Tag: Dow Constantine

Under Pressure, County Executive Constantine Cancels Plans to Expand SoDo Shelter

King County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor with one of the Pallet shelters that would have been part of a shelter expansion in the SoDo neighborhood.

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced on Friday that in response to “community feedback,” the county will abandon plans to provide new shelter beds and a sobering center on vacant land next to the existing 270-bed Salvation Army shelter in SoDo. In a statement, Constantine said, “It is clear that building trust and resolving underlying concerns about the conditions in the community today will take considerable time before we can move forward with any added service capacity.”

Residents of the Chinatown International District have held protests outside the shelter and during King County Council meetings objecting to the shelter expansion, which many described during county and city public comment sessions as another example of “dumping” services for homeless people in a neighborhood that was hard-hit by the pandemic and has seen an increase in both crime and gentrification over the past few years.

Tanya Woo, a Chinatown-International District business owner who has helped organize opposition to the shelter expansion, told PublICola before today’s announcement that she wanted the county to put its plans on “pause” and have more conversations with neighborhood residents, including discussions about potential shelter locations in other parts of the city.

It doesn’t matter what side the community is on this shelter issue, the most important thing is having our voices heard,” Woo said. “My one wish is that the county and city can come to a conclusion that may include looking at other sites and looking at a more equitable distribution of shelter resources so that it’s not all concentrated in one area.”

In addition to community members, paid outside advocates have involved themselves in the debate, including the King County Republican Party (which paid for and handed out “Down With Dow” signs to tweak the county executive, who has a history of being rattled by vocal criticism) and the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that launched the career of far-right activist Chris Rufo.

Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, DCHS director Leo Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.

Reporters received tours of the existing shelter, and the areas where the shelter would have been expanded, earlier this month. In total, the expansion would have added 90 new shelter beds: 40 beds at a new high-acuity shelter, focused on bringing people with the greatest health needs (and visible impact on the surrounding neighborhood) off the street, plus 50 new tiny house-style Pallet shelters. In addition, the county would have moved the existing sobering center, currently housed in the Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, to the complex, adding up to 60 non-shelter beds.

The high-acuity shelter has been a longtime priority for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is an independent entity funded jointly by the city of Seattle and King County. A spokeswoman for the KCRHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this latest setback for the shelter.

The director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), Leo Flor, said last month that the new shelter would help get many people off the street who are unable to access traditional shelter like the Salvation Army’s SoDo shelter because of serious physical and behavioral health needs—the kind of needs that often lead to disruptive behavior and neighborhood complaints.

Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.

Constantine’s office did not provide any information about whether the county is planning to revisit any of the new services and shelter that were canceled today. The decision will save the county some money, though it’s unclear how much; a planned lease with the property owner, developer Greg Smith of Urban Visions,  would have rolled the existing lease for the Salvation Army shelter up in a new six-year contract that would have cost King County $10 million a year.

Nor is it clear when the onsite encampment will be resolved. A spokesman for Constantine directed questions about the encampment to the KCRHA; a spokeswoman for the authority told PubliCola that the site is “within the Partnership for Zero focus area” and will be addressed as part of that work and, presumably, closed down once the homelessness authority moves the people living there into housing or shelter.

Fewer Staff, More Incarcerated Kids, and Frequent Solitary Confinement as Youth Jail Closure Deadline Approaches

By Erica C. Barnett

In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine committed publicly to closing down the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), saying it was time to shift “public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety.”

“Today I commit King County to converting the remaining youth detention units at the CFJC to other uses as quickly as possible, and no later than 2025,” Constantine announced in a Twitter thread that noted the connection between police murders of Black people and mass incarceration. About half the kids King County incarcerates are Black, a group that makes up about 6 percent of the county population, and about 18 percent are white, compared to 69 percent of the county.

Constantine’s announcement came at a time of heightened public scrutiny of the criminal legal system in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. The youth detention center had opened just five months earlier, replacing a decrepit, 212-bed facility next door, and stood largely empty because of COVID and a general reduction in youth arrests. The population would hover at about 20 young people throughout the next year, peaking at 26 and dipping to just 17 in August 2021.

One year later, however, the trend has reversed. In August, the average daily population at the youth jail was 41; on October 3, it was 42, including four kids charged as adults. While the population at the jail has grown, the number of guards at the jail has declined; as of September, 22 of 91 juvenile detention officer positions were unfilled, down from about six vacancies in the fall of 2020—a shortfall of 24 percent.

The timeline for closing down the youth detention center could also get a reality check. Closing the jail requires alternatives to incarceration that don’t exist yet, and the process to come up with those alternatives, which will likely include restrictive housing for youth who present a danger to the community, is proceeding slowly.

