Tag: hotel shelters

Just One Group Applies to Lead Participatory Budgeting; Funding for Hotel-Based JustCARE Program Ends this Spring

1. Only one nonprofit applied to run Seattle’s public safety-oriented participatory program this year: the Oakland-based Participatory Budgeting Project, which had a hand in convincing Seattle’s city council to set aside money for the project in 2020.

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy in which residents generate and vote on city spending proposals. Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation has used participatory budgeting to fund some of its capital improvements since 2017. In the fall of 2020, the council set aside $30 million to pay for a new participatory budgeting program, ostensibly as part of an effort to direct city dollars toward alternatives to policing. Though the council originally intended to launch the program in 2021, the consultants hired to lay the groundwork didn’t deliver a workable plan for collecting community proposals and holding a vote.

Instead, the council delayed the program until 2022 and handed the reins to the city’s Office of Civil Rights (SOCR), which set about searching for a nonprofit partner to finally put the $30 million set aside for participatory budgeting to use. Only the Participatory Budgeting Project submitted an application, offering to get the program off the ground with $2.4 million in overhead costs—a far cry from the $8 million overhead cost estimated by last year’s consultants. However, the Participatory Budgeting Project’s proposed timeline for launching the program would delay voting until January of 2023, delaying the council’s goals by another year.

Although SOCR plans to wait until March to debut its plans for running participatory budgeting, including the identity of its nonprofit partner, the office’s options are limited. If the Participatory Budgeting Project wins the contract, it plans to hire five Seattle-based staff to help run the program; the nonprofit does not currently have any staffers in the Seattle area. According to the nonprofit’s application, they also plan to rely on a network of “workgroups” made up of as many as 25 paid community members from marginalized backgrounds—a plan originally pitched by last year’s consultants—in addition to SOCR staff.

2. JustCARE, a program that provides hotel rooms, medical care, case management, and other services to unhoused people, has been widely credited with helping to alleviate the impact of encampments in several neighborhoods while providing a path to stability for people with substance use disorders, behavioral disabilities, and criminal records.

But funding for the program, which comes from both local (city of Seattle and King County) and federal (American Rescue Plan Act) sources, runs out at the end of June. (The lease for Equity JustCARE, a specialized program serving people with acute mental-health needs, ends one month earlier). And that means that, in the absence of additional funding, about 230 JustCARE clients—the number currently living in the five hotels where the program leases rooms—will join the tens of thousands of unhoused people looking for permanent or temporary housing across King County.

JustCARE is a joint program that currently includes the Public Defender Association, Urban League, REACH, and the WDC Safety Team, a group affiliated with the nonprofit Community Passageways. The program has worked to assist and relocate people living in high-profile encampments, including encampments under I-5 in the Chinatown-International District, at City Hall Park, and under the historic pergola in Pioneer Square.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell said the mayor has not decided whether to extend funding for JustCARE, and King County, which funds the program through its Department of Community and Human Services, has not responded to questions about a possible JustCARE extension.

Meanwhile, JustCARE is trying to place some clients in housing using 80 federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs)—housing subsidies that cover a portion of a tenant’s rent for apartments in the private market. Criminal records, low credit scores, and high credit-to-debt ratios can pose significant barriers to finding an apartment, and JustCARE clients often need ongoing, intensive case management, not just a place to live.

As of last week, according to PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard, JustCARE had submitted voucher applications for 67 clients, but fewer than five had actually secured apartments (none of them in the high-acuity Equity program). “Quite a few of the applicants still need to gather documents and be approved” for their vouchers, Daugaard said. “Those who have been approved are, as one might predict, requiring a lot of support to even have a possibility of securing a unit.”

The city council’s homelessness committee will get an update on the status of JustCare at its meeting on March 16.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended”

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who served in the state legislature and on the King County Council before beating eight other candidates for county executive in 2009, was supposed to run for governor—until the current governor, Jay Inslee, decided he wanted to keep the job. With a bid for higher office thwarted until at least 2024, many political observers expected Constantine to step down this year rather than seek a fourth term.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, all eyes were on King County and its public health department, whose capable response to a fast-moving, ever-evolving crisis made the county a model for the nation. Constantine decided to run again, and for the first time in 12 years, drew a credible opponent—Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents the same West Seattle district Constantine did in the state House and Senate. (In a further twist of internecine West Seattle politics, Nguyen defeated Shannon Braddock, who’s now Constantine’s deputy chief of staff.)

I sat down with Constantine over Zoom last week, and started out by asking him why he decided to seek another term.

