Tag: encampment removals

After Threat at Woodland Park, City Scrambled for Last-Minute Shelter Referrals, Then Swept

"Park temporarily closed" sign at an entrance to Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

When the city removed a large, longstanding encampment from Woodland Park last week, elected officials announced that they were able to refer almost everyone on site to shelter, an achievement they said was only possible because of long-term efforts to identify and provide personalized outreach to the people living in the park.

“After four months of intensive outreach, we moved 85 people out of the park and into shelter or transitional or permanent supportive housing… and this is because in January, we created a by-name list, and in February, we finished the needs assessment for these folks and began moving people inside,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, said at a council meeting Monday. (The Human Services Department said the total number was 83). In a statement last week, the city said it was aware of at least 12 people who “voluntarily relocated” from the park.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, echoed this line, telling PubliCola that the city had accomplished its “goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement[—]to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were connected to the best-suited shelter and support services.”

Behind the scenes, though, the city reportedly considered aborting outreach efforts and sweeping the camp immediately earlier this month, after an outreach worker with the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team—a group of social service workers who do outreach at encampments and offer shelter referrals prior to sweeps—was threatened with a gun by someone living in the park, several people familiar with the encampment told PubliCola. The incident, which has not been previously reported, caused city and nonprofit outreach workers to abandon the encampment for several days in the week prior to its removal last Tuesday.

All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

“When we heard there were guns in the area, we had our staff step back,” said Chloe Gale, the director of the outreach nonprofit REACH, which partnered with the city to provide outreach in Woodland Park. Seattle police officers were on site when outreach workers returned. “We definitely do not request for law enforcement to go” to encampments, but “they were there, and we were willing to be there with them,” Gale said.

Housen did not respond directly to questions about the gun incident, saying only that “outreach providers and City employees who engage encampments may encounter situations that are unsafe.” Asked if Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who heads up homelessness for the mayor’s office, pushed to shut the encampment down sooner, Housen gave a one-word answer: “No.”

After the threat, efforts to find shelter options for everyone living at the encampment—including both those on the city’s “by-name list” and those who moved to the park in the months since, including the weeks and days immediately prior to the sweep—went into overdrive. All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

Debris left outside a picnic shelter after an encampment removal at Woodland Park

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, her organization was “asked to accommodate 30 people” from the Woodland Park encampment  “all at once,” and scrambled to create space in eight of its tiny house villages across the city. Four moved into LIHI’s Whitter Heights village in northwest Seattle. Another 12 went to Interbay, North Seattle, and South Lake Union, respectively. Five ended up—temporarily, Lee says—at LIHI’s new Southend Village in Rainier Beach, whose 40 slots are intended for people living unsheltered in South Seattle.

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park,” Lee said, “and we told them, no, we are not going to move everybody into Southend Village because we have a commitment to the neighborhood to take in local references.” According to Lee, LIHI held beds open for Woodland Park residents as people moved out of tiny house villages and opened up some slots by expediting some residents’ placements into permanent supportive housing. “If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”

Exacerbating the problem was the fact that, according to several people familiar with the encampment’s shifting population, dozens of people moved into the park in the weeks immediately prior to the encampment removal. Many arrived after the city swept other nearby encampments, including some who had been living in Ballard’s industrial “brewery district.” It’s common for some people to relocate to encampments the city is about to sweep in the hope of accessing resources, such as tiny houses, that aren’t otherwise available to people living unsheltered. Some may have also been encouraged to move to Woodland Park by a neighborhood resident who has been doing ad hoc outreach at the park for months.

In the end, the majority of the people who moved out of Woodland Park and into shelter—about 50—were relocated not over the three months since the city finalized its “by-name list,” but in the final week of the encampment’s existence, including 27 who moved on the very day of the sweep.

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

This raises the question: Why couldn’t the city have offered spots to people living in Woodland Park much sooner, rather than going to the trouble of creating a “by-name list” that had no bearing on the final outcome? If “restoring Woodland Park to its intended use,” as the mayor’s office has put it, was a top priority, why not move people into tiny houses or other shelter over the course of months, rather than rushing everyone out at the last minute?

According to Harrell spokesman Housen, one reason the city didn’t move faster is because people simply refused to take the shelter they were offered. “Referrals were made throughout the engagement process with the first referral taking place on January 28th,” Housen said. “While outreach providers made diligent efforts to refer individuals throughout their time at Woodland, some individuals chose to decline shelter until a removal date was communicated.”

The last-minute rush of referrals led to some last-minute chaos. “It was still a mass eviction, and things were happening at the last possible minute,” with people having to make quick decisions about whether to move across town or lose out on shelter, the neighborhood volunteer said. “If people were told they had to be out at 10 and they were given a [tiny] home at 9, some of their possessions might have ended up in a car going to the north end and they might have been in a car going to the south end.”

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park. If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

Almost everyone PubliCola spoke to about the Woodland Park encampment removal—from mutual aid volunteers and outreach workers to elected officials—said that the removal was ultimately a “success,” in the sense that nearly everyone living in the park received an offer of shelter before the dump trucks rolled in. “I think the biggest accomplishment here was not moving people inside, and was not returning the park to its intended use—the biggest accomplishment was changing how the city does business when it removes encampments,” Strauss said.