The increase in the number of young people incarcerated at the CFJC is exacerbated by a similarly steep decline in the number of people working at the jail. A representative of the Juvenile Detention Guild told PubliCola that juvenile corrections officers are leaving their jobs more than twice as fast as the county can hire replacements. Understaffing has also impacted other positions at the facility, which has at times been short on nurses and other medical staff. The high attrition rate has created a shortage not just of workers but experience—a gap that shows no sign of closing even as the county ramps up financial incentives to get new hires in the door.

Understaffing has contributed to the frequent use of solitary confinement, a practice that persists even though it was officially banned in 2017. Jail officials acknowledge that they use “room confinement” when there aren’t enough staff to let kids into common areas safely, but there is no legal distinction between “room confinement” and other euphemisms for isolating kids in their cells for up to 20 hours a day.

Solitary confinement leads to stress, boredom, and fights, and has contributed to a reported uptick in assaults on guards and other staff. According to the juvenile guards’ union representative, “We hire staff who want to work with youth, but they are leaving [because] it is an unsafe work environment, we have to lock youth in their dorms for extended periods of time, [and we] do not have sufficient staffing to provide services to the youth.”

King County officials are aware that keeping kids in their cells is a problem, but the use of the practice has been escalating. In July, there were 13 days when kids were locked in their cells between 18 and 20 hours a day because of short staffing at the jail. Additionally, an independent monitor’s report released in May found a “significant increase” in the number of times youth were put in “restrictive housing” (solitary confinement) because of a risk of “imminent and significant physical harm to the youth or others,” along with a spike in the length of this form of confinement; in the first quarter of this year, 41 kids were put in restrictive housing for an average of 6 hours per session. 

Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, says the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) is skirting laws that were passed specifically to prevent the department from doing exactly what it’s doing now. “The King County Council should get involved and pass strict requirements that force DAJD to do the right thing because we know they aren’t” on their own, Straley said.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—who, like most of the nine county council members, visited the CFJC recently to get a better sense of conditions at the jail—said he was “shocked” to learn recently that the county still effectively allows solitary confinement for youth.

“If we literally don’t have the staffing to monitor people, I understand why that creates a different kind of situation, but it still is alarming, because from an experiential perspective rather than a technical perspective, the youth experience that the same way,” Zahilay said. “All the reasons we don’t want solitary confinement for youth are still true in that scenario, and we have to do everything we can to change those circumstances.”

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)

For adolescents, confinement is a particularly harsh punishment, depriving them of not only of chances to interact with other kids and adults but making it harder to schedule visits with attorneys and family members. During visits, kids are separated from their family members by Plexiglas, depriving them of the chance to hug their parents or hold their own children.

“There have been issues with parents not being able to have contact with their kids and only being able to see each other through Plexiglas,”  a COVID-era innovation that prevents direct contact between family members and incarcerated youth, CLS’ Straley says. “The reality is that you’ve got the bare minimum level of humane treatment, and simply not having enough staff isn’t the only reason. They need to have more staff, and/or they need to have fewer kids in jail.”

There’s little consensus about why the county is locking up more kids at a time when youth detention is supposedly on a path to extinction. Jimmy Hung, who leads the juvenile division of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, attributes the reversal to an uptick in violent crime among both young people and adults. “And it’s not isolated to King County; it’s throughout the country,” Hung said. “We are dealing with aftermath of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and that has also collided with the continuing escalation and increase in just the sheer number of firearms we have in our community.”

Straley believes the “perception out there that crime is running out of hand” is also contributing to harsher sentences from judges. “I think that perception is not accurate, but that’s the perception, and judges are aware of that and they adjust the sentence accordingly,” he said.

A DADJ spokesman, Noah Haglund, said another reason more kids are being detained is that incarcerated youth are being incarcerated longer, particularly the small percentage of kids charged as adults, whose average stay at the CFJC is 284 days; for kids detained on juvenile charges, it’s 17. Both averages have increased over the last five years.

Whatever the reasons, the number of kids at the youth jail is growing, and the number of staff at the jail is not keeping up.

DAJD director Allen Nance, appointed to the position last month after three years as head of the juvenile division, told PubliCola recently that the department “recognize[s]that not only do we need to do a better job recruiting quality folks to work with our young people in custody, but we also have to work diligently to implement strategies to keep the employees that we have today.”

Currently, the department offers hiring bonuses of $7,500 for new hires and $15,000 for lateral hires, as well as $5,000 to any county staffer who recruits a new detention officer for the adult or youth detention center. (Jobs at the adult jail pay slightly better).

However, the county lacks any significant programs to retain jail staffers once they’re hired—a major problem, given how many leave after they experience the challenges of the job; according to the union representative, “many staff will forfeit the money versus staying due to conditions” at the jail, including low morale, lack of support from DAJD leadership, poor schedules, and a lack of transparency about what will happen to CFJC staff if and when the facility closes.

Rod Dembowski, a King County council member who has been skeptical of the 2025 closure date, said during a recent council meeting that one reason the CFJC may be having trouble hiring guards is that the jobs offer no long-term security. “Why would someone come on to this job or stay in this job if it’s going to be gone in two or three years?” Dembowski said. “It’s not a real great career incentive and that may be hampering us.”