Dow Constantine: I mean, I was thinking about running for governor, but then the governor ran for governor. And because I’m a good Democrat, and I want to ensure that we have Democratic leadership in Olympia, I chose not to run for governor along with all the other potential candidates.

I have lots of options in life. But the best opportunity right now coming out of this crisis is to advance the work we’ve been doing. I think this is a unique, exciting moment where the status quo has been upended. And a lot of the things that we have been dutifully building toward in equity and social justice and environmental restoration and police transformation and so forth become dramatically more possible. So, you know, once the, the COVID crisis started, we’ve been in it, and there’s really been no looking back.

PubliCola: Looking back over the last 14, 15 months of the pandemic, is there anything that you would have done differently in the early months, if you had known kind of how things would turn out?

With hindsight being 20/20, instead of trying to distance people in a congregate setting, like in shelters, we would know that having people just farther apart but all in the same room, was still going to be problematic. We [eventually] moved to the hotel model, which immediately and dramatically slowed the spread of the disease. Obviously, if we had more knowledge at the time, we might have made different choices about requiring mask use early on, or getting people into hotels and single-room settings rather than shelters. But in general, I think that the people responded well to a crisis with a lot of unknowns.

“Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.”

PC: One of the things [Downtown Emergency Service Center director] Daniel Malone has said since early in the pandemic, when DESC moved people from their downtown shelter to the Red Lion in Renton, is that they’re never going to go back to the way things were, with people staying in overcrowded, congregate shelters. And yet it feels like that’s kind of what’s happening at the city level. Do you think that in a year or two years, we’re going to be right back where we were?

DC: That is not what the county is doing. Other than in isolated cases, for an immediate overnight emergency, we’re not going to be investing in mats-on-the-floor, get-kicked-out-in-the-morning shelters, because we have seen what having a room of your own, a place of your own, even just space of your own, can do for people.

It used to be that people were very focused on long-term, purpose-built, supportive housing, and it was sort of, we’ll just wait and let people rotate through these congregate shelters until those things are ready. With some exceptions, I think we’re moving much more toward a model where we try to get everyone a place that is genuinely a better alternative to the streets or a tent—a place that has a lock on the door with their own bathroom and some dignity and the ability to get rested and cleaned and centered. And that seems like kind of an obvious thing. But the pandemic created the opportunity to demonstrate how much better that works than a congregate shelter setting.

“I do think it’s likely that we want to find [a new sheriff] who is an outsider, someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything and is not beholden to people so that they can make difficult decisions and see things with clear eyes.”

PC: The opiate task force came out with its recommendations almost five years ago, and I remember at the time thinking that, in particular, the [supervised consumption site] recommendation was never going to happen. And sure enough, it hasn’t. Why do you think that is? And do you think the county has come through as promised on the remaining recommendations, including access to treatment on demand?

DC: I do think that the task force was correct that a safe, monitored place would save lives. And we’re seeing continued deaths from heroin that’s tainted with fentanyl, for example. And for the parents, for the families who’ve lost their children, the moralizing that I come across in the media about not facilitating drug use rings kind of hollow. Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.

Will we, as a practical matter, be able to get one of these things up and running? I don’t think, unless there’s a significant political change, that it’s going to be possible to do. But I will say this. The advances in both treatment and the drugs to reverse overdose mean that it’s absolutely imperative that people not be in basements and alleys and other places where they don’t have eyes on and them can’t get help, because we can save lives in the short run. And we can save people from addiction over time. And we have much better mechanisms that we had even a decade ago to do that.

“It is the state of Washington that requires us to have a youth detention facility. And we would very much welcome the state legislature actually removing that legal obligation, and instead providing us with the funds and the mandate for alternatives.”

This is not your question, but this has been bugging me lately. There are a lot of people on the streets who have some level of opioid dependence. And some of them had it before they were homeless, and a lot of them developed it on the streets and are at grave risk because of tainted drugs that can come in to the community. And there have been plenty of suburban kids and parents who have died. But I continue, as I make calls, to hear this basic, moralistic perspective—like, they’ve just got to get off the junk, and then we can offer them all these services.

And we know that’s not how it works. Getting just some solid ground under people’s feet first is an almost indispensable prerequisite to people being able to succeed in treatment. When you’re fighting for survival every night, it’s very hard to adhere to some sort of program that’s going to help you get off of whatever you’re addicted to. Continue reading “County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended””

Fizz: Burgess Previews Encampment Initiative, Nguyen Mulls Bid for County Exec, and “Opening the Door” to Hotel Shelter

1. At a meeting of the Queen Anne Initiative on Community Engagement last week, former city council member Tim Burgess outlined the contours of an initiative that will be filed in the coming weeks that would fund new homeless services with existing city dollars and effectively reinstate the city’s Navigation Team, which removed encampments from public spaces until the city council dismantled it as part of the budget process last year.

