Tag: encampments

More Details On Proposal to Double Parks District Funding: Encampments, Park Security, and Pickleball

Interim parks director Christopher Williams speaks at a parks district press conference last week.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle voters approved the Seattle Metropolitan Parks District, a special taxing district that enables the city to raise property taxes by as much to .075 percent without a public vote, in 2014 over the objections of the Seattle Times editorial board and other anti-tax advocates who argued that it would create a “permanent tax” with no accountability.

The parks district, which imposed an initial property tax of 0.02 percent (or 20 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation) replaced a system that required Seattle residents to vote on a parks levy every six years. If they didn’t, the city would forfeit much of its ongoing funding for things like community center and pool maintenance, landscaping, and new park acquisition. The Times didn’t like the old system much, either, but they really hated the idea of a tax that couldn’t be defeated at the polls.

So it’s interesting, this time around, that usual suspects aren’t lobbying the council at top volume to reject Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal for the second cycle of parks district funding, which would almost double the size of the levy from 20 cents per $1,000 to 38 and increase Seattle parks’ reliance on funding from the tax from 20 percent of the total parks budget to about one-third.

Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments.

Maybe that’s because the Times supports Harrell and his vision. In addition to more funding for things like renovating and decarbonizing community centers, keeping parks restrooms open year-round, and pickleball, Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments. (The funding mechanism is a money swap that puts the program in the base budget for parks while swapping money that pays for parks utilities from the city budget into the parks district).

The Clean City Initiative was originally funded with federal COVID response dollars as a “surge” program to clean up trash and litter, but it has always been strongly associated with encampment removals. By bringing this work under the UCT and making it part of the department’s base budget, the mayor is proposing to make a temporary response to encampments in parks permanent.

Similarly, Harrell’s proposal would revive the moribund Parks Ranger program by deploying 26 new rangers in city parks. The rangers, who are uniformed but unarmed, have historically patrolled parks in downtown Seattle and on Capitol Hill, providing security and occasionally helping the Seattle Police Department remove encampments, issue trespass warnings, or kick protesters out of public spaces, as they did at Westlake Park during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2011.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the parks district board, said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the size of the tax increase during the town halls the board held this summer around the city. “I think it’s just a reflection of how much need there is for investment in our parks and how our old system was not sufficient to meet it,” Lewis said. Having the certainty of an ongoing tax, he added, enables the city to bond against parks district revenues for longer periods, because the city doesn’t have to worry about funds running out if voters decide not to renew the tax.

“We can do more community centers and climate resiliency [projects], because we can bond more of this,” Lewis said. The proposal includes funding for a number of capital projects that wouldn’t be affordable without longer-term bonds, including renovations and upgrades at four community centers.

Harrell’s office, in contrast to his historically secretive predecessor Jenny Durkan, provided a detailed preview of his parks district proposal that included information about some parks-related adds in his upcoming city budget proposal. This appendix provides a good high-level summary of the plan, which, flower enthusiasts will be bummed to learn, will “not include the [Board of Parks and Recreation Commission] recommended investment of approximately $270,000 to fund hanging baskets and other park beautification efforts.”

City Attorney Filing, But Also Diverting, More Cases; City’s Shelter Enrollment Rate Remains Low

City Attorney Ann Davison

 

1. City Attorney Ann Davison’s office released a detailed report this week confirming what PubliCola reported earlier this month: In the first six months of 2022, her office has filed charges in only about half of the criminal cases it has considered, declining to pursue charges at a rate similar to that of her predecessor, Pete Holmes. Between 2017 and 2019, Holmes’ decline rate ranged from just over 40 percent to just under 60 percent, only slightly lower than Davison’s.

Between January and June, the city attorney’s office declined about 51 percent of cases. That number includes cases from a backlog left after Holmes left office, which resulted from a combination of failure to file cases prior to the pandemic and an increase in unfiled cases in 2021, when the Seattle Municipal Court was not operating at full capacity due to the pandemic.

Excluding those cases, Davison’s decline rate was lower (46 percent between January and March and 41 percent between April and June), but without more details about what cases the office considered from the backlog, or what cases came in between April and June, it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions from that comparison.

