the homeless population.

Cases like Lucas’ pose a fundamental question: Is the arrest of people with severe addiction and mental illness who break laws a solution to chronic homelessness? Or is patience and compassion a more effective approach?

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Under ordinary circumstances, a judge might look at Lucas’ file—which includes dozens of arrests since 2011—and send him straight back to his cell. But Lucas is no ordinary defendant, and this is no ordinary court session. Like many other clients who sit at the defendants’ table in this courtroom every Wednesday morning, Lucas is supported by a new program that provides case management, legal aid and mental health services to people who, like him, have complex mental health challenges and whose competency to defend themselves in court has been called into question. His advocates this morning include Daniel Garcia, his case manager; Heather Aman, the prosecutorial liaison with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office; and Judge Shadid, who talks at length about the progress Lucas has made.

After a few minutes of deliberation, Shadid decides to release Lucas on the condition that he stay away from the neighborhood where he keeps getting arrested. And when Lucas leaves jail tomorrow, he’ll leave with Garcia, who has been assigned to help him stay on track. He’ll go to sleep tonight not on the street, but in transitional housing, a kind of way station between homelessness and permanent housing. Later in the week, he’ll have an appointment with the occupational therapist who is helping him with the life skills he’ll need to stay out of this courtroom. And his mental health care will be supervised by a team from the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), including a mental health professional who will monitor his progress and adjust his meds if needed.

All of these services are available to Lucas thanks to a $3 million, 18-month expansion of the existing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a collaboration between law enforcement agencies, the Public Defender Association and Reach, the street-based case management program for which Garcia works. The expansion, which zeroes in on offenders with mental illness, traumatic brain injuries, addiction and other debilitating cognitive conditions, was funded by a 2018 settlement in a landmark case known simply as Trueblood. The settlement created a pool of money for programs to help defendants at risk of being “warehoused” in jails while they await hearings on their competency to stand trial.

Continue reading “A New Criminal-Justice Approach That Acknowledges “Addiction Isn’t a Choice””

Annual Homeless Count: Redefining “Shelter,” Struggling to Count the Chronically Homeless

The latest annual report on King County’s homeless population from All Home King County found an overall decrease in the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, from 4,488 last year to 3,558 in 2019—a reduction Mayor Jenny Durkan touted in a letter announcing the expansion of the Navigation Team as “the first decrease since 2012″ and evidence that ” our shared work to address our crisis of affordability and homelessness is having an impact.” Over the same time period, the number of people experiencing homelessness who were in some form of shelter or transitional housing increased from 4,000 to 4,239.

This year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category.

However, those numbers conceal a few important details: First, that the number of unsheltered people living in tent encampments actually went up in this year’s count, from 1,034 to 1,162. Second, this year—at the request of Mayor Durkan’s Human Services Department—All Home redefined “shelter” to include five “tiny house village” encampments that were previously categorized as encampments. This added 180 people to the “sheltered” count, which accounts for all but 59 individuals added to the “sheltered” category. (A sixth village, at Northlake, was excluded “until it is up to ADA code,” according to the board minutes.) Including the tiny houses—communities where people live in wooden structures the size of a small garden shed—in the “encampment” count would have raised that number to 1,342. The board vote on the redefinition was split 10-4.

In a letter to the All Home board in March, Seattle Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson requested that the tiny houses be moved to the “shelter” category, arguing that they meet “the most relevant” criteria set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for “shelter”—namely, that the structures are ADA accessible, that there is security on site, that the site has hygiene facilities, that the structures are ventilated, and that they include sanitary food preparation areas. In the letter, Johnson also notes that the five tiny house villages have case management and offer extended hours or 24/7 access.

“If basic shelters, which only allow people to come in overnight and sleep on floor with no services and amenities are classified as shelter, then permitted villages that meet the HUD requirements of shelter, and have amenities, services and outcomes that far exceed that of basic shelter, should also be classified as such,” Johnson wrote.

Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which was responsible for what was then called the One-Night Count until All Home took over in 2017, called the reclassification of tiny house villages as shelter “Orwellian” and out of keeping with decades of established practice.