PublICola reported on a poll about the potential initiative in February.

Sounding very much like a man in campaign mode, Burgess told the group, “The tent encampments that we see in our public spaces have essentially become permanent because the city government has no specific plan to help the people in those encampments or to make certain that our parks and public spaces remain open and available to everyone.” (In fact, one large and obvious reason encampments have become “permanent” is that a global pandemic made it impractical and unsafe for the city to dislocate people living unsheltered, and the city has consistently failed to provide adequate shelter or housing for the thousands of people living outdoors).

“What we need,” Burgess continued, “is a plan —a specific plan that focuses on what I believe is the primary presenting issue for most of the individuals in these encampments, and that is their medical condition,” including addiction and mental health challenges. Those issues are difficult to address while a person is living unsheltered, Burgess said, so the solution is to provide them with shelter or housing and address their health conditions at the same time.

So far, so good: Burgess clearly understands that it’s next to impossible to get healthy, or sober, while living on the street: Housing, or shelter at an absolute minimum, is essential to any kind of recovery from physical or behavioral health conditions. But the next leap he takes is troubling: If shelter is available but a person refuses to take it, he said, the city should have the authority to permanently remove them from a public space in order to make it available to the rest of the public. “We’re governed by the court decision”—Martin v. Boise—”that says we can’t force people… to leave unless we offer accommodation where they can go.”

It’s unclear how the initiative to reinstate sweeps and pay for housing and health cafe would be funded, or how it will get around the requirements imposed by Boise.

2. After PubliCola’s relentless coverage of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision not to seek FEMA reimbursement for hotel-based shelters, city council president (and mayoral candidate) Lorena González issued a statement about her recent conversation with FEMA administrators, which she said affirmed for her that even if federal funding isn’t “guaranteed” (which it never is in advance), “we can be confident that non-congregate shelter is FEMA reimbursable in eligible circumstances.”

In other cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, FEMA has paid for hotel-based shelter for people living unsheltered who suffer from conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID—a standard that covers most chronically homeless people.

Durkan has insisted that FEMA will not reimburse the city for any services at hotel-based shelters, and has objected to the federal agency’s “onerous” application requirements. Continue reading “Fizz: Burgess Previews Encampment Initiative, Nguyen Mulls Bid for County Exec, and “Opening the Door” to Hotel Shelter”

Mayor’s Office Says Hotel Shelter “Service Costs Are NOT Eligible” for FEMA Funding; Shelter Providers, and FEMA Guidelines, Disagree

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council continued to seek clarity on why Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has not sought to fund hotel-based shelters with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which recently announced it will reimburse the cost of such shelters, with exceptions for non-shelter services such as case management, at 100 percent. (Previously, FEMA reimbursed for 75 percent of eligible costs, but President Biden increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to January 2020).

As PubliCola has reported, the City Budget Office, which answers to the mayor, sent a memo to the council late last month outlining a series of objections to funding hotel shelters using FEMA money. Most of the objections related to administrative headaches and hurdles associated with applying for funds. However, the memo also claimed that FEMA “is not paying for any services,” and that such “services” at shelters typically cost between $18,000 and $25,000 a year.

Deputy mayor Tiffany Washington reiterated this point in an email to members of the city’s volunteer commissions this week that explicitly said PubliCola’s reporting was “inaccurate and misleading.” (We stand by our reporting.) “While facility costs (the actual hotel rooms) and operations costs (like security, cleaning, and meals) are eligible, service costs are NOT eligible,” Washington wrote (emphasis hers), and reiterated the $18,000 to $25,000 figure.

Reimbursable items, according to FEMA’s guidelines, include “shelter management,” “health and safety,” “medical staff” “personal assistance service staff,” and other “support services” needed to operate a shelter. 

In fact, FEMA’s own guidelines for non-congregate shelter options during COVID lay out exactly which “shelter services” the agency covers, and they are not limited to “the actual hotel rooms” and operations costs associated with running a bare-bones hotel. (As a city council staffer put it Tuesday, “just leaving them there without any interactions and just dropping a meal off now and then” does not constitute a shelter).

Accordingly, reimbursable items, according to FEMA’s list, include “shelter management,” “health and safety,” “medical staff” “personal assistance service staff,” and other “support services” needed to operate a shelter.

