Tag: encampments

Woodland Park, Site of Seattle’s Largest Encampment, Now “Highest-Priority Site In the City”

Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.
Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.

By Erica C. Barnett

A large, longstanding encampment in Upper Woodland Park has now become “the highest-priority [encampment] site in the city,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, told PubliCola yesterday. Strauss and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said city officials are meeting weekly with outreach providers to come up with a strategy for the encampment, which includes about 70 tents and as many as 100 people, including some who had been living in a nearby encampment the city’s Parks Department removed late last month.

The encampment is on the city’s official “priority list” for January, a designation bestowed on encampments the city is about to sweep.

Ordinarily, when an encampment is on the priority list, a group of city outreach workers called the HOPE Team goes to the site and offers the people living there whatever shelter happens to be available. Although the HOPE Team has exclusive access to some beds that are not available to other outreach providers, there are often no more than one or two beds available across the city, and those beds may not be suitable for every person living at an encampment.

Practically speaking, it would be impossible to move everyone living in even a midsize encampment into shelter in the few days the HOPE Team usually spends doing outreach before a sweep, even if the shelter that became available that week happened to be appropriate for those specific encampment residents. As a result, encampment sweeps tend to earn their name—encampment residents describe being swept from one site to another and then swept again, moving around neighborhoods in an endless round robin of sweeps.

“The mayor is … acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.”—Jamie Housen, spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell

Strauss says the Woodland Park removal will be different. Like the recent successful effort to remove a smaller encampment at the Ballard Commons park, he said, the city will send service providers into the encampment to collect the names of everyone living there, assess their needs, and assign each person to appropriate housing or shelter as it becomes available. “Our ability to place people in shelter will depend on two things: One, throughput for people who are in shelter into affordable housing” so that existing shelter beds become available, “and then, secondly shelter expansion.”

Strauss acknowledges that the Ballard Commons was successful precisely because several brand-new shelter facilities became available all at once, creating temporary excess capacity in the shelter system so that people actually had places to go. With Woodland Park, the situation is different; it’s impossible to move people into shelter that doesn’t exist.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell is “acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.” Harrell, Housen added, “is committed to ensuring progress at the site and is doing so by engaging the City with community, providers, and stakeholders in a constructive, methodical, and effective approach that drives visible change and improved outcomes for encampment residents and Woodland Park community members as quickly as possible.”

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee said LIHI—the city’s primary tiny-house village provider—has not heard anything about a proposal for new tiny houses to shelter people living in Woodland Park. Typically, standing up a new tiny house village is a process that requires funding from the city through the budget process, which happens annually with “supplemental” budget changes every three months, followed by a request for proposals and selection process.

During a meeting of the King County Homelessness Authority’s governing board on Thursday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the biggest challenge to standing up new shelters and tiny house villages isn’t funding but staffing. Recently, they said, “we have had shelters operate overnight shifts with a single person, which is simply not advisable.” The authority’s budget, which is primarily supplied by the city of Seattle, includes funding to expand Camp Second Chance in West Seattle.

In the meantime, Strauss said during a meeting of the Greenlake Community Council Wednesday night, the city will begin working on “short-term supports like trash mitigation and hygiene mitigation. So if you see a port-a-potty go up, or a handwashing station, or a Dumpster, this does not indicate a sanctioned encampment. It is a temporary placement. It will go up and it will go down.” The specific timeline for this process, Strauss said, will be “based on shelter capacity.”

Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to Retire, More Fallout From No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Deal, US Attorney Joins Davison Team

1. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg announced on Friday that he will not seek reelection in 2022, bringing an end to 37-year career in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, including four terms as the elected prosecutor.

In the 15 years since he was first elected, Satterberg has gradually shifted the attention of his office toward alternatives to prosecution. Those efforts included supporting diversion programs for people arrested for drug offenses years before a state supreme court decision overturned Washington’s felony drug possession laws in February 2021. Under Satterberg’s leadership, the prosecutor’s office also launched a sentencing review unit as part of an effort to remedy excessively long prison sentences.

Under Satterberg, the prosecutor’s office has participated in a push to scale back the use of juvenile detention in the county, relying on both diversion programs and an overall decline in juvenile crime. However, Satterberg has opposed closing down the county’s juvenile jail, and has voiced skepticism about efforts to reform Washington’s juvenile sentencing laws. In December 2020, Satterberg tried to appeal a pair of Washington State Supreme Court decisions expanding judges’ discretion to consider the age and maturity of juvenile offenders as mitigating factors when sentencing or re-sentencing them; the US Supreme Court later declined to hear Satterberg’s appeal.

Satterberg’s support for diversion programs has drawn the ire of some law enforcement allies, who blame his increasing focus on alternatives to detention for a recent rise in violent crime. But criticism has come from both sides: During the 2018 election, he faced a challenge from public defender Daron Morris, who criticized Satterberg for participating in a county-wide crackdown on sex work.

Since the start of the pandemic, Satterberg’s office has faced a backlog of felony cases fueled by court closures and staffing shortages. At the same time, law enforcement agencies across King County referred nearly a quarter fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office in 2021 than the pre-pandemic average, adding to an overall decline in the number of charges the office files each month in court.

In the final year of his term, Satterberg plans to expand a diversion program for first-time property crime felonies to serve adults, in addition to those younger than 18.

Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, announced her intention to run for Satterberg’s position in November. Manion is the first person to announce their candidacy for the office, and she follows in Satterberg’s footsteps: Before he led the office, Satterberg was the chief of staff to the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski also filed his candidacy for the position on Friday, as did Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

2. The Seattle Parks Department issued a violation and ordered re-training for the head of its encampment cleanup team after the employee approved a no-bid, no-contract deal to pay a company owned by a current city employee to remove trash from encampments, in violation of city contracting policy.

PubliCola learned of the violation from documents obtained through a records request. The notice of violation also raises questions about whether crew members for-owned company, Fresh Family LLC, paid its workers prevailing wages, a requirement for city contracts. According to a spokeswoman for the parks department, the prevailing wage for encampment cleanup crew members is $54.62 an hour; the department “is working to clarify whether Fresh Family failed to pay prevailing wages,” adding that “there was some discrepancy related to prevailing wages that SPR is working to address.”

Fresh Family’s owner, Debbie Wilson, is a former Parks Department employee who now works for City Light; the company received at least $434,000 in payments from the city over two months, according to invoices provided in response to PubliCola’s records request. The most recent invoice is for work performed on November 30, the day before PubliCola contacted Parks to ask about the company and three days before we ran a story about the unusual no-bid, no-contract deal.

Ordinarily, companies that do encampment cleanups are hired through what’s known as a blanket contract; when the Parks Department hires a company to remove an encampment or clean up garbage or other waste, they are required to choose from a list of companies that are included in this blanket contract.

The department can hire companies that are not on the list under one of two circumstances: If a contract is under $55,000 (which requires soliciting at least three bids), or if none of the companies on the list are available to do the work. Neither of these conditions were met when the city hired Fresh Family LLC to do encampment cleanup work during October and November.

According to the Parks Department spokeswoman, the department “will be providing this employee [Waters[ with a training that covers the full contracting process: vendor selection, contract creation, direct payment, coding, invoicing, and all city policies pertaining to the contracting process. This is a training that is given to staff periodically and again to specific staff when needed.”

Support PubliCola

Psst… Did you know PubliCola runs entirely on contributions from readers like you?

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution of any amount, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

3. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced on Friday that she has hired former US Attorney Brian Moran to help her office process a backlog of more than 4,000 misdemeanor cases and to advise her on “near term criminal priorities.”

Former President Donald Trump appointed Moran to serve as the US Attorney General for the Western District of Washington in 2019, with support from Washington Senators Patti Murray and Maria Cantwell during his confirmation process. At the request of the US Department of Justice, Moran resigned from his post in February 2021 alongside 54 other Trump-era US Attorneys.  Continue reading “Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to Retire, More Fallout From No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Deal, US Attorney Joins Davison Team”

Inslee Proposes $800 Million Housing, Homelessness Plan

Gov. Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal includes funding for new tiny-house village shelters.

By John Stang

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced $815 million supplemental budget proposal to respond to homelessness across the state. His announcement came one day before King County planned to release a new count of the region’s homeless population, based on data obtained from homeless service providers through a database called the Homeless Management Information System, that is expected to be significantly higher than previous “point in time” counts.

Inslee’s proposal did not include detailed information about how much funding Seattle and King County stood to receive.

While it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, the Washington Department of Commerce typically divides capital projects in thirds, with one third going to Seattle and King County, one third going to other cities and one third going to rural areas, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee told PubliCola. The commerce department would handle more than $700 million of the $815 million package in its capital and operations budgets.

If approved, the package would help build tiny-house villages, provide help for people to pay their utility bills, expand behavioral health facilities for the homeless, and speed up efforts to find places for the homeless living in tents on public right-of-ways.

Inslee announced the package Wednesday at the Copper Pines Habitat For Humanity complex in Ballard, which will include seven three-bedroom units for families making 80 percent or less of Seattle’s median income.

Inslee also announced legislation that would allow what low-rise apartments, split lots, duplexes, and other types of low-impact density on all residential lots within a half-mile of a major transit stop in cities with populations greater than 25,000 people. The legislation would effectively override laws dictating suburban-style single-family development in cities.

“We cannot wait years and decades to get people out of the rain,” Inslee said, adding that the state’s population growth has created a shortage of roughly 250,000 homes. “It is unacceptable to us to have people living under bridges and not have solutions.”

He said the state’s population growth has created a shortage of roughly 250,000 homes in Washington. His proposals addresses a range from the extremely poor to renting families in danger of losing their homes because of rising bills. Inslee said his proposals would build 1,500 new permanent housing units and fund acquisition of existing properties to add another 2,400 shelter beds, tiny house village units, and permanent housing units, including short-term shelter for people living in encampments across the state.

A document outlining Inslee’s proposal estimated that about 30 of every 10,000 state residents were homeless before the pandemic, a number the state believes has increased by about 2 percent. Statewide, 80,000 families said they could soon face eviction or foreclosure, according to the US Census Bureau. Continue reading “Inslee Proposes $800 Million Housing, Homelessness Plan”

A “New Approach to Encampment Removals” Is Limited by a Lack of Places for People to Go

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”

But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.” 

While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”

Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.

Processed with VSCO with n1 preset

At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.

The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.

The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter. 

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”

For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?

 

Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.

What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.

As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight

Anything Helps’ Mike Mathias and deputy Seattle Schools superintendent Rob Gannon take questions at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school earlier this year.

