Tag: Dow Constantine

Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation

Homeless advocates see a hotel in Renton that was converted into a temporary shelter as a major success story. Some local politicians see it differently.

Today’s Fizz:

1. This week, cities across King County will be voting on measures that could reduce the size of a proposed countywide sales tax for very low-income housing by millions. On Monday night, Renton, Tukwila, and Issaquah were among first few cities to decide whether they wanted to pass their own 0.1 percent sales tax, as authorized by the state legislature earlier this year, to pay for housing inside the city for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income. Renton’s council voted “yes” unanimously; Issaquah’s approved it on a 4-3 vote; and Tukwila’s rejected the proposal on a 5-2 vote.

I first reported on the proposals last week. Since then, items to supplant the countywide sales tax, which the King County Council will likely vote on next week, have appeared on city council agendas across, primarily South King County—from Maple Valley to Federal Way to Kent. Every city that opts out of the tax—that is, every city that opts to pass a local version of the tax, with proceeds the city can keep to itself—takes some money away from the potential size of the countywide proposal.

On Monday night, proponents of local taxes argued that suburban cities deserved local autonomy to decide what to build in their communities, and specifically cited an emergency shelter for chronically homeless people in Renton—a hotel that has been touted by advocates and service providers as a major success story because it has enabled people to stabilize and begin to deal with underlying conditions that contribute to their homelessness—as an example of what the county would impose on cities if they didn’t act first, and fast.  “By passing this” local tax, Renton council member Valerie O’Halloran said, “we are retaining 100% of the say of how our money is spent within our community.”

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Opponents of going it alone argued that the whole point of being part of a regional solution to homelessness was to think regionally, because homelessness doesn’t end at any single city’s borders. Tukwila council member De’Sean Quinn pointed out that the countywide proposal, which could raise up to $400 million to purchase existing buildings and convert them to supportive housing for chronically homeless people, is a big pot of money that allows the county bond for an even bigger pot of money; collecting smaller amounts on a local-only basis, he argued, would inevitably lead to slower and smaller developments.

The King County Council will vote on the countywide tax next week.

2. Speaking of the county council, rumor is that longtime Republican council member Pete von Reichbauer (who represents much of South King County) does not plan to run for reelection. Possible contenders for the position include former Democratic state representative Kristine Reeves, Federal Way city council member Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Auburn mayor Nancy Backus, and current Republican state rep Drew Stokesbary. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation”

Suburban Cities’ Tax Plans Could Supplant, Reduce County Executive’s Homeless Housing Tax

By Erica C. Barnett

Several cities in South King County, including Renton, Tukwila, Auburn, and Kent, are poised to adopt a local 0.1-cent sales tax for affordable housing, using authority the state legislature granted to city and county councils earlier this year. If the taxes pass, they would effectively supplant those cities’ contribution to a countywide sales tax proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, which would pay for permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in all parts of the county. Renton and Tukwila will consider their local taxes on Monday; the other cities are reportedly deciding whether and when to propose local taxes of their own.

Constantine’s office has said his proposal would provide up to $400 million in bond revenue to purchase motels, nursing homes, and other disused or derelict facilities and convert them into permanent supportive housing with services for chronically homeless people. The more cities opt out of the county tax, the less revenue there will be for Constantine’s proposal.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, is worried. “My hope would be that the suburban cities that are eager, apparently, to use this revenue source to address the genuine homelessness and health crises that are hitting South King County hard, would be committed to the truly regional response to homelessness” that the county has adopted, she said. The county is in the process of standing up a new regional homelessness authority that includes substantial input from, but no direct financial contribution by, suburban cities.

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The authority itself is banned by law from raising money. However, under legislation adopted during this year’s state legislative session, city and county councils can pass a sales tax increase of up to 0.1 percent. The catch, from the county’s perspective, is that the legislation allows cities to essentially override county taxing authority by passing their own taxes first.