What it also demonstrates—and what previous encampment removals, such as a similar slow-motion sweep of the Ballard Commons, have shown—is that when the city decides to reserve a large number of shelter beds and resources for a single encampment, the people in that one encampment are very likely to end up in shelter. Meanwhile, thousands of other people living outdoors remain in tents, vulnerable to sweeps.

“At the Ballard Commons, with shelter expansion, we were able to move people in differently than when we have to rely on throughput” from people leaving shelters, Strauss said. “And when we’re having to rely on throughput, it also means that we’re prioritizing shelter beds for people in Woodland Park while there’s a need citywide.”

So far, both of the city’s efforts to take a “new approach to encampment removals” have taken place in wealthy, mostly white North Seattle neighborhoods where people frequently complain about encampments. Meanwhile, people living unsheltered in other neighborhoods—like the International District, where the city swept about 50 people from private property after a shooting in March—receive minimal notice and no long-term, personalized outreach before the city sends them packing.

“Why did this happen at Woodland Park?” the volunteer asked. “It happened because our neighborhood is largely white and privileged… not because these were the people who were suffering the most, but because the city wanted this park clear, so it suddenly got prioritized.”

Controversial Officer Gets Short Suspension for Shattering Driver’s Window; Woodland Park Sweep Houses Four People; County Councilmember Dunn Votes “No” on Choice

1. Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, dismissed most of a complaint filed by a police lieutenant against SPD officer Andrei Constantin, who deliberately shattered the window of a car parked at a gas station while the driver and a passenger were inside. Of five allegations, including charges of retaliation and dishonesty, the OPA upheld only two—failing to document the smashed window and behaving unprofessionally. As a penalty, Police Chief Adrian Diaz issued an eight-day suspension.

If Constantin’s name sounds familiar, that’s because this isn’t the first time his actions have landed him in the press. In 2020, Constantin was outed as the person allegedly responsible for an anonymous Twitter account that, among other inflammatory statements, mocked victims of police violence, including George Floyd, promoted violence against protesters, and called for donations to a defense fund for a driver who killed a demonstrator on I-5 in the summer of 2020.

Since that controversy, police accountability watchdogs have unearthed at least four other OPA complaints against Constantin, many of them containing multiple misconduct allegations, in the last five years. Many of those resulted in referrals for training rather than suspensions or more serious punishment. The complaints identified on the SPD.watch website, a joint project of DivestSPD and Tech Bloc Seattle, included: Pulling over a driver without justification, pointing a gun at him, and handcuffing him; threatening to use his Taser on a man who was not being threatening; stopping a homeless Black bike rider and detaining him for nearly an hour because he wasn’t wearing a helmet; and a use-of-force allegation that the OPA hasn’t yet resolved.

According to the OPA report on this latest incident, Constantin saw a car parked at a gas station, ran driver’s plates and determined that the title to his car hadn’t been transferred when it was sold. When Constantin approached the car, the driver, who was Latino, got back in the car and rolled up the window, according to the report. At that point, Constantin “used a hard object to strike and shatter the driver’s side window” while the driver and a passenger were inside. In his own report on the incident, Constantin withheld the fact that he had smashed the person’s window.

A disciplinary action report recommending the suspension noted that Constantin had been disciplined for misconduct twice before. “[Y]ou did not have probable cause to arrest or any basis to engage in a vehicle pursuit. Despite this, you destroyed a community member’s property,” the report says. “That is an act akin to vandalism done under the purported color of law.”

2. The site of a longstanding encampment in Lower Woodland Park was quiet and mostly empty on Tuesday afternoon, save for a group of volunteers trying to start a vehicle and push it out of the park. Piles of pallets, tarps, and trash were the only evidence that dozens of people had been living on site for months, many of them as recently as a few hours earlier.

More than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

By 2pm, workers with the city’s Parks Department had surrounded most of the former encampment site with caution tape and posted large “PARK TEMPORARILY CLOSED” signs at the entrances to the area; parks employees stationed at the east end of West Green Lake Way asked drivers entering the area where they were going.

The city has spent five months doing outreach at the park and offering shelter beds to people on a “by-name list” of those who were living on site back in February. Since then, dozens more have arrived who were not on that original list, including at least some who moved to the park because they heard it was scheduled for a sweep, effectively unlocking city services that are not available at other encampments. The HOPE Team, run by the city’s Human Services Department, has exclusive access to about a third of the city’s shelter beds, which it offers to people living in encampments in the runup to sweeps.

According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the city’s HOPE Team made 83 offers of “shelter or housing” to people living in the park, including most of the people on the original 61-person list. Seventy-nine of those offers were for shelter; just four people moved into permanent supportive housing. Other than the four housing referrals, the city does not have data on how people actually enrolled in shelter.

The goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement was to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were  connected to the best-suited shelter and support services,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. As of Tuesday morning, the city had 42 shelter beds available for those who remained on site; 27 accepted referrals, including 20 referrals into tiny house villages run by the Low-Income Housing Institute. 