Digging into the numbers in the report, the rate of domestic violence cases that the office declined has risen steadily over the years, and remains high under Davison (over 60 percent) so far; one reason for this, according to the report, is that domestic violence victims often don’t want to file charges against their abusers. Assault, property destruction, and harassment topped the list of domestic violence cases where no charges were filed.

The report shows that Davison’s office has resolved cases using diversionary programs, such as community court, mental health court, and the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, at least as often as her predecessors, diverting hundreds of theft, assault, trespassing, and other cases to therapeutic courts or social services.

Davison’s office did file charges in a much higher percentage of new non-domestic violence and non-traffic criminal offenses (those committed in 2022) than Holmes—around half in the first quarter of this year and 37 percent in the second quarter. If that trend continues, it will mean that Davison is choosing to pursue charges against more people accused of crimes like assault, theft, and trespassing, which are often crimes of poverty.

 

Ann Davison portrait

Perhaps most interestingly, the report shows that Davison’s office has resolved cases using diversionary programs, such as community court, mental health court, and the Public Defender Association’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, at least as often as her predecessors, diverting hundreds of theft, assault, trespassing, and other cases to therapeutic courts or social services. Overall, Davison referred about 750 cases to community court, more than 600 to LEAD, and about 180 to mental health court.

Earlier this year, Davison sought, and received, authority to deny access to community court for the 100 or so people on her “high utilizer” list, which includes people with more than 12 cases (not charges) in the past five years. The city attorney’s office really is treating this population differently: In contrast to their overall approach, the office has filed charges in 82 percent of cases involving this group, a decline rate of just 18 percent.

2. The latest quarterly report from the Seattle Human Services Department on the work of the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) Team shows an uptick in the number of people who received referrals to shelter from the HOPE Team and actually enrolled in shelter, meaning that they showed up and stayed for at least one night. The HOPE Team does outreach at encampments, primarily the city’s regularly updated list of encampments it plans to sweep.

Between April and June, 173 people went to shelter based on a HOPE team referral, amounting to 41 percent of the total number of people who received at least one referral. (Overall, the team made 458 referrals, including multiple referrals for some individuals). Put another way, that means about 58 people went to shelter on HOPE team referrals every month last quarter. The numbers are approximate, because some people who enroll in shelter choose to remain anonymous, making them harder to track.

Those numbers, while they represent a slight improvement, continue to reveal that the majority of shelter referrals don’t result in shelter enrollments (and shelter, of course, isn’t housing)—people are getting referral slips but aren’t using them. This can happen for a variety of reasons: Leaving an encampment for shelter can involve a long trek across town, along with tough decisions, such as whether to leave an established street community or abandon a pet.

Notably, the second quarter of this year also included the removal of a large encampment at Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell identified early on as one of the top priorities for his administration. As we reported at the time, the city asked the Low-Income Housing Institute to set aside dozens of spots in tiny-house villages—a desirable, semi-private shelter type that has a very high enrollment rate—for people living in the park. Out of 89 shelter referrals at Woodland Park, 60 were to tiny house villages.

The city also made a special effort to ensure that people forced to leave during the high-profile removal, offering direct transportation to shelters for everyone who received a referral, which likely boosted the overall enrollment rate. PubliCola has asked HSD how many of the 173 enrollments between April and June came from Woodland Park and will update this post when we hear back.

City Auditor Recommends Tracking Progress on Encampments—Not Just Encampment Removals

By Erica C. Barnett

The City Auditor’s Office—a small office that churns out reports and recommendations about how to improve city programs and policies—issued a report this month titled, self-summarizingly, “The City of Seattle Should Use a Data Dashboard to Track its Progress in Addressing Unsanctioned Encampments.” The report is part of an ongoing series of audits that began in 2017, when Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked the auditor to start tracking the work of the Navigation Team, ex-mayor Jenny Durkan’s encampment cleanup crew.

