Tag: encampment removals

Harrell’s Parks Plan Would Nearly Double Levy to Fund Restrooms, Park Rangers, Maintenance, and More

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing next to a busy playground at Rainier Playfield in Columbia City on Wednesday morning, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a new “phase two” plan for the Seattle Parks District that will nearly double the amount homeowners and renters pay to fund parks and community centers across Seattle.

Voters authorized the city council to pass a property tax levy of up to 75 cents per thousand dollars of home valuation in 2014; Harrell’s proposal would nearly double that amount to 38 cents per thousand dollars, for an average annual cost of just over $360. That’s more than twice the current average cost of $155 because homeowners’ property values keep going up.

The levy has to be approved by the parks district board, which is made up of the entire city council.

Peppering his comments with anecdotes about playing and coaching baseball in the field behind him, Harrell stressed the public safety aspects of his plan, which includes $3.6 million to expand city’s Park Ranger program, a largely moribund anti-crime effort that started downtown in 2008, from two rangers to 28. The plan, which would raise $115 million a year, would also fund winterization to allow more parks restrooms to stay open all year ($580,000); add five new staffers to respond to graffiti and vandalism ($600,000); add staff on nights and weekends to increase parks maintenance (“especially of restrooms,” according to a fact sheet on the plan); and open 10 more acres of parks while doing major maintenance at several community centers.

Harrell focused on the need to keep parks “open and accessible to the public for their intended use,” rather than “closed or impacted by unauthorized encampments,” and praised the Unified Care Team, which includes the Parks and Recreation workers who remove encampments from parks, for their work. “We don’t sweep. We treat and we house,” Harrell said.

As we’ve noted before, this statement is inaccurate on several levels: When the city removes encampments, it almost never refers people directly to housing, and of the people who accept referrals to temporary shelter (instead of simply moving along), fewer than half ever show up to shelter for a single night. The city also doesn’t directly provide or fund drug or mental health treatment.

Still, an increase in restroom hours and better restroom maintenance will inevitably help homeless parks users as well as those who are housed.  The city closed many public restrooms in parks and community centers during the pandemic, and many remained closed after 2020, forcing people who live in public to relieve themselves in public and contributing to outbreaks of preventable infectious diseases like shigella because closed restrooms mean people can’t wash their hands. Former mayor Jenny Durkan subsequently failed to approve and open fully funded “street sinks,” raising endless objections about placement, vegetation, water supply, and graywater disposal—and leaving unsheltered people (and everybody else) with few options to clean their hands.

The parks board will meet and take public comment on Harrell’s proposal next Wednesday.

Harrell’s Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Shows Plenty of Sweeps But Little Progress on Shelter, Housing

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell, whose macho comments to a group of cops about encampment sweeps, the regional homelessness authority, and the city council were not as private as he thought, has said he will provide unprecedented transparency into encampment removals and progress toward addressing homelessness in the city. Earlier this year, he unveiled a “data dashboard” on homelessness that turned out to be a mostly static website displaying information about where the city’s budget for homelessness goes along with general information about new housing units that will become available this year. 

The mayor’s office promised to update this “dashboard” four times a year. Earlier this month, new information appeared under a section of the site called “Bringing People Indoors”; according to the update, the city counted 814 tents and 426 RVs citywide, and made a total of 191 offers of shelter, in June, out of 616 in the second quarter of 2022.

The city’s Human Services Department, which keeps tabs on shelter referrals leading up to and during encampment sweeps, breaks down its shelter referral numbers by both total number of referrals and the number of individual people who received referrals—a smaller number, since some people get more than one referral from the city’s HOPE team and contracted outreach providers.

Assuming the numbers on the dashboard were calculated the same way, and applying HSD’s estimate that 38 percent of shelter offers during the same period resulted in a person enrolling at a shelter for at least one night, that means—very roughly—that around 72 people from those 814 tents and 426 RVs spent any time at all time in a shelter bed.

Of course, there are caveats to those numbers. The first is that the number of shelter referrals listed on the dashboard is higher, by about 150, than HSD’s citywide estimate. (We’ve contacted HSD for an explanation of this seeming discrepancy). The second is that the number of people who get shelter referrals is slippery, because it may exclude some people who aren’t registered in the regional Homeless Management Information System, which tracks unhoused people as they access various services.

The third caveat speaks to a primary issue with Harrell’s “dashboard” itself: The information is very obviously incomplete, as it was when the website first debuted. Although it purports to show both the number of “verified” tents and RVs by neighborhood, along with the number of people removed from “closed” encampments designated by dots on a map, it’s obvious that the map isn’t comprehensive (with thousands of unsheltered people living in the city, there are clearly more than 426 tents in Seattle, for example) and a closer look at many “closed” encampments provides no information about what happened to the people living there, or even the number of people who were displaced.

The site also continues to misstate the amount of money the city contributes to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, padding the city’s direct contribution, around $70 million, with nearly $50 million in federal relief dollars for a total of $118 million. Harrell used the same inflated number when talking to police, telling them (according to KTTH’s Jason Rantz, who appears to have gotten a recording from an officer), “I’m funding an organization that seems to be working against what I’m trying to do” (removing encampments) and suggesting he might consider cutting their budget this year.