HUD’s minimum criteria for emergency shelter (Appendix A) also include additional requirements, such as smoke detectors in each unit, structural standards, compliance with fair housing rules, heating and cooling, and other requirements that Johnson did not mention in his letter.

The report also found a reduction in the number of veterans, young people, and chronically homeless people living outdoors. Of those three categories, the decrease in veteran and youth homelessness is a clear result of new investments in shelter and housing targeted at those specific populations. The apparent decline in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness, however, could be a result of the methodology used to come up with that number, which is an extrapolation based on in-person interviews with chronically homeless individuals—defined as individuals who have experienced homelessness for a year or more or on four separate periods during a three-year span, and who also have a disabling condition that prevents them from working or going to school.

Extrapolating these numbers to Seattle (based on the percentage of the population , this finding would suggest that the number of chronically homeless unsheltered people—increased from just over 1,200 in 2017 to nearly 1,800 in 2018, then decreased to just over 600 people between 2018 and 2019. Since chronically homeless people are, by definition, people who are homeless year after year, and since there has not been any massive investment in new permanent supportive housing for hundreds of chronically homeless people in Seattle, the obvious conclusion is that these numbers are not an accurate guide to the actual number of unsheltered chronically homeless people in Seattle from year to year. A similar fluctuation can be seen in the number of unsheltered people with mental illness and substance use disorders—a pattern that probably reflects the challenges with the methodology All Home’s researchers use, rather than any wild fluctuation in the number of people living on the streets with mental illness and addiction from year to year.

Daniel Malone, the director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, says the surveys that serve as the basis for the counts of unsheltered people in various sub-populations may be to blame. “They survey people, then extrapolate out to the total number of people who are unsheltered, so if one year if you happen to interview a bunch of people who meet the criteria for chronic homelessness, and the next year you interview a bunch of people who don’t, then you’re going to end up multiplying a factor and applying it to the total number of unsheltered people,” Malone says. “I think you naturally have to be much less confident in that kind of demographic extrapolation.”

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Kira Zylstra, All Home’s acting director, acknowledges that “there is fluctuation with all of these numbers” based on survey data, “particularly with more refined slices of the data. … For chronically homeless and people with disabilities and other characteristics and needs, it’s dependent on a representative survey, which has even further limitations, as well as reported data” obtained through other sources.

To put a finer point on it, information obtained on sheltered people through the county’s Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) is generally pretty good, because it’s based on tracking individual people from year to year—a fact that’s reflected in the number of chronically homeless people in shelter, which has fluctuated only slightly between 2017 and now.

Information on chronically homeless people living on the streets is much less reliable for a number of reasons , including the fact that interview subjects are located by formerly homeless people themselves, who may gravitate to people and places they already know; the fact that people with major disabilities may face extra challenges that make them less likely to participate in lengthy, in-person interviews with researcher; and the fact that the survey results are extrapolated to apply to much larger populations, despite the fact that in the case of unsheltered people in particular, the survey itself may be unrepresentative.

This year,  the data on all chronically homeless individuals in King County is extrapolated using surveys with about 180 people, some of whom did not respond to all questions. Anything unrepresentative about this population will be multiplied and magnified when the researchers extrapolate from that small sample to the entire homeless population in King County and Seattle. For example, the researchers reached conclusions about the chronically homeless population by figuring out what percentage of survey respondents fit into certain categories—sheltered vs. unsheltered, individual vs. families, etc.—and multiplying that percentage by the total number of people in the general street count in those categories.

Malone, whose organization works primarily with chronically homeless people, says he hopes the extrapolated surveys of unsheltered people won’t be used to dictate policy or funding decisions or to fuel self-congratulatory press releases. He maintains that the best use of the count is as a general comparison of homelessness from year to year—by that standard, he says, the real story is that the unsheltered homeless population has declined as the number of shelter beds in Seattle has increased.