Hiring bonuses remain the primary tool the county uses to recruit new guards at both the juvenile and adult jail, which is also facing a crippling staff shortage.  But county rules require newly hired jail staff to pay part of their bonuses back if they stay less than three years, which means that a guard hired today would have to stay at the CFJC until 2025, when the facility is supposed to close, with no guarantee of a new position.

“Our office’s position has always been that zero youth detention is a goal that we should strive for, and it’s aspirational. I don’t believe that we can truly reach zero youth detention before I’m gone, but maybe for my daughter and my grandkids we can see that [happen].”—King County Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Division Director Jimmy Hung

At the same time, the juvenile detention department currently relies heavily on mandatory overtime, which falls primarily on new hires. Nance, the DAJD director, said “we definitely intend to reduce over-reliance on mandatory overtime, and in fact, incentivize individuals to voluntarily work overtime,” but did not offer specifics when we asked him about the issue in September.

Nance also said the department is “in the process of finalizing” retention incentives for existing staff, “recognizing that those individuals who have already made the commitment to stay at the detention facility through 2025 deserve an opportunity to work in an environment where they are valued, where they where they are well compensated, and where we go above and beyond wherever we possibly can to support their continued employment in the department.”

Nance did not offer more details about the department’s strategy to keep the staff it has.

Nor is it clear whether the youth detention center will actually close in 2025—or ever. Earlier this year, planning for the closure shifted from the DAJD to the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) in recognition of the fact that closing the youth detention center will require standing up community-based alternatives to incarceration, including housing that is more humane than a jail. Continue reading “Fewer Staff, More Incarcerated Kids, and Frequent Solitary Confinement as Youth Jail Closure Deadline Approaches”

New Tax Would Fund Behavioral Crisis Centers; Things to Look for in Harrell’s Budget Proposal

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks at a press conference on a county proposal to raise property taxes to fund walk-in crisis centers
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a new property-tax levy to fund five behavioral health crisis centers across King County, along with higher wages for health care workers and the restoration of residential treatment beds that have been lost in recent years. The levy, assessed at 14.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value—about $121 for a median $694,000 house—could be on a countywide ballot in April 2023, if the King County Council approves it this year.

Currently, there are no walk-in crisis centers anywhere in King County, and the wait for a residential treatment bed averaged 44 days as of July, according to the county. Since 2018, the county has lost more than 110 residential treatment beds and is down to 244 beds countywide. “A question that doesn’t get asked enough to the person who says ‘get people into treatment,'” King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said Monday, is “‘get people into treatment where?'”

In a county with 2.3 million residents, Zahilay said, we have one crisis care facility with 46 beds”—the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center in the Central District, which only accepts referrals from police and other first responders. “If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”

The nine-year levy proposal would also create apprenticeship programs and other supports for people entering the behavioral health care field, and would “invest in equitable wages for the workforce at crisis care centers,” according to the announcement, plus mobile or co-located crisis services that would operate until the first crisis clinics were open.

“If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options.”—King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

It’s unclear how many people would see higher wages under Constantine’s proposal, which his office released only in summary form. Pay for behavioral health care workers is so low that many employees qualify for the same services they sign clients up for, said Kristen Badin, a crisis counselor and representative of SEIU 1199NW.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has asked the city and county to provide an additional $15.4 million to permanently service providers’ baseline budgets by 13 percent in order to increase provider wages—part of an overall budget request that would add about $90 million to the regional agency’s budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County through their annual budget process.

That process kicks off for both the city and county tomorrow, when Harrell and Constantine announce their 2023 budget proposals. On Monday, Constantine said he considered the KCRHA’s budget request “aspirational,” and confirmed that he does not plan to provide all the money the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, requested.

That budget request, Constantine said, “was essentially a statement of need, and that neither the county nor the city’s budget could support that full request.” Harrell added that “we weren’t able to meet all of the requests, but you’ll see [during Tuesday’s budget announcement] the support we have moving forward with RHA and the support we have the people on the ground doing this important work.”

2. In 2019, the City Council passed legislation requiring the Human Services Department to build a cost of living increase into all new or renegotiated contracts with service providers, based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). At the time, inflation, as represented by the increase in CPI, was modest—between two and three percent.

“I drew a line in the sand [on the use of the JumpStart tax to backfill the city budget], and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity.”—City Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda.

Last year, the CPI-W increased 8.7 percent, meaning that compared to 2021, it cost 8.7 percent more to pay for the same goods and services. Any wage increase that’s lower than the CPI effectively constitutes a pay cut—something social service providers whose wages are funded by the city will likely be watching for tomorrow when Harrell rolls out his budget.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said she’ll also be watching for any effort by Harrell to transfer additional funds from the JumpStart payroll tax, which is earmarked for housing, small business support, Green New Deal programs, and equitable development. Earlier this year, Mosqueda proposed using excess payroll tax revenues to help close the budget gap; those extra revenues are projected at $71 million and $84 million in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

“I drew a line in the sand,” Mosqueda said Monday, “and I want to make sure that we’re sticking to that, not only because it’s what we passed in statute, but because the agreement to use the higher-than anticipated revenue was to prevent austerity. And part of preventing austerity is keeping our promises, [including] our promises to human service providers.”