The legislation also does not require the proceeds of such a tax to go toward housing for very low-income or homeless people; instead, they can use it to fund housing for people making as much as 60 percent of area median income, which for the Seattle metropolitan area is more than $94,000. This is a very different type of housing, serving a much less service-reliant population, than Constantine’s proposal.

Eisinger said that by using the sales tax authority to fund higher-income housing, suburban cities ran the risk of ignoring the needs of homeless people in their own cities. “I hope this isn’t an effort by elected officials in suburban cities to pretend that they don’t need … housing that meets the needs of the people who are chronically homeless in their community by instead trying to address other housing needs with these resources,” she said.

Renton and Kent have clashed with Constantine and the county government as a whole over the relocation of hundreds of formerly homeless people into hotels in their cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Renton, officials have taken regulatory and legal action to try to force the closure of a shelter the Downtown Emergency Service Center opened at a downtown Red Lion earlier this year. In Kent, elected leaders protested the county’s purchase of a motel for use as an isolation and quarantine site for people unable to isolate at home, warning that the presence of so many homeless people in one place would lead to a surge in crime.

“If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world.”—King County Council member Dave Upthegrove

If enough cities pass their own local taxes, they could collectively reduce potential revenues from Constantine’s regional proposal by millions. According to a presentation posted on the Renton City Council’s website, a local, Renton-only tax would raise about $2.8 million a year for projects in the city; according to Tukwila’s briefing materials, that city could see an additional $2.2 million a year for housing.

Elected officials from Renton, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents parts of Tukwila, Renton, Kent, and other cities in South King County, said he supports Constantine’s proposal because it provides housing for people with the greatest needs—those with low or no income who need supportive services.

At the same time, he said, “I’m trying not to panic” about the idea that some South County cities might decide to go their own way. “If a handful of cities want to do some housing on their own, that’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Maybe we don’t bond for 400 million—maybe we end up doing $320 million and a few of the cities go out on their own. It doesn’t have to mean that this proposal doesn’t work.”

“”Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”—Deputy King County Executive Rachel Smith

Upthegrove notes that cities already control zoning and permitting rules, which gives them multiple avenues to ban housing for formerly homeless people. “Part of me says that if this really isn’t want the local government wants, and that local government controls zoning and permitting, then what’s the likelihood of getting them zone and permit this housing in their city?”

County council member Claudia Balducci, who represents the Eastside, says the real headline may be that local suburban governments are willing to increase taxes to build more affordable housing, even if it isn’t for chronically homeless people. “I think we could really build not just good projects through this, but also create better relationships and more confidence in working together regionally,” Balducci said. “If we play our cards right, having cities put skin in the game could be a really good long-term positive thing.”

King County deputy executive Rachel Smith, responding to PubliCola by email, was significantly less sanguine than either county council member about the prospects for unity-through-localism. “The Executive’s plan includes concrete, data-informed, evidence-based, clear outcomes, including reducing racial-ethnic disproportionality,” Smith said.

“Regional officials, business leaders, advocates, service providers, and people with lived experience have repeatedly stated that homelessness is a regional problem that demands regional solutions,” Smith continued. “Regionalism remains our best chance for success.”

King County Executive Highlights Criminal Justice Reform in Budget Preview

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed a number of new programs he will propose as part of his 2021-2022 county budget plan next week, including alternatives to jail, community-based public safety alternatives, and divestments from the current criminal legal system. “We took up a simple refrain to guide our budget: divest, invest, and reimagine,” Constantine said. “As we support community members in co-creating our shared future, we make an important down payment on building a strong, equitable, and racially just county.”

Toward that end, Constantine proposed spending $6.2 million over the next two years on a new program called Restorative Community Pathways. According to Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal, the program would refer 800 juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system per year and instead provide “community-based support, mentorship, and targeted interventions.”