 

From Jail to Homeless Shelter

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The third floor of the west wing of the King County Corrections Center in downtown Seattle is accessed through a series of heavy metal doors, each one closing with a loud “ka-THUNK” behind visitors as they enter. Walk through a disused lobby, onto an elevator, and up a flight of institutional-looking stairs and you’ll find yourself in the old minimum-security living quarters, where a series of rooms—cells, really—look down on a central staffing station; you can imagine guards sitting behind the semicircular counter, keeping a wary eye on the large security mirrors that overlook the ward. In the rooms, rows of narrow metal bunks beds with chipping blue paint and fake wood-grain headboards are scattered haphazardly, each labeled with a different number. The views from the narrow windows are blocked by bars and glazing that makes it impossible to look outside.

The place feels, unsurprisingly, like a jail—which is just one of many hurdles that King County, and its future, still-unnamed nonprofit partner, will have to surmount before the former jail wing, which has been closed since 2012, can reopen as a 24/7, low-barrier shelter.  Last week, staffers from the county’s Community and Health Services department took reporters on a tour of the building, followed by a press briefing with King County Executive Dow Constantine. Here’s what we currently know about the county’s plans for the shelter, as well as a few questions that remain unanswered.

The Basics

The new shelter, which Constantine said he hopes will open sometime before this coming winter, will include dormitories, storage space, case management, showers, and laundry facilities for up to 150 people. The county hasn’t chosen a partner to operate the facility, which county officials said would cost about $2 million to renovate and $2 million a year to operate. (That funding is included in Constantine’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, which the King County Council is considering now.) The shelter will be open 24/7, allowing people to leave some of their stuff on site during the day and giving those without daytime jobs a place to be during the daytime hours other than on the street.

“As I look around and I see the number of people who are continuing to be out on the streets… and then I see a vacant building right here in the middle of downtown Seattle., it seems to me that we really have a moral obligation to open that up and provide the opportunity for people to get out of the weather and to get the services they need,” Constantine said Thursday. “This is an element of what we need to do. This is not the solution. The solution is the heavy lifting we’ve been doing on root causes, on housing, on behavioral health treatment, on job connectedness, on all of these other root causes. But meanwhile there are people on the streets and that is a humanitarian crisis that we absolutely must deal with.”

Jurors and county court employees have complained about people congregating in parks and on sidewalks near the downtown courthouse, which sits in close proximity to several shelters that require people to leave first thing in the morning. King King County Housing and Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook said the new shelter will include indoor areas and a courtyard where clients will be able to spend time during the day, and will be connected to a new day center just a block away, at a county-owned building on Fourth and Jefferson that currently serves as a winter shelter.

A recent City of Seattle report on homeless services found that enhanced shelter is several times more effective at getting people  into permanent housing than basic shelters that only offer mats on the floor, which are mostly a basic survival tool for people who would otherwise be sleeping out in the elements. “There’s no real opportunity to connect folks with services in that environment,” Ellerbrook said.

The Optics

Opening a shelter inside a jail building presents what a political consultant might call some challenging optics—and not just because homelessness is not a crime. People experiencing homelessness are more likely than other groups to have past experience in the criminal justice system, and to want to avoid any place that feels like jail. Asked how the county planned to overcome the obvious association between the jail and the shelter, which will not connect directly but will share an emergency stairwell, Constantine responded, “Clearly, this is not ideal … for people who have been incarcerated and may have been traumatized by that experience. This would not be the ideal choice for them to go to, and they don’t have to. Nobody’s going to make them. But for others, it is a very good alternative to being out on the street, to be able to be in a place that is well built, that’s warm and dry and has all of the facilities they need.”

On the flip side, many people who leave jail depart directly into homelessness; prior incarceration is one of many factors that make it difficult for people to find a place to live or a job to lift them out of homelessness, according to the county’s most one-night homeless count. Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose organization is one of several in the running to operate the shelter, said, “I certainly can see it as sort of a swords to plowshares situation, where you could repurpose a facility that previously had really negative connotations into something much more positive for people’s lives, but that said, I think there remains some work to be done that would really examine, will people who would be the intended recipients of the help use it in a facility like that?”

Constantine said he sees the new shelter as an opportunity to divert people leaving jail directly to services and “interrupt that process when people are coming out of the jail and to be able to bring them next door to a, set them up with the services they need to be able to be successful. … It gives us a unique opportunity for those who have been justice involved to help them get their lives back on track and not fall into homelessness and then be another person who ends up back in the justice system.”

