Tag: homelessness

Durkan Focuses on Vaccination, “Reopening Downtown” in Brief State of the City Remarks

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s final State of the City speech, delivered from the Filipino Community Center in southeast Seattle, was notable more for its brevity than its content. The speech, which clocked in at just over six minutes (more than 35 minutes less than the shortest of her other three State of the City speeches) included plenty of platitudes about Seattle’s resilience and future recovery (“we have a tough road ahead, but there is hope on the horizon,” she said), but few specifics about what the city has done and will do to ensure that recovery—for small businesses, low-income residents, people experiencing homelessness, or people impacted by systemic racism.

“Never bet against Seattle,” Durkan said. “This year, we will continue to be tested but we will begin to recover and rebuild more equitably.”

Durkan gave few specifics about how she planned to make that happen in her final year, other than widespread vaccination and economic recovery downtown.

In the coming weeks,” Durkan said, “we’ll discuss and implement plans to continue progress on” climate change, public safety, and systemic racial inequity. Including the concrete steps we’ll take together to recover and reopen downtown. Including steps we will take to improve the livability and safety of downtown.”

“We’ll address public safety,” Durkan continued, “expand alternatives to policing, and have other responses.”

Durkan mentioned homelessness just twice, both times in the context of reopening downtown. “We’ll open hundreds of shelter spaces and affordable homes to bring more neighbors inside from our streets and parks so they can get stability and services,” Durkan said. Later, she added, “We will bring more people from our parks and streets into permanent supportive housing and new 24/7 spaces and tiny homes.”

As PubliCola has reported, the city’s plan to open around 300 new hotel-based shelter beds using federal COVID emergency funds has stalled over a dispute between the mayor’s office and providers about how much each bed should cost. Even if all the new shelter beds opened next week, the grants are temporary; once the money runs out, the hotels will have to close unless service providers can come up with new funding for the beds.

No neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle merited a mention in Durkan’s speech, except as future vaccination sites. Even a press release from the mayor’s office said Durkan’s speech laid out “her vision for Seattle to reopen and recover, especially downtown.” There was a time when appearing to kowtow to downtown businesses was seen as a liability, or a sign that a politician was out of touch with people outside the city’s commercial core. In a six-minute speech from a mayor who isn’t seeking reelection, it felt like the only clear sign of where she plans to focus her attention during her last 11 months.

Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority

Image via Wikimedia Commons

1. On Tuesday, the Mercer Island City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposal to ban all “camping” in the city, including sleeping unsheltered in public places and sheltering in a vehicle overnight. People who violate the ban—anyone who remains unsheltered in the city overnight—could be jailed for up to 90 days and fined $1,000 for each violation. Any vehicle that is used for overnight shelter, including RVs, could be impounded.

At a Mercer Island City Council meeting last month, Councilmember Jake Jacobson said the proposed ordinance “addresses public safety concerns [about] people who, but for this ordinance, would be staying in public properties for an infinite period of time and certainly are in a position to be of concern to people on the island. Fear—there is fear out there, and this is a way to deal with it.”

“And if people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,'” Jacobson continued, “then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

A federal appeals court ruling, Martin v. Boise, bars cities from passing outright bans on homelessness. Instead, it allows cities to ban sleeping outdoors unless there is no “available” shelter in the area—but the definition of “available” and in the area are very much open to interpretation.

The Mercer Island proposal gets around Boise by saying that police who encounter unsheltered people may direct them to shelter outside Mercer Island but on the Eastside, since Mercer Island does not have any homeless shelters. In practice, this means one of four shelters—one for women, one for men, one for families with children, and one for youth. In exchange for these services, Mercer Island would pay a consortium of Eastside service providers a total of $10,000 a year.

The bill defines “available” broadly, allowing police to enforce the law against people who can’t be admitted to their designated shelter because of the “voluntary actions of that person,” including :intoxication, drug use, unruly and/or assaultive behavior and like behaviors.” Under proposed ordinance, for example, if a homeless man was ineligible for the lone men’s shelter because he was exhibiting behavioral health symptoms that made him “unruly,” he could be seen as refusing shelter and jailed.