Those services would be provided largely by the three nonprofits involved in the program’s development: Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Choose 180, which also all contract with the City of Seattle for violence prevention or youth diversion programs. The initial $6.2 million investment would also fund support for victims of crimes and a new “restitution fund,” which would cover court-mandated fines and financial obligations for juvenile offenders who can’t afford them.

According to a press release from Constantine’s office, the county hopes to get the program off the ground by 2022, and “eventually” fund it entirely through cost savings from the King County Superior Court, the Department of Public Defense, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

Constantine’s budget proposal also includes $2.7 million for restorative justice services for adults facing their first criminal charges for nonviolent crimes. According to King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthey, the program would primarily serve those charged with property or low-level drug crimes, but could also include other nonviolent offenders. The adult program would rely on the same three nonprofit partners responsible for Restorative Community Pathways.

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After the press conference, Community Passageways CEO Dominique Davis told PubliCola that his group would assume responsibility for felony diversion, while Creative Justice would manage other elements of both restorative justice programs. Community Passageways doesn’t take referrals for anyone older than 27, but if the county decided to expand the program to serve people over 27, Davis is hopeful that other nonprofits could pitch in. “If in the first year we actually save the city and the county a lot of money [in court and incarceration costs], then we could tap groups like LEAD that already work with older adults,” Davis said. “We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The proposed restorative justice programs would work in tandem with Constantine’s vision of a $1.9 million decrease spending on the the county jail. “With fewer people in jail,” Constantine said, “we will be able, in this biennium, to close one of the [12] floors of the downtown jail.” Since the beginning of the year, the county has already reduced the jail’s daily population from 1,900 to 1,300, and Constantine said he intends to continue that downward trend and increase the county’s savings in future years.

Constantine also proposed transferring $4.6 million of the county’s marijuana tax revenues from the sheriff’s office to three new programs: one helping those with past marijuana convictions clear their records and settle unpaid court fines and restitution; a “youth marijuana prevention” and employment program run by the county’s Department of Local Services in unincorporated King County; and a “community-centered advisory body” that would determine how the county spends marijuana tax revenue in the future.

The county also plans to suspend fare enforcement on King County Metro buses, even as they reinstate fares in October, and reassess the county’s $4.7 million fare enforcement contract with the private company Securitas. Interim Metro general manager Terry White added that when fare enforcement resumes in 2021, Metro will “use non-fine alternative approaches” for those who can’t afford to pay fare, ranging from community service to providing connections to social service agencies.

Constantine will present his budget to the King County Council, which has final say over most aspects of the proposal, on September 22.

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

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

 

Don’t panic, but also, sort of panic.

That was the message during a press conference on new state and local orders to contain the COVID-19 epidemic this morning, when Governor Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that all large group events are effectively canceled. Inslee’s order bans all gatherings of more than 250 people, including family gatherings, in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties; the county’s order, which was signed by King County Public Health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin, bans gatherings smaller than 250 people unless the organizer can guarantee that they are following every CDC recommendation to contain the spread of the virus. Later in the day, Seattle Public Schools announced it was closing schools starting tomorrow, and the Seattle Public Library board was meeting to discuss potential closures.

Meanwhile, King County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor told me that a motel in Kent purchased by the county to house patients who can’t be quarantined at home (including both people without homes to go to as well as those who share their homes with vulnerable people) just accepted its first patient, a King County residents. The county, he said, is still working out plans to redistribute people currently living in close quarters in shelters, both by locating large indoor spaces like the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, where the Downtown Emergency Service Center shelter moved some residents on Monday, and by distributing motel vouchers to people who are not infected but are especially vulnerable to the virus.

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So what do you need to know? Here are the basics, along with a few more specific details about planning for people experiencing homelessness, who are highly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus because of preexisting health conditions, substandard living environments, and lack of access to quality health care.

• Gatherings of 250 or more people will be prohibited until at least the end of March in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, an order that Gov. Inslee said would likely be extended and expanded to include more parts of the state.