The Unknowns

Constantine said he wants to open the new shelter before this winter. That leaves a lot of details to be hammered out in a short period of time, including who will run the shelter and who it will serve. Constantine said last week that the new facility will house “primarily men,” but Ellerbrook said the county would try to allow partners, possessions, and pets to the extent possible, which means—among other things—that parts of it might be coed. The shelter will be low-barrier—meaning, as Constantine put it, that “this is not going to be a situation where you have to solve life’s problems before you’re offered a safe place to sleep—but to what extent people with major mental health and addiction issues will be targeted is unclear.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose group runs the Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue across the street from the King County Courthouse, says DESC will be most interested in running the new shelter if it “prioritizes people with longer-term homelessness and more complicated types of situations that would [require] the more robust set of services that we would like to deliver. Ideally,” he adds, you’d want to build in as few barriers as possible, so making it coed would be in support of that.”

Morning Crank: Bags and Bags of Shredded Ballots

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The new version looks just like a mailbox.

1. The King County council voted 7-2—with one Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, joining the council’s six Democrats—to spend up to $381,000 next year on postage-paid ballots for this year’s midterm and general elections. King County voters have voted exclusively by mail, or by dropping their ballots at designated drop boxes, since 2009, but it has been voters’ responsibility to buy stamps for their ballots. Voting rights advocates have argued that the postage requirement is burdensome for younger voters (who are less likely to have stamps) and very low-income voters (for whom a 49-cent stamp represents a real impediment to voting); those who oppose providing postage say that it’s voters’ responsibility to make the minimal effort required to buy a stamp, and that those who feel they can’t afford it can just trek to their nearest ballot box.

Before the measure passed, County Council members Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn offered several amendments that would have watered down or placed conditions on the legislation, including a proposal by Lambert to clarify that the county measure did not set any “precedent” for the rest of the state. Lambert argued that if voters in King County were able to vote more easily than voters in the rest of the state, it would put other counties, particularly more rural counties with fewer resources that are “hanging on by their fingernails,” at a disadvantage—essentially the same argument offered by Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman when she urged the council to reject the measure one week ago. That amendment failed, as did another Lambert proposal that would have required the county elections office to turn around a complicated report about turnout and ballot box usage three days after the November election was certified. Another, from Republican Reagan Dunn, would put language on the outside of every prepaid ballot encouraging people to put stamps on their ballot anyway, ostensibly in an effort to save King County money. Although King County Elections director Julie Wise made it clear that Dunn’s amendment would almost certainly cost the county far more than it saves (election workers would have to pore over hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand, photocopy them, and mail them to the post office for a refund), the amendment actually passed, after Dunn said the language in his amendment left some wiggle room for the county to reject the idea if it cost too much.

“I like the voters’ drop boxes [because] it’s not shredded, I know it’s in, it’s going to get counted, and I know that there are very few people that are going to handle it.”—King County Council member Kathy Lambert  

Before the final vote, Lambert  offered a strange, last-ditch anecdote to explain why she opposed voting by mail. “I pay my property taxes in person,” Lambert began, because one year when she sent them by mail—she knows it was her anniversary, she said, because she was about to go to Hawaii—and they never made it to the tax assessor’s office. When she went to the post office to find out what had happened, she said, “they brought me out two huge bags of mail that had been shredded, and they said, ‘If you find your check in here, you can take it out and prove that you have found it.’ I hope that we won’t find out later on that there are bags and bags of shredded ballots that have gotten caught in the machinery,” Lambert continued. “I like the voters’ drop boxes [because] it’s not shredded, I know it’s in, it’s going to get counted, and I know that there are very few people that are going to handle it.”

Lambert did not note that voters can track their ballots, and find out whether theirs was counted or “shredded,” at the King County Elections website.