KCRHA director Marc Dones— clearly a thorn in Harrell’s side, based on the mayor’s many public comments about his frustration with the agency—has asked the city to not only renew its existing budget but give the agency tens of millions more to fund new high-acuity shelter beds; purchase buildings, such as hotels and single-family houses, to serve as “bridge” housing; and open several new safe parking lots for people who live in their vehicles.

In response to our request for comment about Harrell’s biting comments, the KCRHA provided a terse statement that says a lot by saying very little. “The Regional Homelessness Authority was designed as a community-wide effort, working together with all 39 cities, King County, businesses, philanthropy, housed and unhoused neighbors, in order to implement real solutions. With our partners, we are working to create vibrant, inclusive communities where everyone has a safe and stable place to live, and we can accomplish that goal when we work together,” the statement said.

LA Transportation Veteran Tapped to Lead SDOT Says He’ll Do “Top to Bottom Review” of Vision Zero Efforts

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing in the 85-degree heat at Roberto Maestas Plaza across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station on Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his appointment of Greg Spotts, the sustainability director for Los Angeles’ street services bureau, as the new head of the Seattle Department of Transportations. A veteran of the LA department, recently rebranded StreetsLA, Spotts advocated for the installation of solar reflective coating on pavement, street trees, and shade structures to combat the urban heat island effect, in which pavement and buildings increase temperatures in urban areas.

Each of the past four elected mayors (not counting Tim Burgess, who served temporarily after Ed Murray’s 2017 ouster) has appointed their own transportation director, although each mayor has had varying levels of interest in the department. The last transportation director, Sam Zimbabwe, oversaw the closure and repair of the West Seattle Bridge as well as the transfer of about 100 parking enforcement officers and supervisors from the Seattle Police Department into SDOT.

As head of SDOT, Spotts will be responsible for crafting the new Seattle Transportation Plan, overseeing the renewal of the Move Seattle Levy, and addressing the city’s failure to achieve the goals of Vision Zero, a plan for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”—SDOT director nominee Greg Spotts

Since 2015, when the city adopted this goal, more than 175 people have been killed by vehicle collisions and more than 1,200 have been seriously injured, a trend that accelerated in the last several years and is by far the worst in Southeast Seattle, which encompasses many of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods as well as some of its most dangerous arterial streets.

Asked Wednesday what he would do to get Seattle’s Vision Zero plan back on track, Stotts said, “I’ve heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there’s a need to do a top to bottom review of Vision Zero and really try to dig into the data and figure out which of our interventions are saving lives or offer the best chance of saving lives, on a go-forward basis, using data to identify the path to make our streets safer.”

PubliCola also asked Stotts about the proliferation of “eco-blocks”—huge, heavy blocks made out of waste material from concrete production—in areas where the city has swept RVs, vehicles, and tents. As PublICola first reported a year ago, it is illegal to place these blocks in the public right-of-way, but SDOT, which answers to the mayor, has not enforced the law.

Stotts said there’s a similar thing happening in LA, where an estimated 48,000 people are living unsheltered and businesses have been placing boulders in the street to prevent unsheltered people from occupying public spaces. However, he said LA has only removed these obstructions on occasion, and added that he has no plan “yet” to respond to their proliferation here.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell, on removing encampments and RVs during this week’s heat wave

“There are occasions where we remove some of those obstacles from the public right of way, on a case by case basis,” Stotts said, “so I’ll  bring some of those experiences to complex discussions about how to handle it” in Seattle.

As the temperatures rose into the high 80s during the press conference, Harrell was asked about his decision to continue removing encampments and RV sites—impounding at least seven vehicles on Tuesday, according to SDOT—in the middle of a historic heat wave.

“Our administration is being praised for the work to get people out of this heat wave and into the cooling centers, and getting them treatment and housing—that’s what we’re doing,” Harrell said. “For me, doing nothing is the wrong thing to do. … And so we are aggressively finding housing and housing alternatives and getting people into cooling centers. I take ownership for what we’re doing, and I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing, and quite frankly, a day doesn’t go by without people saying ‘thank you.'”

According to the mayor’s office, 20 people out of the dozens living at a longstanding RV encampment in SoDo accepted offers of shelter, which is not housing and does not include “treatment,” which itself is not something unsheltered people automatically want or need.

City Sweeps RVs During Heat Wave While Urging Housed People to Take Cool Showers

A group of RVs and vehicles has been parked next to the train tracks south of downtown throughout the pandemic, long enough to be visible on Google Maps.

By Erica C. Barnett

Dozens of RVs and other vehicles had mostly disappeared from the SoDo street where they’ve been parked for more than two years on Tuesday, after a last-minute push to get everybody out before city workers showed up at 9am to clear the area. By 9:30, as the heat rose into the 80s, the street was cordoned off with “Street Closed” sawhorse placards and a few eco-blocks—heavy concrete blocks businesses use to prevent people from parking on public streets—had already appeared.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said that between July 8 and this morning, 20 people living in their vehicles at the site had accepted offers of shelter, which means a shelter bed was available and they said they were willing to go. The city does not ensure that people who get referrals to shelter actually get there, and although Seattle does pay for Lyft rides, that practice is problematic, making underpaid rideshare drivers responsible for people who may be in crisis.