By the end of this week, dozens of tents that have dotted the hillside behind Broadview Thomson K-8 School will be gone, and the former campground, which borders the south side of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, abandoned except for the security guards who will ensure that no more unsheltered people move in. Many of the residents have moved into the Low Income Housing Institute’s new Friendship Heights tiny house village nearby, where 22 tiny houses are reserved for Bitter Lake residents. Another 18 have moved into the new Mary Pilgrim Inn, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, nearby.

In a letter to parents at the end of November, school principal Tipton Blish wrote, “With active support from the City of Seattle, the people who have been living at the camp now have an opportunity to move out of the elements and onto a path to break the cycle of homelessness.”

It’s a positive outcome for dozens of people who have spent more than a year waiting for services and support that never came.

But the past year at the Bitter Lake encampment, which culminated in disturbing allegations against the nonprofit director the school district tapped to relocate encampment residents, highlights ongoing policy questions about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, including the role that local government and nonprofits play in deciding which encampments get resources, and which get ignored.

It also raises a number of questions for the school district, the city, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Why did Seattle Public Schools place so much responsibility in the hands of an untested, brand-new nonprofit run primarily by a single volunteer? Should the district have done more to monitor what was going on at the encampment, including the power dynamics between the nonprofit and encampment residents? Why did the city take so long to step in and help encampment residents? And how did 14 housing vouchers end up in the hands of an unvetted nonprofit with no track record—or staff?

 

People began setting up tents at Bitter Lake shortly after the pandemic began, attracted by both the bucolic lakeshore location and the site’s proximity to a restroom in the city park next door. Walking to the site from the Bitter Lake soccer field, you might not realize you’ve crossed an invisible border from city property to school property; even the public boat ramp is technically on school district grounds, contributing to the sense that the lakeshore is part of the park itself.

But while the public may not have found the distinction meaningful, the city did, and when the school district asked for help picking up trash and providing services to the several dozen people living at the encampment earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was not the city’s problem, suggesting that perhaps the school district might want to use its “reserves” to set up its own human services department to provide outreach, case management, and housing to encampment residents.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps.

Casting around for allies, the school district settled on a new, but highly engaged, nonprofit called Anything Helps, led by a formerly homeless outreach worker named Mike Mathias. Within weeks, the school district had charged Mathias with the herculean task of finding shelter or housing for everyone on site. His plan, which involved enrolling every encampment resident in the state Housing and Essential Needs program, proved more challenging than either Mathias or the school district expected and ultimately didn’t pan out.

Instead, after many months of inaction, the city finally stepped in earlier this month, connecting encampment residents with shelter and housing through a very conventional avenue: The HOPE Team, a group of city employees that offers shelter and services to encampments that the city is about to sweep, started showing up and providing referrals to two new tiny house villages and a hotel-based housing project that recently opened nearby. Outreach workers from other nonprofits, who had mostly stayed away from Bitter Lake to prioritize people living in worse conditions elsewhere, showed up as well, and in the end, almost everyone on site moved into temporary shelter or housing.

Outreach workers, volunteers, and one school board member who spoke to PubliCola on background said they were relieved that encampment residents were finally able to leave, noting that the situation at the encampment had been deteriorating for some time.

Last week, volunteers for Anything Helps sent a letter to community members, the school district, and other homeless service providers making a number of disturbing allegations about Mathias. Among other charges, the letter alleges that Mathias used some of the money Anything Helps received from the school district and individual donors to pay for drugs; that he threatened and used federal Emergency Housing Vouchers as leverage over several women at the camp; and that he engaged in “verbal aggression, threats, and retaliation toward staff,” including accusing one volunteer of stealing money.

Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no paid case managers.

Mathias told PubliCola that “a lot of these allegations are false,” except for one that he declined to identify until he could talk to an attorney. He also said he would “step away from the project completely” and had appointed an interim executive director, former Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness outreach specialist Curtis Polteno, as his replacement. PubliCola was unable to reach Polteno to confirm his new role.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps, according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens. “These are very serious allegations that need to be investigated,” Martens said. Mathias had not officially assigned any of the vouchers to specific encampment residents yet when KCRHA froze the vouchers.

The city’s Human Services Department, which runs the HOPE team, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about the allegations.

The survey Mathias submitted as part of Anything Helps’ voucher application, which suggested the fledgling organization had a case management staff similar in size to longstanding service providers such as the YWCA, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, and Africatown, did not apparently raise eyebrows at the homelessness authority.

For months, Mathias and a handful of volunteers have been out at the encampment daily, setting up a makeshift “headquarters” that has consisted of a portable awning, some card tables, a few laptops, and a printer. None of the volunteers, who Mathias referred to as “volunteer staff,” received a salary, including Mathias. Nonetheless, on his application for vouchers, Mathias wrote that Anything Helps had seven “FTE case managers,” or the equivalent of seven paid full-time case managers, on staff. Continue reading “As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight”

Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work

The Seattle Parks Department, which conducts encampment sweeps and cleans up trash at encampment sites through Seattle’s Clean City Initiative, hired a company owned by a current City of Seattle employee to do nearly half a million dollars’ worth of encampment cleanup work, despite the fact that the company was not on the city’s list of approved contractors to perform this work and does not have any contract with the city.