The goal here is to slow, not prevent, the spread of the illness so that hospitals aren’t slammed with thousands of new cases all at once. “We do not want to see an avalanche of people coming into our hospitals with limited capacity,” Inslee said.

“We recognize that isolation and quarantine are going to be difficult settings for the people in them to be in, and the ability to provide behavioral health on site or by telephone to anybody who’s in one of those facilities is one of our top priorities.” — Leo Flor, King County

Inslee emphasized that the law is “legally binding on all Washingtonians,” but said he did not anticipate having to use state police or the National Guard to enforce it. “The penalties are, you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it,” Inslee said.

• Gatherings of fewer than 250 people are also prohibited in King County, unless the organizers abide by guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control to prevent spread of the virus, including social distancing (the CDC recommends six feet), employee health checks, access to soap and water, and other sanitation measures. “Temporarily banning social and recreational gatherings that bring people together will help to ensure that a health crisis does not become a humanitarian disaster,” Constantine said. “Below 250, we thought people, business owners, could take measures to keep people apart,” Inslee says. However, “We do not want to see people shoulder to shoulder in bars from now on. That is just totally unacceptable.”

Duchin said the new rules would allow some flexibility for groups where maintaining six feet of distance is impossible, and Constantine added that the county will be issuing additional guidelines for “restaurants,  grocery stores, and other institutions,” and that enforcement would be complaint-based. Continue reading “Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home””

Coronavirus Prompts Shelter Expansion, Sound Transit Moves to Amend Fare Enforcement Policies, and More

King County Executive Dow Constantine

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine acknowledged Wednesday that an inmate who was being transferred from the SCORE regional jail in Des Moines to the King County Jail in Seattle was sent to Harborview with concerning symptoms and that the jail shut down intake for a few hours. The inmate did not have the virus. Asked if the jail had a plan for a future outbreak, Constantine said, “We are being very vigilant about any either staff or inmate who would have symptoms, and they would be isolated immediately” within the jail.

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced today that the city will open up 100 new shelter beds, including 20 new units at the existing Lake Union tiny house village, a new 30-unit tiny house village on Cherry Hill, and a former addiction treatment center in Bitter Lake, which can hold another 50 or so people in 28 rooms. All of the new shelter and tiny house spaces will be operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.

LIHI plans to continue operating the new and expanded tiny house villages, and possibly the shelter at the former treatment center (which LIHI owns), after the current crisis passes. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said that the city is “continuing to evaluate the continuation of funding sources,” adding that “once the crisis is under control, the City and County will determine the best use for the infrastructure put in place under the Emergency Declaration.”

“There are 5,000 unsheltered men, women, and children on the street. Why does it take the coronavirus to make people [decide] that something should be done for homeless people? The existing status quo is bad enough. We should be standing these up anyway.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

The obvious question is: If it was possible to open up this many shelter spaces so quickly, why didn’t the city do it before? (A similar question could be asked of the county, which purchased a hotel in Kent and is standing up modular units in White Center, Interbay, and North Seattle to quarantine and isolate homeless people and others who test positive for the virus.) Sharon Lee, LIHI’s director, is asking it: “There are 5,000 unsheltered men, women, and children on the street” in Seattle, Lee says. “Why does it take the coronavirus to make people [decide] that something should be done for homeless people? The existing status quo is bad enough. We should be standing these up anyway.”

Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said that at the moment, “the City isn’t anticipating that any of these sites will be used for isolation or quarantine. … HSD will take direction from Public Health on operations in relation to COVID-19. Once the crisis is under control, the City and County will determine the best use for the infrastructure put in place under the Emergency Declaration.”

Sound Transit’s favorite slide.

2.Sound Transit staff presented recommendations to improve its controversial fare-enforcement policies on Thursday morning, but the list of proposed changes did not include a number of steps recommended by advocates for low-income people and riders of color, such as allowing riders transferring from the King County Metro bus system to use paper transfers as proof of payment, eliminating fares, and moving the entire ticketing and fine process outside the court system altogether.