Through that work, the report says, the auditor’s office discovered that the city “was not systematically tracking the kind of data that would aid City leaders, stakeholders, and community members in understanding whether conditions related to encampments were improving or worsening over time. In previous reports we found that many important data, ranging from daily shelter-bed availability to trash accumulation, to the number of 24-hour bathrooms, were not being tracked over time.”

But wait, you may be wondering—don’t we already have a city homelessness dashboard? Well… kind of. The “One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan” website Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out in May does include some dashboard-like elements, such as a bar graph showing the number of shelter referrals the city makes each month and a map identifying some of the encampment sites the city had identified and “closed” by mid-May. But the city plans to update the graph and map only quarterly, and the map is incomplete; many dots indicating closed encampments say “no outreach data available,” and huge swaths of the city, including the University District and Rainier Beach, appear to have no encampments at all.

“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress.”—City Auditor David Jones

City Auditor David Jones said his office began working on its latest report before the Harrell administration came into office. “We do recognize that their dashboard is a work in progress,” Jones said. “We don’t want to jump in on something that’s just been put out there that hopefully will be improved over time and added to and changed in response to needs and critiques.”

The audit report suggests collecting (or compiling existing) data in three key areas: 1) the lived experience of people in encampments, including measures like  and physical and mental health; 2) public health indicators, such as the amount of trash and the number of needles at known encampment sites; and 3) measures of how well the system is performing, such as shelter acceptance rates and the availability of restrooms with running water. By tracking key metrics over time, the report says, the city could start to get a better handle on which strategies are working.

“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress,” Jones said. Even though external factors, like the pandemic or the economy, can have outsize effects on some measures of progress, like shelter availability, a dashboard “at least would give you some sort of yardstick. …Are there fewer fires? Are there fewer people who are unsheltered? Is there a shorter time which people are receiving cervices? It at least gives you some sense of how you’re doing and if we’re moving in the right direction.”

A spokesman for Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said the report “provides a good starting point for these discussions,” adding that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is responsible for the region’s overall homelessness response.

The KCRHA, which collaborated on the auditor’s recommendations, did not respond to requests for comment. In his letter, included in the report, Harrell did not respond directly to any of the recommendations. Instead, he noted that “a lot has changed” since the auditor’s office began their work, including the new administration and the transfer of homelessness contracts to the KCRHA. Continue reading “City Auditor Recommends Tracking Progress on Encampments—Not Just Encampment Removals”

Council Could Place Ranked-Choice Voting On Ballot; Ballard Commons Still on Slow Track to Reopening

Ballard Commons
Ballard Commons

1. On Tuesday, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is expected to introduce legislation that would put ranked-choice voting—a type of election in which voters rank candidates according to their preference—on the November ballot alongside an existing initiative, I-134, that would allow voters to choose as many candidates as they want, a process called approval voting.

When presented with a validated initiative proposal, the council can put the measure on the ballot as-is, pass it as law themselves, or place an alternative measure on the ballot alongside the original initiative; if they put two measures on the ballot, the one that receives the most votes above a majority wins.

Ranked-choice voting, or instant-runoff voting, has been implemented in cities across the country, though in a slightly different form; in places with partisan like New York City, voters from each party use ranked choice voting to choose one person to move forward to the general election. In Seattle, which doesn’t have partisan elections, the top two candidates in the primary move forward to the general. Approval voting, in contrast, has only been implemented in two places in the US: Fargo, ND, and St. Louis, MO.

Advocates for ranked-choice voting argue that it elects leaders who are more representative of the general electorate. According to Fair Vote Washington spokesman Ben Chapman, ranked-choice voting produces “more civil, more issue-based campaigns, more voice for the voter and better representation for previously underrepresented communities.”  Advocates for approval voting say their system gives a fair chance to candidates who tend to languish in a winner-takes-all system where voting for the candidate you really like can feel like “throwing away your vote.”

Cannabis store owner and former city council candidate Logan Bowers, a member of the Seattle Approves campaign, says the council should put Initiative 134 on the ballot as-is, without introducing a second measure that would impose a totally different system. Under its ethics rules, the council is not allowed to discuss I-134 (or any alternative) publicly until it starts formally considering legislation to put the proposal on the ballot, which it will do next week. Because of the ethics constraint, Lewis declined to comment on his potential competing initiative.

