Tag: Downtown Seattle

Feds Come to Seattle to Set Up “Command Center” for Downtown Homelessness

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By Erica C. Barnett

Contractors with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened at the city’s Emergency Operations Center last week to begin setting up a formal “housing command center” for addressing homelessness in downtown Seattle, PubliCola has learned. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority requested HUD’s help setting up the command center, which agency CEO Marc Dones touted during the announcement of a public-private partnership called “Partnership for Zero” earlier this year.

HUD, which funds housing through housing vouchers and other programs, has been meeting quietly with officials from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, and officials from the city’s Human Services Department over the past two weeks. The goal, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, is to set up a “incident response system” plan for homelessness, treating it like an emergent crisis rather than a perpetual, unchanging problem.

“We’ve heard from our neighbors that we need to treat this emergency like an emergency, so that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Martens said.

The difference isn’t just semantic. “An incident command system is a management structure that can really be used to organize any big event,” from planning a wedding to planning for emergency shelter during heat and smoke, Curry Mayer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, explained. In practice, this means setting up several teams to deal with operations, logistics, planning, and administration, all reporting to a command team that runs the show and gets information out to the public and press.

“We are taking best practices learned from years of emergency housing response during disasters like hurricanes and other major displacements, and applying those proven practices to help people experiencing homelessness move inside,” Martens said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office said that although the technical assistance does not come with any new funding for housing or services, it “helps communities apply the lessons learned from other communities, including those that used a similar structure to assist people experiencing homelessness following major disasters. The duration of the technical assistance will depend on the circumstances on the ground, but it will likely last a few months.”

The team is already meeting daily to share updates on each team’s progress and challenges, the same way local agencies meet daily during short-term emergencies, like the snowstorm that shut down transportation around the city last year and left thousands of unsheltered people out in subfreezing temperatures for days.

This approach is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to homelessness, which is divided into silos such as encampment removals, emergency response, shelters, and housing. The logistics team, for example, might be in charge of figuring out ways to make permanent housing accessible more quickly, such as waiving eligibility requirements (HUD rules currently require a person to be homeless for at least a year before they’re eligible for a voucher, for example) or offering incentives to landlords to move people into apartments quickly.

“This effort will further improve coordination and speed up action, with permanent housing as the top priority,” Martens said.

Although the command center doesn’t come with additional funds for housing, multiple people familiar with the effort expressed hope that it could open the door to additional HUD funds in the future. In 2020, a McKinsey report estimated that it would cost as much as $1 billion a year to fully address homelessness in King County—more than eight times the KCRHA’s current annual budget. Mayor Bruce Harrell—whose office directed questions to the KCRHA—has indicated that he has little interest in contributing tens of millions more to the KCRHA’s budget, as the authority has requested.

The Office of Emergency Management won’t be directly participating in the command center’s operations, but they will provide meeting space and a press room for regular briefings. Because the EOC’s operations are sensitive, the question of access has been the subject of some internal debate. The building where the KCRHA is located, a former jail that also houses the county’s sobering center, and the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, were both reportedly considered but rejected in favor of the high-tech, visually appealing emergency hub.

One Thing We Learned During the Pandemic: Transit’s Not Dead

SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

There’s a stat in the latest report from Commute Seattle that offers a glimmer of hope for transit advocates. In a report that otherwise shows a stark drop in transit commutes between 2019 and 2021, coupled with a dramatic rise in telecommuting—arguably a double whammy of bad news for future transit investments—there is one finding that points toward a potential transit renaissance.

The survey showed that a key bloc of downtown workers, employees at small businesses (between 1 and 49 employees), represent the greatest untapped market for transit.

According to the City’s Office of Economic Development, small business—places with 50 employees or less—make up 95 percent of Seattle’s companies. Given small businesses’ big footprint, it’s time for the city to make policy that not only serves this important workforce, but also serves Seattle’s goal to be a sustainable, green city.

In its report, Commute Seattle, the local nonprofit that facilitates alternatives to solo car commuting, describes the encouraging news this way: “Unmet demand for employer-paid transit is higher among employees at smaller worksites than their counterparts in larger ones.” In other words, despite all the doom and gloom soothsaying about transit, the untapped demand is actually there.

At a time when some urbanists are anxious about a post-pandemic world that sidelines train and bus commuting, the news that employees at small businesses would like to ride transit, but aren’t, is particularly welcome because small businesses employ an outsized percentage of the downtown workforce. The most recent info on downtown employment comes from a November 2020 report from the Office of Economic Development, which, in addition to the 95 percent number noted above, also found that businesses with fewer than 50 employees make up provide nearly 200,000 jobs, about a third of all jobs in the city.