Proposed County Budget Will Includes More Cops, Jail Guards, Bus Security, and Diversion Programs

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance, King County Sheriff Patti Cole--Tindall
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance, King County Sheriff Patti Cole–Tindall

King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed his 2023 public safety budget on Monday, announcing his plans for new spending on police recruitment, diversion programs, corrections officers in the adult and youth jails, and body cameras for sheriff’s deputies—along with 140 new security officers for Metro buses and other investments.

The proposed new investments, which are part of an upcoming annual budget proposal that will be amended and approved by the King County Council, include:

  • $2.4 million for Vital, a program that targets “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system by providing case management and wraparound services;
  • $7.3 million for  Restorative Community Pathways, a pre-filing diversion program for youth who commit certain first-time felonies;
  • $5 million for body-worn cameras, which every deputy would be required to wear by the end of 20205;
  • $21 million to hire 140 new security officers for King County Metro buses, transit centers, and stops.

King County Metro deputy general manager Michelle Allison said the bus agency needs more uniformed security officers on and off the buses to respond to concerns from riders and bus drivers that the bus system is unsafe. “Having more safety personnel is helpful for our riders and for our employees,” Allison said. “These folks acts act as a deterrent, and provide support for our customers and our colleagues.”

Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said the sheriff’s office has supported body-worn video for officers for at least the past decade, but that “it just takes time” to implement major changes. “We have to complete collective bargaining,” she said. “I think the time is right for cameras because our deputies actually want them. The community expects us to have them that accountability and transparency piece. It’s happening now, and I think that’s the important thing.”

Responding to questions about hiring,Cole-Tindall said her office has already hired 50 new deputies this year, and hopes to hire another 70 in the next two years.

The sheriff’s office isn’t the only county agency that has had trouble not just recruiting but retaining staff. The problem has been particularly acute at the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, where understaffing at both the adult and youth jails has led to repeated lockdowns and the increased use of solitary confinement, including in the county’s Child and Family Justice Center (CFJC), which is supposed to shut down by 2025.

Retention, particularly at the juvenile jail, is a problem: more than 20 of the 90 juvenile detention officer positions are currently vacant, and far more officers have left their jobs at the CFJC than the county has been able to hire.

Nance said his department is “currently working on a plan” to restore in-person visits for family members and social service providers by the end of the year. Additionally, he said, the department plans to restore full booking hours at the Kent and downtown Seattle jails by early next year; currently, bookings at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent are by appointment only, and the downtown jail has shut down booking three times in recent months because of staffing shortage.

Over the next two years, Nance added, DADJ will bring on 100 new adult correctional officers and 30 officers for the juvenile jail. Currently, the county offers hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 for new recruits. However, retention, particularly at the juvenile jail, is a problem: more than 20 of the 90 juvenile detention officer positions are currently vacant, and far more officers have left their jobs at the CFJC than the county has been able to hire. New recruits have to pay the bonuses back if they don’t stay for three years; with the youth jail slated for closure in 2025, this presents a challenge: It’s harder to nail new employees to a three-year commitment when they know they may be out of a job at the end of that period.

County Denounces “Misinformation” On Juvenile Diversion, Discovery Institute Staffer Chases County Executive Down Hallway

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg

1. Officials from King County and advocates from community-based diversion programs responded Tuesday to what King County Executive Dow Constantine called “misinformation” about Restorative Community Pathways, a diversion program for young people that provides services and support for young people accused of first-time felony offenses, along with restitution and services for the people they’ve harmed.

“We’ve heard a lot of misinformation recently about the county’s juvenile diversion program and demonstrably false correlation to increased crime,” Constantine said. Earlier this year, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican, called for putting a “pause” on the program, which had just been approved two months earlier.

Federal Way mayor Jim Ferrell, who’s running for prosecutor this year, has called the program an “outrageous breach of public trust” that contributes to gun violence, something Constantine and the current prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, deny. “Officials and others in positions of public trust should take care to rely on facts, not hyperbole and data, not anecdotes,” Constantine said.

Satterberg emphasized that the county is still prosecuting serious crimes. “Lest people think this is all we’re doing, that we’re diverting all our cases away, I want to make it quite clear that the context here is that diversion … is but a small facet of the complex approach  to public safety, crime, and justice that we have here in King County,” Satterberg said.

So far, about 380 kids have been referred to RCP programs, which are run by nine different community-based organizations, including Community Passageways, a youth diversion program that uses credible messengers to divert young people from the school-to-prison pipeline. Of those 380, 145 have completed the program, and just 8 percent have committed another offense, compared to about 20 percent of kids who go.through the traditional juvenile justice system.