Bowers says the council is rushing through an alternative measure without giving it the kind of scrutiny approval voting received through its campaign and signature gathering process. “I don’t think they need to rush this; they should just let approval voting go through or not, and they can always [put forward] another proposal later,” Bowers said. “We shouldn’t push this through as a two-week summer project.” Chapman counters that ranked choice voting is already a “known quantity” in use in more than 50 places across the US. “We don’t want Seattle voters to be an experiment,” Chapman said.

2. Since last December, the Ballard Commons—a 1.4-acre park surrounded by apartments and kitty-corner from the Ballard library— has been closed, its skate bowl, spray park, and grassy fields just out of reach behind the tall metal fence that has kept unsheltered people from setting up tents in the area for the last seven months. 

In a memo to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office April, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation recommended “fully reopening the park by summer,” but added that they recognized “we cannot be successful without strong, sustained support of the obstruction process” by the city’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 60 Parks, Department of Transportation, and Human Services Department employees that is in charge of removing encampments, including those that obstruct the use of public spaces.

The memo went on to recommend fully reopening the park by Memorial Day, with assistance from the Unified Care Team to “implement the… obstruction [removal] process.” Continue reading “Council Could Place Ranked-Choice Voting On Ballot; Ballard Commons Still on Slow Track to Reopening”

Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments

1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.

“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”

Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable. 

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.

Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.

2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association

The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”

By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges. 

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare,” Daugaard said. “That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.” Continue reading “Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments”

New Details Emerge About Harrell Administration’s Encampment Removal Plans

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Sidewalk Strategy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prioritizing for Sweeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike Board Member Asks for Encampment Ban Near Bike Lanes, Poll Tests Streetcar Popularity; Council Clarifies “Z-Disposition” for 911 Calls

1. Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Dr. Doug Migden wrote to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office earlier this year to complain about the homeless people he sees while riding his bike, and to suggest legislation that would ban people from sleeping within up to 200 feet of any bike facility or sidewalk.

“First, I voted for Mr. Harrell and the primary reason is that crime and encampment related filth in Seattle is now totally unacceptable,” Migden’s letter begins. “I have lived on the north end of Queen Anne, in a house I own, since 1997. Unfortunately I’ve never seen Seattle in such a mess.”

Council member Alex Pedersen installed Migden on the bike board earlier this year, rejecting a different nominee the board identified through a months-long recruitment and nomination process. The bike board advocates for and advises the city on policies to make Seattle safer and more welcoming to cyclists from all backgrounds, including low-income and homeless people.

Given that “bicycle commuters in West Seattle can’t even safely get to downtown because of encampments and illegal activity such as IV drug use on or adjacent to bicycle pathways,” Migden continued in his letter, “how about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces. This is not too much to ask and it’s certainly doable. Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.”

“How about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces.  Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Doug Migden

Yes, Migden wrote, it’s important to “take care of” truly “vulnerable populations,” but a lot of the homeless people he sees around are able-bodied men who “are not mentally ill,” are “in no distress,” and are well-off enough to “indulge” in cell phones. “[S]tratification and picking apart which illegal campers truly need assistance and which ones are basically freeloading off of responsible citizens who pay taxes etc., is crucial,” Migden wrote.

The mayor’s office, in a standardized response, told Migden they would forward the information about the encampments he reported (including “disgusting RVs” in Fremont and Ballard) to the city’s encampment cleanup squad.

2. A recent poll tested voters’ opinions about completing the long-delayed downtown Seattle streetcar project, along with various local funding options, such as increasing the commercial parking tax, increasing the local vehicle licensing fee, and increasing local sales taxes, already among the highest in the country.

The poll, conducted last week, seems to favor streetcar completion—stating, for example, that federal funding could cut the $350 million estimated cost of the streetcar almost in half, but is only available for a limited time. (Federal funding for the streetcar is far from certain, although, as the Urbanist pointed out earlier this year, a potential $75 million request for federal funding still gets a “high” rating from the Federal Transit Administration.)

“Connecting Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines just makes sense,” one of the poll’s test messages begins. (Many polls test messages that could be used for or against a proposal or person during a future campaign.) “This project will link our busiest transportation hubs serving people coming downtown by bus, light rail, ferry, Sounder, and Amtrak train creating a more seamless and convenient transportation system.”

Former mayor Jenny Durkan paused work on the downtown streetcar connection in 2018, citing cost overruns. Before and since then, streetcar skeptics have argued that the downtown line is redundant with existing bus and light rail service and would not serve enough riders to justify the ballooning cost. Last year, the city council gave the long-moribund streetcar a kickstart by providing $2.4 million in funding to resume work on the project.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll; local political consultants, transit advocates, business groups, and streetcar proponents all told PubliCola it wasn’t them.

3. During an update on the city’s efforts to established an alternative response system for 911 calls that don’t require an armed response, city council public safety committee attempted to clarify an issue that recently confounded a prominent local columnist: The so-called “Z disposition” the Seattle Police Department gives to certain low-priority calls.

Previously, committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, dispatchers would routinely put the 911 system into “priority call status,” meaning that calls that didn’t rank in SPD’s top two “priority” designations (which include violent crimes and crimes in progress) would not get any response at all. Now, an officer reviews lower-priority calls before deciding whether they merit a response before dismissing them. “In my mind, that’s that’s a better approach, because at least you’re having somebody on the ground with law enforcement expertise making that decision,” Herbold said.

In April, she added, the city’s Office of Police Accountability recommended establishing a clearer system for assigning low-priority calls, in response to a high-profile complaint about two officers who ate breakfast near the Ballard library rather than responding immediately to a call about a person asleep inside their car.

Councilmember Sara Nelson said that in her view, the new system is actually worse, because under “priority call status,” police would at least tell low-priority callers to call back or give them a general estimate of when they might hear back about their call. “There is a customer service issue going on with the call with the system right now with no communication and that’s why people are getting upset,” Nelson said.

Efforts to replace police with civilian responders for some 911 calls remain largely stalled, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild has demanded to bargain any changes to the SPD-centric 911 response system.

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposal to Trade Away Troubled Pioneer Square Park Questions About Park Access, Land Value

City Hall Park, fenced and closed
City Hall Park, a rare piece of green space in downtown Seattle, has been closed and fenced off since last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

King County and the city of Seattle are moving forward with a plan, negotiated under former mayor Jenny Durkan, for the city to trade City Hall Park in Pioneer Square for 12 smaller pieces of county-owned property around the city.

The park, which has been closed and fenced off since last year, was the site of a large encampment through much of 2021, prompting calls to remove the park from city control by King County officials and some superior court justices who work in the adjacent King County Courthouse. Although the park was neglected during the pandemic, pre-COVID efforts to “activate” the space had been largely successful, and the city had planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars expanding those programs before the pandemic began.

On Wednesday, the city council’s public assets and homelessness committee had its first discussion about the proposed land swap, which will also require the city to vacate (give or sell to the county) a short stretch of road that passes through the park.

Although the trade currently feels like a fait accompli—a spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said Harrell supports the trade as long as it includes a covenant that ensures the park remains a park “in perpetuity”—parks and Pioneer Square neighborhood advocates questioned whether trading the land to the county would actually accomplish the dual goal of improved public safety and open space for the neighborhood.

Rebecca Bear, president of the Seattle Parks Foundation, called City Hall Park a “complex” location with “a lot of issues,” but told council members that “closing off the park and even transferring the park to another jurisdiction is not going to solve that problem.” For hundreds of low-income people living in the area, the park serves as an important green space in a highly urban area—or did, before it was fenced off last year. “The park does need love now while this process is going on, and so I’d encourage you all to you know, work with the [county] to see if there’s a way we can get the park open and activated before any land transfers happen,” Bear said.

Parcels King County has proposed transferring to the city in exchange for City Hall Park include a 2,300-foot wedge of the Cheasty Greenspace overlooking Columbian Way S; a 251-square-foot fragment of the Duwamish Greenspace overlooking I-5 ; and a 291-square-foot triangle near the Admiral District in West Seattle.

Legislation adopted by the King County Council last year says the deed for the land swap will include a covenant guaranteeing that the land “shall continue to be used for public open space, a park, a recreation and community facility, the expansion of existing County facilities, or other public benefit purpose, provided that any such purpose shall be for use by the general public and primarily noncommercial in nature.”

King County external relations director Calli Knight told the council that placing covenant on the land would “make it clear that it is going to be substantially used in perpetuity for open space, with the nuance that we really would like to look at opening the historic south entrance of the park”—the historic front entrance of the courthouse, which was reoriented to face Third Avenue in the 1960s.

Representatives from the county noted that the city and county previously agreed to a land swap based on acreage, rather than land value, since the fair-market value of City Hall Park would be in the tens of millions if it could be developed as high-rise housing or office space. “We settled upon a an area negotiation because … the location of the park, if it was unrestricted property, would render that completely outside the scale, which is one of the reasons we also have about three times as much property being conveyed in terms of area,” King County Facilities Management Division Tony Wright told the council.

Initiative 42, passed in 1997, says that if the city wants to trade away park land, it must “receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.”

Collectively, the 12 parcels represent more square footage (1.33 acres) than City Hall Park, which is just over half an acre, but many are tiny triangles or squares contiguous to or across the street from city-owned property. But some council members wondered if the city is getting a fair deal out of the proposed land swap. “Many of these [parcels] are really small—you know, there’s a couple that are less than 300 square feet,” Councilmember Tammy Morales noted Wednesday. “I’m not sure what the city’s gain would be in terms of being able to use these parcels.”

In addition to the park, the county is asking the city to vacate a public street, allowing the county to use that space for another purpose, for free—a departure from previous policy. For example, when the city vacated streets on First Hill to allow expansion of the Harborview Medical Center, the county paid for the land, Lewis said.

The land transfer can’t move forward without city council approval and analysis under the State Environmental Policy Act, from which the Durkan administration argued the land swap was exempt. Committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he and other council members have a number of outstanding questions about the land swap, including the street vacation, which amounts to as much city-owned property as the park itself.

“I don’t think any of us particularly feel bound by whatever secretive process the Durkan administration engaged in” with the county, Lewis said, “because it was not one the council was privy to. The council started our process yesterday, and I don’t, frankly, feel bound by any concession the Durkan Administration made. We’re going to look at this from top to bottom.”

City to Sweep Sites of Recent Shootings; Unclear When In-Person Council Meetings Will Resume; Homelessness Authority Frustrated by Chopp Money Grab

1. The city plans to remove two encampments on Friday, including one in a vacant hillside lot along 10th Ave. S between S. Weller St. and Dearborn Ave. S where a 43-year-old homeless man, Arkan Al-Aboudy, was shot to death on March 17. Currently, there are about 50 tents at the 10th Ave. site, which spills out into 10th Avenue itself and down the hill to Dearborn. The area has been the site of encampments for many years, and marks the northern boundary of an infamous encampment known as the Jungle that the city removed in 2016.

The vacant land where the encampment is located has been owned since the late 1990s by Christopher Koh, a developer and landlord whose company, Coho Real Estate, also owns and operates a number of apartment buildings in the University District and the International District. A small city park called Beacon Place is located in the middle of the property.

According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the city can’t require fencing around private property, and the property owner has no plans “in the short term” to fence in or otherwise secure the site.

Contacted by phone, Koh said he supports the encampment removal and has no plans “in the short term” to fence in or otherwise secure the site, which is adjacent to a Seattle Housing Authority apartment building and the Seattle Indian Health Board clinic.

“At one time, there was a discussion with the city about placing a fence” around the property, Koh said, but the city decided not to do so because it could impede emergency response to the area. “I recall [the Seattle Police Department] saying it can be dangerous for the police to go into an area where it’s completely fenced off like that—where there isn’t visibility,” Koh said. SPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city often prevents new encampments from cropping up on land it owns by erecting fences around the area; you can see them all over the city, from underneath the Ballard Bridge to City Hall Park in downtown Seattle. According to a spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the city can’t require fencing around private property, and the city’s Vacant Building Monitoring program only applies to properties with buildings, not vacant lots.

