Tag: homeless shelters

“It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice, and freezing temperatures closed in on Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in the downtown Seattle area, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The emphasis on the center city reflected an implicit assumption that most people living unsheltered in Seattle either live near the center city or could get there easily on public transit, using transit passes or the free bus tickets the city’s outreach teams distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, over in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. Since 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has run an occasional, informal shelter out of the American Legion hall on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of local unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. Initially, Hughes opened the building, which is owned by the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for unsheltered people “to get dry and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six people” would often sit under an overhang in front of the building to get out of the rain. Later, when the temperature dipped into the 20s, “I couldn’t get myself to throw them back out of the building,” so he started keeping the building open on the coldest night of the  year.

“I started it because it needed to be,” Hughes, who is 74, said. “The hall is there, not getting used, 95 percent of the time, so I decided it needed to get used.”

Ordinarily, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests a night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year was shaping up to be much the same as previous winters—until the county, city, and Seattle Times included the shelter on their official, public lists of available shelters just after Christmas.

“I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”—Keith Hughes, volunteer operator, West Seattle Veterans Center shelter

The result, Hughes said, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and suddenly I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, and SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health clinic, and Navos Mental Health [in Burien], asking if I had space in my shelter. I’m not a professional. I’m not a mental health counselor. I’m not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “being run by three people with no training, zero support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so that people would” volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances when shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations they were underqualified to deal with, including “at least one person in mental distress that was sent from another shelter” and a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who involuntarily “crapped all over the place” and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.

“Somebody brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from an abusive family—they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and a pair of pants, so they brought her in,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every single phone number I could get my hands on for, like, a women’s shelter— I only have so much knowledge about this—and nobody ever called me back.”

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically, all the city did was add me to the list of shelters out there and made my address public, which doubled the number of people that showed up,” Hughes said. “On really cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of which were being sent to me directly from mental health facilities. I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”

It’s unclear who, exactly, made the decision to list the West Seattle site on both the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s list of available shelters. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD staffer who now works as a senior advisor to the KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside downtown Seattle, and initially advocating against making the shelter location public.

“The facility didn’t report being above capacity, and was only at capacity on one night according to the census counts provided. Keeping open capacity hidden from the community seems counter to the point of opening emergency severe weather shelter.”—Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city listed the shelter after it became a “funder,” which it did by agreeing to pay Hughes’ higher-than-average utility bills during the official winter emergency—the only reimbursement the city has offered. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, which (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional staff, services, and supplies associated with the winter shelters they operated. Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the city “had to list” the shelter once it became a funder, which was inaccurate. PubliCola regrets the error.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly advertise that the shelter was open. “The shelter was listed in the broader news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) prior to HSD listing it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on 12/25, prior to HSD sharing it as well.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city wasn’t primarily responsible for making Seattle residents aware of what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, the city’s public information officers, including Franklin, directed the media to use and link to the HSD website in stories about available shelter; the KCRHA’s winter shelter blog post also directed visitors back to the city’s website. Continue reading ““It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter”

King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments

1. King County Public Health will not provide routine COVID-19 tests for people who enter temporary winter shelters during the cold-weather emergency, a spokeswoman for the department told PubliCola. Instead, the department will test shelter guests when a shelter provider calls to report having two or more guests or staff with “COVID-like illness,” or one or more confirmed COVID cases, and will direct people to isolation and quarantine sites if they test positive. The county will also do contract tracing when there’s a confirmed COVID case at a shelter site.

“Public Health does not have the staffing capacity to provide proactive, daily testing at each of these sites,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said. “As we do for all other homeless services sites in King County, if a shelter has staff or residents who appear to have COVID-like illness, our homeless services support team will provide on-site testing and consultation to help control any potential COVID spread.”

When the department gets word of a possible COVID outbreak in any homeless shelter, including winter emergency shelters, “Our testing team calls the shelter to discuss the individual symptoms to determine if it is likely COVID-like illness, in addition to providing ASAP guidance on steps to take to limit spread, and then (assuming team believes it is COVID-like illness), our team visits to conduct on-site testing for all staff and residents who agree to be tested,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said.

The spread of the omicron variant has been startling, with positive rates at some testing sites nearing 50 percent. That’s for the general population; people living in crowded congregate settings, such as bare-bones mass homeless shelters, are even more at risk. Cole said the health department is not currently experiencing a shortage of rapid COVID tests.

2. The Seattle Police Department has referred roughly one-quarter fewer cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes and child abuse unit this year than it did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The drop in the number of felony cases that SPD referred to the prosecutor’s office dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic. In May 2020, the office received 30 felony sex crimes cases from SPD; in June, the office received fewer than half that number. While the number of monthly referrals has fluctuated since then, the average over the past eighteen months has fallen to 19 cases, compared to an average of 26 cases per month before the pandemic.

While a reduction in SPD’s ranks after two years of high attrition—and the resultant transfer of many SPD detectives, who are responsible for criminal investigations, to patrol units since last fall—may contribute to the decline, the trend is not limited to Seattle. At a presentation to the mayors of the largest South King County cities earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office presented data showing a widespread decline in the number of felony cases referred to their office from police departments across the county. The police departments of Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn, for instance, have referred nearly 30 percent fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office since the start of the pandemic.

Other reasons for the shift may include a decline in the number of people reporting sex crimes and child abuse. PubliCola has reached out to SPD for comment.

3. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced another round of leadership appointments on Wednesday, including the sister of police-violence victim Che Taylor, a leader of King County’s No Youth Jail movement, a former state legislator and Seattle Port Commissioner, and a reality-TV producer. Continue reading “King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments”

SPD Hasn’t Fully Complied With 2017 Anti-Bias Law; Durkan Says City Has Never Done “Sweeps”; Meth Cleanup Further Delays Shelter Opening

1. In several recent campaign debates, mayoral candidate (and 12-year city council veteran) Bruce Harrell has pointed to a 2017 bias-free policing ordinance he sponsored as proof of his commitment to police reform. During a debate hosted by the ACLU of Washington last week, his opponent, current city council president Lorena González, countered that the ordinance—which requires anti the Seattle Police Department to conduct anti-bias training and collect data about stops and detentions—didn’t “result in a less-biased police force.”

One important detail neither candidate mentioned is that SPD still hasn’t fulfilled all the requirements of the four-year-old law. In a response to a query from City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, interim SPD chief Adrian Diaz informed the council in July that his department hasn’t been collecting data from all traffic stops, as the 2017 law requires. Instead, his department has only collected data on “Terry stops” (also known as stop-and-frisks), in which an officer detains someone who they suspect of “criminal activity.” SPD classifies roughly 70 percent of all stops and detentions as Terry stops.

Data released by SPD in January revealed that Indigenous people are nine times more likely to be stopped by police than white people, and Black people seven times more likely. In contrast, officers were more likely to find a weapon on a white person during a Terry stop than on people from any other racial or ethnic group.

SPD has not collected data on other common types of stops, including traffic citations. The four-year delay in following the letter of the law, Diaz wrote, came down to outdated reporting protocols: According to Diaz, SPD’s traffic unit only keeps paper records of their stops, warnings and citations. As a result, Diaz wrote, the department “does not have a complete count or description” of the citations and warnings its officers have issued, nor does it have complete demographic data about the people they’ve stopped.

According to Diaz, SPD was able to find a “work-around” to collect data about Terry stops, as required by the federal consent decree but not for other types of stops, leaving the department in compliance with the federal court’s orders but out of compliance with a city law. For now, Diaz said the department pieced together an imperfect system for manually collecting data from paper records, supplemented by the limited data about traffic stops collected by the Seattle Municipal Court. Based on that “imperfect data,” SPD estimates that it has conducted 52,764 traffic stops since 2015. According to that incomplete data, only 17 percent of drivers stopped were Black—likely an undercount, given that Black people account for roughly 30 percent of the department’s Terry stops.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who has led the push to get SPD to comply with the data collection and reporting requirements of the 2017 ordinance, noted that the council asked the department in November 2020 to produce data on all traffic stops by July of this year. If SPD has made any progress toward that goal, “we don’t have evidence of that, because we still haven’t received a report on the data,” Herbold said. SPD has not yet responded to Herbold’s or PubliCola’s inquiries about when the department began to work toward full compliance with the 2017 law.

2. With the mayoral election just weeks away, outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan asserted at a recent homelessness town hall discussion that, “in four years, we’ve never really done a sweep,” because the city does outreach and offers “housing” before it removes encampments. (The HOPE team offers shelter, not housing.)

The counterfactual comment prompted panelist Tiffani McCoy, the advocacy director at Real Change, to describe several stories she has heard from Real Change vendors “of all of their possessions being taken from them forcibly during a sweep.”

“The idea that hasn’t happened in four years is absolutely astonishing to me,” McCoy said.

Durkan also repeated her talking point that most people are homeless in Seattle became homeless somewhere else—a claim Durkan has made many times over the past year to suggest that Seattle pays more than its fair share to address regional homelessness. “If you look at what’s being spent right now in an emergency shelter, Seattle is the lion’s share, and if you look at the data, about six out of 10 of the people that we are serving, their last place to have stable housing was outside of Seattle,” Durkan said. “They became homeless somewhere else but because we have the services here,” they migrated to Seattle.

The number uses comes from the county’s internal Homelessness Management Information System, which is only one of many contradictory data points about where people lived before they became homeless; other sources, including surveys done as part of the annual Point in Time County in January, have concluded that a large majority of people who are homeless in King County became homeless here and did not move here from somewhere else—exactly the opposite of the mayor’s talking point.

3. A shelter on Lower Queen Anne that was supposed to reopen last summer, providing shelter for about 40 people displaced from a temporary COVID shelter at Seattle Center, now faces another setback: Squatters who moved into the vacant building smoked copious amounts of meth, leaving dangerous residue on every surface. A spokeswoman for Seattle City Light, which owns the building, confirmed that the city hired decontamination specialists to remove drug residue, and said the contractor “completed decontamination work” earlier this month. Continue reading “SPD Hasn’t Fully Complied With 2017 Anti-Bias Law; Durkan Says City Has Never Done “Sweeps”; Meth Cleanup Further Delays Shelter Opening”

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.

In Reversal, City and County Will Open Smoke Shelter in SoDo

Image by Matt Howard via Upsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

In a reversal of their previous policy, the city of Seattle and King County now plan to open one temporary shelter for people living outdoors to escape from a “super massive” plume of wildfire smoke expected to roll in starting Friday, The C Is for Crank has learned. The shelter will be at a large warehouse in SoDo and will provide protection for up to 77 people.

UPDATE: Officials from the county and city officially announced the shelter this morning. “The building is large enough to create substantial physical distancing inside,” county executive Dow Constantine said. In fact, the building is so large that it could hold up to 300 people. The shelter, which will be open until at least Monday, will be operated by the Salvation Army with assistance from the county’s public health reserve corps.

According to the latest Point In Time count of the county’s homeless population, there were at least 5,500 people living unsheltered in King County last January.

Earlier this week, a spokeswoman from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said that the city, following guidance from Seattle/King County Public Health, did not plan at that time to open any new indoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness in response to unhealthy air conditions because the risk of COVID-19 transmission in congregate settings outweighed the health risks posed by prolonged smoke exposure. The spokeswoman, Kamaria Hightower, said that “should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast,” the city has “access to a range of facilities.”

The city has not opened cooling centers this summer, arguing that the risk of COVID transmission outweighed the risk from high temperatures. Although advocates—and several city council members—have sought to move homeless people into hotel and motel rooms for the duration of the epidemic, the mayor has resisted such proposals. The city has contributed funding for a hotel in Renton that is being used as a long-term shelter through a contract with the county. On Friday, Durkan said the city was considering all options, but that hotels presented special challenges, such as the need to provide staffing for people in individual rooms.

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The city and county have been cautious about opening smoke shelters. As recently as Thursday morning, King County Public Health spokesman Doug Williams said the county would not recommend opening new emergency shelters specifically to provide protection from wildfire smoke. “The spaces that exist in Seattle with proper air ventilation/filtration”—five sites outfitted last year specifically to serve as smoke shelters— “are currently being used as distancing shelters for the homeless population,” Williams said.

This is only partly true—two of five such spaces, Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall (both at Seattle Center) are being used for this purpose. One, the Seattle Center Armory, is partly open for business and is not serving as shelter, and the two remaining sites, Rainier Beach Community Center and the International District/Chinatown Community Center, are not being used as shelter. And the county and city have not previously disclosed their ongoing work to develop the SoDo site as emergency shelter.

At Friday’s press conference, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson said the city had discussed opening the Armory as a smoke shelter but that Seattle Center did “not have the staffing level to open that facility to a large number of individuals, nor did the provider comm unity have the capacity to help staff that facility.”

“The CDC has issued guidance against congregate cooling centers because of the increased risk of COVID transmission,” Williams continued. The CDC recommends that congregate cooling shelters include information about preventing COVID transmission, and that they include proper social distancing and as much air filtration as practical. Although the recommendation does note that congregate settings can increase the risk of COVID transmission, it consists mostly of advice for how to open congregate cooling centers as safely as possible, and is not blanket recommendation against providing temporary shelter from dangerous weather conditions. 

Amanda Richer, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness who was homeless until fairly recently herself, said Thursday that she contacted the city’s Human Services Department a month ago about the need to prepare for wildfires and hot weather in addition to the COVID crisis. She said she was glad that the city and county were taking action to help some people experiencing homelessness escape the smoke. But, she added, “I don’t know where the disconnect in foresight is happening. It’s an emergency that should have been dealt with when it started being an emergency.”

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke inhalation can damage lungs and make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as COVID; it can also increase the risk of heart problems, cause asthma attacks, and other health problems. This is especially true of groups that have preexisting health conditions, which are common among unsheltered people, particularly those who are chronically homeless.

“This smoke will damage these unhoused [people’s] lungs so badly that it will make them so much more vulnerable to COVID,” Richer said. “I don’t know if we are as a city being honest about the level of need and what is happening. … If all of our smoke shelters are being used, then we need to know where else to put people, because we can’t let people die.”

I asked the city and county officials at the press conference why, if the advice for housed people is to stay indoors even though most people lack high-tech air filtration systems, the city and county aren’t opening temporary spaces so that more people experiencing homelessness can at least get out of the smoke. Durkan responded, “We have around 5,000 people living outdoors in the region. …  I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that we have a plan to bring 5,000 people in immediately for the next few days.” (I wasn’t.) “We don’t logistically currently have that ability, but we are trying to reach those people that are most vulnerable [and] to open up these facilities that are very large to get the people who are most vulnerable inside.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for King County, said that if the air continues to worsen, the county will reassess and could recommend opening additional buildings. “We’re trying to balance two situations which are fraught with uncertainty [COVID-19 and wildfire smoke], but as the air quality decreases, the motivation to bring people indoors and the need to do that will increase.”

COVID Cases in Homeless Facilities Are Mostly Happening In Mass Shelters, Not Housing

Outside DESC’s main shelter in Pioneer Square. DESC has reported five COVID-19 cases among residents or staff, three of them in congregate shelters such as this one.

On Monday, King County Public Health announced that 112 people experiencing homelessness and staff at facilities serving homeless King County residents had tested positive for COVID-19—a number that could underrepresent the number of COVID-positive people living in mass shelters, since not everyone is being tested. According to Public Health spokesman Keith Seinfeld, between 1,400 and 1,500 people “associated with homeless shelters” have been tested, including both shelter guests and staff. For comparison, King County’s total homeless population is more than 12,500. COVID-19 tallies rely on self-reporting by shelters, some of which have been reluctant to provide accurate information about how many people staying in their shelters have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past.

A closer look at the detailed numbers, which King County Public Health provided in response to a request, reveals that roughly 70 of the 91 “assigned” cases (that is, cases that are tied to a specific service or facility) occurred among clients of large mass shelters, in which dozens or hundreds of people sleep together in one room and share restrooms and common spaces, not to mention air.

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Twenty cases, out of 91 cases the county has linked to specific sites, were reported at Catholic Community Services’ overflow shelter at the King County Airport, and another 21 occurred at the Lazarus Day Center, also run by CCS. Overall, CCS’s shelters, accounted for 50 of the 91 cases tied to specific facilities. The county did not identify which cases were shelter guests and which were staff, but a recent Centers for Disease Control review of three Seattle shelters with “clusters” of COVID-19 had an equal proportion of cases among shelter residents and staff, although the total number of residents with the virus was higher.

The city of Seattle has responded to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness largely by moving people from existing shelters into larger spaces, like the Miller and Garfield Community Centers, where they can sleep six feet apart. (The mayor’s office has consistently referred to these expansion sites as “new” shelter beds, but they are not.) Two additional “redistribution” shelters, at the Loyal Heights Community Center and the Southwest Teen Life Center, were expected to open in late March but are no longer scheduled to open; according to an HSD spokesman, service providers “haven’t asked us to use them.” 

“If I wouldn’t put my [92-year-old] mother there, or my brother, or my 23-year-old daughter, then it’s just not okay.” — Dr. Colette Auerswald, UC Berkeley

HSD staffers who have been working at shelters are reportedly being redeployed to other work assignments that are also related to COVID response. I’ve reached out to the city for more details about why this is happening, but the result may be shelters staffed by Parks and Recreation department staff and patrolled by private security, in addition to staff from the organizations that run the shelters.

The CDC issued guidance back in March suggesting that shelters try to keep people’s heads at least six feet apart while they sleep, by having them sleep six feet apart and head to toe if necessary. “The six-foot guideline seemed like a good idea at the time,” Dr. Colette Auerswald. from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, said during a call with reporters today, but in the month since that guidance was released it has become obvious that mass shelters are unsafe. Nonetheless, the six-foot spacing guidance remains an official CDC recommendation as of today.

“If I wouldn’t put my [92-year-old] mother there, or my brother, or my 23-year-old daughter, then it’s just not okay” for homeless people either, Auerswald continued. “People need to get out of congregate shelters.” Auerswald is the lead author of a new report recommending that local jurisdictions provide people experiencing homelessness with hotel rooms or other places to shelter in place for the duration of the crisis.

As COVID Cases Surge, How Will Shelters Cope? Plus More on that Mystery Campaign and Details on Seattle Magazine Sale

 

Sale price: $2 million. Paying freelancers: Not included

1. As of last night, a motel in Kent and four isolation sites scattered throughout King County remained empty of COVID-19 patients, according to King County Public Health. Meanwhile, the city has confirmed that—beyond the 100 new spaces for Downtown Emergency Service Center clients that just opened at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall—they have not yet identified new shelter sites to allow for social distancing among the thousands of people living in emergency shelter in conditions that do not allow six feet of spacing between cots, bunks, or mats.

A rough calculation based on last year’s point-in-time count (which does not include a detailed geographic breakdown of people in emergency shelter and other types of “sheltered” homelessness) suggests that around 2,800 people were staying in emergency shelter on a typical night, a number that may be inflated by the way the Homeless Management Information System counts people entering shelters. Whatever the true number is, it is certainly many times higher than 100.

Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, says the city, King County, and the state are “evaluating multiple avenues for bringing additional resources online and we will have new information to share in the coming days. At this time, there are no known confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the unsheltered community or within shelters. However, we are working closely with the County to ensure there are adequate resources and the right strategies in place to meet this public health need when it arises.”

The mayor will be at a press conference tomorrow along with Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and other regional officials, and I’ll be posting live updates on Twitter.

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2. Stuck inside, with no council meetings to attend and no other immediately pressing business, I decided yesterday to continue down a rabbit hole I entered last week when I started looking into Seattle for a Healthy Planet, a mysterious campaign that may or may not be planning to put an initiative on the Seattle ballot to create a new tax to fund research into lab-grown meat.

As I reported last week, the campaign has already reported more than $365,000 in contributions, most of that from a California-based cryptocurrency firm called Alameda Research with links to animal-rights groups. Alameda did not return my messages seeking comment; nor did the company’s founder, a Hong Kong-based 20-something named Sam Bankman-Fried.

I explained that I was calling about Seattle for a Healthy Planet, and he told me his name was included on campaign documents because of “a mistake by our filing people,” promised to have someone get back to me, and hung up.

Undaunted, I turned to the other side of the campaign ledger, zeroing in on a consulting firm called The Hicks Group that was paid a flat $15,000 for one week of unspecified work between Christmas and New Year’s, and another $15,000 for the month of January. The headquarters for the Hicks Group appears to be a Brooklyn apartment that was recently occupied by Seattle for a Healthy Planet campaign manager David Huynh, a former Hillary for America staffer in the campaign’s New York office who now lives in Baltimore. (Huynh was one of the people who did not call or email me back). Huynh’s old apartment is now occupied by one of his former H4A coworkers, Jeremy Jansen, whose own consulting firm is registered in Wisconsin and is not called The Hicks Group.

Most consulting firms (including Jansen’s) are registered with a state licensing body, and are typically organized as LLCs. The Hicks Group is not a registered business in New York, and I could find no evidence for its existence prior to the Seattle for a Healthy Planet campaign. Continue reading “As COVID Cases Surge, How Will Shelters Cope? Plus More on that Mystery Campaign and Details on Seattle Magazine Sale”

Morning Crank: To Reduce the Door-to-Door Burden of People Already in Crisis

Yesterday, after city council member Kshama Sawant announced that her committee would hold a special public hearing to readjudicate the cuts to women’s overnight shelters and hygiene centers that the council made last year, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post enumerating all the hygiene services (showers, laundry facilities, and restrooms) that will be available in the 21 “enhanced shelters” it plans to fund this year.  “Enhanced shelters provide more of a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to reduce the door-to-door burden for people already in crisis to meet their basic needs like eating breakfast, taking a shower, doing laundry, and sleeping,” the post says. (What HSD fails to mention: The services available at those shelters probably won’t be available to people who aren’t clients at those shelters—as of last year, council members would only say that they hoped some of the shelters would choose to make their facilities available to non-clients on a drop-in basis).

The post even goes on the defensive about the well-documented lack of (legal) places for people living outdoors to relieve themselves, noting that the city “supports 117 restrooms available to all members of the public,” including Port-a-Potties near five transit stops and restrooms at libraries, community centers and parks. Parks close later than community centers, but they do close; meanwhile, the city is currently embroiled in a massive debate about encampments, one aspect of which is whether people who attempt to sleep in parks overnight should be removed.

The city budget adopted last year hews to the principles of “Pathways Home,” a human services and homelessness funding framework that deprioritizes projects that don’t focus specifically on getting people into permanent housing. As a result, the budget  eliminated or reduced funding for three downtown hygiene centers, which “only” provide places for people to clean up and use the restroom. One of those three, the Women’s Referral Center, is on the agenda for Sawant’s public hearing next Monday, along with the SHARE/WHEEL-run women’s shelter for which Sawant also wants to restore funding. (SHARE runs a bare-bones men’s shelter; its sister organization, WHEEL, runs a similar shelter for women. Both had their funding cut last year.).

It seems unlikely that Sawant’s time-tested tactic of holding a public hearing and organizing her supporters to show up to testify in favor of her proposal will restore long-term funding to either WHEEL or the Catholic Community Services-run Women’s Referral Center, but Sawant is taking every opportunity to draw attention to the issue. At a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday, Sawant argued that the roughly $100,000 the city plans to spend on a fence to keep homeless people from erecting tents under the Ballard Bridge “could be enough to extend bare-bones bridge funding for the [SHARE and WHEEL] shelters for the rest of the year.” Funding for both WHEEL’s and SHARE’s shelters is set to run out in June.

Currently, the fence in Ballard is just a temporary structure—a crude construction fence, topped by razor wire, intended to keep homeless people from taking shelter under the bridge. On Tuesday, as I called around trying to get an answer to the question, “Who decided it was necessary to build a $100,000 fence under the Ballard Bridge?”, it became clear that the fence, like the infamous row of bike racks meant to deter homeless people in Belltown, was a political hot potato no one wanted to handle—Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office directed questions about the fence and the bike racks to the department of Finance and Administrative Services and the Seattle Department of Transportation, which each deflected responsibility on the other agency. (SDOT put up the fence; the question is whether FAS or its director, Fred Podesta, ordered them to do so back when the city’s Emergency Operations Center was holding daily work group meetings to respond to the city’s homelessness state of emergency*). Both departments agree that the fence is necessary, however, because of the risk that homeless campers will accidentally set the bridge on fire, causing a collapse. Mike O’Brien, whose council district includes Ballard, says he considers the fence “particularly problematic,” because “it doesn’t solve anything—I drove by there a few nights ago [before the fence was up] and there were five tents there. I’m almost certain those folks are not housed. Probably they were just destabilized. So now we’re $100,000 poorer and no one’s better off. What is our long-term strategy here? Is our ultimate goal to fence off every structure in the city because someone might use that structure as a place to live?”

A similar story is playing out around the notorious bike racks. SDOT installed those bike racks, too (and highlighted them on Twitter) but earlier this week, the agency sent out a statement saying that the policy of the Durkan administration (and thus SDOT) was not to use bike racks as impediments to encampments. Several council members praised the agency Tuesday for agreeing to remove the racks and reinstall them elsewhere in the city. “I think this is a great sign from our new mayor, from the leadership at SDOT, that … we will not go down the route that other cities have gone, using hostile architecture to displace folks,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said.

But is it? Durkan has said she supports removing the bike racks, but her office did not respond to questions about what her strategy will be for ensuring that people living unsheltered do not set up tents on sidewalks. And it’s unclear whether Durkan’s policy shop, which is still staffing up, has come up with an answer to the question: If not bike racks and fences, then what? Ultimately, the buck will stop not with any particular city department, but with the new mayor—and two months in, she still hasn’t provided a clear indication of how she plans to deal with unauthorized encampments.

* This story originally said that the EOC has “stood down,” which was incorrect; the work groups no longer meet daily, but the EOC is still responding to the homelessness crisis.

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