Tag: encampments

As School Starts, Controversial North Seattle Encampment Stays Put

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

By Erica C. Barnett

The homeless encampment behind Broadview-Thomson K-8 school was supposed to be gone by September 1. Instead, as kids head back to in-person classes this week, it’s still growing—and no one knows quite what to do about it.

The city of Seattle washed its hands of the encampment earlier this summer, arguing that because the tents were technically on school property (rather than the city-owned land next door), the city had no responsibility to help the people living there. After noting (correctly) that the job of schools is educating children, not housing adults, the district stepped up, partnering with a fledgling nonprofit called Anything Helps to set up a resource tent on the property, with the goal of moving all 52 people to safer locations by this week.

With that “goal date” approaching, however, deputy school superintendent Rob Gannon acknowledged at a public meeting last week that “we did not make the goal.” In an interview, Gannon told PubliCola that although the encampment is still there, and has been growing, “I do intend to be able to demonstrate that there has been measurable progress, and that we’re on a pathway to continue to see most of those residents placed and the property cleared as soon as possible.”

The school district is under significant pressure to deliver on its promise. Neighborhood residents—egged on by wall-to-wall coverage on Sinclair-owned KOMO TV—have demanded that the district sweep the encampment as soon as possible, arguing that the presence of homeless people poses a danger to schoolchildren, contributes to crime, and is polluting Bitter Lake. (Although the encampment is unusually tidy by Seattle standards, KOMO’s coverage has focused near-obsessively on a large collection of trash and debris around a single campsite, suggesting a level of disorder that simply isn’t present).

At two recent public meetings at the school, neighbors have directed their anger at both Gannon and Anything Helps leader Mike Mathias, who’s singlehandedly trying to move people out of the camp, accusing both of “caring more about homeless people than our kids’ security,” to paraphrase comments made by several parents at the most recent meeting. “Trespass them!” several people shouted repeatedly during both meetings, suggesting Mathias or the school district should call police and have people arrested for being on the property. “They’re breaking the law!” one man yelled—a common misconception about people who sleep in public spaces.

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Anthony Piper, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said the vitriol on social media and negative press attention has made it harder for “a lot of people that are already having problems to stabilize and not have more problems. This is the most talked-about place on Nextdoor and everywhere else. They want to feel safe—well, we want to feel safe too.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Anything Helps’ Mathias sprawled in a camp chair under a canopy tent at the encampment, where a folding table, some chairs, and computers hooked up to a nearby generator serve as the makeshift headquarters for his impromptu organization. As we talked, several volunteers from a nearby church stopped by to drop off clipboards. Although a significant portion of the crowd at the first public meeting in July raised their hands at the end of the meeting when Mathias asked who was willing to volunteer, none of the hand-raisers followed through, although some donated money to Anything Helps. “We fear what we don’t understand, and so there’s just not a lot of on-site assistance,” Mathias said.

As Mathias was saying this, he was interrupted by a call: The police were on their way. Earlier that afternoon, someone  had been causing trouble at the encampment and was now refusing to leave, so a volunteer needed to go out and intercept the officers. The previous week, two SPD cruisers showed up and drove across the lawn right up to the encampment, which freaked everybody out, Mathias said.

Mathias hasn’t shied away from calling the cops if he feels the community is being threatened. “The majority of my time has been spent keeping the influx of new campers out,” Mathias said. “If they refuse to leave, I call the police. But that creates unsettling circumstances. I say, ‘Listen, I don’t want to do that to you,’ because I don’t. I legitimately don’t. And I hate to displace people, because I’ve been displaced and I don’t want that to happen to anybody.”

Mathias has a personal connection to the issue he’s trying to address at Bitter Lake: He was homeless for eight months, living in the notorious Jungle encampment near I-5 before it was swept in 2016. He now lives in an apartment paid for through the federal Housing and Essential Needs program, which helps people living with diagnosed physical or mental disabilities.

Initially, Mathias planned to enroll about two-thirds of the people living at the encampment in HEN. But it quickly became clear that the people living at Bitter Lake needed basics like IDs, cash benefits, and Medicaid before they could even start the process of applying for housing and other long-term benefits.

Encampment neighbors raise their hands at a recent public meeting at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.
Encampment neighbors raise their hands at a recent public meeting at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school.

“I know that for us and our clients, HEN has been really hard to access,” Karin Salinas, outreach director for the city’s primary outreach provider, REACH, said. “Even with light-touch people that you think you should be able to move quicker, it rarely works because there are so many barriers and hurdles,” including in-person appointments with state officials, ID requirements, and visits with a doctor or doctors to verify that a person has a disability. “Our clients get tired of trying because it’s such an effort to even get to the process of getting your application in,” Salinas said.

Shelly Vaughan, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said it took her more than six months to get a Washington state ID, because she had to track down documents, including a birth certificate, from other states where she lived in the past. Other encampment residents faced similar challenges. Now, Mathias said, “everybody here has EBT [food benefits]. Everybody here has Medicaid. Everybody here has IDs. That’s great. But that has taken up the bulk of our time so far.”

And then there are the new residents. Mathias estimates that since July, the encampment has grown from 52 residents to 66—and that’s accounting for 21 people who have moved out “through diversion, housing, or memorandums of understanding, where the campers decided [someone was] too disruptive.” These MOUs are “really informal,” Mathias said—just brief agreements on a sheet of paper—”but they do deter people from coming back.” 

For example, a woman whose mental illness symptoms became too disruptive to the whole camp—she refused to wear clothes or shoes, screamed, and wandered into traffic—signed an MOU, along with her boyfriend, and moved to a different site nearby with camping gear purchased by Anything Helps. “She continued to refuse treatment,” and police wouldn’t take her to a hospital for an involuntary mental health hold, Mathias said. “Now I can’t find her. It’s just terrifying,”

As Mathias was explaining all this, a young man wandered past the tent; Mathias, who hadn’t seen him before, called out. “We’re at capacity right now,” he said. “I’m happy to help you, give you step-by-step directions on how to get housing, but I can’t have any more people stay here.”

