During a tense marathon meeting Monday night, the Burien City Council declined to take action to directly address an encampment on a lot in downtown Burien, which sprung up immediately after the city forced homeless residents to vacate the area outside the building that houses both City Hall and the Burien branch of the King County Library System late last month. Instead, they’ll put the new site up for lease; or, if that doesn’t work, turn it into a park, which will force the people living there to move to another site in the city.
Burien does not allow people to “camp” in parks, but unsheltered people are not banned from sleeping in most other public spaces. In March, the condo association that controls the City Hall building, which includes representatives from Burien and the library system, voted to kick the encampment residents off the property; as a result, they moved to a nearby city-owned lot where at least one city official, Planning Commissioner Charles Schaefer, told them they had a right to be. The council is also debating whether to punish Schaefer for helping the encampment residents, potentially by removing him from his volunteer position.
After hours of public testimony that mostly favored finding solutions to help encampment residents—in contrast to the previous week, when most commenters argued for punitive measures like a camping ban—the council voted down proposals to provide a portable toilet on the site, reallocate human services funding toward a new shelter in the city, or move the encampment to Annex Park, half a mile north of City Hall. Instead, the council voted to direct city manager Adolfo Bailon to advertise plans to lease out the property where people are currently living or to turn it into a park, which would make it subject to Burien’s park encampment ban.
This morning, the B-Town Blog reported that Bailon decided to install a Port-a-Potty at the encampment site even though the council voted down a proposal by Councilmember Cydney Moore to provide one.
Council member Jimmy Matta, who sponsored the motion to put the site up for lease or turn it into a park, acknowledged it wouldn’t solve the problem of homelessness in Burien. Matta, voice raised, addressed the audience. “I would ask the residents of the city of Burien, as boisterous as you come here, with energy—and regardless of where you’re at [on the issue]—let’s get some pressure on the county county elected officials, that state representative state senators, congressmen!”
The council, still deeply divided on how to deal with the 30 or so people living on city property a block from their chambers, will meet again next Monday night to discuss, among other things, potential sites for a temporary encampment; both Nickelsville and at least one Burien church have expressed an interest in hosting a sanctioned encampment. A potential, short-term encampment site in the parking lot next to the Burien courthouse fell through, Bailon said, after the county made “a very compelling argument” that an encampment would impede the county’s ability to “make sure that justice is available to everyone.”
Also on next week’s tentative agenda: Whether, and how, to censure Planning Commissioner Schaefer, whose supporters turned out in large numbers to argue that he should be praised rather than punished for helping encampment residents.
Last week, after failing to come up with an alternative location for a longstanding encampment on the west side of the building that houses both Burien City Hall and the local branch of the King County Library, the city of Burien formally evicted the 30 or so people who had been living there for months.
But they didn’t go far. As Scott Schaefer at the B-Town blog reported, most of the people forced out of the encampment moved to a city-owned site just one block west of City Hall, infuriating some residents and prompting demands for harsh anti-camping policies as well as sanctions against Burien Planning Commission Chair Charles Schaefer, who said he directed encampment residents to the new site.
This was the setting for Monday night’s Burien City Council meeting, where council members proposed several potential approaches to addressing encampments, including a total encampment ban in certain, unspecified “zones”; strict enforcement of drug laws; reinstating Burien’s overturned trespassing ordinance; and reallocating city funds to stand up a temporary encampment by the King County Courthouse a few blocks away. Burien already bans encampments in parks, but nowhere else, which is why the encampment next to City Hall was able to linger for so long.
During the meeting, Council member Jimmy Matta pushed back on an encampment ban proposed by Councilmember Stephanie Mora, noting that the Ninth Circuit US District Court, ruling in the Martin v. Boise case, barred cities from sweeping encampments unless shelter beds are available—and Burien has no year-round adult shelters or sanctioned encampments.
“I see the same things as you see,” Matta said. “I don’t like my children to see [those things]. I don’t like to see people using drugs. But at the same time, I know we don’t have the resources for [shelter], and on top of that, the Ninth Circuit court says that we have to have placements for them.” Cities like Seattle get around the requirement by sweeping encampments when shelter beds become available, Matta continued, but a similar approach in Burien would require the city to come up with funding and a location for a shelter—which, in turn, would likely face opposition from the same people who just want Burien’s homeless population gone. [Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed this quote and the sentiments expressed in the preceding paragraph to City Manager Adolfo Bailon; we regret the error.]
This contingent was out in force at Monday’s council meeting, where public commenters who supported shelter, housing, and supportive services for encampment residents were greatly outnumbered by those demanding that the council eliminate the “campers” by any legal means. For an observer from Seattle, the tone of many comments were reminiscent of the debate about homeless encampments before and especially during the pandemic, when people frequently used dehumanizing terms and the language of eradication to talk about homeless Seattle residents.