“These young men standing behind me are the perfect model of what restorative justice looks like and how it works in our community,” Community Passageways director Dominque Davis said, gesturing toward four young men who went through his group’s program. “Right now, they shouldn’t be standing behind me. But because of the collaboration with county departments, and because of the work we’ve done in community with our partner organizations,” he said, they had not only graduated from the program but were working as case managers and business owners in their communities.

When Discovery Institute activist Jonathan Choe contacts county departments, including the executive’s, they have a standard response: “We decline to participate in your project.

2. Former KOMO reporter Jonathan Choe, who now produces anti-homeless videos for the far-right creationist think tank that spawned Chris Rufo, attended Tuesday’s press conference but didn’t ask any questions, despite the fact that only two reporters—myself and Omari Salisbury from Converge Media—plus a handful of camera operators were in the room, which left a lot of dead air.

Once the press conference was over and people started leaving, Choe began loudly demanding that Constantine respond to a question “about public safety.” When Constantine continued to walk away, Choe chased him down a hallway, nearly mowing down his chief of staff, “Mr Constantine, I’m asking about the Chinatown International district — why are you ignoring me?” he shouted theatrically, demanding to know if he would place a “moratorium” on a planned homeless shelter expansion in SoDo that, according to Choe, “the vast majority of the Chinatown-International District community opposes.”

Standing outside the elevator, Constantine responded: “You are not actually a journalist.” Reminding Choe why he was holding an iPhone, not a TV microphone, he added: “You were fired for promoting the Proud Boys.” (Choe was fired by Sinclair-owned KOMO TV after praising the insurrectionist group and posting a montage from their rally, encouraging viewers to attend the rally and learn about the Proud Boys’ “cause and mission.”) Choe continued arguing with Constantine’s staff, bellowing “I’m a journalist” when they told him they would only talk to legitimate media outlets.

Constantine’s response to Choe stood in marked contrast to that of Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has been known to let press conferences run long in order to politely answer Choe’s questions. When Choe contacts county departments, including the executive’s, they have a standard response: “We decline to participate in your project.”

The shelter complex, which would add 150 shelter spots, a tiny house village, and an RV safe lot to an existing 270-bed shelter in SoDo,  has been the subject of significant debate in the nearby Chinatown/International District community. Advocates such as Friends of the CID have argued that the complex, which will be run by the county, is another example of systemic racism—concentrating services for homeless and low-income people in an already vulnerable community without consulting them.

 

County Plans Emergency Walk-In Centers for Behavioral Health Crises

King County Executive Dow Constantine, flanked by Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall and state Rep. Nicole Macri
King County Executive Dow Constantine, flanked by Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall and state Rep. Nicole Macri

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday morning, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced his plan to introduce a plan to expand services for people experiencing behavioral health crisis as part of his 2023 budget proposal in September. The plan will attempt to address the worsening shortage of short- and long-term treatment for people with behavioral health conditions and substance use disorder. As of this year, Constantine said, the county has lost a third of its residential behavioral health care beds, “and it would have been more but for our intervention. And more facilities are potentially closing their doors in the months ahead.”

Currently, there is only one 16-bed crisis stabilization unit—the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center—in the entire county. A person in crisis who needs help right away can call 911 or the new 988 mental health crisis line, but people who need immediate, intensive intervention generally have nowhere to go but emergency rooms, which are ill-equipped to deal with behavioral health crises, or jail.

:I’m glad we’re here to be talking about potentially expanding [the crisis] system, but we can’t just expand it. We need to fix what is broken. And if I’m being honest with you, I am part of what’s broken, and every other behavioral health worker, because the system has put us in an impossible situation.” —DESC registered nurse Naomi Morris

Gesturing toward the King County Correctional Facility across the street from the county building where the press conference was taking place, Constantine noted that of about 1,530 people in the county jail, more than 600, or two in five, are in some kind of treatment for behavioral health conditions. Many of those have been jailed for crimes that are often related to mental health conditions and poverty, such as theft, trespassing, and assault.

“We cannot accept having the county jail as the main place for people to get behavioral health care. And right now, the fact is that the jail across the street is the second largest behavioral health facility in the state of Washington. We can’t accept relying on law enforcement to solve what is ultimately the health care challenge,” Constantine said.

Constantine did not provide any details about the scope or cost of his plan, which the county is working on as part of a coalition with other elected officals—including state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, and King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay—and health care providers. However, he did indicate that in addition to new walk-in crisis centers, it will include better pay for behavioral health-care workers, such as Naomi Morris, a registered nurse who works for DESC.

“I’m glad we’re here to be talking about potentially expanding [the crisis] system,” Morris said, “but we can’t just expand it. We need to fix what is broken. And if I’m being honest with you, I am part of what’s broken, and every other behavioral health workerm because the system has put us in an impossible situation.” Morris said a coworker recently had to take unpaid leave to deal with the trauma caused by their job as a case manager and found themselves unable to meet their basic needs because “the amount of money they make [is] barely above what the clients we serve get.”