After some back and forth, the man left. But our conversation was soon interrupted again by another conflict—another young man, swinging a crowbar, was accusing another resident of stealing his dollar. “If I give you a dollar, will that resolve it for you?” Mathias asked. “Give me ten,” the young man responded, scowling and scraping his crowbar in the grass. Eventually, Mathias and Piper convinced him to walk away.

These sort of conflicts, Mathias says, are constant—low-level stuff that takes time away from the primary work of getting people housed. To reduce the time Mathias spends doing conflict resolution, the district recently signed a contract with the WDC Safety Team, a group affiliated with the nonprofit Community Passageways, to provide a two-person deescalation at a cost of about $23,000 a month. The WDC Safety Team previously worked with Co-LEAD, a case management program run by the Public Defender Association that worked to shelter people with high-acuity needs and criminal justice involvement during COVID.

“It’s all about building relationships with the people living in encampments, being able to provide some kind of human connection,” WDC co-founder Dominique Davis said. “Our job is just being there, letting people know that we’re here to keep you guys safe. We’re not security and we’re not patrolling you. We’re not watching what you do. We’re here to make sure no violence happens and to deescalate situations as they arise.”

In late August, the district installed a fence with a locked gate on the north side of the encampment, and has since extended the fencing to separate a path that runs along the property, which could theoretically be used by children, from the camp. “The fence will not solve all issues, but it at least secures, or makes more secure, the pathway to and from the school,” Gannon said at last week’s meeting. “It may seem trivial, but that has done a lot to slow the traffic in and out of the camp.”

Although the city has refused to provide assistance to encampment residents or the school district, its own practice of removing encampments in response to neighborhood complaints appears to have exacerbated the situation at Bitter Lake. Mathias and people living at the encampment said some of the new residents arrived after the city swept nearby encampments, including multiple encampments in Lake City that have been the source of similar neighborhood battles in recent months.

Gannon agrees that the city-led sweeps are driving unsheltered people to seek new places to live—and some of them end up at Bitter Lake.”I don’t mean anything disparaging by this, but this is a transient population,” Gannon told PubliCola. “There are people coming in, there are people going out, and it’s difficult to keep tabs on everybody’s whereabouts. It is also difficult to determine who is new and how to exclude them from the property.”

Neighbors hold "Save Bitter Lake" signs at a press conference for Bruce Harrell's mayoral campaign
Neighbors hold “Save Bitter Lake” signs at a press conference for Bruce Harrell’s mayoral campaign

Sometimes, especially if your perspective is skewed by social media and heated public meetings, it can seem as though entire neighborhoods have turned their backs on unsheltered people and simply want them gone. But not everyone around Bitter Lake sees the encampment as a threat. In addition to the church volunteers, there’s Barbara—a neighbor who first ventured into the encampment after she heard on television that the city-owned sports field next to the encampment was covered with needles from encampment residents.

“I was like, ‘I can singularly solve this problem.'” said Barbara, who preferred that we use her first name only. “I came over here with my gloves on, my grabber, my container to put sharps in, and there were no needles there. In fact, I found no trash whatsoever.” On several recent visits, PubliCola found the encampment virtually trash-free, thanks to a cleanup system that involves collecting trash in large white bins and carrying it to the nearby park for collection by the Parks Department (which also installed a large sharps container by the restrooms).

After she showed up and found nothing to clean, Barbara started hanging out at the encampment and getting to know the people living there. “I’m out here nearly every day,” she said. “I’ve seen conflicts happen. And I’ve seen conflict resolution. And there’s been nothing that made me even feel like I needed to get up and leave.”

It would be misleading to suggest that no violence or illegal activity has occurred at the Bitter Lake encampment. People have showed up at neighborhood residents’ homes and asked them to call 911 because they were overdosing, and people have died on the property. Drug and alcohol use is common. Before my most recent visit, Mathias called the cops on a woman who was screaming at people by the nearby tennis courts. But the evidence that the encampment poses a risk to nearby school children is nonexistent. As Piper notes, unsheltered people are well aware that housed people loathe and fear them. They’ll go out of their way to avoid interacting with people’s kids.

Anthony Piper, one of the de facto leaders of the Bitter Lake encampment
Anthony Piper, one of the de facto leaders of the Bitter Lake encampment

Moreover, in a city where thousands live unsheltered, “move them somewhere else” is not a compelling solution—not for encampment residents, who will be demonized and shamed no matter where they go, nor for housed residents, who will still be confronted with visible homelessness until homelessness is solved.

In the coming weeks and months, Gannon and Mathias hope to find places for everyone living at Bitter Lake to move indoors—including, Gannon hopes, a hotel on Aurora Ave. North that King County purchased in July. “The county is working with us,” Gannon said. “They understand the pressures that we’re under, they understand that the timeline that we’re operating towards, but there also is an appreciation that the approach we’re trying to take right to find services and solutions for those experiencing homelessness, not to merely sweep them away and have that become a different problem in a different area of the community.”

Once the people living at the encampment are housed or have agreed to move elsewhere, Gannon says, the district will have to think about what to do with the property, which has historically been an open field that has served as an extension of the park next door. One option would be to keep it fenced off and use it for “school-related purposes”; another would be to sell it. “We haven’t actually entertained potential buyers, but that is on the list of considerations, Gannon said. “But that decision is a long way away.”

Piper and Vaughan, who have been at Bitter Lake since the beginning, both point to the many drawbacks of living outside, including the fact that they have to travel several hours on the bus and wait in a long line at the nearest hygiene center just to take a shower. (There’s a City of Seattle community center right next to the encampment, but it’s closed).  “We definitely would like to live in our own house,” Vaughan says. “But we kind of want to stay here till the last person’s gone, because we kind of started it in a way.”

