Tag: encampments

Councilmember Touts Shelters as Solution to Encampment Shootings

City Hall Park, fenced and closed
JustCARE worked to shelter people living in City Hall Park last year. Proponents argue the program helps reduce gun violence in encampments.

By Paul Kiefer

In the two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence in Seattle has both surged and transformed. While the number of gun homicides fell from 2020 to 2021, both the number of people shot and the number of shots fired rose by roughly 40 percent. One of the key drivers of that increase, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz told the city council’s public safety committee last week, was an uptick in shootings at encampments.

Over the past two years, gun violence at encampments across the city escalated dramatically. In January 2020, only 6.5 percent of the city’s shootings took place in encampments; by December 2021, at least a quarter of Seattle’s shootings were in encampments. Police reports about encampment shootings cite drug deals gone wrong, personal disputes or unpaid debts as inciting incidents, but Diaz did not identify any broader reason why violence in encampments is on the rise.

While Seattle’s efforts to reduce gun violence have historically relied on outreach to young people in gangs, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s committee on housing and homelessness, now argues that the city should think of moving people from encampments to shelters as an essential part of reducing gun violence. “There’s something about unsanctioned encampments—they attract gun violence,” he said. People living in encampments may carry guns to protect themselves, Lewis noted, and people involved in low-level survival crimes often can’t turn to police or courts to resolve disputes.

 “When people are inside and having their needs met, we just don’t see the kinds of violence we see when they are dealing with the insecurities of living in an encampment.” —Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

In an email to PubliCola on Wednesday, Diaz added that he has no plans to redirect his department’s gun violence prevention resources to focus on encampments.

In Lewis’ view, while shelters are not the only solution to rising gun violence, they seem to have helped curtail it. As examples, he pointed to the city’s tiny house villages, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute, and the hotel-based shelters run by JustCARE, a collaboration between counseling, outreach and diversion providers that serves people with serious behavioral health challenges. So far, he said, there have been no shootings at any JustCARE shelter or tiny house villages.

 “When people are inside and having their needs met,” Lewis said, “we just don’t see the kinds of violence we see when they are dealing with the insecurities of living in an encampment.”

Although Lewis has championed both tiny houses and JustCARE, he says preserving JustCARE’s funding is more likely to reduce gun violence because the program exclusively serves people who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system.  “Generally speaking, JustCARE clients have had opportunities to be a victim and, in some cases, a perpetrator of gun violence,” he said, “and the fact that they have developed a sheltering strategy that can mitigate that is incredibly valuable.”

In Lewis’ view, the council should start viewing JustCARE “more as a jail and violence mitigation program than as a shelter program. We can find a way to remove people who are vulnerable to being victims or perpetrators of violence from the street in a more sustainable way than putting them in jail.” JustCARE’s funding, which includes federal COVID relief dollars, is set to expire in June.

While Diaz agreed that shelters have been relatively safe, he told the council last week that SPD has responded to more calls from social workers who say they have been threatened with guns in the past year. Diaz framed his comments as a response to questions about safety in shelters, but he did not offer any examples of people being threatened inside either shelters or low-income housing. Instead, he pointed to a February 2021 incident in which a man shot at a staff member inside a Catholic Community Services administrative building in the Central District before fatally shooting himself. Continue reading “Councilmember Touts Shelters as Solution to Encampment Shootings”

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

By Leo Brine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities

This graph is a metaphor: With no “Y” axis, an incomplete color key, and no definition of the three “issues” that are listed, it’s impossible to know whether these wavy lines represent an alarming increase in incidents or a modest pandemic-era increase.

1. Sound Transit board and staff members, including outgoing CEO Peter Rogoff, used an update on “current operating challenges” as an opportunity to portray the central light-rail system as a dirty and dangerous way to get around, especially during non-“conventional” hours, when fewer riders are on board. Only board member (and King County Councilmember) Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue, pushed back on her colleagues’ “unduly bleak” description of the system, saying, “it doesn’t match my own personal experience as a regular rider of our service.”

Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, Rogoff has argued relentlessly for increasing security and fare enforcement on trains, both to increase revenues and to punish people who fail to pay fare or behave in ways that make other riders feel unwelcome or unsafe. On Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive director of operations, Suraj Shetty, said the agency has had trouble retaining  private security and “fare ambassadors,” vest-clad staffers who check to see if riders have paid but do not issue tickets.

When the agency’s main private security provider, Securitas, failed to provide as many guards as they agreed to, Sound Transit contracted with two additional firms, both non-union—a fact that prompted a number of public commenters to accuse the agency of being anti-union. Sound Transit is also facing a shortage of drivers, cleaning staff, and maintenance crews.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, a former Republican state senator, said he considered the system “unsanitary and unsafe,” adding, “I wouldn’t ride it,” and suggested stricter fare enforcement as a solution to problems like drug use and unclean conditions on trains. “We don’t want to stop running the trains at certain hours, but that is one of the solutions” to problems that become worse late at night, he continued. “Or maybe we put security guards on every train.”

Nancy Backus, the mayor of Auburn, chimed in, suggesting that the problems on trains are made worse by “some of the laws surrounding drug use, what police officers can and cannot do with low level property crimes and other issues.”

Responding to those comments, Balducci said that in her own “anecdotal experience” riding the system over the last two years, “this narrative that our system is falling apart just does not ring true to me. And we have to ask the staff and leadership of the staff to help us paint a truly accurate picture of what’s going on that we need to address.”

2. As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office have been discussing a plan to relocate as many as 600 people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle into up to 10 sanctioned encampment sites. Lewis described the proposal as a humane way to transition people from unsheltered homelessness to housing as more permanent housing units become available this year.

The plan is also explicitly an attempt to make downtown more appealing to companies that want to bring workers back to the office this year—including the companies that funded a separate plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness” downtown by navigating people to shelter and services elsewhere.

Seattle would hardly be the first West Coast city to create fenced tent encampments as a response to increased homelessness. San Francisco began opening sanctioned encampments in 2021 in response to an increase in unsanctioned encampments during the pandemic.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said unsheltered people in San Francisco said they preferred encampments to congregate shelter because, among other reasons, they offer more privacy and don’t have strict curfews or other rules common in mass shelters.

The drawbacks, Friedenbach said, are that the encampments are cold, tend to be expensive—around $70,000 per tent, per year—and are, obviously, not housing permanent housing. “Rental assistance with support services runs less than half” the cost of sheltering a person in a sanctioned encampment, she said. “So instead of sheltering you can just have housing for the people at half the cost.”

And, Friedenbach noted, San Francisco’s encampments are “used as a placement option in sweeps.” The Coalition did a report last year on San Francisco’s geographically focused efforts to eradicate (or “resolve”) encampments in specific neighborhoods, which found that most people who are displaced from one location end up unsheltered elsewhere, often after losing their possessions to sweeps. As in Seattle, there are typically only a handful of shelter beds available citywide for thousands of unsheltered people across the city.

3. A poll in the field this week was already taking Seattle voters’ temperature about new Mayor Bruce Harrell, interspersing favorability questions about the mayor with questions about his political priorities. For example, the poll asked recipients to rank priorities such as “expedit[ing] removal of homeless encampments from sidewalks and parks, with those of need of assistance being redirected into housing and services, with a minimum of 2,000 units brought into use this year”—a description of the Compassion Seattle initiative, which Harrell integrated into his campaign platform.

Continue reading “Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inslee Proposes $800 Million Housing, Homelessness Plan

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

By John Stang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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