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee tells PubliCola this shouldn’t be news to the city; FEMA has already paid for multiple tiny house villages and one enhanced shelter facility that LIHI opened in response to the pandemic, “and there were only a small number of items that they didn’t cover.” (This was during the period when FEMA only reimbursed 75 percent of costs.) Among the items FEMA covered, Lee said, were “office supplies, education expenses, client assistance… all operating costs, and the rest of the staff” who were not engaged in direct case management.

Case managers and behavioral health counselors also make up only a small minority of the staff that will be working at one of the hotel-based shelters that city plans to open using Emergency Solutions Grant (that is, non-FEMA) funding later this month.

According to Chief Seattle Club operations director Virgil Wade, the shelter CSC will operate at King’s Inn in Belltown will have between 10 and 13 staff, including three case managers, to “monitor and assist the clients” living in “about 60 rooms” at the 66-room facility. Consistent with LIHI’s experience operating shelters for people vulnerable to COVID infection, the majority of staff fall under the categories the FEMA guidelines define as reimbursable, assuming all other conditions are met.

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, FEMA has already paid for multiple tiny house villages and one enhanced shelter facility that LIHI opened in response to the pandemic, “and there were only a small number of items that they didn’t cover.”

Like other service providers we’ve spoken to, LIHI’s Lee said it’s unclear to her why the city hasn’t gone after more FEMA funding for these services at other kinds of shelter, such as hotels. “We’ve been urging the city and other jurisdictions to make better use of FEMA, but we do know that there’s some hesitancy,” Lee said.

Asked about FEMA”s list of reimbursable services, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas responded by reiterating that the city is seeking reimbursement for “eligible items like meals and security” at other shelters, but not “behavioral health, case management, and mental health.” This does not, unfortunately, answer the question about FEMA’s list of reimbursable services that are not on this concise but ill-defined list.

Formas added that the mayor’s office doubts that every single client being sheltered by the Public Defender Association’s JustCARE program—in the news lately because its funding from King County runs out in less than two weeks—would be considered vulnerable to COVID under FEMA’s standards for reimbursement. That’s a matter of debate on which the mayor’s office and service providers have taken different sides, with the mayor’s office using it as one of many reasons not to try for federal funds and service providers urging them to do so. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Says Hotel Shelter “Service Costs Are NOT Eligible” for FEMA Funding; Shelter Providers, and FEMA Guidelines, Disagree”

Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, PubliCola reported on a memo from Seattle’s budget director Ben Noble, who reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, outlining the reasons Seattle has not sought reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration for the cost of hotel-based shelters. The memo raised seven objections to requests that the city go after FEMA funding.

Since last year, advocates for people experiencing homelessness have implored the city to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of leasing hotel rooms and turning them into shelters for the thousands of vulnerable people living outdoors in Seattle during the COVID pandemic. The city, unlike King County, has not done so, arguing that FEMA’s standards are too stringent and the process too “onerous,” as the memo puts it.

Under the Trump administration, cities across the country, as well as King County, were guaranteed 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of hotel-based shelters, but the Biden administration increased that amount to 100 percent and made it retroactive to the beginning of 2020. The requirements for FEMA reimbursement are stringent—for example, hotel-based shelters must serve people with underlying conditions such as age, health issues such as addiction that make them vulnerable to infection, or compromised immune systems—but they are not insurmountable, and many cities (as well as the state of California) have chosen to jump through significant hoops to get the money.

Later on the same day the PubliCola story was published, two city council members, Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales, issued statements imploring the mayor to use FEMA funding to pay for hotel-based shelters.

The memo begins, “With many questions regarding FEMA reimbursements, [Office of Emergency Management director] Curry [Mayer] and I wanted to share the guidance we have received to clarify the significant challenges the City faces towards receiving any reimbursements for non-congregate shelter.”

Noting that advocates for people experiencing homelessness have been asking the city to use FEMA to fund hotel shelters for many months, Morales said, “Right now, we urgently need to expand non-congregate shelter for people who are outdoors and are especially vulnerable to COVID, and we have an opportunity to get Federal money to allow us to do it. Even if there are logistical challenges, it is incumbent upon this City to try to overcome those issues to save people who are stuck living outside and scared of dying from COVID.”

Among those logistical and administrative challenges, according to Noble’s memo: “Failure to comply with federal contracting and procurement requirements puts local jurisdictions at risk of not receiving reimbursement or not being able to use FEMA grant funds for otherwise eligible costs”; “FEMA Reimbursement Must Be Approved and Is Not Guaranteed”; and “FEMA Assistance Currently Ends in September 2021.”