Piper, who has a housing voucher through the Veterans’ Administration and a small monthly disability check, says that even though he hasn’t lived indoors for a long time, “I’ve always kind of thought, eventually, when I was ready, I’ll be okay.” For now, though, he’s staying put. “A lot of these people are my friends. Personally, I just want everyone to have the chance. And even if they don’t take it, that’s fine. They got the chance to do something. That’s what I want. I just want to see that through.”

City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park

A forest of angry hands rises in the Broadview-Thomson K-8 School cafeteria.

By Erica C. Barnett

During an often rowdy public forum in the cafeteria of Broadview-Thomson K-8 school last week, Seattle Public Schools deputy director Rob Gannon said the school district is working slowly toward a plan for moving more than 50 unsheltered people off school district-owned property behind the North Seattle school. The city of Seattle has refused to assist the school district in sheltering or housing people living on the property, and the district has turned to a small nonprofit called Anything Helps, with the goal of getting everyone off the site by September. 

“We got caught in a difficult situation and … with a rather large encampment and no resources to be able to address how to return that area to its original intended purpose or how to respond to the needs of the people living on that property,” Gannon said. “For the past two months, we have been actively seeking partners to help us address that situation, and only recently have we started to find traction to begin to help people move off that property.”

Emails from city officials show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

Although the school district property is directly adjacent to city-owned Bitter Lake Playfield and has historically been maintained by the Parks Department, Mayor Jenny Durkan has said that Seattle bears no responsibility for the encampment because it isn’t on city property. In May, Durkan suggested that if the chronically underfunded district wants the encampment gone, it should “stand up” its own human services system.

Durkan has repeatedly suggested that people living behind the elementary school made a conscious decision to move away from property owned by the city, and have therefore chosen to be beyond the city’s help. But emails from city officials obtained through a records request show the city knew that people would move onto school property from the nearby Bitter Lake Playfield, which was previously the site of a small encampment, if the city made them leave the park.

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In an email on July 8, 2020, for example, a recreation specialist with the city’s Parks Department told a school facilities staffer that the department would be removing and replacing lights in the park and would be asking “several campers in the area” to “relocate during construction.” Those “campers,” the parks staffer wrote, “may move elsewhere or around the SW corner of [Bitter Lake Lake which I understand is SPS property with Broadview Thompson [sic] School up the hill to the west. We never know what we will get when requesting a move of their ‘home.'”

Liza Rankin, the school board director for North Seattle, said that “seeing these communications now from a year ago, it’s really frustrating to know that had there been a prompt and appropriate response instead of sweeping people from the park at that point—offering services or shelter or even just an alternative location— this whole thing could have been avoided.”

After the city told the people living at the playfield that they had to leave, they did exactly what the city predicted, setting up their tents on the school district property a few feet away. “As we’ve seen where other encampments have sprung up, it’s not random,” Rankin said. “People are setting up tents where there’s a community center nearby, where there’s transportation nearby, where there’s other resources.” If the city hadn’t “shooed away” people camping on park property, or if they’d responded to the encampment behind the school when it was small, Rankin continued, “I think there would still be an encampment at Bitter Lake— I just think it would probably be by the community center” and not next to the school. Continue reading “City Expected Encampment on School District Property After Sweeping Nearby Park”

Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People

Just a few of the many headlines “Seattle Is Dying” station KOMO News has posted about a single encampment in North Seattle in recent weeks.

By Erica C. Barnett

Sinclair-owned KOMO TV, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” segment and its followup, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” has posted at least 11 pieces in recent weeks whipping up fear about a homeless encampment on the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. The latest, by reporter Kara Kostanich, began: “A drug overdose at a homeless encampment on the property of a local school has parents and neighbors asking when will something be done?”

However, according to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure. And the encampment is not “on the property of a local school”; it’s on school district property next door to Broadview Thomson K-8, separated from the school itself by both a tall fence and a steep hill.

The incident KOMO characterized as a “drug overdose” happened past the bottom of that hill, on the shore of the lake that forms the encampment’s northern boundary. On a recent weekday, the area was quiet and almost bucolic, more like a large recreational campground than a homeless encampment.

According to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” at the center of KOMO’s story occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure.

A man named Tony, who was there when encampment residents found the man, whom I’ll call A, lying unconscious, said several people quickly gave the man Narcan “as a precaution” before paramedics arrived. Narcan works by quickly reversing the effects of opioids, such as fentanyl or heroin, and putting a person into instant, extreme withdrawal.

“I’ve seen people get Narcan and they usually come out swinging,” Tony said. “They’re usually really sick and upset. He didn’t seem anything like that—he just jumped up and took the oxygen mask off and said he was okay. He ended up leaving and going back to his tent. It was definitely not drug-related.”

Two other encampment residents said they didn’t think A used drugs, and said that he had mentioned having infrequent seizures in the past.

But We Heart Seattle leader Andrea Suarez, whose group started as a one-person encampment cleanup effort last year, is convinced what she saw was an overdose, no matter what the people who live at the encampment say. “It certainly looked like a duck smelled, like a duck and was a duck,” Suarez said. “Now, I’m not an expert, but… if I were to give it Vegas odds, I’d say sure that seemed like a classic OD.” Suarez told me she has seen other people overdose at encampments in the past, so it was “it was extremely traumatizing for me to witness the whole process.”

We have offered technical assistance to Seattle Public Schools, but the City is focused on addressing encampments on City property where thousands of individuals are living unsheltered—not WSDOT, private property or SPS property“—Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower

Suarez said she called 911 while “eight people were on top of [A] arguing about whether to give him a fourth dose of Narcan,” and that once paramedics showed up, “everybody took off—they all fled the scene quite quickly and I was still front and center.”