Earlier this year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority asked the city to pay for salary increases for people who work for agencies like DESC; the KCRHA also funds its own in-house outreach team and pays them significantly more than nonprofit employees doing similar work.

Sound Transit CEO Rogoff Out Next Year, Labor Council Wades Into Sawant Fray, 43rd Democrats Divided on Dow

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff will leave the agency next spring. On Thursday, Sound Transit board members voted to approve the terms of Rogoff’s departure and queuing up a national search for his replacement.

The announcement came two weeks after the board removed what had seemed to be a standard one-year renewal of Rogoff’s contract from their regular agenda, after a nearly two-hour executive session in which board members discussed his performance as director of the agency. Board members also retreated to a lengthy executive session during Thursday’s meeting before emerging with the news that Rogoff “did not foresee continuing in his role,” in the words of board chair Kent Keel.

As PubliCola reported in early September, board members have spent the last month discussing whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, raising questions about Rogoff’s leadership style as well as large cost increases—largely for property acquisition—that forced the board to adopt a “realignment” plan for the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 package earlier this year. Mayor Jenny Durkan King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and King County Executive Dow Constantine are among the board members who brought up concerns publicly and internally.

According to a report by an independent consultant, Triunity, the cost increases were worsened by the fact that various divisions of the agency didn’t communicate with each other, thanks to a “siloed” organizational structure and a culture of keeping bad news under wraps. Another issue: Sound Transit, under Rogoff’s leadership, has been slow to make decisions that could reduce costs, such as choosing a single preferred alignment for light rail expansion instead of continuing to study many different options.

Durkan, one of two board members to vote against retaining Rogoff after allegations that he acted inappropriately around female staff, did not join in the round of praise for Rogoff that followed the board vote Thursday. After a round of effusive praise for Rogoff (Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus: “We should be very grateful as a board and a region for his expertise and skills”), Balducci’s comments focused mostly on Rogoff’s early years at the agency, calling him a steady hand when the agency was struggling to get its bearings

“We were trying… to build this incredibly ambitious and future-looking transit plan, to finally meet the promise of what we have needed and wanted in this region for over 50 years,” Balducci said. “Peter stepped in in the middle of that and quickly got his bearings and helped to bring us home.”

Rogoff will receive severance worth one year’s salary, plus unused vacation time and other benefits outlined in his contract. Speaking after the vote, Rogoff said he has found the job “simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting,” sometimes leaning more toward the latter. “I will continue to be the loudest cheerleader for Sound Transit’s staff and all of their accomplishments even after I step to the sidelines next year,” he said.

2. The King County Labor Council, which represents around 150 unions in King County, tweeted on Thursday urging Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to stop “meddling” and “interfering” in the internal business of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union, which is currently on strike over a contract that a majority of members rejected over issues including pay, contract length, and parking reimbursements. “Ask how you can support instead of being a nuisance,” the Labor Council said.

Sawant began inserting herself into the debate earlier this month, when she issued statements and held a rally urging union members to vote “no” on the contract. Union leaders, including the head of the anti-Sawant Building Trades Union as well as the Carpenters’ Union itself, have repeatedly asked Sawant to stay out of their negotiations. “[N]o politician should be meddling in a private sector union contract negotiation,” Washington State Building Trades vice president Chris McClaine said. “It only helps those who want to destroy worker unions and take money out of workers’ paychecks.”

This week, Sawant issued a flurry of statements supporting the strike, touting her own promise to contribute $10,000 (up from an initial pledge of $2,000) to the carpenters’ strike fund, and showcasing a letter of support from several dozen carpenters’ union members for “stepp[ing] forward in solidarity” with the strike. The $10,000 pledge will come from the Sawant Solidarity Fund, which supports various political efforts and campaigns.

Sawant also said this week that she will introduce legislation to “require construction contractors to fully pay for workers’ parking costs, strengthen enforcement and penalties for wage theft, and restore [the] right to strike” at sites with a project labor agreement (PLA)—a bargained agreement between the union and contractors that prohibits workers from walking off the job. PLA sites in Seattle include the NHL hockey arena, the downtown convention center, and Sound Transit’s ongoing light rail construction.

It’s unclear when Sawant plans to introduce the legislation or what mechanism it would contain for requiring specific parking reimbursements, which are currently included in union contracts, not dictated by legislation.

3. The 43rd Legislative District Democrats failed to reach an endorsement for King County Executive at their endorsement meeting Tuesday night, a victory of sorts for incumbent Dow Constantine after a series of landslide votes for lefty candidates in other races. Constantine received a little over 43 percent of the vote to his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen’s, 54 percent.