2. A rumor was circulating yesterday that ousted King County Democrats chair (AKA ousted King County Assessor’s office spokesman) Bailey Stober will announce today (or this week) that he is not running for 47th District state representative, despite announcing that he plans to do so in an interview with the Seattle Times. As I reported last week, Stober’s announcement came just two days before Debra Entenman, a deputy field director for Congressman Adam Smith, was planning to formally announce that she would seek the same position with the full support of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. The announcement gave Stober some positive press shortly after he was forced out of two positions of power when four separate investigations concluded he had engaged in sexual harassment, bullying, and multiple acts of workplace and financial misconduct. (Each of the investigations upheld a different combination of allegations).

Stober received a $37,700 settlement from King County in exchange for resigning from his $98,000-a-year position, from which he had been on fully paid leave for most of 2018. On Friday, he posted a photo on Facebook of what he said was his brand-new jeep. “New life new car 💁🏽‍♂️😏 #adulting,” the caption read.

3. Three low-barrier shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which were all scheduled to shut down this month, will stay open for the rest of the year, though their fate after that remains uncertain. The shelters—an overnight men’s shelter on Lower Queen Anne, the Kerner-Scott House for mentally ill women in South Lake Union, and DESC’s auxiliary shelter at the Morrison Hotel downtown—lost funding under the new “Pathways Home” approach to funding homeless services, which prioritizes 24/7 “enhanced” shelters over traditional overnight shelters and withholds funding (see page 7) from agencies that fail to move at least 40 percent of their clients from emergency shelter into permanent housing. When the city issued grants under the new criteria, it increased DESC’s overall funding but eliminated funding for the three overnight shelters. All told, about 163 shelter beds were scheduled to disappear in May unless DESC could come up with the money to keep them open or another operator stepped forward.

Oddly, the decision to close at least one of the shelters does not appear to have been strictly about money, but about DESC itself. According to a letter HSD sent to concerned community members in mid-April, the city had “HSD reached out to Salvation Army to discuss the possibility of taking over operations of the Roy Street Queen Anne shelter in June when the DESC contract ends. Salvation Army has agreed and is going to have a May-Dec contract so there is some overlap time during the transition.  Shifting operations to the Salvation Army would have required a special budget allocation from the City Council to keep the shelter running under new management for the rest of the year.

DESC’s overall budget request included significant pay increases for all of the agency’s staff, who are unionized but remain notoriously underpaid, even by human service provider standards. DESC’s $8.6 million budget request for its enhanced shelter program included more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. Even those higher salaries remain paltry by private-market standards, but by proposing to implement the raises all at once, DESC inflated its budget request dramatically at precisely the time when the city was looking to cut “fat” from the system and reward programs that promised fast results and cost savings for the city.

The good news for DESC (and the men and women) who use its overnight shelters) is that funding for the shelters appears to be secure for at least the rest of 2018. The bad news is that the reprieve is temporary, and major issues, including low salaries for shelter workers, remain unresolved.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: I Don’t Want That Rumor to Be Perpetuated

1. Sitting at the year’s first meeting of the Progressive Revenue task force Thursday morning, it was hard not to flash back to a press conference the previous day, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would spend some of the $11 million it expects to receive from the sale of a city-owned property in South Lake Union (a different property than the “teardrop” site council members discussed as part of their budget deliberations last year). At that briefing, held in front of two “tiny houses” under construction at the Seattle Vocational Institute, Durkan said it would take time to build all the housing that will ultimately be funded by the $290 million 2016 housing levy, and that in the meantime, a $5.5 million investment in “bridge housing”—or, in the clunky title Durkan chose for the initiative, “building a bridge to housing for all”—would give people living on the street slightly better options. “In an ideal world, we would not need to be building tiny houses,” Durkan said. Then she acknowledged that state and federal support for affordable housing is about to fall off a cliff.

The rest of the money would pay for rental assistance for people on SHA’s Section 8 voucher waiting list—”we’re going to focus on the people who need that assistance the most,” Durkan said— design of a new fire station, and city expenses related to the land sale. The developer buying the property would also provide $2 million of a total $7.7 million payment toward affordable housing projects elsewhere, required as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, to build actual affordable housing.