The numbers about transit demand tell the story: At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, more than 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use them” if they were. For companies with 10 to 49 employees, the number was 25 percent. Based on Commute Seattle’s outreach work, the people who work at small businesses citywide are overwhelmingly hospitality, restaurant, health care, and in-home health care workers, they say.

Just 23 percent of employees at the smallest companies and 32 percent of workers at larger small businesses report that subsidized transit programs are actually available and that they use them. This means that interest in transit at these small businesses totals 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, as the chart above indicates.

At downtown Seattle’s smallest businesses, those with between one and nine employees, 40 percent of employees said that transit passes are “not available” from their employer, but “they would use ‘them'” if they were.

By the way, at the city’s largest companies, 100 or more employees, transit benefit usage is high, at 60 percent. This high use is easy to explain: State law requires large employers to make a “good faith effort” to use commute trip reduction plans to meet state environmental and traffic congestion goals. What jumps out about this number is that it’s about equal to the pro-transit number among employees at Seattle’s smallest businesses. This raises a question: Why is public policy only about getting white-collar workers to the job, but not employees at smaller businesses, including working-class people?

It’s worth pointing out that the high demand for transit benefits from workers at smaller businesses is coming from people who’ve yet to experience the practical benefits of transit—no gas bills, for one—at their current jobs. Just imagine how those numbers would climb if these employers offered to subsidize their ORCA cards and word spread among coworkers about the benefits. As Commute Seattle’s communication manager Madeline Feig puts it: “The best way to get people to know if transit will work for them is to get transit passes in their hands—it makes the decision easy. It is difficult for folks to know whether they would use that type of benefit if they have never had it.” In short, total interest in riding transit may be much higher than what Commute Seattle’s report suggests.

The data about the intense demand at small worksites overlaps with another reality that became clear during the pandemic: Ridership data for transit agencies nationally, including Sound Transit and Metro, showed that that people in working-class communities and communities with high BIPOC populations continued to ride, or returned more quickly to transit, during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m tying these two blocs of commuters together—those who work at small businesses and low-income and essential workers—because it reveals a strategy that could bring public transportation back to the forefront of our city vision, even as hybrid work models in the corporate world seem poised to undermine it. The strategy: Investing in public policy that brings transit to those who want it most.

“One of the most immediate actions we can take to address transportation inequities,” says Commute Seattle’s longtime program manager Nick Abel, “is offering transit opportunities to essential employees.”

Of course, subsidizing transit—or providing free transit— for 200,000 workers costs money. The good news is: Big employers are already paying. Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019.

Given that status quo, given the environmental and city planning pluses of getting more people on transit, and given the unmet demand, it would make sense to replace this private cost with a broader, progressive business tax (smaller businesses pay less) to cover both the current cost at big companies and the cost to bring in new riders from small businesses.

Josh@publicola.com

Editor’s note: Columnist Josh Feit is an employee of Sound Transit, the regional transit agency. His views do not represent the agency’s.

Downtown Seattle Could Get Storefront Police Precinct, Finalist for Sheriff Would Have to Go Back to Police Academy if Appointed

1. The Seattle Police Department could open a “mini precinct” in a storefront owned by the Low Income Housing Institute on Third Avenue downtown, and is also considering a second location at LIHI’s Frye Apartments in Pioneer Square, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and LIHI director Sharon Lee confirmed.

The Third Avenue storefront, a short-lived Shake n Shake location, is on the ground floor of LIHI’s Glen Hotel Apartments, a single-room occupancy low-income housing building. Before the pandemic, the block was home to a Kress IGA grocery store and a TJ Maxx discount store, but both shut down in 2020, leaving most of the block without a tenant to attract foot traffic. The site is one block from Third and Pine, a locus of the recent crackdown on street-level crime known as Operation New Day. According to Lee, the “illegal market activity” has gotten worse since police swept Third and Pine, as drug dealers and people selling shoplifted items moved to nearby locations.

Lee said people have broken in to the apartment building and slept, urinated, and defecated in the hallways and stairwells. “The residents upstairs are scared to come out at night; they’re scared to walk around the neighborhood,” Lee said. “So we decided to offer the city the use of the space as a place where community service officers or bike officers can use it to park their bikes, take a restroom break, write up reports, and keep an eye on the street.”

LIHI would provide the space to SPD at a “nominal” cost, Lee said.

The Frye Apartments, located across the street from Prefontaine Fountain and fenced-off City Hall Park, used to have a mini-precinct on the first floor, Lee said, but the space was occupied until recently by Aladdin Bail Bonds.