Other community-suggested changes that Sound Transit decided not to pursue include: Eliminating fares; adding on-board payment options; setting a maximum amount that riders can pay for transit every month; and replacing fines with ORCA cards of equivalent value.

The changes Sound Transit is making will be familiar to anyone who has been following the fare enforcement discussion, because they haven’t changed substantially since the agency first began floating possible changes win January. The agency says it will cut fines from $124 to $50; increase the number of verbal warnings for nonpayment from one to two in a 12-month period; set official parameters for eliminating fare enforcement during severe weather and around the first day of school; and work with King County to move ticket resolution into community court.

Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci noted the agency could move tickets to community court without continuing to criminalize nonpayment, which can lead to misdemeanor charges. Continue reading “Coronavirus Prompts Shelter Expansion, Sound Transit Moves to Amend Fare Enforcement Policies, and More”

Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future

Left: HSD director Jason Johnson; right: Mayor Durkan

1. UPDATE on Thursday, Jan. 16: According to HSD, the Navigation Team made 41 referrals to shelter on the first two nights of the winter storm—14 on Monday and 27 on Tuesday. Additionally, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said that there was no shortage of mats or other supplies at any of the emergency winter shelters. “The City is not low on supplies,” Lemke said. “Far from it. The City has strategic caches of supplies placed around Seattle for events like this. These supplies include supplies, cots, mats, sleeping bags, blankets, and first aid-kits.” A source who works for the Salvation Army, which staffed the downtown shelters, said people were sleeping on the floor or in chairs at the Seattle Municipal Tower on Tuesday night with only “thin blankets” to protect them in the chilly lobby, which has a revolving door.

At a briefing on winter storm response on Tuesday, officials with the city’s Human Services Department emphasized efforts by the city’s Navigation Team to get people living in encampments into shelter during the freezing weather, noting that members of the team—which ordinarily removes encampments—were out “from 7 am to midnight” on Monday making contact with encampment residents. What they weren’t able to say was how many people actually accepted an offer of transportation or shelter from the team, whose job ordinarily involves removing encampments and telling their displaced residents about available shelter beds, typically with few takers. HSD director Jason Johnson would not answer followup questions about the Navigation Team’s success rate, pointedly ignoring calls of “Jason!” from several reporters as he rushed out of the briefing room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

In a followup conversation, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said he would not have an exact number of shelter referrals, contacts made, or the number of people who received transportation from the Navigation Team until the city had crunched the numbers and entered them into the Homeless Information Management System. “I just haven’t been able to verify those numbers yet. Everything is very much in flux because everyone’s out in the field right now,” Lemke said when I asked for more detailed information. The number is reportedly in the single digits.

Last year, the city did publish the numbers right away, and did not issue any subsequent corrections to indicate their early numbers were wrong. On the first major snow day last year, February 8, the Navigation Team reported getting 18 people into shelter. On the 9th, 50. On the 10th, 67.

At the briefing, Durkan said that the city “saw greater uptake [on offers of shelter] last year on the second or third day of the storm. … We had a great deal of success with the Navigation Team going out to encampments and saying, ‘Hey you should come inside. It’s a good place. It’s safe.'” 

Johnson said that none of the shelters were over capacity and denied that there were any issues providing enough mats or other supplies to its severe weather shelters, which include space at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, in the lobby of the Seattle Municipal Tower, and at the Bitter Lake Community Center. There is also space for men only at the King County Administration Building. All shelters are operated by the Salvation Army.

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2. Last week, I reported on the fact that Mayor Jenny Durkan has hired an $86,000 consultant to evaluate the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and make recommendations that will inform whether LEAD will receive funding approved in last year’s city budget to reduce caseloads and expand into new parts of the city. But LEAD isn’t the only human services program that might not receive operational funds that were approved last year. At least two other programs are under review by the mayor’s office.