The company, Fresh Family LLC, is owned by a city employee named Debbie Wilson, who registered the company with the secretary of state’s office this past May. Wilson, who worked as a parks maintenance aide for the Parks Department until taking a job with to Seattle City Light in 2017, declined to comment when PubliCola contacted her by email and phone.

Ordinarily, when a company wants to work for the city’s encampment cleanup crew, they must wait for the city to run a formal bidding process for inclusion in the city’s “blanket contract”—essentially, a list of pre-approved sanitation companies that the parks department can call on to do cleanup work. When the encampment cleanup team goes out to remove or clean up waste in and around an encampment, they are supposed to draw exclusively from this list, using other suppliers only if no company on the list is able to do the work. The only exceptions are for contracts under $8,000, which do not require any bidding process, or under $55,000, which require the city to get written quotes from three different companies.

Not only is Fresh Family not on the city’s blanket contract list, they aren’t in the city’s contractor database at all, because they don’t have a contract with the city. “There is no contract,” the Parks spokeswoman, Rachel Schulkin confirmed. Instead, it appears that Fresh Family was simply told to do the work and submit invoices to the city. As of December 2, Fresh Family had charged the parks department about $425,000 for its work, Schulkin said.

The circumstances that led the city to hire Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup company outside the ordinary process and without a formal contract are convoluted and still somewhat mysterious.

There are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

According to Schulkin, a Parks Department employee selected Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider after locating them in the city’s online business database, which includes all “companies, including women and minority-owned businesses, who have expressed interest in doing business with the City.” The database includes a column, labeled “WMBE—Ethnicity,” that identifies the “ethnicity” (or race) of the owners of Women and Minority-owned Business Enterprises (WMBEs). Schulkin said the employee misunderstood the designation “B” in this column, assuming that it stood for “Blanket” (as in a blanket contract) rather than “Black.”

As of mid-November, according to weekly “snapshots” of Clean City work provided by the Parks Department, Fresh Family was still doing encampment cleanup work, although Schulkin said the department has since stopped using the company and has informed Wilson she would need to go through the ordinary open bidding process the next time the city seeks new encampment cleanup providers. 

“We are remedying this situation with providing this employee and their team with better training on City contracting policies, reexamining our department accounting controls and contract management systems, as well as working with the City’s [Finance and Administrative Services] … to find out how we can better prevent this type of mistake, and catch it sooner should it occur again,” Schulkin said.

The Parks Department did not respond to repeated questions about which employee approved Fresh Family to perform encampment cleanup work. August Drake-Ericson, the former manager of the Human Services Department’s erstwhile Navigation Team, is now a strategic advisor for the department’s encampment cleanup team, which is headed by senior manager Donna Waters.

Schulkin characterized the error that led to the no-bid, no-contract approval as a simple “mistake” involving a misunderstanding of what the letter “B” stood for in the city’s business database. But there are several steps that someone in a position to approve large contracts would have to take, and a great deal of information they would have to overlook or misinterpret, to select a brand-new company without a city contract to do encampment cleanup work.

In addition to B for Black, the city’s “ethnicity” designations include A for “Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander,” W for White, N for “Native American or Alaska Native” and “H” for Hispanic or Latino.” A link to information about what each letter under “ethnicity” stands for is at the bottom of the search page.

What the Parks Department is saying is that whoever approved Fresh Family as an encampment cleanup provider overlooked both the column heading (“WMBE & Ethnicity”) and the link explaining what the letters meant.

Assuming that is what happened, and that the unidentified employee in charge of deciding which companies receive encampment work believed that “B” meant “Blanket,” that employee would also have to have believed that a company that had been in existence only a few months was already part of the blanket contract. All seven companies in the blanket contract were initially approved in 2017. Continue reading “Parks Department Hired Company Run by City Employee for No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Work”

Mosqueda Challenger Rails Against “Ghetto-Type Paintings,” Durkan Proposes Moving Homeless Outreach Team to Parks Department

1. Ever since an unknown civil engineer named Kenneth Wilson eked out 16 percent of the vote to come in second in the August council primary, the conventional wisdom has been that City Council District 8 incumbent Teresa Mosqueda (who in actual fact won with 59 percent) is facing “a more competitive race than expected,” thanks to a “surprise” upset by a  “frugal,” “competent” “fresh face” whom one pundit called just the kind of “Mr. Fixit” that the council “badly need[s].”

As compelling as those arguments may seem, we’d like to offer a counterpoint: Wilson’s own words.

During his closing statement in a debate last weekend moderated by PubliCola’s Erica Barnett, Wilson explained that one of the reasons he started “becoming political” was the presence of “ghetto-type paintings everywhere” (presumably: Graffiti-style murals), which he associated with crime. In her own closing statement, Mosqueda responded that Wilson, “as someone who says they’re analytical, should analyze how that statement is not a good thing to be saying.” She also pointed out that Wilson constantly talked over and interrupted the moderator, which he did.

In response to a question about how he would deal with the confirmation process for and appointment of a permanent director for the city’s arts office—a process Mayor Jenny Durkan upended by appointing a new temporary director to replace one she appointed earlier, all without input from the arts commission or the advisory body set up to advise her on the selection—Wilson responded: 

“So, first, first and foremost, the arts and culture are so fundamental to our life. We saw the great impact that we lost with what happened in COVID. So many things shut down. So having this important position is valuable to our community and something that we need to build upon. So I would take that very seriously. … I know we had questions even about what’s your qualifications for a position to teach in school. I think some of these jobs have a background to them but an educator, even having some of your background in arts and doing these things firsthand. So being a performer and how we’re going to select this and criteria that we would add to our thing is really valuable to me.”