As always, people who receive “referrals” do not necessarily show up and stay at a shelter, and people who enroll in a shelter within 48 hours—”enrollments,” in the city’s nomenclature—do not necessarily stay there. (More on the HOPE Team’s low shelter enrollment rate here). And media reports, like this one, that claim dozens of people moved into “housing” are, at best, misleading, since more than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

One reason the city was able to offer so many shelter beds—particularly tiny house village spots, which are in high demand—is that they reserved spots specifically for this encampment removal; the referral rate is not representative of the number of beds available to the HOPE Team on a typical night, nor is it close to the number accessible to nonprofit outreach groups like REACH, which access shelter beds through a separate pool.

According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the Low-Income Housing Institute made about 30 of its shelter beds available to people living in Woodland Park, including 16 spots at tiny house villages.

The park will be closed until next Monday, according to Housen, so that Parks employees can “focus on returning the park to its intended use (access to recreation, hosting events and sports, and sustaining critical natural area).”

3. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, currently running as a Republican against Democratic US Rep. Kim Schrier in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, cast the lone “no” vote against a resolution supporting women’s right to choose and affirming the validity of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which the US Supreme Court is poised to overturn. Even the council’s other Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, voted to support the measure after several council members, including women and gay men, spoke passionately about their support for the right to abortion as well as other rights that could be threatened if Roe goes away, such as the right to same-sex marriage.

Dunn did not explain why he voted against the measure, which “declares [the council’s] support of a woman’s right to reproductive freedom and of Roe v. Wade as settled law of the land” and asks the health department to “actively enforce” existing law regulating so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—sites run by religious groups that attempt to talk pregnant women into going through with their pregnancies.

Dunn, a moderate by contemporary Republican standards, is up against several more conservative primary-election challengers peddling conspiracy theories and touting their support for Trump. Still, his vote against a nonbinding pro-choice resolution places him out of the mainstream of Washington politics, and could alienate many voters in his district; Schrier, a Democrat, ran against anti-choice Republican Dino Rossi and won on an explicitly pro-choice platform.

Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022

Chart showing HOPE team shelter enrollment rates over timeBy Erica C. Barnett

A review of six months of data from the HOPE Team—the team of Seattle Human Services Department staffers who do outreach and offer shelter to people living at encampments the city is about to remove—shows that only around 36.5 percent of people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up to that shelter and stayed there overnight. This number represents a 23 percent reduction in referrals from the 47.7 percent enrollment figure HSD reported in March.

The enrollment rate for the first two months of 2022—in winter, a time when people are typically most likely to move indoors—was even lower, just 33 percent. That means that out of every 100 people the HOPE team referred to shelter, fewer than a third actually showed up and stayed the night.

HSD provided its data in response to a records request from PubliCola.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department said the numbers they provided are lower than the true enrollment rate, because about a quarter of people who use homeless services have opted out of he the county’s Homeless Management Information System, which means that their identities are anonymous and can’t be tracked. For example, one shelter whose residents came exclusively from HSD referrals, Rosie’s tiny house village in the University District, had an official enrollment rate of just 52 percent, even though all 36 units were full.

However, the numbers HSD provided, which represent data from September 2021 through February 2022, are directly comparable to the 48 percent figure HSD itself reported for 2021. Both PubliCola’s numbers and HSD’s earlier report represent a straightforward comparison of referrals to confirmed enrollments, without factoring in people who have opted out of the county’s tracking system. For this reason, the more recent numbers—both the 36.5 percent enrollment rate for the last four months of 2021 and the 33 percent enrollment rate for early 2022—represent an apples to apples comparison to HSD’s own published figures.

The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 shelter beds, or about a third of all shelter beds in the city; those beds can only be filled by the HOPE Team, which leads to a shortage of beds for other providers trying to find beds for clients who are actively seeking shelter, as opposed to those who happen to be in the path of an upcoming sweep. Between September 2021 and March 2022, the HOPE Team made 533 referrals to 20 shelters, including the now-closed Executive Pacific Hotel. Of those 533 referrals, just 195 resulted in someone staying at a shelter overnight.

Within the numbers, patterns emerge. In general, tiny house villages—private mini-shelters that are among the most desirable forms of shelter currently available in King County—had a much higher enrollment rate than congregate shelters: Three of the four highest-performing shelters on the HOPE Team’s list were tiny house villages. (I’ve excluded the unspecified category “enhanced shelter,” which accounts for 32 referrals and 10 enrollments, and any shelter that had fewer than 10 referrals over six months from this list.)

However, all three tiny house villages that had higher-than-average enrollments had one thing in common: They all opened during the six-month period the data encompasses. Friendship Heights, a tiny house village on Aurora that had the highest enrollment rate at 59 percent, opened last December; Rosie’s Village in the University District, with a 42 percent enrollment rate, opened last November; and the Interbay Tiny House Village, with a 47 percent enrollment rate, expanded to add 30 new units in November.

Similarly, the Benu Community Home—a men’s shelter with dorm-style rooms in the Central District—opened in November and had an enrollment rate of 50 percent.