One, a $700,000 pilot program called Homes for Good that would provide small “shallow” rent subsidies to people who receive federal disability payments and are at risk of homelessness, is under review because Durkan is reportedly cautious about funding a pilot program without a plan to continue paying for it in the future. David Kroman wrote several stories about this issue for Crosscut. Continue reading “Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future”

Long-Awaited Details of New Regional Homelessness Authority Announced, Though Many Questions Remain Unanswered

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced some key details about a long-planned regional homelessness authority Wednesday morning, including how much funding the new entity will received from the city and the county, how it will be governed, and which functions of the city’s Human Services Department will be shifting to the new authority and which ones will be staying at the city. The regional authority will effectively consolidate most of the county and city’s homelessness investments into a single agency, and replace existing agencies including All Home and the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, which is part of the Human Services Department.

“We’re not saying this is the solution or a panacea,” Durkan said, “but we know what we’ve done before has not worked. What you see today is everybody joined in one cause, together.” Standing behind Durkan and Constantine were retiring Position 7 city council member Sally Bagshaw, representatives from several suburban cities, King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, human service providers and several formerly homeless individuals.

The new authority will be funded by $73 million in city dollars and $55 million from the county (including a total of $42 million in federal grants to both). Structurally, the agency will be a public development authority governed by an 11-member board consisting of still-unidentified “experts” that will include three people with “lived experience” of homelessness. (The board will be overseen by a separate steering committee that includes the mayor and county executive, along with other local officials). The agency will be charged with issuing and administering all contracts for homelessness services.

For Seattle, the biggest change will be the eventual dissolution of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division, which oversees the city’s existing response to homelessness, including shelters, transitional housing, outreach, and services associated with permanent supportive housing. Both the Navigation Team (which removes homeless encampments from public spaces) and the actual construction of permanent supportive housing will remain with the city’s Human Services Department. The new authority will issue contracts to human services providers directly, work that was previously performed by the separate city and county governments.

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The new authority will not come with any additional funding for homelessness. Both Durkan and Constantine said this morning that a regional organization will create “efficiencies” that will allow the region to use its limited homelessness dollars more effectively, rather than passing a new funding source like the $275 million property tax levy former mayor Ed Murray proposed, then abandoned, in 2017, or the 0.1 percent sales tax increase Constantine and Murray proposed, then abandoned, later that same year. This morning, Constantine said that he was “very optimistic that this new structure will allow us to marshal all of our resources in the region to be more effective in addressing homelessness” even in the absence of more money to solve the problem.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, whose city is not yet a party to the agreement, added, “Hopefully the days of sitting in meetings and at the end of them, saying, ‘How many people did we house during the meeting?’ ha[ve] come to an end. Working together is what’s going to make this happen.”

In 2017, the city held a competitive bidding process for homelessness contracts for the first time in more than a decade, a change city officials touted at the time as a way to hold service providers accountable for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing. Asked whether the new authority would hold contractors to the same set of standards, director Jason Johnson said that the contract between the city and the regional authority “will say, ‘Here’s $70 million, and here’s our expectation with those $70 million. [We’re going to] make sure that the governing board is really clear about … what the expectation will be.”

The city’s homelessness division will be phased out over the next year, starting as early as December, when HSD and county employees (along with All Home, the county’s coordinating agency for homelessness) will move their operations to the county-owned Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, according to internal memos. Once the process of setting up the regional agency is complete, All Home will fold and all city employees “on loan” to the new agency will take permanent jobs at the new authority, find new jobs at the city, or face layoffs. The new regional authority, according to Johnson, will take over the annual Point In Time Count of people experiencing homelessness as well as running the county’s coordinated entry program‚basically the front door to the homelessness system.

In a 2018 survey, employees of the city’s homelessness division reported feeling unappreciated and ill-informed about management decisions. Today, Johnson said he would do his best to “offer as much information as possible to employees” who will be impacted by the changes announced today. The city’s three-part transition plan for existing homelessness division workers shows employees being hired by the regional authority, transferred into other city jobs, or “transitioned” out of the department by April of next year.