Sometimes it really is okay just say you don’t have enough background to answer the question and leave it at that.

Finally, at a forum sponsored by Seattle Fair Growth, Wilson responded to a question about preventing displacement by suggesting that someone who makes $50,000 a year and can only afford a $1,600-a-month studio apartment in Seattle should take advantage of their “mobility” and “use their $1,600 maybe down at Angle Lake and get a three-bedroom apartment. Here in Seattle, we’re having other challenges.” Moving away from an urban neighborhood where you’ve lived for a long time to a suburb 20 miles away is pretty much the definition of displacement, not its solution.

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said the city planned to “loan” the HOPE Team’s system navigators to the Parks Department, where their job will consist of being “present on the day of a clean to offer shelter to the one or two people that are left there.”

Wilson has raised about $62,000 in his bid to unseat Mosqueda, and so enchanted Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat that Westneat devoted an entire column to his virtues. The Times did not endorse in the primary, expressing astonishment that the popular incumbent did not draw “stronger” challengers.

2, As the city’s homelessness services move over to the new regional homelessness authority, one major unanswered question is: What will happen to the HOPE team?

The team, whose acronym stands for Homeless Outreach and Provider Ecosystem, was supposed to be a less-punitive replacement for the Navigation Team, which was primarily responsible for removing encampments. In reality, the team became a kind of vanguard for the Parks Department, which now conducts most of the city’s sweeps. Continue reading “Mosqueda Challenger Rails Against “Ghetto-Type Paintings,” Durkan Proposes Moving Homeless Outreach Team to Parks Department”

Mayoral Debates Highlight Key Differences in How Candidates Would Approach Homelessness

 

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday, two debates on homelessness highlighted stark differences between how each of the mayoral candidates—current Seattle City Council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell—would address the homelessness crisis. The first was sponsored by the Resolution to End Homelessness; the second, by We Are In and the Seattle Times.

As the Times noted in its own coverage of its debate, Harrell frequently responded to direct questions by changing the subject—answering a question about access to public restrooms, for example, by repeating a talking point about how people don’t care who’s to blame for the homelessness crisis—and claimed several times to have run into people he knew growing up in the Central District when visiting encampments and tiny house villages.

“”Mr. Harrell’s homelessness plan is a verbatim facsimile of a corporate and Republican-funded plan, commonly referred to as Compassion Seattle.”—Lorena González

González, meanwhile, focused on more long-term solutions to homelessness, like changing the city’s zoning code and building 37,000 new housing units in King County—the number a 2020 report said would be necessary to solve the county’s affordable-housing crisis—even in response to questions about how to address the problem of unsheltered homelessness in the short term.

Here are some of the key points on which Harrell and González offered starkly different approaches on homelessness.

Funding for Homelessness Response

Harrell, who has proposed a homeless strategy that is basically identical to the erstwhile “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, said the city has more than enough resources already, between existing city funds and potential corporate philanthropy, to solve unsheltered homelessness and “get our parks and our open spaces, and our sidewalks clean.”

Asked whether the city needs additional resources to fund housing, shelters, or services for people experiencing homelessness, Harrell responded than in 12 years on the council, he had never reached a point where “you have enough money to solve all of your problems. You have to take some principles of business into play and make sure that you do an inventory of what assets you have, you use them efficiently and effectively, you start solving the problem.”

“Seattle should not look at this as though we have a scarcity of resources,” Harrell said.

Harrell added that while the city worked to get new progressive revenue options from the state legislature (options that the state legislature has so far declined to provide), the city should also ask “wealthy corporations” with “corporate social responsibility goals” to contribute funding, which could produce “hundreds of millions of dollars” to address homelessness.

“Seattle should not look at [homelessness] as though we have a scarcity of resources.” — Bruce Harrell

González, in contrast, pointed to her co-sponsorship of the JumpStart payroll tax as an example of the kind of progressive revenue she’d work to expand as mayor, and criticized Harrell’s proposal to build 2,000 shelter “units” in one year using existing revenues (i.e. the Compassion Seattle plan) as inadequate to address the need. “Mr. Harrell’s homelessness plan is a verbatim facsimile of a corporate and Republican funded plan, commonly referred to as Compassion Seattle,” González said, calling it a plan “to legitimize sweeps… with the fig leaf of only an additional 1 percent of funding to address this crisis.”

Sweeps

During both debates, Harrell dodged direct questions about whether he supports “sweeps”—the forcible removal of unsheltered people from public spaces—rejecting the word itself as “radioactive.” Instead, he pointed to his support from faith leaders and his support for the United Way of King County, where his wife, Joanne, was CEO for several years.

“You allow people to donate not just money, but their time, their expertise,” he said. “I believe that the city can do that. And so we shouldn’t have to look at the human suffering of other people, and that’s my attitude going in, that I will bring into the mayor’s office: We don’t have to see it, and we’re going to lead with love, and we will make sure that people can enjoy their parks and have a quality of life that they deserve.”