As we reported in March, shelter referrals and enrollments went up in 2021 because hundreds of new permanent housing and shelter beds came online all at once, adding new supply to the shelter system that was immediately filled by people being removed from high-priority encampments. A separate report from City Council’s central staff revealed that nonprofit service providers requested shelter for their clients four times more often than the city provided a referral, meaning that the vast majority of people seeking shelter were unable to find it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the shelters with very low enrollment rates had a few things in common: Three of the four are basic shelters or “enhanced” shelters that offer services but little privacy. The other is Lakefront Community House—an enhanced shelter with single and double rooms in a former drug treatment center run by the Low-Income Housing Institute in North Seattle. Continue reading “Shelter Enrollments from City Referrals, Already Under 50%, Dropped In First Months of 2022”

City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps

Tents and other items on the ground during a recent encampment sweep at City Hall
The city put up signs announcing this encampment across from city hall would be removed at 6am, giving residents less than two hours’ notice.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s Human Services Department has asked the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to modify its contracts with  outreach providers (including the city’s largest outreach provider, REACH) to require them to show up and offer services to unsheltered people up to the day their encampments are swept.

REACH does not have a strict policy against showing up before encampment sweeps; instead, they make decisions on a case by case basis, REACH director Chloe Gale said. In 2019, the group decided to withdraw from the Navigation Team, a group of police and city outreach workers that used to be in charge of encampment removals, because of concerns about their ability to build trust with clients while appearing to participate in sweeps.

UPDATE: On Friday, a spokeswoman for the KCHRA told PubliCola the authority “confirmed with the City that we are not making any contract modifications.”

In a message to council members, the department said that its HOPE Team—a group of city staffers that connects people whose encampments are about to be swept to beds in shelters to which the HOPE Team has exclusive access—is “often the only entity on site that’s willing to make shelter offers and connections during the posting period (i.e., the time between a site being posted and the time of the removal).”

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor “support[s] providers offering outreach and service connections to encampments before the day of removal.”

UPDATE: On Friday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington and KCRHA CEO Marc Dones said in an email to homeless service providers that “despite what you might have seen in [PubliCola’s] recent article” (the one you are currently reading), “KCRHA has not received any requests from the City of Seattle that would change our shared approach to outreach responsibilities.” The Human Services Department confirmed its request for contract changes, provided the request to PubliCola in full, and explained the intent of the request in more detail in an email, and PubliCola stands by our reporting.

REACH and other outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

In recent years, the city has largely abandoned the previous practice of providing 72 hours’ notice before it removes an encampment, a timeline that gave encampment residents time to move into shelter or relocate their tents. Instead, the city designates encampments as “obstructions,” a broad term that can be applied to any tent in any public space, and removes them with little or no advance notice.

This is not the first time the city has attempted to include a requirement to participate in sweeps in its contracts with outreach providers; former mayor Jenny Durkan made a similar attempt last year, but ultimately backed down after some nonprofits said they would refuse to sign contracts that included this stipulation.

Outreach providers’ “choice to withhold support is believed to be counterproductive to supporting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” HSD wrote. “While the funding for these contracts continues to come from the City of Seattle, the oversight of contracts, and the ability to modify those contracts, now live with KCRHA. We have asked KCRHA to modify their contracts in a way that uses the City’s funding to support our target population throughout the entire process rather than just a portion of it.”

Responding to questions about the city’s request during the council’s homelessness committee meeting Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the authority had not “entered into any conversations at this point around modifying contracts with providers. What we are discussing at this point is working to support humane responses to folks that are at our prioritized encampments”—that is, encampments the city prioritizes for removal.

HSD spokeswoman Stasha Espinoza said HSD “has yet to request RHA’s assistance with making outreach available on the day of a removal, and that in for now, “HSD has asked their System Navigators”—the HOPE Team’s outreach workers—”to make offers of shelter prior to and during a removal. This includes transportation to a shelter if such services are requested.” Continue reading “City Asks Homelessness Authority to Require Nonprofits to Participate in Sweeps”

Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase”

1. On Tuesday, the city council will impose new restrictions on construction or alterations at two historic landmarks: The Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union, and an early-20th-century houseboat known as the Wagner Floating Home.

One building that won’t be getting new protections—at least, not yet—is a one-story former bank building near downtown that, for more than a decade, has housed a drive-through Walgreen’s store. Fifteen years ago, the Seattle landmarks board granted landmark status to the building, which has a handsome facade on one side but is otherwise unremarkable. In its “statement of significance,” the landmarks board seemed to struggle to explain why, exactly, the building on Denny Way—one of multiple copies around Seattle of a building designed by a different architect—merited extraordinary protection. Among other points largely unrelated to the 1950 building itself, the board cited the defunct bank’s connection to the city’s logging history and the Denny Regrade, the history of drive-through banking in the US, and the “unprecedented freedom” of mid-century Modernist style.

It doesn’t take much for a building to win landmark status in Seattle; a building is only required to be at least 25 years old and meet one of a list of criteria that includes being “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation” or being characteristic of an area.

Landmarks status usually leads to limits on the demolition of, or changes to, buildings; the Walgreen’s building is unusual in that 15 years have passed since it first received landmark status. During a meeting of the council’s neighborhoods committee two weeks ago, an attorney with McCullough Hill, representing Walgreen’s, explained that protections would result in profits for the company, which could sell off the development rights for the site. This “transfer of development rights” would allow another developer add density elsewhere while preserving a one-story, car-oriented building in the middle of one of the city’s densest neighborhoods.

Committee chair Tammy Morales decided to delay imposing controls on the building, saying she was “just trying to understand what the benefit for the city is” of protecting the one-story Walgreen’s. We asked a similar question on Twitter. In our highly nonscientific poll, 89 percent opposed protecting the former bank. The committee will take up the landmarks question again at its next meeting on May 14.

2. Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell used as the backdrop for his campaign vow to remove troublesome encampments, is still the site of a large encampment, several months after Harrell initially told neighboring residents it would be removed. The delay has allowed the city to use the same deliberate approach that was largely successful in relocating most of the people living at the Ballard Commons, which the city closed and fenced off last December. City Councilmember Dan Strauss and advocates for unsheltered people have been championing this approach, even as sweeps have ramped up dramatically since Harrell took office.

According to outreach workers and advocates who have been working with encampment residents over the past several months, the city has worked effectively to find shelter or temporary housing for several dozen people living at the encampment. As they did at the Commons, outreach workers with the nonprofit REACH and the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team created a list of 61 people living at the encampment in February and began working to move people on that list off site. At the same time, the city’s Parks Department set up portable toilets and started removing trash—two key factors that reduce the amount of visible garbage and human waste, which result when people don’t have places to throw stuff away and relieve themselves.

Data show that between September and March, just 196 of 534 people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up at shelter within 48 hours and stayed for at least one night—an enrollment rate of less than 37 percent.

The result, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, has been “at least 30 referrals to shelter or housing,” including three housing referrals and 26 referrals to enhanced shelter or tiny house villages, in addition to 10 people who have “voluntarily relocated from the park” and are presumably living unsheltered elsewhere.

A spokesman for HSD said outreach “efforts will continue over the coming weeks in an attempt to resolve this encampment through outreach strategies alone.” However, advocates working at the encampment note that unsheltered people have continued to move to the area since February, when the city created its list; as a result, the encampment is scarcely smaller than it was when the city’s outreach efforts began. (The HSD spokesman notes that the city has referred at least five of the new people to shelters).

“We’re seeing people get into at least transitional shelter or tiny houses,” a neighbor who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment told PublICola. “We wish there were more staff to do [outreach and placements] and, really, more resources behind it.” Continue reading “Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase””

Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs

Low-Income Housing Institute tiny house village
Tiny houses, like this one in a village operated by the Low-Income Housing Institute, are a form of non-congregate shelter—the type of shelter Governor Jay Inslee says he wants to prioritize statewide.

by Leo Brine

As a counter to their meek policy achievements in Olympia this year, Democrats loaded their capital and operating budgets with historic investments in housing and homelessness response—$829 million, nearly half of which will go to local governments and nonprofits to develop new shelter and permanent housing. Governor Jay Inslee estimates the state will add 3,890 new housing units or shelter beds with $413 million in funding from the Housing Trust Fund and appropriations for rapid capital acquisitions.

The rest of the money ($416 million) will go to things like rent, mortgage, and utility debt assistance. An Inslee-backed bill to create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services to address homeless encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, like freeway underpasses, failed, but the budget includes $52 million that will go to local governments for the same purpose, including $7 million to help prevent future encampments in places where encampments have been removed.

Democrats killed several pieces of their own progressive housing legislation that would have created incentives for denser housing development after those bills were watered down by amendments from Republicans and other Democrats. In the house, they  killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) at the first legislative cutoff of the session. At the next cutoff, senate Democrats killed Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit legalization bill (HB 1660).

And on the final night of the session, the clock ran out on the year’s last hope for housing policy reform—a bill sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-1, Bothell) bill (HB 1099) that would have required cities to adjust their growth plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. The bill, which would have updated the state’s Growth Management Act to respond urgently to climate change, was a top priority for the environmental advocacy group Futurewise.

Inslee’s senior adviser for housing, Jim Baumgart, said Inslee wants to move away from “mats on a floor,” and “cots in a big open room” shelter model and toward a system where people get their own space. “If we can, the goal is always to get people into permanent housing. The way to end homelessness is to get people into permanent housing,” Baumgart said.

“It’s really hard to know what projects will come in and what those proposals will be for. Thomas said. “Our hope is the vast majority of the funds are for permanent housing solutions.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how much permanent housing the state will add with the Democrats’ investments. According to Baumgart,  “housing units” refers to “all non-congregate housing options,” from shelters  and transitional housing to permanent housing, supportive and otherwise.

Baumgart said it’s “really hard to estimate” that figure because of the rising cost of building materials and they don’t know which projects local governments and nonprofits will submit for grant funding.

Michele Thomas, from the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, is also trying to figure out how much permanent housing the budget creates, but says she won’t know for a while. She said the grants in the budget can go to a variety of projects that deal with homelessness, not just permanent housing. Continue reading “Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs”

Most City Shelter “Referrals” Don’t Lead to Shelter, Police Preemptively Barricade Encampment Against Protests, City Says It Can’t Risk Handing HOPE Team to County

Chart showing trends in outreach and service connections by Navigation Team and HOPE Team
Source: Seattle City Council central staff report

1. Fewer than half the people referred to shelter by the city’s HOPE team last year actually showed up to shelter and stayed there for at least one night, according to data released by the city’s Human Services Department during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee this week.

The city’s HOPE Team, which provides shelter referrals to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, referred 1,072 people to shelter in 2021; of those, 512 enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and slept in a shelter for at least one night within 48 hours of receiving a referral. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about 800 beds, or a third of the shelter beds in the city.