The legislation setting up the new regional authority still has to be approved by both the Seattle City Council and King County Council. The latter, of course, includes Republicans and representatives of cities that are not being included in the plan who do not support the idea of a new regional bureaucracy overseeing homelessness. This morning, King County Council member Reagan Dunn issued a statement opposing the plan, saying, “This new layer of government would be undemocratically structured, lack representation of suburban cities, and be yet another expense on taxpayers. The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by pushing Seattle’s failed policies to the surrounding region.”

Dunn’s colleague Kohl-Welles said she hadn’t heard widespread opposition on the council, but added “I don’t know, standing here, that we’ll have unanimity as a council. I think there likely will be amendments as the legislation goes through the deliberative process, [but] I have not heard any other council member come out and say, ‘I am opposed to this.’ It’s more, ‘I’d like to learn more about it. I have some concerns but I don’t know the details yet.'”

 

Morning Crank: Litmus Tests and Red Meat in West Seattle

The audience at Speak Out Seattle’s council forum in West Seattle (screen shot)

1. Speak Out Seattle, a group that fought against the head tax for homelessness, opposes tiny house villages and encampments, and backed an initiative to ban safe consumption sites in Seattle, kicked off the 2019 local campaign season with a forum last night in West Seattle. All five candidates—attorney Phillip Tavel, popcorn entrepreneur Jesse Greene, police lieutenant Brendan Kolding, and Isaiah Willoughby, plus incumbent Lisa Herbold.

It was probably inevitable that I’d be frustrated with this forum, though not for the reasons you might expect. Sure, I get frustrated with misconceptions about homelessness, and I’ve heard enough people who have never held public office (and never will) call for harsh law-and-order policies for several lifetimes. But my real issues with this forum—the first of several SOS plans to hold this year—were unrelated to the group’s conservative policy prescriptions.

First, many of the questions had little to do with policies the candidates would fight for if they were elected; instead, they were simplistic, red-meat, litmus-test questions, things like “What did you think of the ‘Seattle Is Dying report on KOMO?; “What grade would you give the city council?”; and “Do you support a state income tax?” Not only was there only one “right” answer to these questions (“I agreed with it completely”; “F”; and “no,” respectively), the answers meant very little, beyond giving an audience that came with its mind made up an opportunity to cheer or boo.

Second, facts didn’t seem to matter very much. (I know, I know—but wouldn’t it be nice if they sometimes did?) Herbold, who is not just the incumbent but a 20-year city hall veteran with a deep understanding of a vast range of city issues, had no opportunity to respond to false or misleading claims—like when her opponents referred to former mayoral staffer Scott Lindsay’s alarmist spreadsheet detailing crimes by 100 hand-picked offenders as a “study” that proved the need for harsher policies, or when Greene claimed that police can’t arrest people who have fewer than 30 “hits of methamphetamine or heroin” on their person. The one time Herbold did get a chance to respond directly to a piece of misinformation, it came from the moderator, KOMO’s Mike Lewis, who asked why, when the city council “radically increased business license fees” a few years back, didn’t they spend any of that money hiring new police officers. (Answer: They did.) Herbold also pushed back on an irrelevant question about whether she would support a “safe injection site” in West Seattle, pointing out that no one had ever suggested or even brought up such a proposal, and brandishing a fake flyer advertising an injection site in Pigeon Point—a sleepy area north of Delridge—as an example of how false rumors create panic.