González, noting Harrell’s frequent references to “cleaning” parks so that housed people can use them, said she wouldn’t shut down encampments until “the city does its job and provides provides the shelter and the housing that’s necessary to actually transition poor people out of poverty. … As mayor, I’m going to leverage every available resource. And I’m committed to rapidly rehousing people into meeting the needs of shelter housing and mental health needs of all of those we are currently failing.”

Solutions

González said that one of her first steps as mayor would be to work “with city staff, with community service providers, and with housing providers to immediately create individual service plans, and to immediately identify who is ready to come inside, based on an adequate offer of housing and shelter.” Beyond that, she said she would identify new resources to fund shelter and housing for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness—about 37,000 units countywide.

“The reality is that right now, on any given night, we do not have enough shelter for the nearly 4,000 people who are sleeping outside,” González said. “It is critically important for us to remain committed to … approaches that are going to reduce trauma, and also increase our success in actually ending homelessness, not just hiding it.”

“We shouldn’t have to look at the human suffering of other people, and that’s my attitude going in, that I will bring into the mayor’s office: We don’t have to see it, and we’re going to lead with love, and we will make sure that people can enjoy their parks and have a quality of life that they deserve.”—Bruce Harrell

Harrell said he would adopt a mix of upstream and downstream approaches, including early childhood education, health care for people who can’t get funding through other government programs, mentoring and life skills classes, and a jobs center where people can “tap into their gifts, whether it’s working with their hands, whether they draft code, or they’re artists.” These programs, Harrell said, would be places where “people who may not be chronically homeless, may not have the extent of mental illness that some do, can find employment, can retool themselves, and we’ll bring in mentors and counselors to make sure that they are on a better path.”

Harrell also said he would send “culturally competent” people to do outreach at encampments and suggested that the current outreach system does not provide unsheltered people with outreach workers who “look like them” or have “cultural commonality” with the people they’re attempting to help.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Tiny Houses

Harold Odom, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition and a longtime resident of a tiny house village in Georgetown, asked both candidates what they would do to avoid the proliferation of tiny-house villages, which he called “Hoovervilles,” around the city. Tiny house villages are a type of enhanced shelter where people live in a community of small shed-like structures and access services through a provider such as the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs all of the city’s sanctioned tiny house villages.

The issue of tiny house villages is a live one, as the new regional homelessness authority takes over nearly every aspect of Seattle’s homelessness response; the authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, is a tiny house village skeptic.

González said she would work to lower the amount of time people stay in tiny house villages and create a “meaningful transition away from tiny sheds and towards a path of sustainable, safe, appropriate … housing for those who are currently living in those spaces. While we all acknowledged at one point in time that these structures provide a safer option than living in our parks or in doorways or in greenways, I agree that five years in, it now appears that we are baking this in to our intervention strategies.”

Harrell said that he, too, would like to create a goal of moving people from tiny houses into permanent housing more quickly, and pivoted to talking about his health care plan, his plan for a job center, and his Empowerment and Opportunity Program, a mentorship program for Black kids to learn networking, wealth building, and career skills. “I want people out of those tiny homes as much as possible as well…  just to make sure that we can get our parks and our open spaces and our sidewalks clean,” he said. “And I said publicly, it’s inhumane just to ignore people’s conditions. So… we’re going to get them services that they currently do not have.”

People who “don’t want help”

At both debates, the candidates were asked some version of the question, “What do you do with people who refuse services because they just want to live outside?” Continue reading “Mayoral Debates Highlight Key Differences in How Candidates Would Approach Homelessness”

Durkan Budget Would Gut JumpStart Spending Plan, Increase Funding for Encampment Response

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan released the final budget of her term yesterday, outlining the proposal at a very high level in a six-minute speech from North Seattle College. In the coming weeks, the proposal will be debated, analyzed, and rewritten by the Seattle City Council (the addition of 35 net new police officers is an obvious target for their red pens), and PubliCola will be covering every aspect of those upcoming discussions. For now, though, here are a few initial notes on the plan, which reflects better-than-expected revenues and incorporates a lot of ongoing federal funding for COVID relief.

• The budget proposes taking $148 million from the city’s payroll tax fund, a repository for revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, and moving it into the general fund to pay for Durkan’s other priorities. Legislation the mayor will transmit to the council would also empower future mayors to use JumpStart revenues for virtually any purpose, including the “[m]aintenance of existing essential City services.” The mayor’s proposal would remove language from existing law stipulating that the tax can’t be used to “supplant existing funding from any City fund or revenue source.”

The council adopted the payroll tax specifically to fund programs addressing housing, homelessness, and equity, and created a separate fund for JumpStart revenues with the intention that they couldn’t be used for other purposes—which is precisely what Durkan is proposing to do.

“The proposed changes are necessary in order to reconcile the priorities identified in [the JumpStart bill] with Council actions in support of other critical funding needs, including homelessness, community safety, BIPOC investments, domestic violence prevention and victim services, appropriate compensation for City employees, and the ongoing shortfall in some City revenues,” the mayor’s budget proposal says.

The city estimates that JumpStart will bring in about $235 million next year, so Durkan’s plan would use up the majority of JumpStart funding for non-JumpStart purposes.

Durkan attempted to reallocate JumpStart revenues last year as well.