Encampment residents dispute nearly every aspect of Suarez’s account, but agree that she was “front and center”; she stood nearby shooting videos and photos on her phone as paramedics administered to the man, which she posted a couple of hours later on Facebook. Suarez said she took A to her car after he recovered and tried to convince him to go to the hospital, invoking the “Good Samaritan” law, which protects people who seek medical assistance for overdoses from criminal prosecution.

Paige, a woman who has lived at the encampment off and on with her boyfriend, Chris, for about a year, said Suarez comes around the encampment frequently offering “help” that consists mostly of offers to bus people to places they used to live or to “some kind of three-month camp [in Oregon] that you have to pay $250 for,” Paige said. “They’re not offering people places to stay.”

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Suarez, along with a drug counselor named Kevin Dahlgren who instituted a “tough-love” approach to homelessness in Gresham, Oregon, acknowledges that she has offered encampment residents rides to the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a clean-and-sober housing program located in a former jail in Oregon that charges people $250 a month and requires them to do 10 hours of unpaid “community service” work every week. She says she has also offered to take people to Uplift Northwest, a nonprofit labor agency formerly known as the Mlilionair Club.

Paige and Chris said what they really need is a permanent place to stay—somewhere where they can take a shower—”not having a shower makes you feel kind of crazy; it’s no bueno,” Chris said—wash their clothes, and do dishes without having to beg for water and haul it down to their campsite. But the city hasn’t offered services, and the only useful assistance the camp receives is weekly trash pickups—one reason the encampment, unlike others in the city, is neat and tidy. Continue reading “Hysteria Over North Seattle Encampment Ignores Larger Issue: The City Has No Plan for Most Unsheltered People”

Fake Anti-Homeless Signs in Ballard, Public Health Says City Shouldn’t Cram People Back Into Shelter, and More

What size shovel would it take to yank these babies out?

1. The city has begun the process of closing down temporary “redistribution” shelters that opened last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a 130-bed shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. The Human Services Department, which reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, has asked DESCo begin the process of moving the people living at Exhibition Hall to other shelters, with the goal of emptying out the building the end of June.

The city hopes to move many of the Exhibition Hall residents to DESC’s existing Navigation Center, a 24-hour mass shelter in Pioneer Square that has been operating at reduced capacity throughout the pandemic, with about 36 people sleeping in communal rooms that used to shelter 85 a night.

However, after a recent site visit, representatives from the King County Public Health department recommended against “adding more residents to the communal sleeping rooms at this time.”

In a report on the visit, the health department’s Health Engagement Action Resource Team (HEART) noted a number of worrying conditions at the Navigation Center, including poor ventilation, lack of soap and hand sanitizer in restrooms, and bed spacing didn’t leave much room to squeeze more people in. Among other issues, the team noted that the windows in sleeping rooms didn’t open; air purifiers were sitting in storage; some exhaust fans weren’t working; and “[s]everal hand sanitizer and restroom soap dispensers were empty.”

Note: Good handwashing is far superior to using hand sanitizer,” the report noted, in a section that was both bold and highlighted. (Quick, someone tell Mayor Durkan!)

A spokesman for the public health department confirmed that the department “did not recommend that DESC immediately increase capacity [at the Navigation Center] before implementing the team’s recommendations, which the organization and the City of Seattle are reviewing.”

Ultimately, the decision to add more beds to the Navigation Center is up to DESC and the city; last week, DESC director Daniel Malone told PubliCola that additional beds were “desired but not yet possible due to [the] pandemic.”

In addition to figuring out how to increase capacity for existing clients at Exhibition Hall, the Navigation Center is a receiving site for the city’s HOPE Team (formerly known as the Navigation Team), which provides shelter referrals at “high-priority” encampments targeted for removal by the city. Even at full, pre-COVID capacity, the Navigation Center only had 85 beds, so restoring it to full capacity won’t provide enough spaces for everyone at Exhibition Hall and new referrals; other Exhibition Hall residents will be distributed to shelters around the city, as well as a new, county-funded hotel that will reportedly be announced soon.

2. A row of “No Camping” signs along Northwest 52nd Street in Ballard may express the city’s overall sentiment toward people living in tents and vehicles—as we’ve reported, the city has begun ramping up encampment sweeps as businesses and schools reopen. But they aren’t official, the Seattle Department of Transportation confirms.

It’s unclear who placed the blocks or signs in the right-of-way, or whether the two apparent acts of anti-homeless vigilantism are related.

The first indication that the signs are fake is their jarring design: Unlike the city’s parking signs, they’re brown with white lettering, with red “no” signs over images of a tent and an RV. The second sign is that where you would expect to see a phone number for the city, the signs list the website for their manufacturer: An online service called SmartSigns.com.

Meanwhile, less than a block away, on 14th Ave. NW, a series of “ecology blocks”—large concrete blocks ordinarily used to build retaining walls—have been moved into an area marked for one-hour parking, physically preventing both people living in vehicles and any other driver from using the parking spaces.

It’s unclear who placed the blocks or signs in the right-of-way, or whether the two apparent acts of anti-homeless vigilantism are related.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Transportation said they were not aware of the unauthorized signs and anti-parking blocks, and noted that the signs “are not enforceable by the Parking Enforcement group.” The process for removing the signs is lengthy and involves identifying the person who installed them and sending them a letter “requesting the removal of the unauthorized objects,” the spokeswoman said. SDOT did not explain why they can’t simply go out and remove the signs and blocks, which are on city right-of-way.

Council member Dan Strauss told PubliCola he has heard that homeless people “think that they will get housing if they come to Ballard”—a reference to the fact that, according to providers, people sometimes come to encampments that are scheduled for sweeps because the city’s HOPE Team has exclusive access to some of the most desirable shelter beds.