If people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,’ then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes assured the council that then police were interested in helping homeless people, not further marginalizing them. “Rest assured… we won’t take enforcement action until there’s repeated issues,” he said. But Sergeant Mike Seifer, who presented the legislation to the council, noted that it was aimed at addressing a specific group of people—”about four individuals that we deal with on a very serious or consistent basis” in public spaces, plus “about six or seven that are in vehicles that are consistently coming into contact with the officers.”

One way or another, the law would allow Mercer Island police to remove those ten or so people from the island, either by jailing them in another city, such as Issaquah, or by sending them to a shelter off the island. Councilmember Craig Reynolds, who cast the lone “no” vote against the ordinance on first reading, noted that the city’s jail contracts don’t come cheap—jailing a person costs the city about $200 a day, or up to $18,000 for the maximum 90-day sentence.

2. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci  will replace her fellow Councilmember Reagan Dunn on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, as we reported exclusively on Twitter Friday.

In January, as PubliCola reported, governing board member Zaneta Reid took Dunn to task for positions he has taken on homelessness, including his opposition to the “Health Through Housing” sales tax proposal and his efforts to fund one-way bus tickets out of King County. “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan shut down the conversation before Dunn could answer. Continue reading “Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority”

Customer-Only Rail Restrooms, Women’s Groups Denounce Fain Appointment, and WHEEL Shelter Finds a Home

1. The leaders of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Washington State Democrats, and several other statewide organizations have signed a letter calling for former state senator Joe Fain’s resignation from the Washington State Redistricting Commission.

Fain was appointed to the five-member commission, which will redraw Washington’s congressional and legislative boundaries, by senate minority leader John Braun of Centralia. 

In 2018, a former city of Seattle employee, Candace Faber, said that Fain had raped her after a reception in Washington, D.C. several years earlier. Although the allegations eventually led to a state senate investigation, the investigation was dropped after Fain lost his reelection bid to Democrat Mona Das. Two months after leaving office, Fain was hired as head of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him. If Fain remains on the commission, they say, he should have no in-person access to staff, other commissioners, or members of the public, and all his communications should be supervised by an outside party.

“Lack of action on behalf of the Commission would normalize sexually predatory behavior and set a dangerous precedent that sexual assault accusations are not taken seriously by Washington State officials, further discouraging others who may experience similar incidents from bringing forth their own experiences,” the letter concludes.

2. Last week, Sound Transit’s ridership experience committee agreed to a new public-restroom policy that will, if implemented, add a total of seven new restrooms to the agency’s commuter and light rail system once it is fully built out decades from now. Three of those would be in Seattle—in Ballard, the Chinatown/International District, and Seattle Center.

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The new criteria the board will use to determine which stations get restrooms were based on what’s in place in other systems, but it’s important to note that these criteria are a decision, not an inevitability. Stations with restrooms will be those that have more than 10,000 boardings a day and where five or more different transit routes converge; additionally, Sound Transit staff has recommended, every rider should be able to access a restroom within a 20-minute ride from any point within the system. This set of rules leads to restrooms outside the downtown Seattle core, where there happen to be a large number of people living unsheltered without easy access to public restrooms, and at the new suburban hubs.

In the letter, the women’s groups decry Fain’s elevation to yet another position of power, noting that he has never been subject to a formal investigation nor responded publicly to the allegations against him.

Calling these new restrooms “public” would be a bit of a misnomer, since Sound Transit plans to sequester the new toilets inside the fare-paid area, and could require riders to scan their ORCA card or a QR code on a valid ticket in order to access them. Calling them “paid toilets” might be more accurate.  One can easily imagine a scenario in which a rider who is just outside the two-hour window when tickets or passes are valid finds herself locked out of the restroom at her destination.

3. The women’s homeless shelter provider WHEEL, whose request to open a nighttime-only shelter at City Hall was rejected last month, will have a new home starting this week: First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has also housed the city’s navigation center and other shelter providers over many years. The new space, which WHEEL is opening with city support, will have space for up to 60 women.

As PubliCola reported last month, WHEEL’s women’s shelter is low-barrier, meaning that the group accepts women in any condition and those who don’t do well in structured programs. The group had been trying to find a space since November to supplement its existing shelter at Trinity Episcopal Church near downtown, whose nightly capacity has been cut in half by COVID bed spacing requirements.

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.

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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 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”