The city will also remove a small encampment at I-5 and 45th Ave. NE where Santo Zepeda-Campos, 38, was fatally shot on Sunday, March 20.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said both encampments “are being removed to address immediate public safety issues” in response to the shootings. REACH, the city’s outreach contractor, has been doing outreach at the site, and “will decide based on [the] situation whether they come in Friday,” according to REACH director Chloe Gale.

The encampment is located a block away from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Navigation Center shelter, which is one of the receiving sites for HOPE team referrals.

UPDATE Friday, March 25: Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Friday that about 20 people living at the 10th Avenue encampment received referrals to shelter from the city’s HOPE team before parks department workers removed the encampment Friday morning.

Housen said encampment residents received referrals to Jan and Peter’s Place (a women’s shelter), Otto’s Place (a men’s shelter run by the same organization, Compass Housing Alliance), the Navigation Center, the Roy Street men’s shelter, and the True Hope tiny house village in the Central District. All four shelters are are congregate emergency shelters, meaning that people sleep in common sleeping areas; only the Navigation Center allows all genders, although people sleep in gender-segregated areas.

As we’ve reported, most of the city’s shelter “referrals” do not result in a person actually checking in at a shelter and sleeping there. People decide not to enter emergency shelter after receiving a referral for a variety of reasons, including the desire to stay with a partner or pet, not wanting to relinquish bulky possessions, or other barriers imposed by a shelter, such as strict rules against using drugs or alcohol.

2. Although employees in most city departments began returning to their physical offices on March 16, the mayor’s return-to-work directive doesn’t apply to the legislative branch, which is returning to the office more slowly and won’t resume in-person council meetings any time soon.

In an email sent Friday, March 18, City Council President Debora Juarez told city council staffers that they would need to return to the office or work out alternative work schedules by April 27, six weeks after the rest of the city. (Bargaining with unions representing two sets of legislative staffers was one of the reasons for the slower timeline.) Juarez has reportedly been reluctant to return to in-person council meetings, and her email suggests that future council meetings might happen either “onsite in Council Chambers or in a hybrid remote meeting style.”

According to council staff, the department hasn’t figured out the logistics of conducting hybrid meetings, and it’s unclear whether “hybrid remote” refers to meetings that would continue to be entirely remote, or whether some council members would return to council chambers while others tapped in from home or their offices. Juarez did not respond to a request for clarification, and a staffer said any decision about whether to return to in-person meetings was not part of the overall return-to-work announcement.

In her email, Juarez encourages legislative staffers who do return to the office to wear a red, yellow, or green wristband “to communicate your level of comfort with respect to close contacts.” According to Juarez, the idea came from a staffer in Councilmember Alex Pedersen’s office. “I also feel the wrist bands are an excellent way to say ‘Welcome Back’ to the workplace,” Juarez wrote. “Having a sense of personal safety is important to all of us.” The mayor’s office has distributed similar wristbands, but the trend hasn’t trickled down yet to departmental employees, who make up the majority of city staff.

3. The Seattle Times reported today that State Rep. Frank Chopp, who co-founded the Low Income Housing Institute, intervened to apportion $2 million from the state budget to LIHI tiny house villages that did not make the cut for funding in a competitive bidding process conducted by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

As we reported earlier this week, the regional authority allocated about $4 million in federal and local dollars (including federal Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery dollars allocated through the state budget) to three non-congregate shelter projects. Chopp’s unusual intervention reversed funding for two of those projects—an expansion of Catholic Community Services’ Pallet shelter on 15th Ave. W and a new tiny house village operated by Chief Seattle Club in collaboration with LIHI—to fund LIHI projects elsewhere. Continue reading “City to Sweep Sites of Recent Shootings; Unclear When In-Person Council Meetings Will Resume; Homelessness Authority Frustrated by Chopp Money Grab”