The reason I was thinking about Durkan’s announcement Thursday morning is that it was basically a rounding error—what government staffers sometimes call “budget dust”— in the funding needed to actually address the city’s homelessness problem, which has been growing every year since at least 2013. According to task force co-chair Kirsten Harris-Talley, if every unit of affordable housing requires $160,000 in capital expenditures from the city (more on how advocates for a higher employee hours tax arrived at that number in a minute), and the city will need around 20,000 new units for very low-income people in the next 10 years, that means the city will need to spend around $3.2 billion over that time. As you can probably imagine, the city isn’t spending anywhere close to that right now—according to the presentation, the city spent just under $95 million from all sources on capital housing investments last year. At that rate, it would take more than 33 years to come up with $3.2 billion (and that’s assuming housing costs stayed flat).

Obviously, none of this is an exact science. The $160,000 figure is an estimate provided by council member Kshama Sawant’s office, of what the city would need to contribute if it ramped up its affordable housing production and was unable to find a significant amount of new funding from other sources to help pay for all the new units. (Currently, each new unit costs the city about $93,000 in capital costs, but the programs that pay for the difference between the city’s contribution and the total cost to build a new unit, about $311,000, are only committed to a certain number of units, requiring the city—theoretically—to pay more for each additional unit out of its own pockets.)

If Harris-Talley and Sawant’s figures are correct, that provides a ready-made argument for the employee hours tax (effectively a flat annual tax for each full-time employee on every business over a certain revenue threshold) that they’ve wanted to pass all along. Today, the task force looked at potential revenues from the so-called head tax at different levels and with different sizes of business exempt from the tax, which I’ve copied below. (Last year’s proposed head tax would have exempted businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenues, up from $5 million in the initial proposal; some businesses argued that basing the tax on gross revenues was unfair because it didn’t take into account thin profit margins in certain industries, like restaurants.)

If the city goes through a recession, of course, the amount it can expect to collect will shrink. However, recessions tend to actually lower rents; Downtown Emergency Service Center director and task force member Daniel Malone pointed out that during the last recession, the county’s annual point in time count of people living outdoors tends to stagnate or even decrease, as it did between 2010 and 2011, and between 2011 and 2012. That’s one of the paradoxes of a weakening economy: Although revenues from taxes that are less stable, like direct taxes on businesses, tend to decline, so do rents, making it possible for some people forced onto the street by an impossible housing market to actually find a place to live.

2. In a King County Board of Health discussion about the possibility of a Hepatitis A outbreak in Seattle yesterday (a nationwide outbreak, ongoing now, began in California and was widely blamed on lack of access to handwashing facilities for the state’s homeless population), King County Health Department Director Patty Hayes expressed concern about the city’s decision last year to cut funding for three downtown hygiene centers that provide restrooms, showers, and handwashing and laundry facilities for homeless people living and moving through downtown.

City council and Board of Health member Sally Bagshaw—a vocal proponent for cutting funding to the facilities as part of the city’s new “performance-based” approach to homeless service contracts—objected to Hayes’ characterization of the problem.

“I think that [problem with the closure of the hygiene centers] is more apparent than real,” Bagshaw said. “We’re putting huge investments into new 24/7 shelters …  I’m working with those 24-hours shelters to say, ‘Can you open these up for people who aren’t [staying] here tonight” to take showers, she said. “We opened up community centers [for people to shower]. There are more facilities open now than before. It’s just that the money’s being shifted. I don’t want that rumor to be perpetuated. There were some organizations that didn’t get funded” because the city went to a competitive process, Bagshaw said.

I covered the cuts to funding for hygiene centers, and the reason some advocates believe community centers and shelters are not an adequate substitute for public restrooms and dedicated hygiene facilities, here.

3. The Sightline Institute, a progressive think tank that researches and covers of housing, transportation, and environmental policy from a green, pro-transit, pro-housing perspective, just brought on a new (unpaid) fellow to cover “issues of infrastructure, technology and energy with a view towards sustainability.” His name: Daniel Malarkey.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. (If it doesn’t, you weren’t following Seattle politics in the early 2000s.) He was the finance director for the Seattle Monorail Project, the transportation agency that was going to build a monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle. That project was doomed to failure after Malarkey’s revenue projections overshot the mark by about 50 percent, and after the agency compounded the problem by trying to paper over the error. (The error Malarkey made was counting revenues from taxes on every single car in Seattle, when in reality, thanks to heavy lobbying from the auto industry, all new cars and cars brought to the city by people moving here from out of state were exempt from the monorail tax. The result was that Malarkey overestimated the monorail’s tax base by a third) When he resigned at the end of 2003, I wrote this. Interestingly, it looks like his three years consulting or working directly for the monorail agency aren’t on his official Sightline bio.