HSD deputy director Michael Bailey told council members the department is prioritizing people in the highest-priority locations (like downtown Seattle and Woodland Park) for shelter first, along with “individuals with multiple vulnerabilities from all over.”

“As you know, we can’t overrule someone’s decision to decline shelter, but we can work with the individual to better understand their unique needs and the factors contributing to that decision,” Bailey said.

Although the number of referrals went up in 2021, that was largely because hundreds of new permanent housing and shelter beds came online all at once, adding new supply to the shelter system that was immediately filled by people being removed from high-priority encampments. As a separate report from the council’s central staff notes, nonprofit service providers requested shelter for their clients four times more often than the city provided a referral, meaning that the vast majority of people seeking shelter were unable to find it.

2. One of the persistent oddities of the city’s homelessness system is that the HOPE Team has remained at the City of Seattle, serving as a kind of vestigial arm of the disbanded Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, even as every other aspect of the homelessness system has transferred to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

At Thursday’s meeting, Bailey introduced a somewhat novel explanation for the city’s decision to retain the HOPE Team: Without control over shelter referrals, Seattle risked violating rules that govern how and when the city can remove encampments. “The city is unable to shift this liability” to the RHA by making the authority responsible for outreach in advance of city-led encampment removals, the, Bailey said.

The Multi-Department Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the city to provide 72 hours’ notice and offers of available shelter before removing an encampment, unless that encampment is an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way or poses an immediate danger to the public. For several years, the city has defined “obstruction” very broadly, allowing it to routinely skirt the 72 hour and shelter referral requirements whenever an encampment is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or on any other public property.

Following up by email in response to PubliCola’s questions, Bailey said the HOPE Team “remains a City entity because it allows the City to meet its obligation to comply with the encampment removal rules. … Specifically, the City must identify or provide alternative shelter before removing non-obstructing encampments. The City is unable to shift this obligation to the RHA, despite the contracts moving to RHA, and is thus responsible for ensuring that it has the resources necessary (i.e., the HOPE Team) to do this body of work in the event RHA or its service providers decline to assist.”

Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

3. According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the HOPE Team did offer shelter referrals to 14 people (of 18 who were on site) when it removed an encampment under I-5 in the Chinatown/International District on Thursday, although it’s unclear how many of those people actually ended up in shelter. (A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the encampment was an obstruction.)

Although the sweep was typical in certain ways—the city routinely removes people from this location, a perennial encampment site that offers some protection from wind and rain —it was noteworthy in one respect: The presence of a phalanx of bike officers, who blocked off the encampment with police tape and issued verbal warnings that any protesters who tried to enter the area could be arrested.

Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.
Bike officers line the sidewalk outside an encampment removal at 9th and Jackson.

Prior to COVID, the city routinely stationed police outside encampments—a practice that tended to heighten tensions rather than alleviate them. Mayor Bruce Harrell appears to be reviving the practice; according to a spokesman for Harrell’s office, the city decided that “[g]iven potential protest activities, a larger SPD presence was required to ensure the safety of City workers and encampment residents” at yesterday’s removal. Stop the Sweeps Seattle posted photos of the city’s encampment removal notices on social media, but did not turn up in large numbers on Thursday.

The mayor’s office may have felt burned by a protest that temporarily halted the removal of a large encampment across the street from city hall. After a weekslong standoff with protesters, the city swept the encampment abruptly last week, barricading several blocks of downtown Seattle in an early-morning action that sparked numerous verbal confrontations between police officers and mutual aid workers who tried to enter the area.

According to Harrell’s spokesman, “The number of officers and their equipment is dependent on the circumstances of the removal and potential protest activities. Encampment removal teams have always worked in partnership with SPD, and SPD officers will continue to be onsite during removal activities.”

The city’s aggressive approach to encampments in public spaces downtown (which, technically, are almost all “obstructions” in that they occupy public space) could come into conflict with the regional homelessness authority’s recently launched “Partnership For Zero,” a plan to eliminate almost all encampments downtown through intensive case management, led by “peer navigators” who have been homeless themselves.

Sweeps scatter people and exacerbate the chaos of their lives. Routinely displacing people from downtown without notice may be fundamentally incompatible with intensive case management, which requires not just stability but the ability to locate clients when a resource, such as a treatment bed or tiny house, becomes available.

—Erica C. Barnett

Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Last Wednesday, police and parks department workers removed a highly visible encampment in downtown Seattle after a weekslong standoff between protesters and the city. Mayor Bruce Harrell justified the no-notice sweep by saying the encampment was an “obstruction to pedestrian access” along Fourth Avenue between James and Columbia Streets—a stretch of sidewalk that happens to be visible from the mayor’s office on the seventh floor of City Hall.

Across town, the sweep left advocates and outreach workers wondering whether the city would take similarly swift action to clear a controversial encampment at Woodland Park—the largest remaining park-based encampment in the city, and one Harrell has repeatedly identified as a top priority for his administration. During his campaign, for example, Harrell said the encampment would be gone by “January or February” of this year, “because I work with a sense of urgency.” In January, Harrell officially identified Woodland Park as a “top-priority” site. Then, last month, he re-emphasized the point in his state of the city speech, saying, “we will continue our efforts on top priorities like Woodland Park. … Woodland Park is a gem in our city—and trash, fires, continued inhumane conditions are not acceptable, period.”

