A sanitation company owned by a recent city of Seattle employee has received a growing share of the city’s contracts for encampment cleanup and removal work this year, eclipsing other longtime contractors to become the largest recipient of city contract hours for this work. [Update: Debbie Wilson is no longer employed by the city, according to Seattle City Light.]
The company, Fresh Family, is owned by a former Parks Department maintenance employee who until recently worked as a customer service representative for Seattle City Light, Debbie Wilson. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Fresh Family received nearly half a million dollars from the city even though it had no formal contract, which the Parks Department chalked up to an error: According to Parks, someone misread a form identifying the company as a woman- and minority-owned (WMBE) company, misreading “B” (for “Black”), in a column labeled “ethnicity,” as “B” for “Blanket contract.”
Fresh Family is now one of nine contractors on the city’s blanket contract for various kinds of encampment cleanup work, and one of two contractors—along with Cascadia—primarily responsible for encampment removals and litter removal.
It’s unusual for someone who works for the city to simultaneously hold a major city contract—in this case, one so closely tied to a department where the company’s owner used to work. Although Wilson left the city at some point last year, Fresh Family began receiving lucrative work from the city while she was still an employee—work that continued after she left her hourly customer service job at City Light.
PubliCola has asked how much Fresh Family has received from the city under its formal contract, which began last November, and will update this post when we have more information. In 2022, when it lacked an official contract, Fresh Family charged the city $110 per hour for each of its employees.
Over the last several months, department records show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
A review of the weekly “snapshots” for the city’s Clean City work, provided to PubliCola by the Parks Department, indicates that Fresh Family has become the chief contractor for encampment cleanup work. The Clean City Initiative is a joint operation overseen by the Parks Department, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities, but Parks heads up most of the work because most encampments are located on Parks property.
Over the last several months, the snapshots show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
For example, on a typical day in January, Fresh Family had nine crew members and four trailers doing encampment removal for the Parks Department encampment sites, while Cascadia had two crew members and one staffer working on a Parks-led crew. (Separately, SDOT routinely used four Cascadia staffers and two trailers to respond to encampments located in city rights-of-way). By the end of March, the Parks Department had bumped up its use of Fresh Family by another 50 percent, sending out 11 Fresh Family crew members with five trailers every day while keeping Cascadia at the status quo of two crew members and one trailer.
Encampment cleanup work often involves what the city calls a “litter pick”—driving along a prescribed route and picking up trash and debris at encampments along the way. Sometimes, crews are merged to do cleanup as a group—on a recent day, for example, seven Fresh Family crew members and two trailers were assigned to a single 13-stop route.
A spokeswoman for the Parks Department said the company “is not the primary contractor of the department, and we work to distribute work evenly amongst all approved contractors.”
In response to a question about whether Fresh Family is providing a superior or cheaper service compared to other contractors on the city’s list, the spokeswoman said, “The City retains the right to choose providers based on our approved lists and operational needs and both Cascadia and Fresh Family are on our approved contract lists providing similar services.”
A coalition calling itself Compassionate Seattle filed a petition to amend the Seattle City Charter Thursday by mandating new investments in homeless shelter, housing, and services.
The amendment, which will go on the November ballot if supporters can collect approximately 33,000 valid signatures from Seattle voters, would require the city to create 2,000 new units of “emergency or permanent housing”—a broad category that includes everything from “enhanced’ 24/7 shelters to permanent housing—within one year, and would mandate that a minimum 12 percent of the city’s general fund go to a new fund inside the Human Services Department to pay for shelter, housing, and supportive services such as counseling and drug treatment.
The amendment also includes a stick: “As emergency and permanent housing are available,” it says, “the City shall ensure that City parks, grounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of encampments.” Initiative supporters say this is simply what the city already allows: “requiring those living in encampments to move in order to ensure safety, accessibility and to accommodate the use of public spaces,” according to an FAQ. It would also require the city’s parks department to do “repair and restoration” work at parks that have been damaged by encampments.
“As emergency and permanent housing are available,” the proposed charter amendment says, “the City shall ensure that City parks, grounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of encampments.”