A summary of the bill by the City Budget Office notes that Durkan didn’t sign the JumpStart bill, “expressing many of the same concerns about earmarking certain revenue streams at a time when the City was making significant investments using one-time funding received from the federal government as a response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.” She also vetoed legislation last year that used JumpStart revenues to fund COVID relief, a veto the council narrowly overturned.

The city estimates that JumpStart will bring in about $235 million next year, so Durkan’s plan would use up the majority of JumpStart funding for non-JumpStart purposes. The budget would use one-time federal emergency dollars to backfill the gap in the JumpStart fund, but because those funds only last one year, the budget creates a future funding cliff for the next mayor and council. If the council adopts this plan, it will have to either cut the programs Durkan funded using a tax meant for other purposes, or continue to dip into JumpStart revenues while cutting back on programs funded this year with one-time funds. It seems unlikely that the council will allow this part of the budget proposal to stand as is.

This is hardly the first time Durkan has proposed dipping into funds earmarked by legislation for a specific purpose in order to fund her own unrelated priorities. In 2018, she started using funds from the sweetened beverage tax—a tax that was supposed to fund healthy food programs in areas most impacted by the tax—to pay for programs that had historically been funded through the city’s general fund, creating “extra” money for her office to allocate elsewhere.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the higher-than-expected contribution to the regional homelessness authority “represents increased spending on homelessness projected 2022. The [agreement] was written in 2019 and did not contemplate the pandemic or the massive infusion of funds to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe.”

When the council attempted to reverse this sleight-of-hand and use the tax revenues for their designated purpose, Durkan accused them of “cutting” programs that she was using the tax to fund, setting off a nasty battle that resulted in the council creating a designated fund for soda tax revenues—much like the designated JumpStart fund.

• Durkan wants to add another 35 (net) new police officers to the force—a fairly modest goal, but one directly in conflict with many council members’ stated commitment to reduce the size of the police department and invest the savings into community-based public safety alternatives. Last year, Durkan vetoed the entire city budget because the council amended it to reduce the size of the police force, a veto the council subsequently overturned.

Although the budget proposal includes funding for new and continued alternatives to policing and police response, such as Health One and Triage One, and funding for the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, a gun-violence prevention program, it also commits to “restoring SPD staffing to previous levels” by hiring new officers. To that end, Durkan’s budget also includes $1.1 million to pay for hiring incentives for new recruits and officers who make lateral transfers from other departments.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The city council just rejected a series of proposals from Councilmember Alex Pedersen that would have set aside as much as $3 million to retain existing officers and recruit new ones to the department.

• The budget proposes sending more money than the city originally agreed to provide—$104.2 million, compared to $75 million the city agreed to provide in the interlocal agreement adopted in 2019—to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take over (almost) all the homelessness programs previously managed by the city at the end of this year. The homelessness authority is funded by the city and King County; suburban cities, which hold three seats on the authority’s governing board, don’t contribute financially to the authority.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the higher-than-expected contribution “represents increased spending on homelessness projected 2022. The [agreement] was written in 2019 and did not contemplate the pandemic or the massive infusion of funds to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay safe.”

The new funds include $2.4 million in state and local funds for “tiny home villages,” coincidentally the same amount of state and local dollars the council has been trying to get the mayor to release to pay for three new tiny house villages this year. The mayor’s proposed $2.4 million would pay for ongoing “operations, maintenance, and services s for three tiny home villages (estimated 120 units) or other noncongregate emergency shelter or temporary housing options,” leaving open the possibility that the regional authority might fund a different shelter option.

However, because the money is supposed to “operationalize” funding in the state capital budget that was explicitly for “tiny homes,” it’s likely that advocates for tiny house villages would object strongly to using the money for some other kind of shelter. Authority CEO Marc Dones has expressed skepticism about tiny houses as a form of temporary shelter, noting that people tend to stay in villages far longer than the city’s own goals for the program.

There’s also funding in the proposal for a new men’s shelter run by Africatown at a former nursing home in the Central District; ongoing support for the Salvation Army’s mass shelter in SoDo; and about $190 million for new housing, paid for through the voter-adopted housing levy, federal dollars, and other funding sources.

Durkan’s proposed budget increases funding for Parks’ encampment work by almost a million dollars, adding 6.5 full-time equivalent employees to respond to “the increased demand on [Seattle Parks and Recreation] to address impacts of unmanaged encampments, such as litter removal, storage of personal belongings, and data collection & reporting in compliance with Multi-Department Rules (MDAR).”

The budget also proposes $6 million for services to help people who receive federal emergency housing vouchers maintain their housing when the vouchers run out. Some of this money, according to the budget summary, could come from rapid rehousing funds. As we’ve reported, the city’s plan to move people quickly from two shelter-based hotels into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies has failed to place many people in housing, largely because the people moving into the hotels tend to be poor candidates for rapid rehousing programs, which generally require tenants to pay full market rent within a few months to a year.

• Although Durkan’s budget plan relinquishes control of most homelessness work, it still assumes that the city, not the regional authority, will maintain its role removing encampments and, to some extent, doing outreach to unsheltered people, although the form that role will take is unclear. Budget director Ben Noble told PubliCola yesterday that although “the shelter contracts and related pieces are all going to the regional authority… the feeling was that folks who are on the street and not in a sanctioned encampment but living outside are sill the primary responsibility of the city.” Continue reading “Durkan Budget Would Gut JumpStart Spending Plan, Increase Funding for Encampment Response”

As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites

Kent isolation and quarantine facility
Screenshot: King County Youtube

By Erica C. Barnett

An alarming increase in COVID cases among people experiencing homelessness has been exacerbated in recent weeks, homeless service providers say, by rumors that if people enter a county-run isolation and quarantine site, they won’t be allowed to leave.