3. The unauthorized signs are about two blocks from Gilman Playfield, where the city removed dozens of people and tents in response to neighborhood complaints earlier this month. It’s even closer to two encampments on the city’s “priority” list for removals this week—one in front of Reuben’s Brews on 14th, and another along 8th Ave. NW between NW 46th and 47th Streets.

On Monday, District 6 city council member Dan Strauss, who represents the area, told PubliCola he has heard from multiple service providers that homeless people “think that they will get housing if they come to Ballard.” Continue reading “Fake Anti-Homeless Signs in Ballard, Public Health Says City Shouldn’t Cram People Back Into Shelter, and More”

Inslee Issues Pro-Housing Partial Veto; Another Avoidable Outbreak Preempts Planned Sweep; Affordable Housing Data Supports Single-Family Upzones

1. An important follow-up story to our Olympia coverage: On Thursday, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed several sections of a supposedly pro-accessory dwelling unit bill that ADU advocates convinced him failed the smell test. A pro-affordable housing coalition starring the AARP, Sightline, the Sierra Club, and the Washington State Labor Council, initially supporters of the legislation, wrote Inslee a letter after the session ended telling him the bill would actually end up being detrimental to the pro-housing movement.

PubliCola wrote about this bill all session, noting that housing development antagonist State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), the House Local Government Committee chair, derailed the bill with, among other objections, odd complaints about “profit tourism” (a scary-sounding, but frankly meaningless epithet).

State Sen. Marko Liias (D-32, Edmonds) originally passed the bill on the Senate side, but by the time it came back from the House, thanks to Rep. Pollet and Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), the legislation was watered down to the point that the affordable housing advocates felt compelled to send their letter urging Inslee to veto major portions of the bill, including provisions that gave cities veto power over ADU mandates.

Inslee’s message was clear: Let’s actually do something to create more affordable housing stock.

Now that the governor has weighed in, I’ll be working to pass an even stronger bill in 2022.

After Inslee’s partial veto, Liias told PubliCola:

“We need more housing options. Renters and homeowners both benefit from ADUs. I was disappointed in the House amendments. Now that the governor has weighed in, I’ll be working to pass an even stronger bill in 2022.”

A key piece of Liias’ bill did survive Inslee’s pen, a section that prohibits local rules barring non-related people (such as roommates) from sharing housing.

2. A new outbreak of an unspecified gastrointestinal illness temporarily halted a planned sweep at a homeless encampment near White Center this week, after King County Public Health recommended strongly against uprooting people with severe symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that cities refrain from sweeping encampments during the pandemic, because redistributing large numbers of people throughout cities causes an obvious risk of community transmission. But the city has begun ramping up sweeps of homeless encampments in recent months anyway, citing the need to keep parks and playfields safe and clear for kids going back to school, among other justifications.

“In general, we recommend taking into account potential communicable disease risks if there is a plan to move an encampment where there is either an active disease investigation or an active outbreak.”—King County Public Health

A spokeswoman for the public health department, Kate Cole, said the county is trying to figure out what pathogen is making people at the encampment sick. There have been several reported outbreaks of shigella among homeless people in the last year; the disease spreads rapidly when people lack access to sinks with soap and running water, which the city, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, has been reluctant to provide.

“In general, we recommend taking into account potential communicable disease risks if there is a plan to move an encampment where there is either an active disease investigation or an active outbreak,” Cole said. “We understand there are many health and safety factors that play into the City’s decisions about moving encampments and we maintain regular coordination with the City to address these complicated situations.”

The city identifies a list of “priority” encampments each week and directs outreach providers to offer shelter to people living at these sites before removing them. In addition the the White Center encampment, the city just placed encampments in Ballard and on Capitol Hill on its priority list.

3. We’ve got some more data to help put the city’s recent Mandatory Housing Affordability report in context. Last week, you’ll remember, we added some initial context to the report: Based on the total affordable housing dollars generated by development in the 6 percent sliver of the city’s single family zones that the council upzoned in 2019, it appeared that those areas were producing more funds for affordable housing than expected. Continue reading “Inslee Issues Pro-Housing Partial Veto; Another Avoidable Outbreak Preempts Planned Sweep; Affordable Housing Data Supports Single-Family Upzones”

Morning Fizz: Downtown Business Cash Funds Homelessness Initiative, Council Funds Hate-Crime Prevention Position

1. The campaign for a proposed charter amendment on homelessness, Compassion Seattle, just filed a batch of contribution reports that show who is funding the campaign so far. The donors, a laundry list of developers, downtown businesses, and deep-pocketed private equity firms and investors, reveal who is really supporting the initiative, which began its life as a Tim Burgess-backed proposal to reinstitute homeless encampment sweeps.

The latest version of the charter amendment (which may not be the last) would impose a new, unfunded mandate on the city to provide 2,000 new shelter beds in the next year. It would also require the city to spend 12 percent of the city’s general fund on homelessness and human services in perpetuity, and to “ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear of encampments.”

The top donors to the initiative campaign so far include:

• Developer Martin Smith ($50,000)

• Downtown (and Weyerhaeuser building) developer Greg Smith ($50,000)

• Vulcan, Inc. ($25,000)

• Mariners owner and retired Microsoft guy Christopher Larson ($25,000)

• Pioneer Square-based timber company Weyerhaeuser ($20,000)

• Property management firm Vance Corporation ($20,000)< • Clise Properties ($20,000) • 4th Ave. Associates, a property management firm ($20,000) • Consolidated Restaurants/E3 Restaurants, which include the Metropolitan Grill and Elliott's Oyster House and others ($10,000) • Private equity firm Five Point Capital, ($10,000) • Investors Mikal & Lynn Thomsen ($10,000) The campaign also reported a $5,000 in-kind donation from political consultant Tim Ceis, a former deputy mayor who was heavily involved in drafting the charter amendment (and is the partner of Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith); and a $182,050 expenditure to Landslide Political, a Salt Lake City-based signature gathering firm. Compassion Seattle's filings do not include any work or contributions by homeless advocates, homeless service providers, or any members of the supposed "unlikely coalition” that is backing this sweeps-and-shelter measure. 