A spokesman for Harrell, Jamie Housen, said the mayor’s office “is in early stages of considering what a neighborhood precinct could look like. We are continuing to explore all options for enhancing public safety downtown, including a more permanent police presence.” The two LIHI buildings “have been offered as potential options, but are by no means the only locations being considered,” Housen said.
A spokesman for the Downtown Seattle Association said the DSA would welcome a permanent police presence downtown.“As we’ve seen over the past month, dedicated resources along Third Avenue have led to a safer, more welcoming environment. Sustaining this effort is essential for the people who live and work along Third, and it’s critical as more workers and visitors return to the heart of the city. … If a mini-precinct is an element that will help enhance safety, then it should be welcomed,” the spokesman said.

2. Interim King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall, one of three finalists for the permanent sheriff position, would have to attend the state’s 19-week-long police academy and be certified by the state Criminal Justice Training Commission if she’s selected and confirmed as sheriff; during that time, an undersheriff chosen by Cole-Tindall would serve as sheriff, King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office confirmed.

Cole-Tindall, 57, mentioned the requirement during an interview with members of the press on Tuesday. Although Cole-Tindall attended the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy decades ago and is a commissioned officer, she spent most of her career outside of law enforcement, working as an investigator for the state Employment Security Division and the county’s labor relations director before joining the sheriff’s office as head of the Technical Services Division, which oversees a miscellany of operations, including courthouse security, the automated fingerprint ID system, and the county’s 911 system.

“[When] I went through [the police academy] 30 years ago, I was 30 years younger,” Cole-Tindall said. “And it’s a lot… It’s doing firearms, Taser, traffic stops—things that, as a police administrator, are not things I would be using on my day to day job.” Cole-Tindall said she would also have to pass a physical assessment test that includes “pushups, sit-ups, and squat thrusts” before entering the academy.

A spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine said that when the county has a permanent sheriff but the sheriff is unavailable, an undersheriff assumes the job. Although Cole-Tindall appointed Jesse Anderson as interim undersheriff when she became interim sheriff earlier this year, she could appoint a different undersheriff if she becomes permanent sheriff, and that person would then serve as sheriff in her absence.

Constantine will nominate a permanent sheriff in early May. The other finalists are Maj. Reginald Moorman from the Atlanta Police Department and Killeen, Texas police chief Charles Kimble.

A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear

The Seattle Police Department’s Mobile Precinct on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle.

By Paul Kiefer

A month has passed since the Seattle Police Department moved its mobile precinct to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle, scattering an open-air market for drugs and stolen merchandise that had recently been the scene of two murders.

SPD has maintained a presence at the intersection since then as part of a push to crack down on crime downtown called Operation New Day, mostly making arrests for shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes. Unlike a similar crackdown in the Little Saigon neighborhood in February, there have been few felony arrests in the long-troubled area. Meanwhile, the social services that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said would follow the sweep at Third and Pine are still on hold.

Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell says that the relative scarcity of felony arrests doesn’t tell the full story. “Felonies take a while—you’ve got to build those cases,” she said. Unlike at 12th Ave. and S. Jackson St. in Little Saigon, where federal law enforcement began investigating a similar illicit market and a pattern of EBT fraud long before SPD cleared the intersection, Harrell said the sweep of Third and Pine was a direct response to the shootings on February 27 and March 2 that killed 52-year-old Reno Maiava and 15-year-old Michael Del Bianco, respectively. SPD later arrested suspects in both shootings, though neither arrest took place on Third; officers tracked Maiava’s killer to a Tukwila motel, while Del Bianco’s killer turned himself in at SPD’s West Precinct.

Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said.

Harrell added that while SPD is still working with federal partners to make drug arrests in the area, the investigations require patience. “We’re not trying to get the low-level dealers,” she said. “We’re trying to get the folks who are a little further up the food chain, and you can’t put that on a calendar.”

Judges have already released many of the people arrested at both Third and Pine and 12th and Jackson; one man released by a King County Superior Court judge after his arrest in Little Saigon reappeared along Third, where SPD officers arrested him again for drug possession and carrying a gun illegally. According to Harrell, the repeat arrests have frustrated some prosecutors. “What I’m hearing from prosecutors is that they’re making their best cases and their strongest recommendations” to judges, she said, “and sometimes they’re feeling unheard.”

According to US Attorney Nick Brown, finding a “high-level” drug dealer at an intersection like Third and Pine—or at any of the encampments in greater downtown that SPD has swept in the past two months—is unlikely. Most of the dealers whose crimes could rise to the federal level, he says, “are, in fact, not Washingtonians. … Most of the people we identify as significant in those cases are not even in Seattle; many are in Mexico or California. Those that are here only come for a short period of time.” Brown’s office has the discretion to decide which cases rise to the federal level; the King County Prosecutor’s Office handles the vast majority of felony cases. So far, Brown’s office has taken four cases from the crackdowns in Little Saigon and along Third Ave.