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The result wasn’t a shitshow, exactly (the crowd only shouted Herbold down once, when she gave the city council a B-minus grade), but neither was it an opportunity for undecided voters to find out what the candidates would actually do if they were elected. Knowing what challengers think of a head tax that was defeated last year might provide some information about their views on taxes (though not much, since all of Herbold’s challengers said they hated it), and questions like “Why does Seattle have such a high property crime rate?” might give candidates a chance to pontificate for 60 seconds on that very broad issue, but to what end? Speak Out Seattle is a relatively new group, still struggling to escape its association with Safe Seattle, the volatile online group that recently claimed—falsely—that the Seattle Police Department was trying to cover up a grisly “beheading” at a homeless encampment in South Seattle. One way to accomplish that would be to ask, “Is the premise of this question true?” before posing it to candidates. Another would be to treat candidate forums not as an opportunity to quiz candidates on their top-five general issues (What causes homelessness? Is property crime getting worse?) but to find out what specific policies they would fight for on the council, and how they would work with other council members to make them happen. Elections aren’t about ideas; they’re about people. Candidate forums should be too.

2. With Rob Johnson leaving the city council on April 5 (sooner than I predicted here, since Johnson has apparently decided he does not need to stick around until Sound Transit’s Elected Leadership Group makes its Ballard-to-West-Seattle route recommendations), the council will need to pick a new member—and King County Executive Dow Constantine will need to pick a new Sound Transit board member.

The council’s process, outlined by council president Bruce Harrell here, will likely result in the appointment of a “caretaker”—someone who will serve out the rest of Johnson’s single term through the budget in November, and agree not to run for the position. Constantine’s process is more of a wild card. Under state law, the county executive must appoint a representative from North King County to Johnson’s position; historically, this has been a member of the Seattle City Council, and it would be unusual for Constantine to break from this tradition for a short-term appointment.

Currently, the two most likely candidates appear to be council member Lorena Gonzalez and council member Debora Juarez—Gonzalez because she’s a council veteran who represents the whole city (and, not for nothing, a West Seattleite like Constantine), Juarez because of her enthusiasm for getting into the weeds of the project in her North Seattle district, which includes two future light rail stations. Two other factors: Gonzalez, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, may have too much on her plate to take over a big new transportation job; Juarez, meanwhile, is up for reelection, and will be spending much of her time over the next few months on the campaign trail. Mike O’Brien, who was displaced from the board by Johnson in 2016, could be a dark-horse candidate, but given his previous conflict with Constantine over the proposed new King County juvenile jail, his appointment looks like the longest of long shots.

3. Leaders of the Seattle Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, and King County Metro watched as workers carefully lowered a new gunmetal-colored bus shelter into place on Fifth Avenue on Thursday, one of the final touches on a new northbound transit priority lane that will open this coming Saturday, when all bus routes come out of the downtown transit tunnel and 15 routes are redirected onto different streets. Northbound and souhtbound transit lanes on Fifth Avenue will pair with southbound lane a northbound transit priority lane on Sixth Ave. (Info on Metro services changes here, and Sound Transit service changes here.)

Also Thursday, the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition called for the immediate implementation of a temporary bus priority lane on Third Avenue between Stewart and Denny Streets to meet transit demand in Belltown and South Lake Union when the buses come out of the tunnel. MASS formed last year to push for more city investments in safe nonmotorized transportation infrastructure (including the completion of the downtown bike network.) In a statement, the coalition noted that 100,000 riders use that section of Third Avenue every day, yet “this section of 3rd Avenue still prioritizes single-occupant vehicles and parking — even though it carries only 7300 cars a day.

Asked about the proposal, Zimbabwe said it was the first he’d heard of it. “We’re looking at all sort of things as we continue to monitor the situation, he said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen right away.” Heather Marx, the director of downtown mobility for the city, said after the press conference that the city’s transportation operations center, which opened last year in anticipation of a Viadoom that never came, has remained open on a 24-7 basis ever since it opened, and would continue to stay open on a constant basis indefinitely, or at least through 2019, when the current budget cycle ends. Marx said the city still has some tricks up its sleeve if the buses get stuck in traffic, including adding more bus lanes, signal timing to give buses priority, and rerouting buses again.

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.”