2. In a unanimous vote, the Seattle City Council voted to slightly alter the course of a $1 million spending bill intended to address the past year’s increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans during Monday’s council meeting.The original bill, which Mayor Jenny Durkan presented to the council in March with support from Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, proposed allocating $150,000 from the city’s general fund to create at least one civilian “bias crime prevention coordinator” position within the Seattle Police Department.

Though the bill also added investments in community nonprofits that provide mental health resources and advocacy services, the proposal to finance a new position inside SPD drew vocal opposition from advocates of police abolition. Most speakers during Monday’s public comment session testified against the bill; some seemed to be reading from a similar script. “This legislation exploits tragedy to push expansion of policing and the criminal legal system,” one commenter said.

Behind the scenes, both González and Mosqueda were also skeptical of the proposal to finance an ill-defined civilian position within SPD. Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the council members and their staff reached an agreement with Durkan’s office to the bill to direct the $150,000 to a “public safety coordinator” position in the Department of Neighborhoods.

González told PubliCola on Monday that a “public safety coordinator” model would not be new to the Chinatown-International District. After Donnie Chin, the director of the International District Emergency Center, was murdered in 2015, González said she championed a similar program “after community leaders expressed the deep need to call someone other than the Seattle Police Department to report safety concerns.” The initial public safety coordinator program, she added, later spread to other neighborhoods, including South Park and Georgetown. The Chinatown-International District’s current public safety coordinator works for the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District.

Rosanna Sze, an organizer with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, was one of the few commenters during Monday’s meeting to highlight the amendment. “If this position is supposed to be housed under the Department of Neighborhoods,” she said, “the funding [for the position] should still come from SPD’s budget and not the general fund.”

Sze’s suggestion did not spur any action by council members: a separate plan to cut $3 million from SPD’s budget has stalled under pressure from the federal court that supervises reforms to the department, which all but precludes any additional cuts to the department’s budget. Instead, the council passed the amended bill without argument.

Charter Amendment Filed to Mandate Spending on Homelessness, Keep Parks “Clear”

Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller speaks at the opening of the Chief Seattle Club’s new shelter at King’s Inn in Belltown on Thursday. King’s Inn is one of just two hotel shelters the city has opened since the pandemic began.

By Erica C. Barnett

A coalition calling itself Compassionate Seattle filed a petition to amend the Seattle City Charter Thursday by mandating new investments in homeless shelter, housing, and services.

The amendment, which will go on the November ballot if supporters can collect approximately 33,000 valid signatures from Seattle voters, would require the city to create 2,000 new units of “emergency or permanent housing”—a broad category that includes everything from “enhanced’ 24/7 shelters to permanent housing—within one year, and would mandate that a minimum 12 percent of the city’s general fund go to a new fund inside the Human Services Department to pay for shelter, housing, and supportive services such as counseling and drug treatment.

The amendment also includes a stick: “As emergency and permanent housing are available,” it says, “the City shall ensure that City parks, grounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of encampments.” Initiative supporters say this is simply what the city already allows: “requiring those living in encampments to move in order to ensure safety, accessibility and to accommodate the use of public spaces,” according to an FAQ. It would also require the city’s parks department to do “repair and restoration” work at parks that have been damaged by encampments.

“As emergency and permanent housing are available,” the proposed charter amendment says, “the City shall ensure that City parks, grounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of encampments.”

“Embedding this in what is, in effect, the city’s constitution is important because we’re saying that if the voters adopt this, the city should prioritize its investments in those who have the least,” DSA president Jon Scholes told PubliCola Thursday. “I think of it as analogous to the paramount duty in the state constitution”—which codifies that K-12 education is the state’s top priority— “and while we don’t use the term ‘paramount duty,’ I think the end objective is the same: This should be a core function of city government and a core priority.”

Supporters of the amendment say the mandate to ensure that parks and public spaces are “open and clear” of encampments does not mean a return to aggressive encampment sweeps, although that provision will be open to interpretation if the amendment passes. (The city has largely suspended encampment removals during the pandemic.)

“It’s saying, you have to provide places where people will willingly go and do the work necessary to make that happen,” said Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization helped revise the amendment. “And when that happens, people will not be living in public—and people should not be living in public.” The idea, according to Daugaard, is to create alternatives to living outdoors that actually appeal to people, and through that process making encampments themselves a thing of the past.

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But is that prediction too optimistic, given the city’s long history of failing to address homelessness? The city declared a state of emergency on homelessness five years ago, and the number of people living unsheltered has increased nearly every year ever since. A 2018 study by McKinsey concluded that King County would need to spend $400 million every year on housing—not temporary shelter—to address the homelessness crisis.

The charter amendment, in contrast, directs the city to pay for thousands of new shelter units beginning next year, dictating the percentage of the general fund that must be dedicated to this purpose but providing no additional money to fund this massive investment. This year, the city will spend about 11 percent of its general fund on the Human Services Department.

Building shelter (much less housing) can take a tremendous amount of time, especially if the mayor and council aren’t on the same page. Also on Thursday, the Chief Seattle Club held a grand opening for its new shelter for Native American guests at King’s Inn in Belltown; the hotel, funded with federal Emergency Services Grant dollars allocated last year, is one of just two hotel-based shelters the city has managed to open so far, a year after many other West Coast cities began moving their unsheltered populations into hotel rooms. A charter amendment can mandate action, but it can’t ensure that the same forces that have kept the city from moving forward on shelter and housing in recent years will suddenly vanish.

City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he’s impressed by the coalition that has come out in support of the amendment; in addition to the Downtown Seattle Association, it includes the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing, and the United Way of King County. But he added, “I do want to make sure that we on the council are doing the due diligence to assess and let the public know what we expect all these mandates to cost—and that doesn’t mean don’t do it, that just means getting people ready [for the idea that] we’ve got to pursue additional revenue,” potentially including a local capital gains tax.

The next mayor, Lewis noted, will have an incredibly short timeline to get thousands of new shelter beds (or housing units) up and running—the first 1,000 units would be due in six months, with another 1,000 due six months after that. “I’m the only person in the city who has no ambition to be mayor right now,” Lewis joked, “but my read of this is that the implications are much bigger for the prospective mayor than they are for the council.”

The new mandates would also come at a time when the Human Services Department is ramping down its homelessness division in anticipation of moving most homeless services over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. (The HSD deputy director in charge of homelessness, Audrey Buehring, told staff yesterday that her last day will be April 13.) The Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, as PubliCola has reported, is down to half its regular strength as staffers—not guaranteed employment in the new authority—bail for positions elsewhere, and it’s unclear whether the charter amendment would put an extra burden on the couple of dozen overworked staffers left in the division or if it would require ramping the division back up.

Asked why the amendment adds more responsibility for homelessness to the city, rather than the county, Scholes said, “We affirm the importance and relevance and all the reasons that the regional homelessness authority came to be, but it’s in the process of getting its legs underneath it and meanwhile we have a growing crisis and half the county’s unsheltered population [in Seattle.]” The city, Scholes said, can contract with the county for behavioral health and other services—”we’re not suggesting they need to set up their own parallel systems”—but it needs to provide more funding no matter who does the work.

The city council can’t amend the proposed charter amendment, but they have the right to put a competing amendment on the ballot if they disagree with any of the particulars of the initiative. Currently, the initiative has just one major financial backer—the Downtown Seattle Association. The last charter amendment to pass by citizen initiative was 2013’s Charter Amendment 19, which mandated city council elections by district.

The C Is for Crank: Durkan’s Performative Trash Pickups Amplify Toxic Narrative

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the most consistent characteristics of the Durkan Administration has been their tendency to put out numbers that present a positive story, no matter what external reality they reflect. In Durkan’s world, the trend is always positive; the arrow of good news points eternally up and to the right.

For example: When the COVID pandemic forced shelter providers to provide more sleeping space for clients, Durkan claimed the city had created “1,900 new temporary housing options” for people experiencing homelessness—even though all but 95 of those were either existing shelter beds that had been relocated or spots at COVID isolation and quarantine sites for the general public.

When the mayor claimed in her state of the city address that the city had moved 7,400 households into permanent housing, PubliCola reported that that number reflected those who remained in permanent housing plus the number of exits from individual programs, forcing Durkan’s Human Services Department to walk back that claim.

And PubliCola readers will recall the many revisions the mayor’s office has made to the number of public restrooms the city claims are open for people experiencing homelessness—revisions that, as I’ve documented, have included the addition of many portable toilets that lack handwashing facilities to the list of “open restrooms,” improving the numbers.

The latest good-news story from the mayor’s office is about the Clean City Initiative, a $3 million “surge” in trash and graffiti removal in public spaces, with a particular focus on encampments and locations where unsheltered people sleep outdoors, such as greenbelts and doorways.

Consider a counterfactual: The city launches a massive campaign to expand the trash pickup at homeless encampments so that people living unsheltered actually have an opportunity to legally dispose of their trash—much as housed people do

The mayor’s office has quantified progress for the initiatives in terms of pounds of trash collected, among other metrics; every week, Seattle residents can visit a “dashboard” where the city reports its week-to-week improvements—millions of pounds of trash removed, thousands of needles collected, thousands of square feet of graffiti power-washed away.

These numbers are out of context and misleading, because they tell a fraction of the story. But they also contribute to a politically noxious narrative that feeds into the dehumanization of unhoused people. For years, the Seattle Is Dying crowd has been framing homeless people, rather than homelessness itself, as the problem. Durkan’s emphasis on the physical detritus produced by people who lack safe places to sleep capitulates to this agenda by focusing on the symptom—litter—rather than the cause.

The Clean City program started earlier this year, but the city’s executive departments have ramped up their promotional campaign in recent weeks, via press releases, Instagram posts, and dozens of tweets featuring “before” and “after” site photos.

As a journalist, I live on Twitter, which is where I started noticing the trend this month. Here’s a tweet from the city’s Parks Department, showing workers with shovels standing inside a Pioneer Square fountain usually surrounded by people, some of them homeless, and filled with litter. In the image, the fountain has been temporarily cleansed of both trash and people.

Another tweet, also from Parks, shows before and after shots outside an unidentified building. The text reads: “The Clean City Initiative includes the Purple Bag program, trash pickup serving the unhoused. From Feb. 15-21, crews collected 71 purple bags from encampments. Added to other cleanup results, the week’s totals came to 142,575 lbs of trash & 6,605 needles.”

The photo does not show an encampment, any visible needles, or purple bags, but the implication is clear: This trash was produced by homeless people who failed to clean up after themselves; fortunately, the city came along to pick up after them.