That may not seem like a blowout, but compared to the district’s sweeping support for other progressive candidates—city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas Kennedy, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver, and mayoral candidate Lorena González all received first-round votes of at least 75 percent—Nguyen’s 54 percent showing looked limp.

“We cannot wait for the status quo to solve the problems that have been impacting us for decades and they especially won’t be solved by those who helped create them,” Nguyen said before the vote. Constantine responded to this by highlighting the county’s work responding to the COVID pandemic, including the imposition of a countywide vaccine mandate for indoor and large outdoor events. “This is the kind of difficult work that real leaders do. I’ve never been much for bluster,” Constantine said.

Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine drew his first significant challenger this year in state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), who’s running at the three-term incumbent from the left. So it would be easy to conclude that Constantine’s big push to announce the purchase of hotels around the county for housing and shelter—five since May, including three in the last three weeks—is timed to capture support and votes in the August 3 primary election, paving the way for yet another big win in November.

And maybe it is. But the purchases also represent a major shift in policy for the region, one that could make a noticeable dent in the number of people sleeping outdoors across the county. The first big difference from previous policy: The county is buying, not renting, the buildings, using revenues from a new countywide sales tax, branded Health Through Housing, to fund the purchases and pay for ongoing services for the people who will live in the former hotel rooms.

That means that unlike the city of Seattle, which is renting two hotels for ten months, the county’s placements won’t come with an end date, creating flexibility for people to stay there for a few weeks to years, depending on their needs.

“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.” —King County Executive Dow Constantine

“It is not intended to be the forever home for everyone who comes here,” Constantine said during a press tour of a newly purchased Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle earlier this month. “What we want is for people to be able to move past this kind of assistance and onto more self sufficiency.” But, he added, “Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. …If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.”

Capital costs (purchasing and retrofitting the buildings to serve as long-term shelter and housing) will make up, at minimum, 60 percent of spending on the hotels, with the rest reserved for behavioral health and “housing-related services” under the legislation that authorized King County to impose the tax. “It’s one thing to purchase the property, which is an expensive endeavor,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said during a Monday press briefing inside a 102-room former Clarion Inn the county just purchased in that city. “But more important, after that, is to ensure that those services continue.” 

The second difference is that the hotels are opening all over the region, not just in Seattle—including in cities that have adopted policies that are starkly at odds with the concept of regionalism, such as Renton’s efforts to ban emergency shelter and Auburn’s vote to criminalize sleeping in public spaces. The hotels are generally in areas that already allow hotels or housing, which means they won’t be subject to the kind of lengthy zoning debates that can doom projects that serve unsheltered people.

The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

Whether the hotel purchases represent a true change of heart by suburban cities remains to be seen. The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

The new King County Regional Homelessness authority is already hard at work on multiple “sub-regional plans” for various parts of the county, including South King County, the Eastside, and the Snoqualmie Valley, according to RHA CEO Marc Dones. This suggests that the main “transformation” the new authority will achieve, at least in the short term, is administrative: Seattle’s homelessness division will cease to exist, and the county and city’s efforts (and funding) will move to new authority.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

On Tuesday, Backus said she hoped that there wouldn’t be an excessive number of sub-regional plans, but argued that relatively affordable cities in South King County require a different approach than a large, expensive city like Seattle, particularly when it comes to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I’ve often said that what works in Auburn won’t work in Seattle, and what works in Seattle won’t work in Bellevue,” Backus said. Those differences, she said, include things like the new criminal penalty for sleeping in public spaces—a proposal that likely wouldn’t fly in Seattle, and was controversial even in Auburn. Backus said “members of the Puyallup Tribe” have complained that garbage from encampments in wetlands are getting caught in their fish traps, for example. “It’s not OK. We are damaging the land,” Backus said. Continue reading “Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?”

County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks

1. During a campaign debate sponsored by the King County Young Democrats on Saturday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), had a testy exchange about the issue of corporate PAC contributions.

It started when Nguyen said he didn’t accept any money from “corporate PACs.” Constantine said he was “interested to hear [Nguyen] say that he doesn’t take corporate PAC money,” given that he has received thousands of dollars from political committees for credit unions, health care, dentists, beer and wine distributors, and auto dealers, as well as individual lobbyists from industry groups. “I’m fine if you want to say  you’re not taking any corporate PAC money, but just make sure that you actually weren’t taking corporate PAC money, which you clearly were,” Constantine said. 

Nguyen, sputtering a bit, responded, “I’m happy to explain the difference between an association and a PAC … and in fact, if that’s the bar, then if you did the same thing, then that’s totally fine. So feel free to do the exact same thing that I am doing, that’s totally fine.” 

Later, Constantine brought up the PAC issue again, Nguyen responded: “Are they PACs? Were they PACs?”

“Yeah,” Constantine replied.

“They’re not. So look again. Look again,” Nguyen said. “They were associations… not the corporations themselves. But if you think that’s an issue, do the same. I’m happy to have you follow my lead, so don’t take corporate PACs and call it good.”