In the view of some skeptics of the operation, most of the behavior drawing negative attention at Third and Pine doesn’t rise to the felony level. “Most of what people complain about aren’t felonies,” said Kevin Toth, a social worker with the King County Department of Public Defense. “Drug dealing, sure. Robberies, shootings, also, yes. But most of the atmosphere down there is the result of lawful behaviors or misdemeanors at worst.”

Meanwhile, the operation at Third and Pine has re-opened the direct line between police officers and the Public Defender Association-run program LEAD, the city’s primary diversion option for people who commit crimes related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. LEAD’s early model relied on referrals from arresting officers—so-called “arrest diversions”—but in the past two years, the program shifted focus, relying instead on community groups, business organizations, outreach workers and prosecutors to refer clients for diversion. Community referrals don’t create an arrest record—one reason the program began shifting away from arrest diversions to begin with.

However, according to LEAD project director Tara Moss, that trend is reversing. “We’re now seeing the current mayor’s office and SPD leadership break the logjam and start sending LEAD referrals again” after a two-year pause on arrest referrals, she said. In 2021, LEAD received one arrest diversions; this year, the program has received eight arrest diversions. Moss also noted that while the program currently has some “capacity issues” as a result of a new wave of referrals, she anticipates that LEAD will be able to take on more clients later this year.

Since officers haven’t done arrest diversions in years, Harrell said, SPD is currently retraining officers on how to engage with LEAD and introducing officers hired in the past two years to the program for the first time.

SPD did not arrest everyone at the open-air market on Third and Pine; some scattered to nearby corners, to Pioneer Square, or to other parts of the city. V, an organizer with the drug user solidarity group DUST, says that dispersing people—many of them unhoused—across the city by sweeping corners like Third and Pine can create tension in the places where those people land. “[It] puts a strain on the homeless people in each neighborhood because the service providers there have limited capacity,” they said.  Newcomers can trigger conflicts, V added, that can escalate into violence.

The weeks following SPD’s clearance of Third and Pine have not been peaceful. Eighteen people were shot or stabbed in the past month or so, most of them in or near encampments; in response to some of those shootings, the city cleared encampments in Chinatown, Little Saigon, and the University District. But Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said. In Ballard, for instance—the site of two shootings, one of them fatal, in the past month—the deputy mayor said that a pattern of gun violence long predates the crackdowns in downtown Seattle. Continue reading “A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear”

Harrell Touts Arrests at Longtime Downtown Hot Spot in “Operation New Day” Announcement

City Attorney Ann Davison touts "arrests and prosecutions" as a path to addiction recovery at a press conference on the city's latest targeted policing action.
City Attorney Ann Davison touts “arrests and prosecutions” as a path to addiction recovery at a press conference on the city’s latest targeted policing action, Operation New Day.

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle Police Department moved a black van known as the “mobile precinct” to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle on Thursday morning, scattering the dozens of people gathered there to buy and sell drugs and stolen merchandise.

While the move came a day after the second fatal shooting at the corner in less than a week, the department had started preparing to clear the intersection weeks earlier—the second phase in a crackdown on crime “hot spots” announced by Mayor Bruce last month. That campaign, called Operation New Day, began two weeks ago, when police cleared a similar site at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street in the Little Saigon neighborhood; the mobile precinct van was parked at that intersection until Thursday, when it moved downtown.

On Friday morning, Harrell convened a press conference to tout the first results of Operation New Day, including dozens of arrests. Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz stood beside him, as did City Attorney Ann Davison, King County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Staff Leesa Manion, and two federal law enforcement officials: Nick Brown, the new US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and Frank Tarantino, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Seattle office. Leaders from Seattle’s social service providers, who Harrell has promised will eventually become partners in his push to target “hot spots,” were notably absent. No one from the Seattle City Council was at the press conference.

Service providers and non-police responders were a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day

The stretch of Third Ave. between Pine St. and Pike St may be the most persistently troubled block in Seattle. For at least the past three decades, mayoral administrations have attempted to stem crime on the block by increasing the number of police officers in the area. One such effort in 2015, called “the Nine and a Half Block Strategy,” succeeded in reducing the number of drug-related 911 calls in a small area surrounding Westlake Park, though calls increased dramatically in practically every neighborhood within walking distance of the park during the same period. After a shooting during rush hour in January 2020 killed one person and injured seven others, SPD scaled up its presence on the block once again, only to pull back once the COVID-19 pandemic began two months later. Each time, a market for stolen goods and narcotics reappeared on Third and Pine.

Harrell said that he planned to avoid the mistakes of earlier mayors—and to “revitalize” intersections like 12th and Jackson for the long term—in part by relying on outreach workers and service providers, who he believes will be able to direct homeless people living at or near targeted intersections to substance abuse treatment or housing. “We can’t arrest and jail our way out of this,” Diaz added. So far, no social service providers are involved in Operation New Day; the city relied on police alone to clear both 12th and Jackson and Third and Pine, though diversion groups like LEAD already do outreach near Third and Pine.