“I wasn’t surprised by how people felt because of how things went down with the encampment being essentially relocated, rather than cleared. It’s also true that the people who were there were going to go somewhere… without a real solution that can pull people indoors instead of having them on the street.”—Burien LEAD program manager Aaron Burkhalter
One commenter, for example, referred to homeless people living in Burien as “this unpleasantness” and expressed his “shame, embarrassment, and utter disgust” that encampment residents were allowed to move one block, where they are now “in my front yard.” Another told council members they should “take [encampment residents] home with you” instead of allowing them to sleep on public property. An eighth-grade student at a local private school said she was “tired of seeing men’s privates everywhere I go,” adding that she was no longer able to run or walk in Burien because “the unhoused people have found a loophole in your system.” Several commenters referred conspiratorially to a “coordinated” effort to increase the number of homeless people in the city.
“I wasn’t surprised by how people felt because of how things went down with the encampment being essentially relocated, rather than cleared,” said Aaron Burkhalter, the LEAD project manager for Burien, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting. “It’s also true that the people who were there were going to go somewhere… without a real solution that can pull people indoors instead of having them on the street.”
At the end of the meeting, which , the council put off proposals to bring back the trespassing law and expand the city’s camping ban. During a special meeting next week, the council will hear more about a proposal to use the county-owned parking lot as a short-term managed encampment; receive information on how the State v. Blake decision, which overturned the state’s main drug possession law, impacts the city’s authority to crack down on drug use; and get an overview of camping bans in other cities, including Marysville and Lakewood.
The council will also consider sanctions against Planning Commissioner Schaefer for informing people they had the right to set up tents on city-owned property a block from City Hall; during the meeting, some commenters suggested he should be forced from his position for providing this information.
Burkhalter said he expects the city will remove the relocated encampment soon, scattering the people living there to “a number of different sites around the city.” While some, including City Manager Bailon, have expressed the hopeful thought that many of the encampment residents are from other cities and will move out of town, Burkhalter considers that wishful thinking.
Still, he said, he’s optimistic that the city will come up with a longer-term solution, such as temporary housing in a nearby hotel or in an existing residential building in Burien. “All the pieces are in place to get people into those spaces, and after that, it’s just a matter of how do we prioritize who gets placed in such a way that we are addressing criminal behavior and the public camping that people are so concerned about, in a way that people can get significant services,” Burkhalter said.
A sanitation company owned by a recent city of Seattle employee has received a growing share of the city’s contracts for encampment cleanup and removal work this year, eclipsing other longtime contractors to become the largest recipient of city contract hours for this work. [Update: Debbie Wilson is no longer employed by the city, according to Seattle City Light.]
The company, Fresh Family, is owned by a former Parks Department maintenance employee who until recently worked as a customer service representative for Seattle City Light, Debbie Wilson. Last year, as PubliCola reported, Fresh Family received nearly half a million dollars from the city even though it had no formal contract, which the Parks Department chalked up to an error: According to Parks, someone misread a form identifying the company as a woman- and minority-owned (WMBE) company, misreading “B” (for “Black”), in a column labeled “ethnicity,” as “B” for “Blanket contract.”
Fresh Family is now one of nine contractors on the city’s blanket contract for various kinds of encampment cleanup work, and one of two contractors—along with Cascadia—primarily responsible for encampment removals and litter removal.
It’s unusual for someone who works for the city to simultaneously hold a major city contract—in this case, one so closely tied to a department where the company’s owner used to work. Although Wilson left the city at some point last year, Fresh Family began receiving lucrative work from the city while she was still an employee—work that continued after she left her hourly customer service job at City Light.
PubliCola has asked how much Fresh Family has received from the city under its formal contract, which began last November, and will update this post when we have more information. In 2022, when it lacked an official contract, Fresh Family charged the city $110 per hour for each of its employees.
Over the last several months, department records show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
A review of the weekly “snapshots” for the city’s Clean City work, provided to PubliCola by the Parks Department, indicates that Fresh Family has become the chief contractor for encampment cleanup work. The Clean City Initiative is a joint operation overseen by the Parks Department, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities, but Parks heads up most of the work because most encampments are located on Parks property.
Over the last several months, the snapshots show, the Parks Department has steadily increased Fresh Family’s hours and crew sizes while keeping its use of Cascadia static.
For example, on a typical day in January, Fresh Family had nine crew members and four trailers doing encampment removal for the Parks Department encampment sites, while Cascadia had two crew members and one staffer working on a Parks-led crew. (Separately, SDOT routinely used four Cascadia staffers and two trailers to respond to encampments located in city rights-of-way). By the end of March, the Parks Department had bumped up its use of Fresh Family by another 50 percent, sending out 11 Fresh Family crew members with five trailers every day while keeping Cascadia at the status quo of two crew members and one trailer.