For the record, both candidates have accepted money from PACs, although Constantine—as the more established candidate—has accepted more. Nguyen’s PAC money came during his run for state senator in 2018.

SeattleMakers’ street sink model.

2. Six months after the city council allocated $100,000 to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective,” Seattle Public Utilities has finally chosen two vendors to receive the money.

Slightly more than half, $60,000, will go to the Clean Hands Collective, an organization founded by Real Change that includes landscape architects and public health experts; the rest, $40,000, will go to SeattleMakers, a South Lake Union “makerspace” that designed a prototype “handwashing station” at an estimated cost of $7,250 per unit—about ten times the price of Clean Hands’ Street Sink. According to SeattleMakers’ website, the city reached out to them to design the sink. Continue reading “County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks”

Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack

1. The city’s removal of a small encampment near Reuben’s Brews in Ballard, part of several scheduled encampment sweeps this week, cleared a sidewalk in front of one business while, less than a block away, other people living in other tents were left alone for now. The city, as we’ve reported, is increasing the pace of encampment sweeps to previous, pre-COVID levels, using a reconfigured and renamed Navigation Team (now known as the HOPE Team) to do outreach and tell people about available shelter beds before they have to leave.

The city prioritizes encampments based on a number of factors, but one is “emergent complaints” from businesses and housed neighborhood residents who contact the city.

Ballard is full of encampments, because Ballard is full of people who have nowhere to live. A spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the city “requested that outreach efforts… intensify this week with the goal of getting all who are onsite situated into shelter and on a path towards a permanent housing solution,” which suggests that the city has sufficient, desirable shelter and “permanent housing solutions” for everyone who is willing to accept its help.

This, of course, is not true. Although the city has now separated the work of the renamed Navigation Team from actual encampment sweeps (which are performed by Parks cleanup crews), the effect of doing outreach (or, controversially, directing nonprofits that serve specific subpopulations to do the work for them) prior to a sweep, the result is still that people pack up and leave because they know a sweep is coming.

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill.”

Some do go into shelter (the HOPE Team has exclusive access to a large number of beds that aren’t available to other outreach teams); according to the mayor’s office, the outreach provider REACH offered shelter to eight people remaining onsite, and two “accepted shelter referrals.” (Referral “acceptance” is not the same thing as checking in to a shelter.)

In language strikingly similar to the city’s standard response about Navigation Team actions prior to the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, “the HOPE Team has made at least 130 referrals to shelter from high-priority sites such as Rainer Playfield, Miller Park, University Playground, Gilman Playground, Albert Davis Park, and Broadway Hill. A referral indicates that an individual experiencing homelessness has accepted an offer of shelter and they have been connected to an open shelter resource. The majority of these referrals have been into new hotel-based shelter resources.” 

Those resources consist primarily of about 140 beds at the downtown Executive Pacific Hotel. (Another hotel, King’s Inn, is for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals and is currently full.) As of January 2020, there were at least 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County.

The actual selection of a new Public Health director, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

2. King County Public Health Department director Patty Hayes announced her retirement this week after seven years in the position; Dennis Worsham, the director of the department’s Prevention Division, will be her interim replacement. The county also announced an advisory committee of stakeholders that will “inform the process for recruiting and selecting the next permanent director.”

The actual selection, however, will be up to two elected officials, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is up for reelection in November and has an opponent, state Sen. Joe Nguyen. Durkan is leaving.

Constantine has been lauded for the county’s timely, prudent public health response during the pandemic, thanks in huge part to the now nationally-recognized leadership of public health officer Jeff Duchin.

The same can’t be said of Durkan, who spent millions renting a hotel for first responders that stood empty while homeless people languished in encampments and crowded shelters; belatedly rented two shower trailers at an astronomical cost while King County deployed similar units at a fraction of the cost; closed restrooms throughout the city and replaced them with unsanitary “sanicans”; delayed the deployment of sinks for people to wash their hands, arguing that “Purell on a pole” could serve the same purpose at lower cost; and resisted providing hotel rooms for people living unsheltered, despite ample evidence that private rooms improve public and individual health for people experiencing homelessness.

PubliCola asked the health department about the timeline for choosing a new director; James Apa, a spokesman for the department, said that’s up in the air, but that the committee should interview finalists “by the end of the year.” Since the mayoral election is November 3, I asked whether the mayor-elect will have a role in the selection process between their election and when the new mayor takes office next January. Apa responded, “We’ll have a better sense of timeline when recruitment begins, and that will determine who’s involved in decision-making.”

3. The Freedom Foundation, an anti-union, anti-government, anti-tax group whose tactics include lawsuits, public relations campaigns, and pressure tactics to convince workers to leave their unions, has turned their sights on MLK Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Nicole Grant, urging union members to “stop supporting Nicole Grant” by opting out of their union membership. Continue reading “Another Sweep in Ballard, Durkan Will Help Choose New Public Health Director, Anti-Union Group Launches Unhinged Attack”