Before bringing the social service component of the operation online, Harrell said that his office is “doing an inventory of community-based organizations that are recipients of city funds to make sure they’re aligned with our vision.” He did not specify what “doing an inventory” would entail, nor would he specify which organizations they’re considering for the task—or what traits would disqualify an existing service provider from working on Operation New Day.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown and chairs the council’s committee on homelessness, told PubliCola on Wednesday that he sees one clear choice for an outreach provider: JustCARE, a pandemic-era cooperation between several social service providers that provides shelter and wraparound care to people who have previously interacted with the criminal justice system.

“I want to be sure we aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here,” he said, “because we have something that works and works well.” Lewis said he’s willing to be patient as Harrell considers options for incorporating service providers into Operation New Day, although he said he will be concerned if the mayor’s office hasn’t made a decision by the time JustCARE’s contract with the city expires at the end of June.

But non-police responders were largely a footnote in Friday’s press conference, which centered on the arrests and prosecutions tied to Operation New Day. Since January 21, SPD arrested 16 people for felonies—especially commercial burglary, illegal gun possession and narcotics offenses—at 12th and Jackson; nine of those people were later released by King County judges after their first court appearance. Some will face federal charges. The US Attorney’s Office has already filed charges against three people arrested in Little Saigon as part of Operation New Day and is reviewing the case of a fourth, a man initially arrested at 12th and Jackson who was released and subsequently re-arrested at Third and Pine. Continue reading “Harrell Touts Arrests at Longtime Downtown Hot Spot in “Operation New Day” Announcement”

Cold-Weather Shelter Plan Illustrates Challenges With Proposals to Eliminate Encampments Downtown

By Erica C. Barnett

As temperatures dipped below freezing Tuesday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced the opening of a single, nighttime-only shelter for up to 96 single adults at City Hall. The shelter will open at 7pm and close at 6:30 in the morning. Two additional shelters are opening for young adults and unaccompanied youth—one in Rainier Beach, and one at the Orion Center near downtown. (Details and updates, including information about shelters outside Seattle, are available on the KCRHA website.)

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the authority has “a couple conversations still in motion based on provider capacity” for opening day centers on short notice, but for now, they’re encouraging people to warm up in shopping malls and public libraries.

One reason short-term winter shelters are often underutilized, service providers say, is that people don’t want to abandon their encampments to go to a place they’ll have to leave first thing in the morning. Day centers can help alleviate this issue, but they work best when they’re co-located with shelter, so that people don’t have to pack up and walk to a different place during the day before returning to shelter at night.

“I’m glad that people’s consciences are pricked when the temperature dips, as they should be, but let’s not kid ourselves—leaving people outside in 34-degree weather is equally bad for their health.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

This is the KCRHA’s first time coordinating winter weather shelter since taking over responsibility for homeless services from the city, which eventually opened shelters in three locations—two in Seattle Center, and one at City Hall—plus several daytime warming centers during the last winter weather emergency in December.

For now, the authority plans to keep the shelters open through Saturday, when temperatures are expected to rise above freezing. To Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, freezing-weather shelters are a wholly inadequate response to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness.

“I’m glad that people’s consciences are pricked when the temperature dips, as they should be, but let’s not kid ourselves—leaving people outside in 34-degree weather is equally bad for their health,” Eisinger said. In January alone, at least 21 men died while living unsheltered in Seattle.

The location of the authority’s single overnight shelter in downtown Seattle also highlights an obvious challenge for plans, announced last week, to reduce the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero”: Downtown Seattle is the region’s nexus for homeless services. Whether the goal is to provide meaningful shelter and housing or simply to move unsheltered people to sanctioned encampments elsewhere, placing services downtown means that people will come downtown to access services.

Speaking about the authority’s “Pathway to Zero” plan last week, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said that they believe it will be possible to reach “functional zero” homelessness downtown by first figuring out how many people come into downtown through “inflow” points like the King County Jail, Harborview, and other sources, then immediately working to connect them with resources elsewhere.

“The things that are going to contribute to inflow into the downtown core are going nowhere any time soon. I don’t control them,” Dones said. “My goal in the design of this work… was to say, ‘How can we build that sustainable ecosystem that is able to quite literally meet new folks as they show up and begin to immediately triage and work to say, Where are we going? What do you need? How can we make sure that you are able to get there?'”

Eisinger said that neither “putting people into fenced areas” nor the authority’s “Pathway to Zero” proposal constitutes a meaningful plan to address homelessness in downtown Seattle.