What the mayor’s (and her departments’) obsession with numbers and before-and-after photos reflects, even if unintentionally, is less a story of constant improvement than one of ideology. By pushing the narrative that the city is altruistically cleaning up after people who can’t, or refuse to, clean up after themselves, the mayor’s office and her executive departments are contributing to the widespread, mainstream, and increasingly popular narrative that homeless people and the encampments where they live are themselves a blight that needs to be “cleaned up” or eradicated—by force if necessary. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Durkan’s Performative Trash Pickups Amplify Toxic Narrative”

City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, the city of Seattle officially announced the details of a plan, announced last October, to use $26 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to place unsheltered people in hotels for up to 10 months. The two hotels, as PubliCola has previously reported, are King’s Inn in Belltown and the Executive Pacific Hotel, and will be operated by the Chief Seattle Club and the Low-Income Housing Institute, respectively. The hotels are expected to start accepting clients sometime in March, more than a year after the city declared a COVID emergency. Originally

King’s Inn has 66 guest rooms; the Executive Pacific has 155. Some of those will be used for on-site case management and other purposes, so the total number of new hotel rooms will be around 200 (about 60 at King’s Inn and about 140 at the Executive Pacific), rather than the 300 the city announced last year.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, the two hotels, combined, are supposed to move 230 people into permanent housing through rapid rehousing subsidies administered by the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, which will serve as LIHI’s rapid rehousing provider. That number is the same as the number announced last October, when the mayor’s office first proposed the plan.

“If you really take a step back, this is actually a rapid rehousing program that has hoteling as a [component],” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who heads the council’s homelessness committee and supports the hotel shelter program. “So we’re going to get a lot of value out of that 10 months.”

As we’ve reported, rapid rehousing is controversial because it rests on the assumption that unsheltered people can move quickly and seamlessly from street homelessness to paying full rent in market-rate apartments within a few months. Such programs work best for people who are fairly self-sufficient and do not have complicated physical or behavioral health needs, such as addiction or mental illness. 

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The mayor’s office also (re-)announced that LIHI will open up to 40 new tiny house units on Sound Transit-owned property in the University District and up to 40 at an unspecified location in North Seattle, and that WHEEL’s existing nighttime shelter, which serves about 60 women, will become a 24/7 enhanced shelter. In all, the “shelter surge” will add about 200 new temporary shelter beds and 140 permanent ones (including WHEEL’s, which opened earlier this month), rather than the 300 temporary and 125 permanent shelter beds the mayor’s office announced last year. The city council added funding for the University District tiny house village to the mayor’s proposed budget last year.

Both hotels will cost significantly more per client than the original cap of just over $17,000, although just how much more is unclear. LIHI director Sharon Lee said her agency is still negotiating with the city over the final budget. “One of the things we were concerned about was laundry and trash service, and the city said they would pay for that,” Lee said. “Our budget is getting smaller and [the city’s] is getting bigger.”

A representative from the Chief Seattle Club did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Public Defender Association, whose JustCARE program has moved about 124 people with complex behavioral health issues off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, was tentatively selected to operate the Executive Pacific, but HSD and the mayor’s office rejected their bid when it turned out to be much more expensive, at about $28,000 per client, than the $17,000 cap.

The PDA proposed a scattered-site hotel program that would distribute clients to different hotels with which the group has contracts, but told the city that if they were going to use the Executive Pacific, they would limit the number of clients there to 60, on the grounds that a larger group would lead to more high-needs clients on downtown streets. Continue reading “City Makes It Official: Chief Seattle Club, LIHI Will Run Scaled-Back Hotel Shelter Program”

Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday night, after more than four hours of public testimony mostly favoring the move, the Mercer Island City Council voted to pass an ordinance barring people experiencing homelessness from sleeping outdoors or in their vehicles inside the boundaries of the wealthy suburban enclave. As PubliCola reported Monday, the new law empowers police to remove anyone living unsheltered from the island, either by driving them to shelter in Bellevue (five miles away) or Kirkland (11 miles away) or by sending them to jail in another city for up to 90 days.

PubliCola covered the public comments—which focused largely on the evergreen fear that “homeless addicts” would victimize women and children and litter the island with needles and feces—and vote on Twitter as they happened. Only one council member, Craig Reynolds, voted against the proposal, which goes into effect on March 1.

But that may not be the end of the story for Mercer Island’s homeless ban. (Local media, adopting the whimsical language used by proponents of such laws, have referred to the bill as a ban on “camping.” In fact, it prohibits anyone without housing, who are disproportionately people of color, from sleeping on the island after dark; a more apt metaphor would be a sundown law.)

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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 cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

To understand the potential avenues for a legal challenge, it’s important to know a little bit about a landmark 9th Circuit District Court ruling on homelessness, Martin v. Boise, which established that cities cannot ban sleeping, sitting, or lying in public spaces unless there is adequate available shelter for people to utilize as an alternative.

“Any ban on camping in most of Washington likely can’t comply with Martin v. Boise, just by sheer numbers: How many people are unhoused in the cities versus how many shelters are available.”—ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster

Put plainly, the ruling means that cities like Seattle can’t enforce encampment bans unless there is adequate shelter available for every homeless person the city wants to remove from public spaces. The definitions of adequate and available have been a source of heated debate ever since.

“Really any ban on camping in most of Washington likely can’t comply with Martin v. Boise, just by sheer numbers: How many people are unhoused in the cities versus how many shelters are available,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said.

The next question, she said, is, “Are those shelters acceptable?” The four shelters to which Mercer Island plans to send people caught sleeping outdoors are far away, small, crowded (a particular concern during the ongoing pandemic), high-barrier, and often full; any of these factors could be used as an argument that the shelter isn’t really “available” or acceptable for a particular person. The Ninth Circuit “made pretty clear that you can’t, for example, force somebody to adhere to a religious doctrine or practice a religion to access a shelter,” or be “clean and sober,” Schuster said.

“In Washington, at least, substance use or abuse can be considered a disability” subject to civil rights protections, Schuster added—another potential avenue of attack on the ordinance, which defines substance use as one of many possible “voluntary actions” that a person can take to reject available shelter by refusing to follow whatever rules the “available shelter” happens to impose on clients. Continue reading “Mercer Island Public Sleeping Ban Could Violate Landmark Ruling on Homelessness”