Encampment cleanup work often involves what the city calls a “litter pick”—driving along a prescribed route and picking up trash and debris at encampments along the way. Sometimes, crews are merged to do cleanup as a group—on a recent day, for example, seven Fresh Family crew members and two trailers were assigned to a single 13-stop route.
A spokeswoman for the Parks Department said the company “is not the primary contractor of the department, and we work to distribute work evenly amongst all approved contractors.”
In response to a question about whether Fresh Family is providing a superior or cheaper service compared to other contractors on the city’s list, the spokeswoman said, “The City retains the right to choose providers based on our approved lists and operational needs and both Cascadia and Fresh Family are on our approved contract lists providing similar services.”
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Partnership for Zero, a $10 million public-private partnership aimed at ending visible unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle. During the official announcement on February 17, 2022, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said they considered it “feasible” to reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the downtown core to “30-ish people” within a year. “Straightforwardly based on the data, yes,” it is doable, Dones said, “and then secondly, straightforwardly based on what we have to do to help people—yes.”
Since that announcement, the partnership between the KCRHA and We Are In, the umbrella group for the KCRHA’s philanthropic donors, has hit a number of milestones—including a “by-name list” of almost 1,000 people living downtown and the establishment of a “housing command center” to coordinate housing placements—but has not come close to the goal of housing or sheltering a large majority of people living unsheltered downtown. According to an announcement from We Are In and the KCRHA last week, the downtown effort has housed 56 people so far in a combination of permanent supportive, rent-restricted, and private-market housing—about 5 percent of the people the agency’s outreach workers have identified downtown.
As of last week, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, another 96 people were in “interim options”—mostly hotel rooms paid for by vouchers distributed by the Lived Experience Coalition—waiting for housing placements. Hundreds more have either filled out questionnaires about their housing needs, gotten new IDs, or are “moving through the housing process at three prioritized sites (specific encampments or geographic areas),” according to last week’s announcement.”
Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.”
The KCRHA is under intense pressure to resolve several encampments in and around the Chinatown/International District, which is in the Partnership for Zero area, as well as another longstanding encampment in North Seattle that neighborhood residents have called a threat to public safety. During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board, agency CEO Marc Dones said the agency is working to “activate pathways inside” for people living in those encampments, “inclusive of the existing shelter resources, emergency housing, and permanent housing as available.” Mostly, these pathways appear to involve hotel vouchers, not housing.
Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.” Most of the people the KCRHA’s outreach workers, known as systems advocates, have identified downtown have been homeless for years and have significant behavioral health conditions, Scholes added. “This is a population that can be challenging to get into housing quickly, and then once you get them there, to keep them there,” he said.
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Still, Scholes said, he’s hopeful that “as they are able to free some resources up from the work in some of these encampments, they’re able to continue to move into the central neighborhoods of downtown.” Kylie Rolf, the DSA’s vice president for advocacy and economic development, added that “in the amount of time that the Unified Command Center has been operational and the system advocates have been on the ground, I think they have made remarkable progress.”
Martens said the agency learned several “key lessons and improvements” for the program in the first year. The first: “Setting up the infrastructure takes time.” Training the system advocates, setting up the housing command center, and creating a new outreach system has taken longer than expected, as has “gathering the documentation to obtain a photo ID” for people who have been living outside for years and, in many cases, don’t have an official address or other documents that could prove they are who they say they are.
The agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, instead of every advocate managing every step of the process,” according to a spokesperson.
Additionally, Martens said, the agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, she said, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, so instead of every advocate managing every step of the process, we now have teams of advocates focused on Outreach & Engagement, Housing Navigation, and Housing Stability.”
This appears to be a shift from the original concept of system advocates, who were supposed to be a single, “longitudinal” point of contact through every stage of the housing process, from identifying a person and getting them on a “by-name list” to connecting them to housing to ensuring that they have the resources they need to stay housed. We’ve reached out to the KCRHA for clarification about the currentrole of the system advocates.
Scholes said one complicating factor downtown is that many of the people causing a feeling of “disorder” downtown are fentanyl users who aren’t actually homeless. “They may be housed and they may have a fentanyl addiction, and that’s why they’re on the sidewalk. And we sort of shorthand it as homelessness… [but] they’re going to need a different set of interventions” than what the homelessness authority can provide.
Last week’s anniversary announcement included news that the Partnership for Zero has received another $1 million in funding, bringing the total to around $11 million. Although the KCRHA previously said it would use Medicaid funding to pay for the system navigators after last year (prompting skepticism from some Seattle councilmembers) the authority is paying for the outreach workers through its general budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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”→