“Personally, having worked in Pioneer Square for 15 years, I am sick and tired of public officials abdicating their responsibility for genuine health, safety, and wellbeing for Seattle residents, including those who don’t have homes, privacy, security, bathrooms, or garbage removal, and then coming up with half-considered, at best, proposals that they think will make downtown business interests happy,” Eisinger said. “You know what makes a plan? Specific, well-considered, funded additional resources that meet the needs of people who have been abandoned by this city for years, including for the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People

Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.
Anti-sweeps signs near a tent encampment in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

As part of an effort to substantially reduce the number of unsheltered people living in downtown Seattle before summer, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is working on a plan to relocate as many as 600 people into sanctioned encampments around the city.

In an email sent last week to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s director of strategic initiatives Tim Burgess, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, lobbyist Ryan Bayne, and former city council member Sally Bagshaw, plus aides for Lewis and Harrell, Lewis laid out “a short-term displacement plan for visible pre-Memorial Day progress” that would involve removing and relocating unsheltered people from downtown Seattle into as many as 10 fenced-off encampments elsewhere in the city.

These encampments, which might be located on property owned by the city, Sound Transit, local churches, and the Port, would include case management (along with toilets, food, and showers), and could be up and running in as little as four weeks, Lewis said in his email. After people are relocated, Lewis continued, the tents could gradually be replaced by pallet shelters or tiny houses, with the goal of moving everyone rapidly from encampments to housing, such as the Health Through Housing hotels King County is working to open, within a year to 18 months.

“The strategy I am proposing here is to make a practical acceptance that more permanent housing and sheltering options likely won’t be available until the fall,” Lewis wrote. (Emphasis in original.) “THE WAITING ROOM WILL EITHER BE UNSANCTIONED ENCAMPMENTS OR SOME INTERIM STRATEGY LIKE THIS. That is the choice we face.”

Why Memorial Day? According to Lewis’ email, visible homelessness always spikes during the summer; “If we still don’t have a policy to prevent unsanctioned encampments from putting down roots before Memorial Day, they will grow and make the problem even more difficult to mitigate.”

“The summer has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The proposal to move most of the homeless people downtown into sanctioned encampments in the span of a little more than three months comes in the context of an announcement last week that a group of private foundations and local corporations will donate $10 million to help kickstart a plan to move about 1,000 people living unsheltered downtown into shelter or housing elsewhere. That plan has five phases, culminating in a “hold steady” phase once most encampments are removed from downtown streets. The proposal to relocate unsheltered people from tents on the sidewalk to tents in sanctioned camps suggests one way the city might achieve its goal of an encampment-free downtown.

“It’s clear the [Harrell] administration has a policy where they do not want to have encampments in the downtown business district,” Lewis told PubliCola Monday. “It’s the prerogative of the executive to do those removals, and we need something to fill that gap.”

Marc Dones, the head of the regional homelessness authority, said Tuesday that the authority had nothing to do with the encampment proposal and that they had only heard about it through a forwarded email last week. Dones said they had asked Harrell’s office for more information about the proposal.

In his email, Lewis said removing encampments would be a necessary part of downtown recovery after two years of COVID. “The summer has to be the summer of recovery,” Lewis wrote. “It has to show people returning to work, tourists, and the local media that Seattle is capable of swiftly and compassionately managing our homelessness crisis. It has to encourage more firms to not only return to work but new ones to come in and set up shop. It has to demonstrate that we are the one West Coast major city capable of figuring out how to make visible progress on homelessness.”

Lewis told PubliCola he doesn’t consider the encampment idea a “perfect” or even a permanent solution to unsheltered homelessness downtown.  “One of the things [outreach provider] REACH says all the time is, ‘Give us something better” [to offer unsheltered people],  and this would be something better. Not something perfect and not something great, but something we could work with and improve over time.” REACH director Chloe Gale said she was unaware of the proposal on Monday.

“If it were up to me and I could wave a magic wand, we’d do a bunch of tiny house villages,” Lewis added, and pointed to Nickelsville as an example of an encampment that eventually evolved into a tiny house village. “All of our tiny house villages started out as sanctioned encampments,” Lewis said.

Bagshaw, who recently returned to Seattle after a fellowship at at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, pointed to the recent removal of a longstanding encampment in Boston as an example Seattle should try to emulate. People living in the encampment, known as “Mass. and Cass,” were offered shelter, including some rooms in a local hotel, reunited with family, or simply told to leave, according to local media reports.

“They offered them two or three options and said ‘We’re going to give you a supported hotel room or a supported apartment, but “no” is not an option,'” said Bagshaw, who lives downtown and has no formal position at the city. “They said, ‘We’re trying to live in a civilized space for everybody, and it’s not okay for you to pitch a tent wherever you want and however you want and to steal to support your habit. You’re not going to be able to stay here, and we’re going to give you 72 hours to figure it out.”

Both Lewis and Bagshaw pointed to JustCARE—a service-rich program that provides temporary housing and case management for people involved in the criminal legal system—as an example of the kind of approach that works for people who have many barriers to housing, including substance use, outstanding warrants, and long-term homelessness. “JustCARE is what we need, but we can’t wait until JustCARE has 600 units,” Bagshaw said.

“Most of the folks out on the streets of downtown right now have extensive barriers that would normally result in them being screened out of group living situations. It won’t help much to invest in large scale accommodations that don’t match the situation of most of those who are actually on the street.”—Public Defender Association co-director Lisa Daugaard

In theory, people who need extensive services could be channeled into JustCARE over time. In practice, funding for JustCARE expires at the end of June, and the program is no longer taking new clients beyond the 230 it currently serves.

In his email, Lewis estimated that the encampments would cost between $800,000 and $1.2 million a year to operate, for a total of $8 million to $12 million a year, not counting capital costs. “The hardest part will be case management and services. But even there, I don’t know how daunting the numbers truly are,” Lewis wrote.” If we assume a ratio of one case manager to every 20 campers, and a maximum capacity of 600 people, the whole operation requires 30 case managers organized across our entire spectrum of providers. We should be able to manage it with a ramp up of several weeks.” Continue reading “Council Member’s Homelessness Plan Could Include 10 New Mass Encampments for Up to 600 People”

Private Donations Will Fund “Peer Navigators,” Launch Plan to “Dramatically Reduce” Downtown Homelessness

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private "Partnership for Zero" Thursday
Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private “Partnership for Zero” Thursday

By Erica C. Barnett

King County and the city of Seattle announced today that they will use $10 million in one-time private funding to launch a new “Partnership for Zero” campaign focused on downtown Seattle in which “peer navigators”—case managers with lived experience of homelessness—will work to “navigate” people experiencing homelessness downtown into shelter and housing. Each peer navigator will work directly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and have a relatively small caseload of clients experiencing homelessness downtown.

At a press conference Thursday morning, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the public-private partnership would fund a new approach that, unlike existing outreach and case management efforts downtown and elsewhere, will provide “longitudinal” case managers who will work with clients to find services and housing and then keep working with them after they become housed.

Currently, Dones said, “So many of the things that we provide are these leaky hallways where, yes, we put people on a path, but …we see people drop out constantly. It’s the relational architecture that we see in communities that have implemented this well that actually drives success.”

PubliCola reported exclusively on the peer navigator proposal last week.

Today’s announcement adds new details about how the homelessness authority plans to deploy these new workers and its five-phase plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness,” starting with the downtown business district.

In addition to 30 peer navigators—a number Dones said could ultimately grow to 70 or more—the one-time contribution will fund 15 “incident responders,” who will “focused on immediate crisis response for deescalation,” according to King County Regional Homelessness Authority spokeswoman Anne Martens. These responders would supplement, not replace, Health One and Triage One, two specialized units within the Seattle Fire Department that respond to crisis calls that do not require an ambulance or police response, Dones said Thursday.

The announcement includes more details about a consolidated “unified command center” to which Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell alluded in his state of the city speech last week—part of the first phase of the “Partnership for Zero” five-phase plan the KCRHA says it will use in neighborhoods across the city, starting downtown.

The center will include a Joint Information Center (similar to the JIC at the city’s existing Emergency Operations Center) and a “multi-agency coordinating body” that will include representatives from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. This coordinating body will be “empowered to prioritize and allocate private resources such as funding, property, or personnel,” according to the announcement.

The announcement does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time spending for the 45 new employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out.

Subsequent phases of the plan will include the creation of a “by-name list” of people experiencing homelessness downtown; a “draw down” period in which peer navigators, having “establish[ed] the trust needed to help people move from homeless to housed,” relocate the entire downtown homeless population to shelter and services; and a “hold steady” period, in which the authority responds quickly to address any “new individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the target areas.”

The announcement—perhaps aiming to avoid the fate that befell the region’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness by 2015—does not include a date to reach its goal of zero homelessness. But Dones told PubliCola they “feel confident that we can execute on placements for the folks who are currently living downtown, with what the system is slated to generate this year and already has available through natural turnover,” within a year. Those placements, Dones said, will include spots in new permanent supportive housing projects as well as Emergency Housing Vouchers from the federal government.

After that, Dones continued, the homelessness authority will need more resources to keep the momentum going. “Revenue generation is not a power we have, so my role on that is limited to advocacy,” Dones said.

Last year, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association, whose membership includes most of the operations that chipped in for the $10 million gift, sued the city unsuccessfully to overturn a payroll tax on large corporations that will fund housing, equitable development, and jobs programs in Seattle.

Downtown Seattle has always been the epicenter of homelessness in Seattle; it’s where most homeless services are located, and it’s where people end up when they leave the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center or the King County Jail. Setting up a system in which people who happen to be homeless downtown have more access to resources, such as peer navigators and potentially shelter and housing, will almost certainly attract some number of additional unsheltered people into the area, Dones acknowledged. “It’s unrealistic to say that there won’t be some people who see this as an opportunity to get support and make a decision to try to engage with that support through what we are providing,” they said.

But DSA director Jon Scholes told PubliCola that he believes downtown will look substantially different, with “fewer people on the streets,” within a year. The new peer navigator approach “means that if you end up homeless on the streets, or in an alley, or in a park, that there’s somebody there that’s gonna engage with you immediately,” Scholes said. “And over time, that population is not going to be as large.”

The partnership does not include any new funding for shelter or services beyond one-time funding for the 45 new KCRHA employees; nor does it include details about how the work will be sustained once the one-time funding runs out. “Our system doesn’t have enough money,” Dones said Thursday, particularly for “spaces for people to be.” A key question raised by skeptics of the homelessness authority’s emphasis on peer navigators is where the agency plans to navigate people to.

King County has been slowly adding hotel-based housing and shelter units across the region through its sales tax-funded Health Through Housing program. The hotels have, at times, been controversial (nearby residents have vociferously opposed plans to open one Health Through Housing hotel in Kirkland, for example). And they aren’t a permanent housing solution for everyone: The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Mary Pilgrim Inn in North Seattle, which serves chronically homeless people, including active drug users, has had to kick out a number of guests for disruptive behavior.

Because the donation is one-time, today’s announcement creates a fiscal cliff after the first year of operations that the city of Seattle or King County—the KCRHA’s two funders—will have to fill. Authority CEO Marc Dones has said they believe the agency will be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for the program’s operation costs after the first year, although the council expressed skepticism about this plan last year when it declined to immediately fund the program. Continue reading “Private Donations Will Fund “Peer Navigators,” Launch Plan to “Dramatically Reduce” Downtown Homelessness”

Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery

Public right-of-way isn’t just for cars anymore.

by Josh Feit

In a recent opinion column for the Seattle Times, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith and Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes published “7 ‘must dos’ for downtown Seattle’s recovery,” a prescription for renewing downtown after the pandemic. Their list is premised on the idea that, “Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region.” In other words, downtowns make the city go.

I like a lit-up downtown as much as anyone, but their column represents pre-pandemic thinking. The focus on “saving downtown” that’s emerging right now (most recently as a nascent local campaign issue) is a revamped version of a bygone Seattle policy agenda dressed up as urbanism; while it appears to be about bright lights and big cities, following this fussy narrative will simply drag us right back to where we’ve always been stuck: In a mindset that promotes suburban seclusion within the city itself.

There are certainly some important ideas on Smith and Scholes’ list, especially their calls for a robust transit system and for keeping shovels in motion on major infrastructure projects (which repeats the mass transit shoutout). Additionally, two of their seven agenda items, which I see as intertwined—activating public space and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop—are also smart.

But these concepts are more urgent and relevant in the rest of the city; promoting them as downtown ideas runs the risk of reiterating and re-instituting a false dichotomy that has set Seattle off course for decades: The old-fashioned idea that downtown, not the rest of the city, is the only place for growth and energy.

The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

What we’ve actually learned during the past year not spending much time downtown is this: neighborhoods are the magic quadrants of cities. I don’t mean this in the trite, anti-downtown tribalist way of the old neighborhood movement, which saw every public-private partnership as some elitist conspiracy to crush the Wedgwood Community Council and rob the city of its authenticity. What I mean—as I’ve documented before—is that the past year has energized business districts outside the city center and alerted us to a new Seattle model. The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

Our past strategy of channeling city action to core neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill has prevented density in other sectors of the city, which has led to a housing shortage, and thus untenable housing prices. It also makes for dull neighborhoods.

The good news is: There are signs we’re moving in a new direction. Talk of sticking with outdoor street dining is already afoot. And just look at one of the key items on the DSA/Chamber list: “Completion of major infrastructure projects.” This item (unwittingly?) pinpoints where the real focus already is and should be.

Their first example? Light rail expansion. Well, light rail already exists downtown. The bulk of the expansion is coming to the non-downtown neighborhoods. Starting this year, that means the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. In 2023, that means Judkins Park (perhaps the most underrated and overlooked transformative capital project in the city!) After that, it means four stations from SoDo out to West Seattle and nine stations from the International District out to Ballard.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery”

City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally

King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.

“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness. 

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The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.

Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”

A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.

The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets. Continue reading “City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program”