Anyway, it looks like he’ll be writing about autonomous cars.

Full disclosure: I have written several pieces for Sightline and often use their research in my reporting.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Navigation Center Has Housed Just Two People Since Opening in July

This story first appeared at Seattle Magazine

Late last month, the city’s Human Services Department released its first annual report on Pathways Home, a new framework for serving homeless residents that emphasizes “rapid rehousing” and submits service providers to new performance standards. Among other conclusions, the report found that the Navigation Center, a 75-bed shelter that serves people who don’t do well in traditional shelters, has struggled to place people into permanent housing within the 60-day time limit set by the city.

“People coming inside from being unsheltered have a big adjustment to make and multiple issues to address and many barriers to housing stability; the Navigation Center is finding that mapping out a strategy to get them housed could take more than 60 days,” the report says.

In fact, as of October, the Navigation Center had placed just two people into housing, according to the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which runs the Center. DESC’s director of administrative services, Greg Jenson, says that one of those clients is now in transitional housing and one went to live with family. According to the Pathways Home report, of the 105 clients who came through the center in its first six weeks, 32 have left, and “nearly half” of those “have refused to disclose or didn’t know where they were exiting to.”

DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go.

 

The Navigation Center is designed to serve clients who are the “hardest to house”—people experiencing chronic homelessness who often face multiple barriers to finding a place to live, such as ongoing substance abuse and mental-health issues. It “was not designed to serve the needs of the higher-functioning individuals who are more likely to thrive in traditional shelter settings which have strict rule requirements,” Jackie St. Louis, the coordinator for the Navigation Team, says.

However, DESC director Daniel Malone says the “biggest challenge” to placing clients in permanent housing isn’t just that the people the Navigation Center serves are hard to house; it’s that there simply aren’t enough places for Navigation Center clients to go. “One thing that has been good is being able to identify people who have a natural priority for the limited housing that is available in the community,” by giving them an assessment that scores them on the number of barriers to housing they face, Malone says. But, he adds, “If we aren’t producing new housing, they’ll just be getting it instead of someone else.”

Seattle’s Navigation Center isn’t the first of its kind; that distinction goes to a low-barrier shelter by the same name in San Francisco, which also serves a hard-to-house clientele. In San Francisco, clients seeking permanent housing stay an average of 90 days, and that figure would likely be larger if the city didn’t set aside some low-income housing units specifically for Navigation Center clients, something Seattle does not do. Although Seattle officials were familiar with the challenges San Francisco faced in housing people through its Navigation Center, the city adopted a 60-day cap, predicting that Seattle’s Navigation Center would be able not only mimic but surpass San Francisco’s success.

The city’s Navigation Teams—groups of police and outreach workers who facilitate encampment removals—frequently refer encampment residents to the Navigation Center. According to a report issued by the Navigation Team itself earlier this month, the teams have sent about 75 people to the center this year.

Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, says she’s confident that the city is sending people who want and will benefit from the services that the center provides. “HSD and DESC are satisfied that the right clients are being referred to the Navigation Center,” she says.

But Malone notes that DESC has “definitely heard from some people that they only came there because they were having to leave where they were staying out, and they hadn’t really decided for themselves that was something that they wanted yet.”

Malone cautions against reading too much into what happens at the Navigation Center in the first few months. “Has it changed the face of homelessness in less than three months? No,” he says. “There have definitely been some start-up issues, and we need to try different things out.”

In San Francisco, Navigation Centers have been successful at getting some homeless people off the street, but they’re hardly a panacea. The success or failure of Seattle’s Navigation Center will be measured not by how many hundreds of people it moves on to permanent housing, but by how many dozens.

Morning Crank: A Political Statement That Capitalism Has Failed

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Homelessness consultant Barb Poppe and Mandy Chapman Semple of Houston’s Corporation for Supportive Housing

1. Homelessness experts from Los Angeles County, San Francisco, and Houston rounded out a panel that also included consultant Barb Poppe Tuesday morning, the second in a three-part series of discussions on homelessness sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, Visit Seattle and the Alliance for Pioneer Square.

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross moderated the discussion, which focused on what solutions other jurisdictions have come up with to address the homelessness emergency in their communities. Perhaps fittingly for a station that has made a hero out of a woman who built an illegal wall to keep homeless people away from her business, KIRO’s Ross asked many questions that could be charitably described as leading. For example, one of the first questions he asked Poppe was how it could be that in a recent survey, 30 percent of homeless people could afford to pay $500 or more in rent—implying, it seemed, that homeless folks really have enough money to live in housing, they just don’t want to. At another point, Ross commented that “there are some folks who want to keep those tents out there as a political statement that capitalism has failed”—implying that homeless people are living in tents not because they have no other option, but because they want to make a political statement. At still another point, Ross put words in Poppe’s mouth, which she immediately disavowed.

“So you have seen no movement towards setting a policy and politely urging the existing [housing and homeless service provider] groups who are not seeing results to adapt to that new policy,” Ross said. “No, I am not saying that,” Poppe said, looking exasperated.

If you’d like to read my live-tweets of yesterday morning’s meeting, you’re in luck—I’ve Storified them here.

2. Yesterday, I reported that the proposed homelessness levy would increase wages for case managers, social service workers, and mental and public health-care providers substantially, by funding higher minimum wages for several positions that will be;  funded by the levy. The city says they don’t have a specific breakdown of how much the levy-funded raises will cost or precisely how many contractor positions will be affected, though it may be in the hundreds; however, a look at the wages currently offered by one of the city’s main homelessness service contractors, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, shows that the new minimums will represent a significant upgrade. For example, the annual salary for a behavioral health case manager at DESC’s Crisis Solutions Center starts at $30,128 a year, or about $14.48 an hour; a chemical dependency specialist starts slightly higher, at $33,033, or about $15.88 an hour; and a registered nurse starts at $52,884, or about $25 an hour. If the levy passes, pay for those positions will go up, to $22, $25, and $45 an hour, respectively.

3. Learn to trust the Crank: As I reported last month, after meeting with about 100 employers of all sizes from across the city, city council member Lorena Gonzalez has rolled out a proposal to require employers in the city to provide paid family leave. The proposal would require all employers in the city to provide up to 26 weeks of leave for new parents or employees taking care of a sick family member, and up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave for employees with a serious illness. The benefits would only kick in after an employee has worked 340 hours (about two and a half months for full-time employees and longer for part-time) for a business, and would be capped at $1,000 a week.

“I heard a strong desire from my conversations with business owners [for] a pathway to provide this benefit to their employees that is fair and equitable,” Gonzalez said Wednesday. “While I sincerely hope that the state legislature passes a law that is available for all Washington workers, Seattle, as always, is ready to stand on our own two feet to come up with a solution, which is a universal paid family and medical leave program.”

Currently, the state legislature is working on a compromise between two very different paid family leave laws. One, by Republican Sen. Joe Fain, would start out providing just eight weeks of leave paid at just half an employee’s original salary, eventually rising to twelve weeks at two-thirds pay, and would require employees to pay the full cost of the program. That bill would also preempt Seattle from adopting a more generous paid leave law of its own. The other, by Democratic Rep. June Robinson, would provide much more generous benefits and supported by the progressive Economic Opportunity Institute, provides far more generous benefits and would not prevent Seattle from adopting its own policies.

Given that the Trump administration has “very little respect for boundaries between the federal government and state government and local government,” Gonzalez said, “I think it’s important to continue to protect and to empower local government to have all the tools we need at our disposal to be able to protect and serve our residents in a way that is tailored to our specific community needs. That is why I believe a local preemption in this ordinance, or in any other ordinance is a very dangerous step to take.” Other Republican preemption bills that were floated this year would have prohibited Seattle from allowing encampments or opening supervised drug-consumption sites.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.