Anti-sweeps advocates called on Harrell to postpone the removal until after this week’s anticipated heat wave (as I write this, it’s 93 degrees), but Housen said the “RV remediation,” along with an encampment removal near Woodland Park later this week, is actually in the best interest of the unsheltered people being displaced.

“Someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”—Alison Eisinger, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness

This week, the City will complete two RV remediations and one encampment removal, with the aim of addressing the public health and safety concerns at those sites while helping those experiencing homelessness get indoors, into shelter, and out of the heat,” Housen said. “No additional encampment resolutions will be conducted during the elevated heat event, but shelter referrals to get people into cool and safe places will continue.”

But most of the people living along 3rd Avenue S. just moved elsewhere; according to a staffer for City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose district (D2) includes SoDo, they included at least two people with major medical needs—one with congestive heart failure and one with terminal cancer—that can’t be accommodated in a traditional shelter.

In a statement, Morales called Tuesday’s sweep a sign of the “continued failure of our city response to addressing the root causes of homelessness” and noted that despite the efforts of service providers, “there were not enough shelter options to move people into today despite the extensive outreach that took place this month.”

According to an internal presentation by Harrell’s office earlier this year, there are, on average, between two and five shelter beds available each night across the city, a number that is similar to previous estimates from the Human Services Department and shelter and service providers.

Alison EIsinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was irresponsible to displace dozens of people in the middle of a pandemic and during a heat wave. “High temperatures make it worse for people on the ground, and make it harder for staff to bring water, cooling supplies, and health care to people they can no longer locate. That’s not just bad policy, that’s wasteful, cruel, and ineffective policy,” Eisinger said

Responding to the Harrell Administration’s comment that shutting down a longtime RV encampment would get people “out of the heat,” Eisinger added, “I just learned that someone displaced today is an elderly person with congestive heart failure who needs more care than any available shelter can provide. That person should get the health care and shelter they need, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic sweep to get it.”

In her statement, Morales said that despite repeated requests, Harrell’s office has not provided them with information about encampment removals in advance.

People who need to escape the heat, including people experiencing homelessness, can go to community centers, libraries, and malls during the day; for housed people, the city suggests “moving to where it’s cooler to sleep more comfortably” and taking a cooling shower.

New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said the “eco-block strategy” referenced in the second column “is related to the City’s response to the eco-blocks placed in the ROW by others.” Eco-blocks are cheap concrete blocks businesses use to prevent RVs from parking on public streets; placing them in the public right-of-way is illegal but the city does not enforce this law.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration drafted a new “sidewalk strategy” for homeless encampments earlier this year that would have empowered the city’s new Unified Care Team, bolstered by Seattle police, to require anyone living in a public right-of-way in Seattle to move with just two hours’ notice, PubliCola has learned.

In January, Harrell’s strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess sent a memo to King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones titled “A New Approach to Tent Encampments on Sidewalks and Other Transportation Rights-of-Way.” In the memo, which PubliCola obtained through a records request, the new administration outlined a zero-tolerance strategy toward people living on sidewalks, in which “[c]ampers that remain will be given two hours’ notice to leave” to leave. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, along with King County Regional Homelessness Authority “outreach teams will offer services as appropriate, but these services will not be a prerequisite before asking campers to clear the public space,” the memo said.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen told PubliCola the sidewalk plan was never implemented. “Instead, the Mayor’s Office focused on streamlining City efforts through the launch of the Unified Care Team,” a group of employees from several city departments who are in charge of “”address[ing] the impacts of unsheltered homelessness in the city,” Housen said. But the administration’s dramatic acceleration of encampment removals, and its decision to focus first on reducing the number of people living on downtown sidewalks to zero, echo these early policy discussions.

In addition to the memo shared by Burgess, PubliCola has obtained a PowerPoint presentation created by administration officials earlier this year describes the downtown “Partnership for Zero,” which aims to eliminate encampments downtown by relocating people to appropriate shelter or housing, as the administration’s “safe sidewalk plan.” Harrell “wants to address obstructions in the right of way ASAP,” according to the presentation.

A separate set of presentations and internal memos, obtained through the same records request, reveals another aspect of Harrell’s approach to encampment removals that the administration has been reluctant to describe publicly: An “encampment scoring system” that allocates “scores” to encampments based on a set of criteria, including violent incidents, fires, proximity to parks or children, and sidewalk obstructions.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen described the scoring system as only one part of the mayor’s encampment prioritization strategy. “The scoring system is the building blocks for encampment prioritization,” Housen said. “The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”

A PowerPoint presentation dated 6/21/22 but presented to Harrell, according to internal emails, on April 19

The “Sidewalk Strategy”

In a memo from late January titled “Tent Highlights,” the Harrell administration outlined the basics of a new strategy to “[e]nd tent encampments on sidewalks and transportation rights-of-ways… a step that is essential to the economic recovery of the downtown and our neighborhood business areas.”

“City staff, including specially trained police officers, will be present when campers are notified that they must relocate,” the memo continues. “This is a harm-reduction approach, meaning campers will be asked to leave/relocate so the space remains clear and accessible by all.”

Dones expressed concerns in their comments on the memo about the possibility that the city would start sweeping downtown sidewalks before the KCRHA could implement its business-funded Partnership for Zero strategy. This strategy, which is still getting underway, aims to provide intensive case management by dozens of “system advocates” who will fan out across downtown and attempt to place everyone living in the area into appropriate shelter or housing, leaving downtown effectively encampment-free.

I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable…  and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“This seems like something that would be more successful if implemented completely after [the Partnership for Zero] drawdown phase is complete. Because then it’s about keeping sidewalks and right of ways clear,” Dones commented. The two-hour rule, Dones added, “feels difficult to enforce. How will people be made aware of the shifting rules? I would also extend the initial timeline so that when it’s announced people have X amount of time but then in the future they have Y amount of time.”

Reflecting on their comments on the memo last week, Dones said, “I don’t think that going through the city and just saying ‘No tents on sidewalks’ is feasible or advisable…  and saying to folks, ‘You have two hours to move all your stuff’ is not reasonable.” 

“Some of this sounds like what would make sense for implementation after [the “drawdown” phase of Partnership for Zero], as we’re talking about maintaining functional zero,” Dones added. “Then we could have that conversation about how we want to maintain spaces where people are not encamped, but the reason they’re not encamped is because we’re actively [housing or sheltering] them in real time.”

Housen, from the mayor’s office, said the city “stands in partnership with the KCRHA, King County, and We Are In in our support of Partnership for Zero. We look forward to the ramp up of that project and opportunities to work in alignment and coordination with the RHA towards the goal of the project.”

Asked how maintaining a visible police presence during encampment removals represented a “harm reduction approach,” Housen reiterated the city’s position that “activists and protestors” pose a threat to workers during sweeps and that police—who only began are necessary to “ensure that all people onsite, including City workers and encampment residents, are safe.”

Prioritizing for Sweeps

In addition to obstructions on sidewalks—the basis of the early “sidewalk strategy”—the mayor’s office established criteria for deciding which encampments to remove. During a recent press event, both Housen and Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington declined to describe any of the criteria in detail, but emphasized that they were “objective”— in other words, “you don’t get a higher rank because 20 people called” to complain, Washington said.

An internal presentation on the prioritization system, distributed in April, but bearing the official date June 21, 2022, says the Unified Care Team prioritizes shootings, fires, and major obstructions, followed by issues like trash; proximity to parks and places where children or elderly people congregate; and places where tents pose a visual obstruction to drivers.

According to Housen, the “scoring system” in the presentation represents “the building blocks for encampment prioritization. The system is currently being tested and frequently refined as we learn more, to ensure the right information is driving decisions.”

Image from city presentation on encampment prioritization, showing an example of a high-ranked encampment at Sixth and Cherry.
Image from city presentation on encampment prioritization, showing an example of a high-ranked encampment at Sixth and Cherry.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is preparing to release its own set of criteria for prioritizing encampments for outreach and offers of shelter or housing next week, which will differ somewhat from the city’s criteria. “We talk about encampment resolution, not removal, and resolution for us is everybody actually came inside,” Dones said. “We are not in favor of a displacement-based strategy, and we will engage over whatever period of time is necessary to get everybody into a real placement—not a referral, a placement.”

Overall, though, Dones said the Harrell administration’s prioritization scheme is about “85 percent consistent with how the authority is going to view prioritization,” including the emphasis on violence at encampments. “We agree with that prioritization,” Dones said, and “in our work, we have a corresponding section that looks at violence—things like physical assault, potentially nonphysical assault, verbal abuse, etc. between campers, ranging between simple assaults all way up to shots fired, and ranks those things with different weights.” Continue reading “New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans”

Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness

1. The campaign for Initiative 135, which would create a new public development authority to build publicly owned “social housing,” announced on Wednesday that it had just turned in 29,000 signatures to qualify their citywide initiative for the November 2022 ballot.

The House Our Neighbors campaign, led by the advocacy group Real Change, used paid signature gatherers to give their effort a boost in its final weeks, but the final count leaves little room for chance: To get on the ballot, a measure must be backed by signatures representing 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election, or about 26,500 names. Because many signatures are typically invalid, campaigns often try to collect as many signatures as possible; House Our Neighbors had hoped to collect around 35,000 names.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Real Change policy director Tiffany McCoy said the campaign combed over its signatures to eliminate as many as possible with non-Seattle addresses or information that was otherwise unclear. “If for some reason we come up five [signatures] short or 100, we do have a 20-day window to gather those requisite signatures and turn those in get on the ballot,” McCoy said. “Even if we don’t succeed this time, we will succeed in the future,” McCoy added. “This is happening one way or another.”

2. During a question-and-answer session sponsored by the business-backed homelessness nonprofit We Are In Tuesday evening, Mayor Bruce Harrell stuck to talking points about “treatment,” “data,” and “compassion” in response to questions about his administration’s progress on homelessness. Instead of covering all his responses to We Are In director Felicia Salcedo’s friendly questions, we thought it would be useful to provide a short fact check on a few of the mayor’s key talking points from Tuesday’s event.

“Housing and Treatment”

As he has at many press events involving homelessness, Harrell said the city’s response to homelessness would focus on ensuring people get the “treatment” they need. Responding to a question about the increase in encampment removals, Harrell said, “I lead with housing and I lead with treatment.”

In fact, even in the handful of cases where the city has done months of focused outreach before sweeping an area, sweeps almost never lead directly to housing or treatment. Instead, the city’s HOPE Team provides referrals to available shelter beds, which include everything from congregate “enhanced” shelter to tiny house villages. (Less than half of shelter referrals, generally speaking, result in someone actually showing up and staying at a shelter for at least one night). The city of Seattle provides very limited funding for programs that can lead to treatment, such as community court, with the overwhelming majority of local treatment dollars coming out of the King County budget.

“An unprecedented level of transparency” 

Earlier this month, Harrell rolled out what he described as an unprecedented public dashboard containing information about where people are living unsheltered, what kind of shelter or housing the city is offering people prior to encampment removals, and new shelter and housing units that are opening up.

Asked about the dashboard, Harrell said that it includes not just “a heat map” of “where people are living [and] where we’re offering people shelter” but a detailed breakdown of what the city is spending on homelessness and information to help the public “as we track our police and fire responses” to encampments.

In reality, the website Harrell announced shows only very high-level and partial information about the state of homelessness in Seattle. For example, the information on emergency responses consists of three high-level, citywide numbers representing information available through April, and the “heat map” includes an obviously incomplete count of tents and RVs by neighborhood; as an example, the map says there are no tents or RVs in the entire University District, and just one in Beacon Hill and South Beacon Hill combined. The information is also incomplete (many former encampments the map highlights include the note “outreach data not available”) and out of date; the most recent update came from information available in mid-May, and the website does not allow viewers to download any data themselves.

Information about what the city spends on homelessness, meanwhile, is misleading; a pie chart and several slides meant to illustrate the city’s contribution to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s budget includes tens of millions of dollars in federal emergency funds that do not come directly from the city, which contributed just under $70 million—not $118 million—to the authority last year.

Suburban Cities

Asked about the role suburban areas can or should be playing in addressing homelessness, Harrell said he would continue helping people who are “not from Seattle” but are moving here because the areas where they live are less “compassionate” toward people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness”

City Resumes RV Sweeps; Another High-Level Staffer Leaves Homelessness Authority

Yellow eco-blocks line a street in West Seattle where RVs used to park.
After sweeping an RV encampment in West Seattle, someone installed bright-yellow “eco blocks” to prevent people from returning.

1. After the city announced it would begin enforcing the long-suspended “72-hour rule”—which requires vehicle owners to move their car, truck, or RV every three days—back in May, it was only a matter of time before the Harrell Administration started cracking down on people living in their vehicles. Less than two weeks later, workers arrived to clear out a group of people living in their RVs at Ruby Chow Park in Georgetown, towing away vehicular homes that could not be moved and sending some residents off to emergency shelters across town.

Last week, the same story played out at a longtime RV encampment on SW Andover Street in West Seattle, when the city gave residents 72 hours to leave the site. According to a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Utilities, which conducts what the city calls “RV remediations,” there were 15 RVs, 11 vehicles, one tent, and one trailer on site when the removal signs went up.

On Thursday, when workers showed up to clear the site, the SPU spokeswoman said “six RVs, three trailers, one box truck, three vehicles, two tents and 13 people” remained. Overall, three people accepted referrals to shelter, in addition to nine who left with shelter referrals over the previous month. That leaves nine people who were on site when crews came out who “self-relocated” to unknown locations.

In a recent newsletter, West Seattle city council representative Lisa Herbold noted that when people lose the RVs where they have been living, they lose not just a parking space but their actual home; emergency shelter, where people live in close proximity with no privacy or space to store personal belongings, isn’t an equivalent substitute for a private space with a locking door. “RV residents are a different group, with different needs, from other folks experiencing homelessness. They quite literally already have a home,” Herbold wrote.

A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.
A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.

Once the city towed the last remaining vehicles and hauled off what SPU describes as more than 50,000 pounds of trash, workers  replaced the RVs with large concrete “eco-blocks” meant to prevent RVs from parking at this location in the future. According to the West Seattle Blog, nearby Nucor Steel installed the blocks (illegally) in the public right-of-way. We have asked the city why they have not removed the blocks or required Nucor to remove them.

Parking an oversize vehicle on public streets overnight is illegal almost everywhere in the city, with the exception of small swathes of industrial land in Ballard, Georgetown, Interbay, and West Seattle.

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority awarded $1.9 million to the Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates most of the city’s tiny house villages, to open a safe parking lot for up to 50 RVs later this year. The funding, and the spaces themselves, represent a very small umbrella against a deluge of need: According to the most recent census of people experiencing homelessness, about 2,700 people were living in cars or RVs in King County in 2020, before the COVID pandemic.

The city has scheduled six RV removals in June; the next two on the schedule are on N Northlake Way, near Gasworks Park on June 28 and 4th Ave. S. in Georgetown on June 29. So far, seven RV sweeps are on the schedule for July.

2. Dawn Shepard, a former outreach director at REACH who took a high-profile job as co-director of the KCRHA’s peer navigator program earlier this year, has left the agency after just three months—the latest in a wave of high-level departures from the homelessness authority.

Peer navigators, now known as “system advocates,” are case managers with lived experience of homelessness who will work with people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle, with the goal of connecting them to services and appropriate shelter or housing—and “drawing down” the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero.” The privately funded effort got underway earlier this year.

As one of four co-directors of the system advocates program, Shepard shared her personal story at public meetings and to press outlets like Crosscut, which presented the concept of hiring people with lived experience as a unique new approach to unsheltered homelessness. Shepard is hardly the only KCRHA employee to describe her traumatic experiences in public; agency director Marc Dones frequently talks about their past struggles with mental illness and brushes with homelessness.

Some longtime direct-service providers and others doing on-the-ground work with homeless people in Seattle have quietly criticized this approach, noting that most of their employees also have lived experience with the homelessness and criminal justice systems. They’ve also objected to the idea that lived experience in itself is the most important qualification for jobs working with vulnerable people, and raised concerns about the need to protect employees from being retraumatized by telling their stories publicly as part of their jobs.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens acknowledged that most homeless service providers “hire many people with lived experience, and lived experience is often what draws people to wanting to do the work of helping others and creating change.” Although several KCRHA employees do share their past experiences publicly as part of their jobs, Martens says it’s entirely their choice to do so.”

Shepard did not return a call for comment, and Martens said she couldn’t provide any details about why she left. REACH program director Chloe Gale, Shepard’s former boss, noted that REACH has several open positions at the director level and recently increased its salaries to a level closer to what the KCRHA offers its own outreach workers. The pay differential between the new government agency and nonprofit service providers has been a bit of a sore spot, since most nonprofits can’t compete with the salaries KCRHA can offer.

Other high-ranking KCRHA employees who have left this year include senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, who returned to the Seattle Human Services Department; special assistant Naomi See, who left for a position in Washington, D.C.; and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer, who headed up the agency’s new interview-based homeless population count and returned to the Seattle Housing Authority. “Given that we are a start-up, some turnover is to be expected and I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary,” Martens said

Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps

1. A new audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office found significant racial disparities in use of force, arrests, and who becomes a “suspect” in areas where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency.

Residents and sheriff’s deputies “reported Black people as suspects and officers arrested Black people at rates nearly four times higher than expected given their proportion of the county population,” according to the audit report.

Although the county’s data on use of force was limited—619 calls led to a use of force between 2019 and 2021—the audit found that “overall, White officers as a group used force twice as often as Black or Asian officers. Additionally, both Black and Hispanic people were subjected to uses of force more often than White people.”

As the chart above shows, there were also major disparities in arrests—specifically, Black people were three and a half times more likely to be arrested than their proportion of the population would predict. In some areas, such as Sammamish and Woodinville, Black people were arrested at a rate more than ten times out of proportion to their population.

After “controlling” for overall arrest rates between various racial groups, that differential more or less disappears, but it still illustrates major upstream disparities, principal management auditor Peter Heineccius told the King County Council on Tuesday: Black, brown, and Native American people are far more likely than white and Asian people to become suspects (in part because people call police on them more), and more likely to be arrested as the result of a 911 call.

“This shows the risk of how an analysis that controls for certain factors might explain away racial disparities because it removes analysis of how [people of] different races become suspects,” he said.

Another factor that makes it hard to grasp the scope of racial disparities in stops and detentions: The sheriff’s office does not collect information about race during the vast majority of encounters with the public. Under the department’s interpretation of a law intended to protect immigrants from ICE, the county council would need to change county law to allow officers to start routinely recording the race of people they encounter.

“Previous Sheriff’s Office leadership has also stated that officers should not collect information about race, limiting the ability to quantify and ultimately reduce racial disparities,” the audit says.

Calling in to the council meeting on Tuesday, county Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said she “was heartened to see that while the report did say there are racial disparities, the amount of force that we use, based on the number of contracts was very, very minimal”—about 0.06 percent of all calls for service result in force, according to the audit.

2. The city’s decision to refund around $5 million in parking fines, and drop the equivalent of another $5 million in tickets, is not the only issue parking enforcement officers have raised during their transition from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Parking officers, who are considered “special police officers” under the commission from SPD that was at the center of the parking ticket snafu, want to retain access to the Criminal Justice Information System, a that allows police to do background checks on vehicle owners, via radio, before making a stop.

Now, the union that represents the parking enforcement officers, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG), filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to CJIS without bargaining the changes with the union. CJIS is only available to law enforcement officers; the state Public Employment Relations Commission is currently considering their claim.

“We sill have access to radio—it’s that the information is not the same as when we were at SPD,” said SPEOG president Chrisanne Sapp. “We are able to read between the lines, but with the body of work that we do, I don’t find that reading between the lines is an acceptable response.”

PERC hearings are not public; however, representatives from the city have argued that parking enforcement officers can still call in plates and find out if they should avoid a parked vehicle, even without access to the information system.

2. The recent removal of a small encampment from a park near the West Seattle Golf Course illustrates the problem with the city’s approach to sweeps, according to Keith Hughes, a neighbor who runs a day center at the nearby American Legion hall: Without housing and meaningful services, people just come back.

All five people who were living in Totem Pole Park a week ago returned to the area within three days, according to Hughes, including a couple who moved their tent temporarily to another location and three single men who stayed a couple nights in a large downtown shelter and came back to West Seattle days after they left. One of the men subsequently attacked Hughes physically, he said, punching the 74-year-old in the face and leaving him with a droopy eye, a large cut, and bruises on his left shoulder. Continue reading “Audit of Sheriff’s Office Finds Racial Disparities; Parking Officers Want Access to Crime Database; West Seattle Sweep Illustrates Futility of Sweeps”

Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?

1. Last week, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told PubliCola that the city has to make sure police are present at every encampment removal because Parks Department workers, who are in charge of removing tents and disposing of unsheltered people’s belongings, were being “assaulted” by “protesters” who show up at sweeps. The parks workers’ union raised the issue, Washington said, because the workers didn’t feel safe without police in the area.

Although we’ve been present at many encampment removals, PubliCola couldn’t remember seeing or hearing about any physical assaults by mutual aid workers who show up at sweeps—including from local TV news reporters, who are generally eager to jump on any drama related to homelessness.  Asked for clarification, a Parks Department spokeswoman said Parks employees had been both threatened and physically assaulted.

For example, the spokeswoman said, “a staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

The Seattle Police Department has lost about 400 officers since the beginning of 2020, and continues to lose more officers than it hires.

The Parks Department did not directly respond to a question about whether the Parks union requested and received a contract modification or other written agreement to ensure police would be present at all encampment removals. “When our labor partners came to us with employee safety concerns, we worked together to address them and act,” the spokeswoman said.

“A staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

2. As the West Seattle Blog reported last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation decided to “spare” a large, multi-trunked horse chestnut tree in West Seattle whose roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle, making it unsafe for pedestrians. SDOT said it had not decided what to do about the tree, which is at least several decades old, but was glad to have found a solution that doesn’t require cutting down the tree. 

The solution, which the Seattle Times summarized as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” comes at a cost to the city: About $45,000, according to a spokesman for SDOT, to build a new “parallel/corner curb ramp with minimal tree root trimming that should not harm the tree” and move a fire hydrant across the street.

It’s unclear what impact the success of this tree protest will have on future attempts to remove trees that are damaging public infrastructure or are in the path of development. Historically, “Save the Trees” has been a rallying cry in Seattle (and elsewhere) for laws that prevent the construction of new housing—particularly in North Seattle’s tree-lined, largely white single-family neighborhoods, where people of color were historically barred from living.

Horse chestnut trees are a rapidly growing invasive species that, along with mountain ash, “make up the majority of the non-native deciduous species” in the city, according to the city of Seattle. That quote comes from a report recommending the removal of these trees from a natural area in Southeast Seattle that is “infested” with them, hindering the growth of native species.

3. The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents fewer than 100 police captains and lieutenants, have negotiated changes in their contract that, if implemented (the full contract is on the city council’s agenda next week), would cost the city about $3.39 million this year for retroactive and current wage increases. This extra cost would come out of SPD’s salary savings for 2022—$4.5 million the city saved because SPD was unable to hire all the officers the council funded in SPD’s budget last year. (The council could also decide to fund the contract costs from some other source, but that would require new legislation; paying for salaries out of the salary savings does not require legislation.)

Back in May, the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to a “compromise” proposal that released $1.15 million in unspent salary savings to boost recruitment at SPD, after Councilmember Sara Nelson spent several weeks arguing that the city should just hand the entire $4.5 million to SPD for hiring bonuses. Conveniently enough, that $1.15 million, plus the money it will cost the city to fund SPMA’s contract in 2022, adds up to right around $4.5 million—money that would not have been available if Nelson had gotten her way and released the full $4.5 million.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said “it was purely coincidental that those two figures lined up.”

We’ll have a more detailed report on the SPMA contract later this week.

4. Last week, the King County Council agreed to delay a vote on a proposal by Councilmember Claudia Balducci to give voters the chance to decide whether to move county elections, including the races for county executive, county council, and county elections director, to even years. Balducci, echoing many progressive groups, has argued that even-year elections would boost turnout over the current system, in which many local races (including Seattle elections) are conducted in “off” years, meaning those without statewide or national elections. Continue reading “Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?”

New Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Highlights Harrell Administration’s Priorities—Including Sweeps

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks outside the new Dockside Apartments near Green Lake Tuesday.
Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks outside the new Dockside Apartments near Green Lake Tuesday.