“Embedding this in what is, in effect, the city’s constitution is important because we’re saying that if the voters adopt this, the city should prioritize its investments in those who have the least,” DSA president Jon Scholes told PubliCola Thursday. “I think of it as analogous to the paramount duty in the state constitution”—which codifies that K-12 education is the state’s top priority— “and while we don’t use the term ‘paramount duty,’ I think the end objective is the same: This should be a core function of city government and a core priority.”
Supporters of the amendment say the mandate to ensure that parks and public spaces are “open and clear” of encampments does not mean a return to aggressive encampment sweeps, although that provision will be open to interpretation if the amendment passes. (The city has largely suspended encampment removals during the pandemic.)
“It’s saying, you have to provide places where people will willingly go and do the work necessary to make that happen,” said Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization helped revise the amendment. “And when that happens, people will not be living in public—and people should not be living in public.” The idea, according to Daugaard, is to create alternatives to living outdoors that actually appeal to people, and through that process making encampments themselves a thing of the past.
If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.
We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.
Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.
But is that prediction too optimistic, given the city’s long history of failing to address homelessness? The city declared a state of emergency on homelessness five years ago, and the number of people living unsheltered has increased nearly every year ever since. A 2018 study by McKinsey concluded that King County would need to spend $400 million every year on housing—not temporary shelter—to address the homelessness crisis.
The charter amendment, in contrast, directs the city to pay for thousands of new shelter units beginning next year, dictating the percentage of the general fund that must be dedicated to this purpose but providing no additional money to fund this massive investment. This year, the city will spend about 11 percent of its general fund on the Human Services Department.
Building shelter (much less housing) can take a tremendous amount of time, especially if the mayor and council aren’t on the same page. Also on Thursday, the Chief Seattle Club held a grand opening for its new shelter for Native American guests at King’s Inn in Belltown; the hotel, funded with federal Emergency Services Grant dollars allocated last year, is one of just two hotel-based shelters the city has managed to open so far, a year after many other West Coast cities began moving their unsheltered populations into hotel rooms. A charter amendment can mandate action, but it can’t ensure that the same forces that have kept the city from moving forward on shelter and housing in recent years will suddenly vanish.
City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he’s impressed by the coalition that has come out in support of the amendment; in addition to the Downtown Seattle Association, it includes the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing, and the United Way of King County. But he added, “I do want to make sure that we on the council are doing the due diligence to assess and let the public know what we expect all these mandates to cost—and that doesn’t mean don’t do it, that just means getting people ready [for the idea that] we’ve got to pursue additional revenue,” potentially including a local capital gains tax.
The next mayor, Lewis noted, will have an incredibly short timeline to get thousands of new shelter beds (or housing units) up and running—the first 1,000 units would be due in six months, with another 1,000 due six months after that. “I’m the only person in the city who has no ambition to be mayor right now,” Lewis joked, “but my read of this is that the implications are much bigger for the prospective mayor than they are for the council.”
The new mandates would also come at a time when the Human Services Department is ramping down its homelessness division in anticipation of moving most homeless services over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. (The HSD deputy director in charge of homelessness, Audrey Buehring, told staff yesterday that her last day will be April 13.) The Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, as PubliCola has reported, is down to half its regular strength as staffers—not guaranteed employment in the new authority—bail for positions elsewhere, and it’s unclear whether the charter amendment would put an extra burden on the couple of dozen overworked staffers left in the division or if it would require ramping the division back up.
Asked why the amendment adds more responsibility for homelessness to the city, rather than the county, Scholes said, “We affirm the importance and relevance and all the reasons that the regional homelessness authority came to be, but it’s in the process of getting its legs underneath it and meanwhile we have a growing crisis and half the county’s unsheltered population [in Seattle.]” The city, Scholes said, can contract with the county for behavioral health and other services—”we’re not suggesting they need to set up their own parallel systems”—but it needs to provide more funding no matter who does the work.
The city council can’t amend the proposed charter amendment, but they have the right to put a competing amendment on the ballot if they disagree with any of the particulars of the initiative. Currently, the initiative has just one major financial backer—the Downtown Seattle Association. The last charter amendment to pass by citizen initiative was 2013’s Charter Amendment 19, which mandated city council elections by district.