Last month, a fire at a campsite in Woodland Park destroyed a tent and damaged a park shelter, prompting renewed neighborhood calls for the city to clear the encampment.

To address trash, the city installed five Dumpsters in the park at a cost of $2,000 each, according to a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the neighborhood surrounding the park, has said the city will take a methodical approach to clearing the encampment—creating a list of every person living there, then moving each of them individually to appropriate shelter or housing before securing the area against future encampments and reclaiming it for general public use. The city took a similar approach at the Ballard Commons, with one major difference—when the city closed the Commons, dozens of new shelter and housing spots had just become available, making it much easier than usual to relocate people into places they actually wanted to be.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park. We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss

At Woodland Park, in contrast, the city must rely on its existing, inadequate pool of shelter and housing options—a tiny house here, a single bed in a gender-segregated shelter there—and hope that people both “accept” referrals to shelter and actually go shelter and stay there instead of coming back.

To that end, the city is reserving “approximately half” of whatever shelter beds open up for people living in Woodland Park, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “Otherwise, the timeline for making offers of shelter to those residing in Woodland Park would only be further extended given the number of people residing onsite”—between 60 and 80, according to outreach workers in the area.

Another difference between Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons is that Woodland Park is much larger and can’t easily be contained, like the Commons, by a fence. This makes it easy for new people to move in—which, Strauss acknowledges, they are doing now.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park,” Strauss said, including some who have arrived specifically because they’ve heard that the city is making shelter and housing available to people living there. “We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.” Outreach workers say that when the city announces an encampment will be swept soon, people usually show up from other places, hoping to get access to shelter and services that are unavailable to people living elsewhere.

To ensure the list of people on the list for shelter and services at Woodland Park doesn’t get longer, outreach workers are creating a “by-name list” of people eligible for expedited access because they lived in the park before a certain date; those who arrive later will get “the same priority as everyone else in the city,” Strauss said. The city prioritizes people for shelter based on their “vulnerability,” a grim calculus that includes factors like a person’s age, disabilities, and the length of time they’ve been homeless. Currently, there are only a handful of shelter beds available on any night for the tens of thousands of people the King County Regional Homelessness Authority now estimates are homeless across the region.

Katie Jendrey, a volunteer with a mutual-aid group that has been working in Woodland Park for months, said the existence of a fixed “by-name list” suggests an officially sanctioned division of Woodland Park’s homeless population into haves and have-nots—those who might get shelter because they got there first, and those who will, by official city policy, be left behind.

“I do think the city is doing something right in doing intensive outreach over an extended time,” Jendrey said. But, she added, “we’ve been nervous about this by-name list thing, because the population always fluctuates. To say ‘We’ve got a list’ [is to say], ‘This is who we’re going to give services to, not those people.'” Continue reading “Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park”

With Advocates Watching Closely, Legislators Propose Office to Respond to Encampments

By Leo Brine

On Thursday, House Democrats amended legislation creating a new office to deal with encampments in public rights-of-way, removing many of the provisions that homeless advocates feared would be used to sweep encampments indiscriminately—and leaving unanswered questions about what its actual impact would be.

The bill, originally requested by Gov, Jay Inslee (SB 5662) and sponsored Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48, Bellevue), would create a new Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right-of-Way Homeless Encampments within the Department of Social and Health Services.

The job of the office would be to coordinate efforts to respond to homeless encampments Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-way, such as underneath highway overpasses, with the ultimate goal of “reducing the number of encamped persons through transition to a permanent housing solution so that the encampment is closed with the site either restored to original conditions or preserved for future use.”

Kuderer said the office would identify new permanent housing or shelter options and offer them to people living in WSDOT rights-of-way before removing people from where they are—“meeting people where they’re at” and connecting them with services and resources. 

The bill’s ultimate goal is to transition people living in encampments to permanent housing, she said, but Kuderer told PubliCola she wanted to include temporary shelters and other sanctioned encampment options in the bill so people will have a place to live that’s not next to a highway while the state tries to create more permanent housing.

Affordable housing and homeless advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness fear that without changes, the bill could be used to justify encampment sweeps.

Alison Eisinger, the Executive Director of the Coalition, told PubliCola, “We appreciate the changes made in the House, and we really like investments in housing and services, but we would be opposed to any bill that encourages sweeps.”

Currently, the bill says encampments on WSDOT property will get priority access to shelter and housing, with encampments that pose “the greatest health and safety risk to the encamped population, the public, or workers on the right-of-way” rising to the top of the list. In practice, this could mean that people living in encampments on WSDOT property would get priority for shelter, services, or housing over other unsheltered people because of their location alone.

“Shelter or housing plans should be complete before engaging persons encamped on the public rights-of-way,” the bill says. However, the bill also stipulates that if there are “concerns over public health and safety, worker access and safety, and public access,” jurisdictions could remove an encampment and displace campers without offering them anywhere to go. In Seattle, a similar set of guidelines has enabled the city to define virtually any encampment in any public space, including sidewalks and parks, as an “obstruction,” allowing it to remove encampments without offering shelter or services and without any advance notice.

Advocates also point out that the bill’s description of the process for transitioning people into housing is vague. The bill expresses the “intent” that cities and other jurisdictions will “engage” unsheltered people “with teams of multidisciplinary experts focused in trauma-informed care” and offer them “provisions of service” with the goal of moving them to permanent housing. But it does not explain who the experts would be, how they would provide “trauma-informed care,” what counts as “service,” and what counts as a “housing solution.” 