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing outside the  Dockside Apartments, a new Low-Income Housing Institute affordable housing project in Green Lake, Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out an online dashboard on Tuesday that includes high-level information about housing and shelter projects that will move forward this year, the location of encampments the city has removed in the last several months, and the number of people Seattle outreach workers have referred to shelter at those encampment removals.

“For the first time in the city’s history, this dashboard that we’ve created allows the public to follow expansion of accessible shelter and supportive housing development, from the initial planning phase to their eventual opening,” Harrell said. The dashboard includes a list of 1,300 housing units and shelter beds that are either open or underway. “My administration has pledged to identify 2,000 [housing or shelter] units by the end of the year. So far, we’ve identified 1,300 expected to open this year.”

During his campaign for mayor, Harrell told reporters he would “identify” 1,000 units of “emergency, supportive shelter” in his first six months in office, with another 1,000 units in the six months after that. At the time, this was broadly interpreted to mean 1,000 new units (or shelter beds), not a progress report on units that were already underway. But a review of the 23 projects highlighted on the mayor’s dashboard—all of them funded or partially funded by the city and opening this year—shows that all of them were underway before Harrell took office. In other words, Harrell could have compiled an almost identical list at almost any point during his 2021 campaign.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the existing plans were, because quite candidly, they did not exist. And certainly not in a manner where you saw today where you can actually scroll over in a map and see what we’re dealing with.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

For example: Chief Seattle Club’s 80-unit ?ál?al apartment building in Pioneer Square has been in the works since 2017, and opened, after many delays, earlier this year. JustCare, a program that provides long-term hotel-based shelter, has been around since 2020. And several Low Income Housing Institute-run tiny house villages have been in the works for years, but only opened recently because the previous mayoral administration repeatedly refused to spend funds allocated for the villages.

Harrell and two city council allies pushed back on the narrative that the housing and shelter in the dashboard was already in the works before he took office. Under previous administrations, Harrell said, “nothing was really identified because there was no plan. … I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the existing plans were, because quite candidly, they did not exist. And certainly not in a manner where you saw today where you can actually scroll over in a map and see what we’re dealing with.”

District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss, comparing Harrell to his foot-dragging predecessor Jenny Durkan, noted during a press briefing that “the mayor has the ability to move quickly or slowly with deploying housing units once they’re funded; what I’m seeing here is that there’s an urgency in place.” In other words: It isn’t the number of units or shelter beds in the pipeline that counts, but the fact that the city is moving to get them open.

The mayor’s dashboard also includes a bar graph showing the number of “offers of shelter” the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach to encampments the city is about to sweep, has made to people living in encampments. The graph shows this data as a “running tally” over several months; Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Michael Bailey said he did not know if the cumulative number, 513 referrals over five months, included duplicates—people who had received a shelter referral more than once.

As we’ve reported, the majority of unsheltered people who get a shelter referral from the city don’t actually end up staying in that shelter, making referrals a poor measure of shelter effectiveness. Asked why the city is tracking referrals rather than enrollments (the number of people who show up at a shelter and stay there for a night or longer), Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said it was because the city is legally required to track referrals.

People have the ability to get to shelter if they want to go, she added. “They’re adults. And when we say we’re going to go live somewhere, no one walks us to the place that we’re living to make sure we get there. Homeless people aren’t children. And if they say they’re going to go inside, then we trust that they’re going to go inside.”

Finally, the map includes a general estimate of the number of tents and RVs in various neighborhoods and the number of people who were on site at specific encampments when they were closed, according to the HOPE team. The total number of tents in the city in mid-May, according to the dashboard, was 763— an undercount, officials acknowledged Tuesday, because it only includes tents people have reported to the city.

They’re adults. And when we say we’re going to go live somewhere, no one walks us to the place that we’re living to make sure we get there. Homeless people aren’t children. And if they say they’re going to go inside, then we trust that they’re going to go inside.”—Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington

Inside each general area, the map identifies encampments the city removed, along with (in some cases, but not all) the number of people who accepted shelter referrals from the HOPE Team. The purpose of this tracking, according to the dashboard, is as “a baseline to track progress” at removing encampments.

Washington said Tuesday that the city is seeking to apply an “equity lens” to encampments. What that meant, she explained was that the city will spend significant resources removing encampments in neighborhoods that have typically had fewer encampment sweeps, and where residents complaining about encampments may feel ignored. In the new system, complaints will “get more weight if you’re in places that are typically ignored. And so it’s not the squeakiest wheel. The squeakiest wheel way would mean that I live in North Seattle, and I got my whole neighborhood watch group to call 700 times,” it would elicit a response from the city, Washington said.

The data in the map does not appear to directly represent conditions in various neighborhoods. For example, according to the map, there were 183 tents in downtown Seattle as of mid-May—the most of any neighborhood—while there were only 15 tents in all of Capitol Hill. The map indicates there were no encampments at all in the University District, Madison Park, or Rainier Beach, and virtually none in most of North Seattle, including Lake City, while neighborhoods like Wallingford and Montlake reported dozens. Continue reading “New Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Highlights Harrell Administration’s Priorities—Including Sweeps”