And even before these rumors began circulating widely, many unhoused people who tested positive for COVID were reluctant to enter isolation and quarantine, for reasons that ranged from active substance use to the fear that if they left an encampment, they would lose everything they had—a not unreasonable assumption, given the recent uptick in encampment sweeps.

“The resistance, in my experience, has been across the board,” Dr. Cyn Kotarski, medical director for the Public Defender Association, said. “I haven’t met anyone so far who doesn’t have some fear and some resistance to go, and that’s mostly just because it’s overwhelming. It can feel pretty scary to think that you don’t know where you’re going or why, especially when you’re taking someone out of their own environment and their own community,” Kotarski said. The PDA is a partner on several efforts to move unsheltered people into hotels during the pandemic, including Co-LEAD and JustCare.

Although early reports suggested that people living outdoors are less susceptible to COVID infection than those living in group quarters like congregate shelters, the more contagious delta variant could lead to more infections in both indoor and outdoor locations. During the week that ended September 10, King County counted 41 people experiencing homelessness who tested positive for COVID—an undercount, since it only accounts for county testing events.

According to King County Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole, as of last week, there were 22 active COVID cases associated with encampment outbreaks, defined as two or more people who have tested positive at an encampment—an “increase from baseline” of “one to four cases per month associated with encampments.” A review of the county’s weekly reports shows a steady increase in cases that began in early August and hasn’t abated.

“The facilities are not secure, and staying is totally optional. When people come in, we say, ‘Your isolation period is this long, your quarantine period is this long. If you do not want to stay the whole time, let’s talk about it.'”—Hedda McClendon, King County

The increase in COVID cases has impacted every part of the county’s service system. The county’s public health department offers testing and transportation for people who test positive, but service providers and county officials say the system is stretched thin, with long waits for transportation and even testing. According to Cole, the current wait for a test by the county’s HEART E Team, one of two teams that performs testing at homeless encampments, can be as long as five to seven days. When someone living in an encampment tests positive, an outreach provider often must wait with them for hours until a county vehicle arrives to take them to isolation and quarantine, increasing the likelihood that they’ll give up and decide not to go. 

Just getting someone on the phone, outreach workers say, can be a challenge. “You call in and they take your number, but if you call back, it’s an automated line and you have to try to reach the person you were talking to,” Dawn Shepard, the south district outreach coordinator for REACH, said. If an outreach worker or unsheltered person misses a call from the county’s COVID hotline, Shepard says, they’ll have to start the whole process over again, “and by that point the person’s just losing interest.” Currently, Shepard added, “It’s taking us about eight hours from coordination to pickup.”

The county, through a partnership with T-Mobile, has handed out about 500 cell phones for outreach providers to distribute to clients, according to Cole, but Stewart says they need more, along with rapid COVID tests so that people don’t have to wait for days to get tested. Currently, rapid tests are hard to come by and expensive when they are available.

Meanwhile, the number of people staying at the Kent isolation and quarantine site, where 60 rooms are currently available, has increased from zero to 50 virtually “overnight,” King County COVID Emergency Services Group director Hedda McClendon said, stretching resources thin. If all the rooms fill up, the county will have to start triaging people based on test results, exposure, and other qualifications, turning people away if their cases aren’t severe.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Shepard said that in the early days of the pandemic, “we really didn’t see folks that were living outside contracting the disease…  largely because the viral load is much lower when you’re outside. Now, though, I think it’s safe to say that with the delta variant, our clients don’t have the same protection, because we’re seeing it all over the city.”

Shelter providers, including Compass and WHEEL, also confirm that they’ve seen an increase in cases; according to WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand, COVID “is ripping through many, many homeless programs and communities,” including WHEEL’s women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has seen at least 11 positive cases in the past few weeks. “We’ve had to stop doing intakes now because of this outbreak,” Marchand continued, adding that the organization is seeking funds for hotel vouchers “to meet the immediate need during this current crisis.”

Charlene Mitchell, the program manager at the Compass Housing-run women’s shelter Jan and Peter’s Place, said that the shelter requires people who test positive to stay “in their bed area” while they wait to be taken to the site in Kent, a process that’s considerably faster than testing and moving people living unsheltered. (Currently, the county uses Yellow Cabs for this purpose). She can remember one recent case when a woman left the shelter for the Kent site and decided not to stay. “She turned around [after arriving] and stayed outside in the streets and at the bus stop” after family members refused to take her in. “She recovered, but I don’t know who all she infected” while she was contagious, Mitchell said.

Shepard says that she’s encountered an increasing number of unsheltered people who tell her they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t want to be tested or go into isolation and quarantine because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed to leave. “There was this big push, when isolation and quarantine opened, that they were not going to hold people against their will, but now there are stories coming out about that happening to people.” Shepard says she takes these stories “with a grain of salt—when I’ve asked who has had that experience, it’s just like, ‘everyone knows'”—but says they’ve had an impact nonetheless. “The big thing I’m hearing right now is, ‘No, I don’t want to go because they won’t let me leave.'” Continue reading “As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites”