Tag: homelessness

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward

Seattle Police Department officers—identifiable as members of the Navigation Team by their khaki pants‚look on during an encampment removal in Ballard earlier this year.

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis introduced a proposal that would restore funding for outreach to homeless encampments and lay the groundwork for what Lewis described as a new city “unsheltered outreach and response team” that would replace the controversial Navigation Team.

The surprising part is that the council and mayor’s office worked together on the legislation. 

It’s a whiplash-inducing turn, given the mayor’s vehement opposition to the council’s efforts to dismantle the team and spend the savings on outreach workers. But it isn’t entirely unexpected. For weeks, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller has been working with council members and service providers to craft a new approach, one that may be at odds with the mayor’s own personal views about how to tackle unsheltered homelessness.

To recap: Late last month, Durkan’s office sent a scorched-earth letter to the council informing them that, in response to their budget direction, she would immediately disband the Navigation Team and suspend the city’s outreach and engagement efforts. In a statement, Durkan said that the city’s Human Services Department “will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions.” Indignant council members responded that they had never suggested eliminating outreach altogether, and in fact had allocated $1.4 million specifically for that purpose—but that Durkan had declined to spend it. The mayor’s office contends that this money never existed, since using it would require laying off staffers who work on 

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

Since then, deputy mayor Sixkiller has been attempting to mend fences with the council and homeless advocates, by quietly working with council members Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Lisa Herbold on the compromise proposal Lewis introduced on Monday. That plan includes a new team inside the city’s Human Services Department that would serve as a kind of coordinating body for nonprofit outreach providers’ work in the field, plus funding for those outreach providers to expand their work. (The exact extent of the internal team’s coordination role, and their authority over the work of city contractors, remains unclear).

The goal of the new joint effort would be twofold: improving safety and safety and hygiene at existing encampments, and moving unsheltered people quickly into permanent housing. By utilizing new hotel-based shelters and triaging people quickly into services, case management, and appropriate housing, the new approach could, in theory, house a lot more people than the old approach of sweeping encampments and providing shelter referrals to their displaced residents.

That’s the plan, anyway. But there still are plenty of potential pitfalls and points of contention. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward”

Durkan Formally Nixes Navigation Team In Scorched-Earth Announcement

By Erica C. Barnett

This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she is suspending the operations of the Navigation Team, which removes encampments and provides outreach and shelter offers to their displaced residents, and pursuing “out of order” layoffs for 70 Seattle Police Department officers, “with the expectation that layoffs cannot be completed by November 1, 2020.”

The city council’s adopted budget, which Durkan unsuccessfully attempted to veto, calls for a reduction of 100 police positions and the elimination of the Navigation Team. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navigation Team has not been removing encampments in significant numbers.

Durkan has stated repeatedly that she does not believe SPD can do “out of order” layoffs of more-senior officers based on their roles in the department or past disciplinary actions against them. Her 2021 budget would reduce the size of the police department by just 22 positions. The press release says that the mayor “continues to have significant concerns about compromising 911 response and public safety. A 100 officer net reduction would reduce SPD staffing levels to around 1,300 sworn officers.”

“Consistent with the City Council’s vote to eliminate the Navigation Team by stripping it of all funding, the City will suspend
operations until the Council restores funding for these positions,” the press release continues. “As Council was advised by the Human Services Department, the Council’s actions effectively return the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments.”

“Council’s vote to eliminate the Navigation Team means the City must suspend its work and will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions,” the mayor said in a letter to council attached to the announcement.

The council did not express its intent to return to “a pre-2017 model” for addressing encampments (2017 was the year the Navigation Team started). Their amendment dismantling the Navigation Team explicitly redirected $1.4 million in funding from the Navigation Team “solely to expand and maintain homelessness outreach and engagement services, which may include flexible financial assistance, case management, and housing navigation services.”

In a joint statement Friday morning, city council members Lisa Herbold and Tammy Morales denounced the move.

“The Mayor’s response to Council’s budget decisions—ignoring the $1.4 million that Council provided to increase outreach, engagement, and resources available to service people living in encampments; the threat to dispose of property that the City is currently storing for people without homes—threaten to increase harm and misery and manufacture chaos,” the statement said. “Sadly, the people hurt most will be those struggling the most just to live.”

Eliminating the Navigation Team immediately, without any backup plan for 2020, is the nuclear option, and could have negative impacts on people living unsheltered as winter approaches. The Navigation Team currently has exclusive access to dozens of shelter beds and spots tiny house villages; getting a new team up and running, as Durkan’s 2021 budget proposes, would take significant time, and have a major impact on unsheltered homeless people who would ordinarily receive referrals to those Navigation Team-only beds.

Had the mayor and council agreed to eliminate the team as part of the 2020 budget rebalancing that took place over the summer, there could have been a plan in place to replace the team’s outreach and referral capacity.

Complicating matters, the mayor doesn’t actually plan to eliminate that capacity in the long term—just, it appears, for the rest of this year. In fact, her 2021 budget includes a brand-new, $7.5 million, eight-member homeless outreach and engagement team that will have some new name other than “Navigation Team.” (Homeless Engagement, Assistance, and Referral Team?) Also in the mayor’s budget, homeless encampment cleanup contracts would transfer to the Seattle Public Utilities department, and the police positions currently associated with the team’s work will remain funded, according to the budget.

The announcement also includes the news that the City Budget Office will not execute a $14 million interfund loan to the Human Services Department from  the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to invest in historically underserved communities. Instead, Durkan says the council should figure out where that $14 million should come from through its own budget amending process.

“To be clear, the Mayor’s proposed 2021 budget will not include a funding source for this $14 million obligation. We will work with Council in the 2021 budget process with an assumption that the Council will identify the revenues needed to balance to this $14 million expenditure.”

This is a developing story.

Durkan Unveils 2021 Budget that Uses JumpStart Tax to Fill Shortfall, Fund $100 Million In Unspecified BIPOC Investments

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated.

In a pre-recorded message complete with swelling background music, multiple backdrops, and B roll from locations around Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan unveiled a 2021 budget proposal today that relies heavily, as PubliCola was first to report, on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax passed by the city council earlier this year. The council expressed its intent to wall off the revenues from the tax for direct COVID-19 relief to Seattle residents in the first two years, and to spend the money in 2022 and beyond on affordable housing, non-housing projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and small business support. Durkan vetoed the spending plan (the council overturned that veto) and allowed the tax to become law without her signature.

“We’ve balanced the 2021 budget, with a $100 million investment for BIPOC communities,” budget director Ben Noble said at a press briefing this morning, referring to the money the mayor has proposed parking in the city’s “general finance” budget until a Durkan-appointed “equitable development task force” comes up with recommendations for spending the money. (PubliCola was also first to report on the task force). “If we identify a sustainable source for that in 2022 and beyond,” such as a local one-percent income tax, “those resources could be redirected towards the council’s original intent. … Budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed.”

Durkan first proposed spending $100 million on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities last summer, as protesters called on the city to defund the police department. This morning, she argued that it was appropriate to use the payroll tax revenues for this purpose. “Everyone wants to make deep, deep commitments to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities and investing in those communities,” she said.

“‘Dedicated’ is not really the term used with resolutions,” Durkan continued, referring to the fact that the council’s JumpStart spending plan was not a budget ordinance. “We did everything we could this year to honor the allocations [for COVID relief], and next year we will have a discussion with council to really honor the city’s commitments going forward.”

Durkan’s budget includes a $21.5 million line item for COVID relief in 2021, and $86 million in combined “continuity of service and COVID relief” this year. It’s unclear how that combined $86 million differs from the $86 million that payroll tax sponsor Teresa Mosqueda proposed spending on COVID relief, specifically, this year. The budget presentation notes that the city will also fund COVID-related activities in various departments.

The mayor did not answer specific questions about the future of the city’s Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that, prior to the pandemic, removed encampments and offered shelter referrals to some of their displaced residents.

From the budget itself, it appears that the work of the existing team will be dispersed among various departments, and that some of the funding for Navigation Team positions (though not necessarily the people themselves) will be moved into a new Safe and Thriving Communities division of the Human Services Department. That division will include staff from the existing Youth and Family Empowerment Division, domestic violence advocates that already work in HSD, and domestic violence victim advocates that would be transferred out of SPD. Some DV advocates have opposed this transfer from SPD, which is a subject I’ll write about in greater detail in a future post.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

All HSD contractors will see their contracts extended at the same levels as 2020, with a small inflationary increase, and will not be subject to the previously required performance reviews that determined whether they would receive fully funding. The decision to extend these contracts is related to the fact that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take over most of these contracts, has been unable to hire a director on its original time frame, which has pushed the schedule to get the authority up and running further into 2021.

The mayor didn’t dwell much this morning on her Seattle Police Department budget, which she said she will have more to say about in the spring. So far, it includes the reductions she has already announced, which mostly result from transferring items that can be civilianized, such as the 911 call center, into other departments. Durkan vetoed the council’s revised budget in August over the council’s plans to cut the police department by 100 positions, not all of those resulting from layoffs. (That veto was also overturned.)

The $100 million for BIPOC communities is a “blank” item in the budget. The mayor wants that spending to be determined through the work of the task force whose members she will announce this week. At the same time, the city council allocated $3 million to a separate “community research” effort headed up by King County Equity Now; at a press conference yesterday, the group announced that they had already hired dozens of staff and planned to employ more than 130 researchers. (Paul will have more on that story later today.)

Durkan’s plan would keep some parks facilities, including many pools, closed throughout 2021, and would cut back spending on many transportation projects, including bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure improvements.

Overall, Durkan’s budget includes about 40 outright layoffs, a number the budget office was able to keep down by drawing down on revenues such as the payroll tax and levy funding, and by reducing the city’s emergency reserves to $5 million next year. The revenue forecast for 2021 is actually less dire than the shortfall that resulted in major budget reductions in the budget the council adopted in August, which just withstood a mayoral veto—the budget office expects the city to take in about $1.7 billion in revenues, including the payroll tax, next year, compared to just $1.4 billion this year. In addition to the general 2020 economic collapse, this year’s shortfall resulted in lower revenues from funding sources that were impacted by COVID, including parks fees, parking taxes, and taxes on real estate transactions. “We do see that there’s hope on the horizon,” Durkan said.

 

 

Advocates, Service Providers, and US Census Workers Describe “Chaotic,” “Confusing” Process to Count the Unsheltered

Image by Enayet Raheem via Unsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

Tonight, temporary Census workers will fan out across King County, and communities all over the country, and attempt to count everyone who is living unsheltered by doing a “head count” of people observed sleeping in tents, vehicles, and on streets and in green belts statewide. Similar head counts, which are a way to include homeless people in the Census rather than an effort to count the number of people experiencing homelessness, began across the nation starting on Tuesday and will wrap up up tomorrow.

The counts are taking place in combination with separate counts of people who stay in shelters or access other homeless services, such as hot meals—the so-called sheltered homeless. This one-night “count,” which will take between four and six hours will be the only effort to enumerate the number of people living unsheltered in the United States—a number that effects not only political representation but the allocation of federal resources to address issues such as homelessness. Because President Trump shortened the Census timeline by a full month, to September 30, the agency will have no ability to recount or recalibrate if local counts go poorly or result in obvious undercounts of people living outdoors.

The ability of the Census Bureau to do an accurate count hinges on whether they follow best practices for counting people who generally don’t want to be found.

So what will tonight’s count look like? According to Los Angeles Regional Census Center spokesman Donald Bendz (whose division includes Seattle), the Census has trained its workers to interview people they encounter and has equipped them with advance intelligence, collected from local homeless service and outreach providers, about where encampments are located in every community. “We work with the city, the county, the state, and all of the partners who work in providing services to people experiencing homelessness and they provide us a list” of places where people are living unsheltered, Bendz said, “and then we have a list that we use from the 2010 census” that will be updated with new information from local service providers.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

In practice, homeless service providers and advocates say that outreach to their organizations has been patchy, confusing, and redundant. Nicole Macri, a state representative and deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said that “ten or 15 different people [from the Census] reached out to us” asking similar questions. “I don’t know if it’s that COVID made it feel even more rushed and last-minute”—the Census collections, originally scheduled for April, were moved to September due to the pandemic—but “it just felt very confusing and chaotic.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the situation is similar in cities across the nation. “A lot of [service providers] expressed that it was confusing, that they had had difficulty reaching people at the Census to discuss issues and problems,” said NAEH president and CEO Nan Roman. “People have had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. The guidance was all over the place.”

Ground-level Census workers say they, too, are confused about how tonight’s “head count” will work. According to two local Census “enumerators,” the training for the overnight count has been scattershot and incomplete, with two weeks of in-person training replaced, due to COVID, by a single in-person orientation and fewer than two days of online exercises. As of late Monday afternoon, one census workers said he hadn’t gotten any details about where his team will be going, the methodology they’ll use for counting people if they don’t want to be interviewed or are asleep, or what to do if they can’t figure out how many people are sleeping in a location. 

“People have had a hard time understanding what was expected of them. The guidance was all over the place.”—Nan Roman, President and CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness

“The fact that I don’t even know where we’re doing [the count] tomorrow is a little unsettling,” one worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his temporary position, said. “We’ve gotten no instruction at all [on how to count people who are asleep]. I don’t know how we’re supposed to do that—are we supposed to throw the tent flaps back?”

Another temporary Census employee, who originally volunteered to participate in tonight’s count, which comes with a 10 percent pay bonus, backed out after he decided the process was “a shit show”; for one thing, he said, workers were expected to refer throughout the night, and make notations on, a 300-plus-page printout that they only received in electronic form.

The worker said he was also concerned about people who were newly homeless and might not show up a count that only focused on shelters, soup kitchens, and people living outdoors. “When you’re newly homeless, you don’t end up directly on the street—you couch surf or you jump in your car and travel,” he said. “The newly minted homeless certainly don’t have a location where you can count them.”

During tonight’s count, Census spokesman Bendz said, Census workers are supposed to try to talk to anyone who’s present and awake, but that “if they’re asleep, we won’t attempt to wake that person.” A Census training document obtained by PubliCola says that Census workers should try to talk to people in locations like encampments by going through a “group quarters contact person,” such as the “leader: of the encampment—a directive that suggests that ad hoc encampments are significantly more organized than they typically are in practice.

“The fact that DESC is a major homeless service provider, and it’s not clear to me that it’s well-known within the organization that this is happening, is a big red flag.” —Nicole Macri, deputy director, Downtown Emergency Service Center

Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told a group of advocates and service providers last week that the coalition has been telling the Census Bureau for more than a year that a going “to places where people are camping by the thousands and ask[ing] them to complete a census form with a total stranger at night is a very poor process that isn’t going to count people effectively.”

Eisinger made her comments during Zoom meeting organized by the Coalition. Instead of telling member organizations to direct Census staff to specific outdoor locations, Eisinger said SKCCH is urging groups to proactively encourage clients to fill out their census forms whenever they come in contact with unsheltered people.

Unlike the annual Point In Time count of the region’s homeless population, the Census won’t be counting tents and cars from a distance and using a standard multiplier to estimate how many people are inside. Instead, Bendz said, they will be going right up to tents and vehicles and attempting to count people individually. “If everyone is asleep in a car, then we will count what we see in the car,” Bendz said. “If it’s a tent and the tent ‘windows,’ for lack of a better word, are open and we can see inside the tent, then we will count the people we see inside the tent.” 

The Census Bureau’s practices differ from the methods used during the Point In Time count in other ways as well. Every year, in the run-up to that count, volunteers spend weeks scouting sites during daylight hours to find encampment locations that might be overlooked at night. On the night of the count, more volunteers, mostly recruited from the ranks of community organizations and groups that work with the homeless population, spread out across a grid carefully designed to avoid double counting. Teams typically include at least one person with lived experience of homelessness who is familiar with the area and able to relate comfortably to unsheltered people the groups encounter.

“It just takes tremendous effort to organize an effective, comprehensive count of people who are unsheltered,” DESC’s Macri said. participated in one-night counts for more than a decade, back when the counts were done by the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Compared to the 2010 Census, there are a lot more people who are living unsheltered, and of course there’s a much greater proportion of people who are living homeless who are living unsheltered” in 2020, Macri adds.

Bendz said the Census Bureau has done months of outreach to service providers to figure out the best way to count people living unsheltered, but Macri—whose organization provides outreach and is one of the largest shelter providers in the Seattle area—told me that she was “unaware” of tomorrow’s count until I asked her about it. DESC director Daniel Malone told me that he, too, was unaware of any communications with the Census Bureau about encampment locations.

“The fact that DESC is a major homeless service provider, and it’s not clear to me that it’s well-known within the organization that this is happening, is a big red flag,” Macri said. Roman, from the NAEH, said that she heard from one large city that Census officials told the county that they were working closely with the Continuum of Care—the regional planning body that coordinates homeless services for a county or other jurisdiction—”but none of the [CoC] board and none of the staff had ever talked to them.” Continue reading “Advocates, Service Providers, and US Census Workers Describe “Chaotic,” “Confusing” Process to Count the Unsheltered”

Despite Ongoing Heat and Smoke, Seattle Has No Plan for Cooling Centers or Smoke Shelters for Homeless

Wildfire smoke along I-5 near Corvallis, Oregon, September 8

By Erica C. Barnett

The city of Seattle has no current plans to open “smoke shelters” to protect people experiencing homelessness from the dangerous respiratory effects of smoke rolling in from wildfires in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, despite visibly smoky air that has burned eyes and left ashy residue on windowsills across Seattle for the past several days. Mayor Jenny Durkan has also declined to open cooling centers in recent weeks, on the grounds that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion or stroke, and hygiene-related illnesses that can crop up in hot weather.

On Monday, Durkan tweeted that Seattle residents should minimize their exposure to wildfire smoke by closing all their windows and doors, turning their central air conditioning to recirculating mode, and turning off fans that vent outside. The mayor’s tips included no suggestions for people living outdoors, who don’t have doors to close, much less air conditioning or even fans to mitigate temperatures that have soared into the 90s this summer, and are supposed to hit 91 this afternoon.

According to King County Public Health, the air over the last several days has fluctuated between “unhealthy for everyone” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”—those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, or a history of strokes. In previous years, the city has opened “smoke shelters” so that people living outdoors, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that make them sensitive to smoke inhalation, can escape the smoke and heat. Last year, for example, Durkan touted the installation of new HVAC systems at five city buildings used as shelters on smoky days, calling it a timely response to the “new normal” of climate change.

This year, however, the city has done nothing to provide such spaces. According to mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower, the city has been “reviewing its response options for potential wildfire smoke to ensure that they align with social distancing requirements.” Currently, Hightower adds, many of the buildings that the city would use as smoke shelters (or cooling centers, for that matter) are either closed (libraries, most community centers) or already being repurposed as shelters or day care facilities (Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall). Of course, the city has the authority to open buildings that are currently closed, including the senior centers, community centers, libraries, and other city buildings that are ordinarily used as temporary smoke shelters and cooling centers.

Support The C Is for Crank

The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Hightower said the city is taking its cues from Seattle/King County Public Health about when and whether to open temporary spaces for people living outdoors to get out of the heat and smoke. “We are updating our operational plans 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.” If that happens, Hightower said, the city has “access to a range of facilities if wildfire smoke conditions significantly deteriorated and became a greater health risk to vulnerable individuals’—for example, if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued “a prolonged red zone air quality forecast that went on for days/weeks and Public Health’s concerns for air quality outweighs the concern for the spread of COVID-19 which can be deadly to those at high risk.”

Homeless advocates, and at least one city council member, aren’t buying it. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the city should have risen to the challenge of providing safe, socially distanced shelter months ago, before wildfires and extreme heat added new urgency to the crisis. “The public health threats to people who are homeless of being exposed to extreme weather conditions are real,” she said, “and the threats to people being indoors with a highly transmissible disease are real. That doesn’t mean that local government gets a pass on figuring out how to help reduce risk and protect people.”

Homeless advocates have been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to keep people experiencing homelessness from infecting each other is to put them in individual rooms, a solution the Durkan administration has steadfastly resisted. Even failing that, Eisinger said the city needs to figure out a way to deal with extreme weather conditions before this winter, when flu season and cold, rainy weather will collide with the ongoing epidemic, making it even more

critical to get people into warm, hygienic spaces. “The Centers for Disease Control and our local and state public health departments are quite clear that individual rooms that allow people to be protected from exposure, as well as from the risk of contracting COVID-19 are advisable, effective, and should be increased,” Eisinger said.

On Wednesday, council member Teresa Mosqueda said she had just returned from a short walk and was coughing despite wearing an N95 mask, which filters out most smoke particulates. “I can’t imagine sleeping unsheltered” in the smoke, she said.

“We have hotels [and] motels sitting unoccupied with AC and individual rooms; we have tiny houses that are ready to be stood up,” Mosqueda said. “There is no excuse to not house more folks and use de-intensified shelter options to prevent people from getting sick from this smoke.”

Tenants Describe Worsening Conditions at Aurora Motel as Owner Signs Agreement with SPD

 

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, five days after the owner of a dilapidated Aurora Avenue motel, the Everspring Inn, left notices on tenants’ doors telling them they had to vacate their rooms immediately, the Seattle Police Department signed off on a “nuisance property” abatement agreement that the owner, Ryan Kang, used as justification after the fact for displacing his tenants, some of whom had lived at the motel for years.

The papers he taped on tenants’ doors were not official eviction notices, nor, attorneys for the tenants say, were they legal; even if Kang and SPD had both signed an abatement agreement when he began forcing his tenants out, he would have had to provide them with notice, relocation assistance, and sufficient time to find new places to live. Nothing in the law allows a landlord, even one who runs a dangerous or substandard property, to simply tell his tenants to get out.

Tenant advocates, and many of the tenants themselves, agree that the Everspring is not a good place to live. Black mold is visible in many of the units, and water sometimes drips from the ceilings. Fights are common. But attorneys for the Public Defender Association, which is representing some of the tenants, say even a justified nuisance agreement can’t provide legal cover for kicking tenants out without proper notice or restitution, and they argue that SPD Police Chief Carmen Best made a serious error of judgment when she signed an agreement after several local media outlets, including this site, reported that Kang was illegally evicting tenants, towing their cars, and shutting off their hot water in the middle of a pandemic.

Support The C Is for Crank

The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Lisa Etter Carlson, co-founder and director of women’s health initiatives at the Aurora Commons, a nonprofit that helps sex workers and people experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood, said she was surprised when media coverage didn’t jostle the city of Seattle into action. “I kind of assumed that surely, with all the press, with the absurdity and inhumanity of turning these precious people out during a pandemic, during an eviction moratorium, surely someone out there was doing  something,” she said. “And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.”

Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, says SDCI is reviewing 16 complaints from Everspring residents—complaints that those residents could use as a defense against a formal eviction proceeding. At that point, the city would also begin issuing notices to the property owner, Kang, for violating the city’s just-cause eviction ordinance. Since the evictions have all been de facto and informal, it’s hard to see how this option is meaningful to the current and former tenants.

And, as Etter Carlson noted, no one from the city has showed up to inspect the site or stop the evictions from happening. For the past week and a half, the only city employees who’ve been consistently on site are members of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, bearing offers of shelter—a significant step down from even a crappy motel room, and one that many tenants aren’t willing to consider.

“It’s really challenging when people have had their own apartment for years to then, just all of a sudden, pick up and move to a tiny house or a shelter situation,” Etter Carlson said. “It’s not dignifying.”


Most of the people at the Everspring had nowhere to go; and so, many of them are still there. As of last weekend, nearly a dozen rooms in the Everspring were still occupied, with plywood sheets sitting just outside their doors as a reminder that if they leave their rooms, they will be considered unoccupied, and the security guards will board up their doors with all their possessions inside. As a result, tenants said, they have taken to sitting in each others’ rooms when one of them leaves so that their doors don’t get boarded up while they’re gone.

Stevens, from SDCI, says the department got assurances that Kang was only boarding up “unoccupied” rooms. He added that the city has no authority to order a property owner to open up rooms that are boarded up if no one is living there.

Tenants who were still living at the Everspring over the past weekend said that after he ordered them to leave, Kang hired security guards who roamed the motel’s hallways and locked the newly installed gate, preventing tenants from coming and going at will. “One of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” tenant Bruce Red recalled. Another tenant, Stephanie Lewis, said one of the guards claimed to be a US marshal, and was “walking around, all geared up with a Taser gun and a bunch of different kinds of mace and pepper spray.” 

Kimberly Harrell, a case worker with REACH, confirmed that one security guard was representing himself as a US marshal, and said, “The behavior of the security there is ridiculous. It’s almost like he’s taunting them or trying to provoke them.” She showed me a text message exchange between that security guard and one of the tenants. “Don’t say I didn’t warn no body,” the message said. The tenant asked him what he meant, and he responded, “U know what I mean. I’ll say this: I will be wearing police patches tonight.”

“I kind of assumed that surely someone out there was doing something. And it just became clear that no no one was. They never called. They never showed up. We never received any assistance.” —Lisa Etter Carlson, Aurora Commons

Lewis, who worked 12-hour days at the front desk for $10 an hour, said that Kang ordered everyone to move their cars from the motel garage or he would have them towed. As a result, “we had to take our car out of the garage and park it on the street.” If they get kicked out, they’ll need to use that car as shelter. 

The Public Defender Association sent a letter last Thursday to Kang’s attorney, E. Chan Lee, demanding that Kang stop removing tenants from his property, turn their utilities back on, and allow people whose rooms were boarded up to get back into those rooms and retrieve their property.

They also wrote to Best and soon-to-be-acting police chief Adrian Diaz directly, expressing outrage that the department signed the order without telling them, after the PDA contacted the department two weeks ago to see if any of the people Kang was kicking out might be eligible for the Co-LEAD program. That program provides motel rooms and case management for people experiencing homelessness who are involved in low-level criminal activity—a description that fits many of the Everspring’s residents.

Their letter to SPD reads, in part:

Accepting for the sake of argument that a serious nuisance situation existed at the Everspring, you must know that (1) people not responsible for those conditions will be forced out onto the street and (2) those responsible for the nuisance conditions will not cease their problematic activity just because they lose their lodging. It is inconceivable, and inexcusable, for you not to have initiated planning with the community partners who could work with this population, and the various city agencies that can provide relocation assistance and homelessness prevention, before you took this action. The city’s departments appear to be working at cross purposes, with zero coordination, and at odds with stated city policies about sheltering/lodging high barrier individuals, finding space and avoiding unnecessary evictions to the street.

Tenants cannot be evicted because of criminal activity that happens on a property unless they were directly involved. A spokeswoman for SPD said the police department was not involved in or aware of the evictions when they began on August 13, and characterized them as requests to tenants that they “voluntarily leave.”

Prachi Dave, the PDA’s legal director, said that while the nuisance order cites “various kinds of criminal activity, there’s no allegation that the people are being removed from their homes right now have engaged in any kind of criminal activity. Having them bear the ramifications of that seems fundamentally unfair.”

Moreover, Dave continued, the police knew that Kang was already evicting tenants illegally when they signed the agreement with him—an agreement he is now using to justify the evictions that took place before it was signed. In his letter responding to the PDA, Lee, Kang’s attorney, said his client was “in fact required to remove all those residing at the property pursuant to our agreement with the Seattle Police Department.” The agreement does note that this should be the ultimate outcome, but it does not give Kang permission to simply tell everyone to leave without notice, due process, or relocation assistance. And, again, it was signed several days after notices went up on tenants’ doors and tenants were told they had to be out right away.

“The fact that SPD entered into this agreement, knowing this was going to be the outcome, and when that outcome was already already unfolding at the time they entered this agreement, is incredibly problematic,” Dave said.

Tenants say that in addition to boarding up rooms with tenants’ property inside, Kang offered some tenants a mere $100, in cash, to leave. Some have taken the money. One such tenant, Eric Border, said he sometimes worked for Kang under the table, “as muscle.” He said he took the money and left because he didn’t feel he had a choice. “He boarded up my door and told me to leave,” he said.

When I talked to Border by phone on Sunday, he said he was walking around, scared and with nowhere to go. He had been living at the Everspring for about three years. “I’m older now and I need a place to stay,” he said. “I have nowhere to take a bath. I just want a place to lay down and wake up so I can be normal.”

Harrell, with REACH, said she was especially appalled to learn, from a story in the Seattle Times, that Kang had received at least $164,000 in “rapid rehousing” assistance from the city of Seattle in 2018, making him the single largest beneficiary of the program. Rapid rehousing is supposed to provide temporary assistance to get people into safe, stable housing—typically in market-rate apartments—until they can pay the full rent themselves. Rent for a room at the Everspring ranged from $1,800 to $2,400 a month, and it was far from safe or stable.

“If the city is paying for something like that, then how come no one checked to make sure things were running properly?” Harrell said. “It’s not fair that he got all this money and didn’t run it the way it should have been run.”

The groups that are trying to help the Evergreen’s tenants, including REACH, the Aurora Commons, and the PDA, say they aren’t asking for anything extraordinary—just some relocation assistance and time to find the tenants a new place to stay and get them connected with case management and other support. The tenants, too, say that’s what they want.

“I hope I can wake up tomorrow and they’ll say, ‘Here’s your relocation money,'” Lewis said. “Basically, all we want is to be compensated, to be relocated so we can go on with our lives.”

Sudden Eviction Leaves Residents of Aurora “Nuisance” Motel With Few Options, Little Recourse

By Erica C. Barnett

The hallways inside the Everspring Inn on Aurora Avenue North are a hive of activity on Friday morning, as dozens of residents shuffle in and out of doorways, loading up trash bags, calling for friends down the hall, and trying to stuff a life’s worth of possessions onto carts and into shabby suitcases. The place smells sour, like sweat and mold, and some of the doors have messages scrawled or taped on the outside: “Hope.” “Happiness.” “Fuck you.” One of the doors has been kicked completely off its hinges; according to residents, it’s been that way for months.

Last month, the Seattle Police Department declared the motel a “chronic nuisance” and ordered its owner, Ryan Kang, to correct the problems, which included drug activity, rapes, and two recent murders—one in the parking garage and one in the motel lobby. On Tuesday, residents say, they received a notice on their doors ordering them to vacate the premises.

“[O]ur agreement with the City of Seattle and the Chief of the Seattle Police Department requires that we remove all guests and persons currently occupying the property… effective immediately,” the notice said. “The Seattle Police Department will be on the premises for a scheduled walkthrough on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 11:00am to help ensure compliance with this requirement.”

Support The C Is for Crank

The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

The move was a bluff. According to SPD, there is no agreement between Kang and the department. Nor did police officers do a “walkthrough” on Thursday; although a couple of officers did show up, residents and case managers who were present say they never got out of their car.

José Carrillo, who has lived at the Everspring Inn for four years, said he didn’t understand how Kang had the right to kick everyone out without notice. “The notice just said we have to leave because there’s been some shootings and murders. They’re blaming all 25 people who live here for the shooting. I was as scared as anyone when that happened.” Carrillo, who buys cars at auction, fixes them up, and sells them, said he had just gone upstairs to his room when a woman living in the motel was shot in the garage. “That’s when it started feeling unsafe,” he said.

Even so, residents say, it’s better than being on the streets. “Anything is better than being homeless,” said Olivia Lee. Her girlfriend, Nevaeh Love, is the sister of the woman whose killing Carrillo almost witnessed. The two women lived in a single room with another resident, Curtis Coleman; now, Lee said, they would have to go back to living in their car. “They didn’t offer us any resources, nothing. They just told us we had to be out that day,” Lee said. “It should have been done the legal way.”

Love, who is seven months pregnant, said she was in the hospital until last week because of a lung infection she believes was caused by black mold at the property. Her sister was one of the two people who were shot at the motel.

“They’re sitting on their high horse right now,” Love said. “Well, karma’s a bitch, and they’re going to be in this situation one day, only it will be tenfold.”

Kang was in front of the motel on Friday morning, sweeping up glass and trash as two private bodyguards looked on from a few feet away. He pointed to paint that a resident had poured in the driveway. “This is what I’m dealing with,” he said. He said emptying the motel of tenants was the first step toward addressing the problems identified by SPD. “I believe in second chances but the most important thing for me is public safety,” Kang continued. “We gave them proper notice. I have to get into an agreement [with the city] and this is part of doing that.”

In ordinary times, a mass eviction like the one at the Everspring Inn would require due process, including prior notice of up to 90 days and tenant relocation assistance, depending on the reason for the eviction. Even individual evictions for cause, such as failure to pay rent after a three-day notice to pay or vacate, would have to be filed in King County Superior Court, where the tenants would have the right to challenge their evictions.

During the pandemic, however, there are additional protections against eviction, including both a citywide and statewide ban on most evictions. The statewide ban applies at motels that serve as long-term residences, like the Everspring. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan extended Seattle’s eviction moratorium to the end of the year.

Landlords are still allowed to file eviction lawsuits against individual tenants in extreme circumstances, but that isn’t what happened in this case, either. “There’s nothing in the mayor’s or the governor’s proclamation that says a public nuisance is a just cause for [mass] evictions,” Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, said. “At the very least, he would have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against each individual person.”

In theory, Witter said, the tenants could file an injunction allowing them to stay at the motel for now, or seek redress from the state attorney general, who enforces the statewide eviction ban. (The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond Friday to a question about the legality of the evictions). “It basically sounds like an unlawful eviction,” Witter said. But, he added, “it’s going to be a lot more complicated to help them if they all leave.”

Residents said Kang didn’t give them much of a choice. Last week, residents said, two armed security guards started hanging around in the parking lot and attempting to enter people’s rooms. (When I was inside the motel, the security guards were wandering up and down the hallways sticking their heads into open doors.)

On Thursday, multiple residents said, Kang cut off the’ hot water to all the rooms, and had several tenants’ cars towed, taking away their last significant possession and a potential source of shelter. “Those that have a car, and were going to leave, were probably going to sleep in their cars,” said Kim Harrell, an outreach worker with REACH who was at the motel until 11:00 Thursday night. “What is it hurting him to let the car sit here for one night?”

For some, the final straw came around 1:00 on Friday morning, when the security guards locked the gate surrounding the motel and refused to let anybody in or out. One tenant, Bruce Red, said he felt like he was “back in prison again.”

“[The security guards] locked the gate, and then one of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” he said. “I told him I didn’t need him to be on my ass. I’m not acting out of character. I’ve been incarcerated eight times and you’re a [corrections officer] coming into my room.” Harrell said negotiated with the guards for 45 minutes to allow the children of another resident to come inside the gate, “and then they didn’t want to anymore.”

“Their dad had to come out and talk to them,” Carillo, the four-year resident, said. “It was a messed-up situation.”

Both Red and Coleman said they worked for Kang, making ten dollars an hour—nearly six dollars less than Seattle minimum wage—to manage the front desk and defuse dangerous situations when they arose. Coleman said the work was dangerous and hard. “You just have to deal with everything: People drunk, high, coming with knives and bats.

“I was working 12- to 15-hour shifts for [Kang],” Coleman said. “For him to just push everyone out now—it’s not right. They’re messing up all my plans.” Continue reading “Sudden Eviction Leaves Residents of Aurora “Nuisance” Motel With Few Options, Little Recourse”

City Considered, and Rejected, “Voluntary Relocation” Policy for Homeless Encampments

An encampment on South King Street, just prior to removal. Within days, tents had popped up a block away on South Jackson Street.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group of Human Services Department staffers and Seattle police officers that removes homeless encampments from parks and other public spaces, considered formally adopting a new policy under which homeless people removed from one location would be told to “voluntarily relocate” to another spot, either “self-selected” or identified by the city, internal memos and emails obtained through a records request reveal.

The discussions took place in April, as HSD, the parks department, and the mayor’s office discussed how to deal with an encampment near the Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that is perennially full.

In an April 16 memo to deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, HSD director Jason Johnson laid out a plan in which the Navigation Team would “encourage and support individuals residing on the [Navigation Center] stairs to accept shelter resources or to voluntarily relocate to a wide stretch of sidewalk at S Dearborn St & 10th Ave S.”

Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The site was chosen, according to the memo, because it was wide enough to allow some pedestrian access, close to a proposed hygiene station, and accessible for emergency and sanitation workers. (Other emails indicate that the Navigation Team also considered identifying “a large parking lot that people can be directed to camp in” after being removed from around the Navigation center). In an email to Navigation Team members and HSD staffers expanding on the memo, Navigation Team director Tara Beck indicated that people living in encampments slated for removal would be told to “self-select areas to relocate to”—a more politic way of saying, “Move along.”

Before the pandemic, the Navigation Team removed dozens of encampments every month, avoiding a legal requirement that they provide advance notice and offer shelter and services to every encampment resident by designating most encampments as “obstructions,” which are exempt from those requirements.

Since mid-March, in recognition of the fact that moving people from place to place could accelerate the spread of the virus, the team has only conducted a handful of large-scale encampment removals. After each such operation, the city has said that every unsheltered person remaining at a location on the day of a swee received a legitimate offer of shelter that was accessible and appropriate for their specific circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s an easily observable fact that encampments tend to come back after they’re removed, a sign that people either aren’t actually showing up in shelter or aren’t staying there.

Support The C Is for Crank

The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets within the current shelter system. Moreover, by conceding that the best they are able to offer many homeless people is a different camping spot, the city would have also had to acknowledge that it would rather have people living in tents on sidewalks during the COVID-19 pandemic than offer them space in vacant motel rooms, as many other cities across the country—but not Seattle—have done.

Ultimately, the city decided not to adopt the new “voluntary relocation” policy. According to HSD spokesman Will Lemke, in the case of the Navigation Center encampment, HSD “opted to offer shelter and service rather than suggest that people move nearby.” But the discussions that took place back then shine a light on the city’s early thinking about how to deal with encampments at a time when they are temporarily unable to simply declare encampments “obstructions” and remove them.

The tension over how to deal with the 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle—a number that could soon swell as unemployment benefits dry up and eviction moratoriums end—isn’t going to let up. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive referral rights to most of the 95 new shelter and tiny house village beds that opened in response to the pandemic. If encampment removals start up again in earnest, those 95 beds won’t just be inadequate—they’ll be overrun.

As the pandemic drags on into its seventh month, the city is actually preparing to close shelters at community centers that were originally opened as “redistribution” sites for existing shelters where conditions were too crowded. Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets

One place they won’t be moving is to the enormous “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Sixkiller said was coming back in April. The tent was supposed to provide shelter for up to 250 clients of the Salvation Army, which is currently operating shelters out of City Hall and in Seattle Center.

Documents obtained through a second records request show the enormous cost and size of the tent, which would have been provided by Volo Events, “a leading producer of live events and experiential marketing agency” and cost nearly $1 million—just for the tent—for two months. The 30,000-square-foot tent was going to be set up inside another structure—most likely Memorial Stadium.

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.