Noble’s memo also claims flatly that “FEMA is not paying for any services” involved with providing shelter in hotels, a claim mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower reiterated in an email after PubliCola’s story ran. “I think you’re aware that FEMA is in fact not paying for services within hotels, which are a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” she wrote.

Homeless service and shelter providers have strongly disputed this claim, saying that the federal government has not said that it won’t pay for any services whatsoever, just “support services” above and beyond the cost of leasing and operating 24/7 shelters for COVID-vulnerable people in hotels. (In any case, the cost of services in hotels is actually a fraction of the cost to rent the hotels themselves, as agencies’ prospective contracts for providing hotel-based shelter and PubliCola’s reporting on comparative costs make clear).

Is it possible that, more than a year into the pandemic, the mayor’s office could have a change of heart and decide that they do want to stand up new hotels using FEMA funds after laying out all the reasons doing so is infeasible in a detailed seven-point memo? Sure, in the same way that it is possible the mayor could decide to defund the police after spending most of the last year raising similarly couched objections to that idea.

Homeless advocates also point out that FEMA’s guidelines detailing what the federal agency does and does not cover are brief and ambiguous, saying only that “[e]ligible costs related to sheltering should be necessary based on the type of shelter, the specific needs of those sheltered, and determined necessary to protect public health and safety and in accordance with guidance provided by appropriate health officials.” Anything that goes beyond what’s needed to meet the “specific needs” of people living in hotel shelters—services such “case management, mental health counseling, and others”—will not be covered. Which services are covered and which services aren’t, advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue, is not clearly defined nor a foregone conclusion.

Whether FEMA decides to cover the cost of some services, all services, or no services at all, the combined cost of all services related to hotel-based shelters is a small fraction of the overall price tag; the monthly rent on the hotels alone, which is unambiguously reimbursable, is significantly more costly than the price tag for live-in staff, assistance with things like IDs and housing, and other services to help stabilize people so they will stay in the hotels. (In an email, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower told PubliCola that services make up “a majority of the costs of hotel based shelters,” but the opposite is true.)

After PubliCola’s story ran, Mayor Durkan’s office got in touch to tell us that they felt the story was inaccurate and to demand several corrections.

First, Durkan chief of staff Stephanie Formas said, the city is seeking FEMA funding—for tiny house villages and “eligible activities” at hotel-based shelters—and is using federal funds to pay for the two hotel shelters it plans to open late next month. “[I]t is unfortunate for reporters, advocates, service providers, or ‘people’ to takeaway that the City is not ‘asking for FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter.’ We are,” Formas wrote. “In fact, City Council approved a budget that deliberately spent federal funds on hotels through [Emergency Solutions Grant, a separate COVID-related federal program] and asked for reimbursements for tiny home villages and every other possible homeless service.”

“[W]e have only sought FEMA reimbursement on tiny home villages and meals because the hotels are already federally funded (and not eligible) but your story and my concerns are that you are stating as a fact the future of these funds without talking to CBO or the Mayor’s Office,” Formas continued.

PubliCola did not report that the city was not spending Emergency Solutions Grant funds on hotels, or that the city did not seek reimbursements from FEMA for tiny house villages and other purposes. Rather, we reported that the city has not sought FEMA funding for hotel rooms and reimbursable costs related to those rooms, and has provided a detailed explanation of the reasons why. Pivoting to tiny house villages and “every other possible homeless service”—and referring to an entirely different federal program that the mayor’s office also resisted using to lease hotels— obfuscates the fact that the city has consistently chosen not to seek FEMA funding for hotels, a decision for which Noble’s memo provides retroactive and ongoing justification.

Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office.

As the memo makes clear, the city considers the cost of hotels to be either ineligible for FEMA reimbursement or too administratively challenging to pursue, so when the mayor’s office says they will seek funding for “FEMA funds to be spent on non-congregate shelter,” they are referring to items that they consider within the scope of FEMA reimbursement, such as tiny houses and meals. The federal funds it is using for the two shelters it announced last year are existing funds that the city has in hand from a different COVID-related federal program, the Emergency Solutions Grant.

As for the claim that PubliCola never talked to the budget office or the mayor’s office, in fact, we reached out to the budget office and mayor’s office for this story. The mayor’s office responded to both inquiries, stepping in on the budget office’s behalf. Elsewhere in her email, Formas wrote that PubliCola’s story was “printed without any evidence or sources,” which is both self-evidently untrue (on-the-record sources are cited and quoted in the story) and suggests that journalists have an obligation to reveal background and off-the-record sources in response to accusations from the mayor’s office. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Objects to PubliCola Report on Their Memo Opposing FEMA Funding for Hotels”