WLIHA’s Michele Thomas told lawmakers at the House Housing, Human Services and Veterans committee the bill is “a skeleton of a concept” that  “could actually have harmful impacts” if it isn’t fleshed out. Continue reading “With Advocates Watching Closely, Legislators Propose Office to Respond to Encampments”

Police Sweep Troubled Little Saigon Intersection, Retirement Incentives Could Thwart SPD Hiring Plans, City Still Plans Sidewalk Sweep

1. After Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced plans to crack down on a street market in the Little Saigon neighborhood earlier this month, Seattle police officers swept the area last Friday, parking a mobile precinct at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St. and posting a half-dozen uniformed officers nearby. The southeast corner of the intersection, which housed an informal market for stolen goods, food, and illicit drugs, vanished; King County Metro removed a bus shelter from the intersection on Wednesday, and the neighboring strip mall installed a partial fence around its parking area.

The sudden police presence pushed people who frequented the market, including some who are unhoused, into the surrounding neighborhoods and encampments. A woman who lives under the I-5 overpass on King St. told PubliCola on Friday that some of the corner’s regulars briefly gathered near her tent on Friday morning before she told them to leave. “We told them aren’t welcome here,” she said. Other displaced people attempted to move into an encampment on 10th Ave. S, where they also encountered some objections, and a man selling toilet paper set up shop near a utilities box on a quiet side street. “We’re just being moved around in a circle again,” he said.

Although Harrell promised that “social service providers” would play a role in his plan to revive Little Saigon—an epicenter of Seattle’s public safety woes since the start of the pandemic, and one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods—Friday’s action relied exclusively on police.

Although some officers went door-to-door to nearby business owners on Friday to check in, one of those proprietors—the owner of Ten Sushi, located in the strip mall on the southeast corner of the intersection—wrote on Instagram that she still plans to leave the neighborhood, arguing that the police presence is only temporary.

“This improvement at 12th and Jackson demonstrates early results and a promising first step as Mayor Harrell continues to roll out his comprehensive approach to public safety,” a spokesman for Harrell’s office told PubliCola. “SPD’s efforts are one part of the administration’s broader strategy to ensure a safe and thriving neighborhood. In addition to addressing crime, next steps include providing social services, driving economic development, keeping areas free of litter and trash, and, most importantly, engaging community in immediate and forward-looking solutions.”

2. The Seattle Police Department estimates that its ranks could increase to 1,000 officers—still well below the department’s pre-pandemic size—by the end of 2022 if it is able to slow the pace of attrition, meet its optimistic hiring goals and count on officers returning from long-term leave.

However, a bill making its way through the Washington State Legislature may throw a wrench in the department’s plans. The bill, which would increase retirement benefits for officers who have worked in law enforcement for 15  years or more, could spur some of SPD’s older officers to retire early, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz warned during a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

In 2021, 171 officers left SPD, and the department hired only 81 new officers, most of them new recruits, as opposed to transfers from other law enforcement agencies. In January 2022 alone, SPD lost another 20 officers, including 12 who opted to leave the department instead of complying with Seattle’s vaccine mandate for public employees. SPD hopes to hire 125 more officers this year and has avoided making any estimates about attrition, but the council estimates that the department may lose as many officers as it hires in 2022.  Meanwhile, 170 officers are on long-term leave; some of those officers will return, but others are using their paid time off before formally retiring.

In a pitch to boost SPD’s regrowth, former mayor Jenny Durkan debuted a hiring incentive program last October that offered up to $10,000 for new recruits and $25,000 for officers who transfer from other departments, though SPD spokesman Sergeant Randall Huserik told PubliCola in January that the incentives didn’t produce “any uptick in applications.” The council attempted to end the hiring incentive program in December of last year, but Durkan ordered SPD to continue offering bonuses to new recruits into the new year, erroneously claiming that the council’s vote wasn’t legally binding; Mayor Bruce Harrell finally stopped SPD from offering incentives earlier this month.

During Tuesday’s meeting, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold and council member Sara Nelson, who worked together as council aides for Nick Licata and Richard Conlin, respectively, clashed over whether to renew the hiring incentive program. Herbold argued that the city should consider expanding hiring incentives for all departments with staffing shortages, while Nelson argued that SPD’s staffing shortage demands a more urgent response.

3. After activists thwarted the removal of an encampment that stretches along the west side of Fourth Avenue on Sunday, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office confirmed that the city still plans to remove the tents, which the city has deemed an “obstruction” in the public right-of-way.

As we reported yesterday, Seattle’s rules for removing encampments require the city to provide at least 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter before removing an encampment, but there is an exemption: If an encampment poses an “obstruction”—that is, if it is located on a sidewalk, in a park, or in any other space used by the public—the city can clear it without notice, and with no offers of shelter or services.

While the City will do its best to offer shelter as available through the City’s HOPE team and the efforts of the RHA, we cannot allow tents and other structures to remain in the right of way if they are causing an obstruction or presenting a public health or safety risk,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “It is important to balance the immediate need to ensure safe and equitable access to sidewalks while we work to expand services and strategies to bring more people inside.”

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett