Tag: Human Services Department

Morning Fizz: Veto Crunch Time, a $100 Million Mystery, and Other Budget News

Council President Lorena González, via
City council president Lorena González, via Youtube

1. Today at its special 3pm meeting, the Seattle City Council will vote on whether to overturn or uphold Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of their 2020 “rebalancing” budget package. The council’s version of the budget included modest cuts to the police budget, new spending on a process to reinvest city dollars in alternatives to policing, and the elimination of the Navigation Team, a crew of cops, sanitation workers, and three social workers that until recently removed hundreds of homeless encampments a year.

The mayor actually vetoed three separate bills. Two require a six-vote majority to overturn; the third, which actually appropriates funding for the remainder of 2020, requires seven votes—so seven is the number council members who want to overturn the mayor’s veto will need to shoot for. A vote to overturn all three vetoes would restore the council’s budget. A vote to sustain the veto(es) would lead to a vote on a separate, “compromise” piece of legislation, put forward by council president Lorena González, that would preserve the police department at existing levels, eliminate a loan between city departments that would pay for city and community human services programs, and keep the Navigation Team at current levels while requesting that the Seattle police chief reduce the total size of the team by eliminating two police positions that are already vacant.

On Monday, it looked unlikely that there would be seven votes to overturn the mayor’s veto, although several council members were conspicuously silent during the discussion. Interestingly, González herself tweeted on Monday night that she would vote to overturn the veto, in support of “the work to divest from a broken model of policing.”

A vote for the compromise bill would hand Durkan a significant victory on the eve of her 2021 budget speech next week, and on the threshold of her 2021 reelection campaign. Council members suggested Monday that they believe their hands are tied—if they overturn Durkan’s veto, the mayor can simply ignore any budget provisos that restrict police spending (forcing the council to overturn those provisos so that officers will continue to get their paychecks) and any negotiation with the Seattle Police Officers Guild would probably take three months anyway, pushing the discussions into 2021.

“I think we’re faced with the unfortunate reality that even though we can appropriate money, we can’t compel the mayor to spend the money, and that is sort of the condition we found ourselves in with a lot of these projects around how we’re going to restructure and defund” SPD, District 7 council member Andrew Lewis told PubliCola after the vote.

The consolation prize, to the extent that there is one, consists of $3 million that, according to the legislation, “is intended to be spent on providing non-congregate shelter,” like tiny house villages and the hotel rooms Durkan has resisted funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis. That funding is secured through what council members called a “verbal agreement” with the mayor’s office; Lewis said after the meeting that because the council discussed the agreement publicly, “it’s on record that that’s going to be the understanding of how this is going to work. We are about to [discuss] the 2021 budget and we can make sure this is in there, and we would be fully within our rights to be very indignant about that if there’s not a shared commitment to keeping that deal.”

There’s also $500,000 to be divided among a long list of human service needs, including behavioral health investments, “support[ing] the work of the Navigation Team,” diversion funding, and rapid rehousing funds. The entire half-million would flow through the Navigation Team, even though some of the programs—such as rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rent subsidy that assumes a person will be able to pay full market rent within a few months—are not really geared toward people experiencing long-term unsheltered homelessness.

Under the compromise bill, the $3 million allocated for research into community-led alternatives to policing in the council’s budget is shrunk to $1 million, with the rest to follow, also apparently by verbal agreement, next year. And there’s $2.5 million for “organizations engaging in community safety,” such as (for example) Choose 180 and Community Passageways.

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2. If the compromise passes, Durkan will also get to keep the Navigation Team at its current level. The future of the team was a major sticking point in the budget negotiations (the other two being whether the council would overturn the veto—which Durkan was adamantly against even if the council immediately adopted a compromise—and cuts to police) and a vote for the compromise bill will only forestall the debate over the fate of the team.

Already, Durkan has reportedly indicated that she plans to keep the team going through 2021, although Lewis—who chairs the council’s special committee on homelessness—says the team’s role, like public safety in general, may be “reimagined.” What that might look like remains unclear, but it could involve renegotiating the terms under which the city can remove encampments, or—as Lewis puts it—”pivoting to more of a coordinating and clearinghouse kind of space to coordinate service providers.”

The council voted unanimously to remove police from the team last month through another budget proviso. The compromise bill also states the council’s “policy intent” to cut five positions from the Navigation Team total; Lewis indicated during the meeting that the additional cuts would come from removing non-SPD staffers from the team.

3. With the 2020 budget almost the rearview mirror, it’s time for Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, which she will send to the council next Tuesday. The biggest-ticket promised item—”$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults,” as she put it when she first committed to the funding in June—will also be the hardest to pay for. Durkan has not said publicly where she plans to come up with $100 million in a budget that will have to address ongoing revenue shortfalls in 2021.

Will the money be new revenue—something like a flat income tax, with rebates to low- and middle-income people to get around a court ruling quashing the city’s high-earners’ income tax? Will the revenue come by reallocating funds from a tax that already exists? Or will the mayor use budgetary magic—similar to the math that turned an interdepartmental transfer of 911 call center staff into a huge “cut” to the police department—to conjure $100 million from existing dollars?

City Spends $150,000 on “Street Czar”; Mobile Shower Immobilized; Human Service Contracts Extended

Activist Andre Taylor speaks to reporters inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone in June.

Today’s Morning Fizz:

1. The city of Seattle has signed a $12,500-a-month contract with Not This Time, the grassroots group founded by community activist Andre Taylor after his brother, Che Taylor, was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers in 2016. The contract includes office space in the city’s Municipal Tower.

Under the contract, the city will pay Taylor a total of $150,000 over 12 months to act as a “Street Czar” providing “community safety de-escalation services”; to “provide recommendations to the City on de-escalation, community engagement, and alternatives to policing”; and to continue Not This Time’s Conversation With the Streets program, among other responsibilities.

The contract says that Not This Time will work on “urgent de-escalation of conflict and violence between the police and the community assembling in the Capitol Hill neighborhood” —an issue that was very much on the mayor’s mind when the contract was signed in June.

While Taylor was a frequent presence inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest Zone, he did not make significant inroads among its leaders, some of whom viewed him as an outsider trying to convince them to cede ground to the mayor and then-police chief Carmen Best, who were desperate to get people to leave the area.

Taylor, who has been criticized by other activists for appearing alongside the mayor at press conferences and events, says he has little patience for “professional agitators” bent on conflict rather than coming to agreement; this is how he saw the leaders of CHOP, which helps explain why they never saw eye to eye.

Although the contract itself refers repeatedly to “de-escalation,” Taylor says the goal of the contract is really to serve as a “liaison between communities and the city” and facilitate conversations that lead to policy change.

“Street czars are people who have some credibility from the streets, that have changed their lives, [and] that are also working within the system,” Taylor says. “Seeing, around the country, the lack of these type of people, I’d seen how problematic it was and I encouraged the mayor to be forward-thinking, and she understood our concern and was in agreement with me.”

Taylor says he’s aware of the criticism that Durkan is using his organization to boost her own image as an advocate for changes to the police department. He says that isn’t his concern. “I’m not looking for a perfect person,” he says. “I’m looking for an open door and an opportunity to help my people wherever I can.”

Mayor Durkan’s office did not respond to questions about the contract, directing me first to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services and then to the Department of Neighborhoods, which technically holds the contract. Nor did her office respond to followup questions about whether she had initiated the contract, as sources inside and outside the city say she did. “Unfortunately the contract isn’t with the Mayor’s Office,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said in response to questions.

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2. If you were wondering to yourself, “What ever happened to those pricey mobile shower trailers Erica couldn’t shut up about about a couple of months ago?”, here’s your update: After the city’s contract with California-based VIP Restrooms ran out, the city signed a monthly contract with United Site Services, a national company with local offices, to provide new trailers.

The mobile showers were supposed to include one “roving” trailer that traveled between Seattle Center and Lake City. But after discovering that there was little interest in the the weekend-only Lake City location, the city decided to rotate the trailer to the University Heights Center, which is hosting a safe lot for people living in their cars.

However, that siting was short-lived; according to Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman Sabrina Register, during a “routine move” in July, “the trailer was involved in a minor accident” and the city had to dock it at Seattle Center. The city replaced that trailer with a new one owned by Snohomish-based OK’s Cascade Company LLC in August.

Register says the city plans to start moving the new trailer from site to site in late September; a third trailer is providing showers outside Green Lake Community Center, which is undergoing renovations.

The showers appear to be getting used significantly more than the city anticipated. Compared to an expected average usage of three showers per hour, the King Street and Seattle Center sites are averaging a shower approximately every ten minutes, for a total of more than 6,500 showers since the trailers started operating in May.

SPU did not immediately respond to requests for copies of the new shower contracts.

3. Homeless service providers across King County were informed in a meeting last week that, because the city and county are significantly behind schedule in recruiting and hiring a CEO for the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the city and county are extending all their existing homeless service contracts through the end of 2021, and extending the COVID-era suspension of performance pay requirements—which can result in money being withheld—until the end of next year.

The authority was supposed to hire its new leader no later than September, but that has been pushed back until November at the earliest.

If this contract extension also applies to funding, that means homeless services provided through city and county contracts won’t be cut, but they won’t grow, either—which could prove problematic as eviction moratoriums expire and the ranks of people experiencing homelessness grow.

Ending the Navigation Team Isn’t As Easy As Just Cutting their Budget

By Erica C. Barnett

Tomorrow, the Seattle city council will take its most definitive action yet to eliminate the Navigation Team—a group of police, litter removal workers, and outreach staff that removes encampments from public places—by voting on a mid-year package of budget cuts that eliminates funding for the program. But the ultimate fate of the team will lie with Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who have the final say over departmental spending.

The two votes attempt to cut the team, which costs the city around $8.4 million a year, using two different types of budget actions. The first vote would prohibit SPD from spending money allocating 14 of its officers to the Navigation Team, using a spending restriction called a proviso to remove police from the team. The second would cut funding for the rest of the team, which includes staffers from the Human Services and Parks departments, and direct the mayor to reallocate that funding to contractors that do outreach and engagement to people experiencing homelessness, such as the nonprofit group REACH. REACH was originally part of the Navigation Team, but stopped participating alongside police as the team shifted its emphasis to encampment removals.

“The Navigation Team exists for the purpose of forcing people to move without giving them somewhere better to go,” Alison Eisinger, the longtime director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said after last week’s vote.Shelters and tiny house villages were routinely full before the pandemic, when the team performed multiple sweeps every week, and since then, the city has added fewer than 100 new shelter beds.

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“The number one thing that determines whether or not somebody who is homeless and without shelter gets off the streets is whether or not there is an accessible, appropriate, available better alternative—and the person who can connect them to that alternative is a person who has some kind of trust relationship with them,” Eisinger said.

Although the team was originally envisioned as collaboration between police and human service providers that would combine the stick of enforcement with the carrot of shelter and services—the “navigation” part of the equation—its role shifted under Mayor Jenny Durkan, and in recent years it has focused primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments from parks and other public spaces, a type of action that does not require any prior notice or offer of services or a better place to go.

Durkan has resisted every effort to cut the Navigation Team, which has nearly doubled in size since it was created in 2017. In 2018, Durkan even characterized a move by the council efforts to merely slow down the expansion of the team as a devastating “cut.”

Given that history, council members and advocates are worried that Durkan will simply ignore their budget directives. Although the budget proviso says SPD can’t spend the money it had allocated this year for the Navigation Team, it acknowledges that any effort to lay off the officers on the team will create labor issues—a problem Paul wrote about in detail on Friday.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed.”—Human Services Director Jason Johnson

Additionally, the chief could ignore the council’s directive to reassign the 14 officers and look for savings elsewhere in the department, or move the officers off the Navigation Team without actually cutting the size of the police force. Hammering out those issues could delay any cuts to the sworn portion of the team.

A bigger barrier for those hoping to eliminate the Navigation Team is that unless the council uses a proviso to explicitly restrict spending, city law does not require the mayor to obey the council’s budget directives. Historically, this hasn’t been a problem, because the council and mayor have had an understanding that, with some exceptions, the mayor will spend the budget in the manner the council directs. But Durkan has repeatedly ignored the council’s directions when she has disagreed with them, leaving open the possibility that she will do so with the Navigation Team as well.

For example, Durkan recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and has refused to approve an expansion of the LEAD program that could have temporarily housed dozens of people and provided them with case management and a path out of the criminal justice system. The open warfare between the mayor and council could well lead to a situation where the council issues a forceful directive to defund the Navigation Team—and the mayor shrugs.

“There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”—City Council member Tammy Morales

REACH director Chloe Gale, who testified before last week’s vote that the Navigation Team “conduct[s] expedient, politically motivated transactions that result in continuous displacement and trauma,” says Durkan “has a lot of opportunities to not implement this, and she also can set things up to fail by not having responses where you need to have responses in the community.”

In a scathing letter to the council last week, HSD director Jason Johnson suggested that without the Navigation Team—specifically, the four “field coordinators” from HSD and Parks— the city would be unable to respond to the more than 16,000 calls for service it receives about encampments each year.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed,” Johnson wrote. “The Council’s actions effectively returns the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments. This model was a failure, demonstrated by the proliferation of large, unsafe and unhealthy encampments that spread across Seattle.”

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the amendment to defund the Navigation Team, countered last week that the council has heard from outreach workers that litter pickup and removing tents that are blocking entire sidewalks “is really important, but they would like someone else to be doing it so they can focus on outreach and engagement.” Eisinger adds: “There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”

Eliminating the Navigation Team would not prevent the police from removing encampments without prior notice—a fact Gale says still needs to be addressed, whatever happens to the official team. Police are still authorized to remove encampments that constitute “obstructions” with little or no notice, and will retain the ability to do so even if the Navigation Team goes away. Police were taught to “define an obstruction or hazard [as] all right-of-way and every piece of park property,” Gale says—a definition that has allowed the Navigation Team, as well as regular SPD officers, to remove encampments without any notice or offers of shelter or services.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda says Johnson is wrong when he says the council has no plan to respond to encampments without the Navigation Team. “There is a plan, and it’s not just a plan it’s a program that’s already in place,” she says. “We have partners like REACH and LEAD who are already doing this work and are already showing better outcomes at getting folks into housing options and shelter options. It’s a matter of directing funding out of the Navigation Team and into REACH and LEAD and other organizations that have already built trust” with people experiencing homelessness, she says.

Johnson’s letter explicitly calls out REACH, specifically, as a “data-less model” that “cannot produce the same level of data, detail, or examples of success” as the Navigation Team. “This is another example of a budgeting process that is untethered from operational impact, designed to achieve a near-sighted and expedite political outcome— with little regard to City employees or the people the Navigation Team serves.”

Eisinger counters that existing providers could be very effective if they were actually funded sufficiently, empowered, and provided access to shelter and housing options. (Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to many of the enhanced shelter beds that people prefer, including the entire Navigation Center). “I think what’s going on now is a much longer, larger, long-overdue conversation about where to prioritize public dollars,” Eisinger says.Eight point four million dollars a year could go a log way towards increasing quality, culturally appropriate, community-based, non-congregate, accessible shelter and affordable housing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City-Funded Downtown Hotel Housed 12 People a Night While Thousands Slept in Tents and Crowded Shelters

In his budget presentation last week, Seattle budget director Ben Noble include a slide indicating that the city planned to spend (and seek reimbursement for) more than $3 million on hotel rooms for “essential workers,” plus $325,000 for rooms for “first responders,” during the COVID crisis. The line items represent the maximum cost to rent out the entire downtown Executive Pacific Hotel for three months.

As I’ve reported, the likely total cost is somewhat lower, because for three months, the hotel has been sitting virtually empty.

How empty? Well, about a month ago, the city was concerned enough about the fact that almost no first responders were staying in the rooms that they expanded the criteria for hotel stays to include “essential workers,” including health care workers and a handful of homeless service providers. Since then, the numbers have inched up—slightly. According to the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, during the three-month duration of the contract, the hotel logged 1,156 bed nights, which each represent a person occupying a room for one night. Put another way, the hotel had, on average, 12 guests per night—and 143 empty rooms.

The city could not, of course, have anticipated that the need for COVID first responders would flatten so quickly along with the curve of infections, or that so few firefighters and police would want or need to self-isolate in a downtown hotel. But the city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

Mayor Durkan, when pressed, has said that the city is paying for hotels—for example, they’re contributing to the cost of the Red Lion in Renton that the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been occupying for months. But she has doggedly resisted calls to move people from ad hoc mass shelters the city set up to respond to COVID—most of them bare-bones facilities with cots set up six feet apart—into hotels inside the city. And she even put roadblocks in front of a program that would move people from encampments to motel rooms that, like the Executive Pacific, are already paid for and sitting vacant.

The city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

I sent the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department a list of questions about the city’s long-term plans for people staying in “redistribution” shelters (temporary spaces in city-owned buildings where people can sleep six feet apart). I included a list of locations that I was especially curious about—high-volume shelters that have been moved to places like Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, and the city’s community centers.

The city responded by saying, essentially, that they still haven’t determined exactly when people will be moved from the current temporary shelters, or to where. “These conversations… are underway,” HSD spokesman Will Lemke said. Lemke added that HSD is “working with Public Health, DCHS, and agency partners to develop a strategy for addressing both short and long-adjustments needed to operate the homeless response system in light of COVID-19.”

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If you think of the current shelter system as fundamentally broken, and COVID as not just a crisis to respond to but an opportunity to rethink shelter (and other systems) as a whole, then it’s disheartening that the city is still thinking in terms of “adjustments” to respond to COVID rather than thinking of the pandemic as a chance to make wholesale changes. The Red Lion offers a promising example. After it opened, residents who were used to staying in DESC’s overcrowded, dirty, chaotic downtown shelter exhibited fewer behavioral problems, got in fewer fights, and used fewer substances—simply because they had privacy, a shower they didn’t have to fight for, and some space to relax.

DESC director Daniel Malone has said he hopes the agency never has to reopen the downtown shelter, a plan that will require the agency to purchase motels for long-term use. But Lemke’s comments (which represent the perspective of the mayor’s office), and the city’s history of pouring money into a shelter system that people experiencing homelessness consider alienating, traumatizing, and inhumane, suggest that other shelters may go back largely to business as usual unless the city council, or a groundswell of political opposition to warehouse-style shelters, intervenes to push the city in a different direction..

The total cost to rent the Executive Pacific Hotel, FAS spokeswoman Melissa Mixon says, will likely be closer to $2 million rather than $3.4 million, since the hotel gave the city a break on taxes and the city did not end up paying for many meals. Empty rooms don’t eat. What’s impossible to know is how much money the city might have saved in the long run by turning those empty rooms into shelter for people experiencing homelessness and working intensely to ensure that they had a place to stay when they left. Those aren’t the kind of calculations that Seattle, as a city, is good at making.

Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps

Bundling up items to drag outside the police barricades during an encampment removal on South Weller Street last week.

More than six weeks after the Seattle-based Public Defender Association launched its Co-LEAD program in Burien, the diversion program has come home to Seattle and began serving five homeless clients last week. Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, case management, and other basic supports to people experiencing homelessness who have been in the criminal justice system and lack legal options for making money during the COVID-19 pandemic. After launching the program in Burien in April, the PDA had hoped to enroll some of the people who were dispersed throughout the city during several recent encampment sweeps, but were unable to do so because the city moved ahead with the removals before Co-LEAD case workers could identify and enroll new participants.

Since announcing the “suspension” of encampment removals except in the most “extreme” circumstances, Mayor Jenny Durkan has overseen three major encampment sweeps, removing dozens of tents from three locations in Ballard and the International District. The latest two removals were last week.

The city says it did weeks of prior outreach at every encampment it has removed during the pandemic, a claim that some people living in the encampments contradicted. On its blog and in a series of bellicose Twitter posts, HSD said that 63 people were referred to shelter during two encampment removals last week, and claimed that “some campers admitted” to showing up from somewhere else on the morning of the sweep just to get shelter referrals. HSD has not responded to questions about how many of those people actually showed up at shelter, how many people simply dispersed before the morning of each sweep, and how many people who showed up at shelter are still indoors.

“Programs such as Co-Lead should be provided two weeks to offer motels to the homeless at South King; consequently, we are willing to allow the South King encampment removal to be delayed until Sunday, May 31st.” —Letter from Interim CDA, Chinese Information and Service Center, Friends of Little Saigon, SCIDPDA, CIDBIA, The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, APICAT, Kin On, and Helping Link/Mot Dau Noi to Mayor Jenny Durkan before two encampment removals in the Chinatown International District last week

Despite calls from advocates and the city council to move people living outdoors into individual rooms, as the CDC recommends, the Durkan Administration has continued moving people into mass shelters and tiny house villages, saying that people are more at risk living outdoors than they are living in congregate settings. (Generally speaking, the CDC disagrees.) People living at the Ballard Commons were removed on May 4; the camps on South King and South Weller Streets, in the International District, followed on May 20 and May 21, respectively.

Twice in a row, Co-LEAD has hoped to move at least some displaced encampment residents into blocks of hotel rooms it has reserved around the Seattle area, but has been unsuccessful.

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In Ballard, the PDA was unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was swept.

In the International District, where LEAD again offered to enroll people in Co-LEAD and move them to hotels, the program actually had the support of neighbors who wanted the two encampments gone. In a letter to Durkan, nine organizations in the Chinatown International District, including Interim Community Development Association, asked the mayor to “bring all possible resources to bear to serve the needs of the people living unhoused on South King and South Weller, preferably sheltering these individuals in permanent or transitional housing, which includes motel/hotel/quarantine sites” before doing the sweeps.

Continue reading “Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps”

Seattle Council Legislation Would Rein In Encampment Sweeps During Pandemic

A few of the 68 tents I counted along South Weller St. between Rainier Ave. S and 12th Ave. S. The city’s Human Services Department plans to remove this encampment next week, along with a smaller one nearby.

City council member Tammy Morales, whose South Seattle district includes two encampments in the International District that the Seattle Human Services Department plans to remove next week, has introduced legislation that would restrict the circumstances under which Mayor Jenny Durkan can order encampment sweeps during the pandemic.

The proposal comes after Durkan announced that “all encampment removal operations have been suspended,” with exceptions for “extreme” circumstances, on March 17. Although the directive gave five examples of situations that would qualify as “extreme,” including tents in the middle of roads or completely blocking a sidewalk, it did not actually define “extreme,” allowing sweeps to continue on an essentially ad hoc basis.

The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, would prohibit the city from removing encampments except when the encampment poses an “immediate hazard” (as defined here); blocks a curb ramp, bike lane, or most of a sidewalk; presents a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure; obstructs the entrance or exist of a building; or is located in a children’s play area. The city could also remove encampments that constitute “an active health threat,” but only if the people living there have been offered “appropriate public health resources” that have failed to resolve the threat, and if “relocating would resolve the health threat.”

Mosqueda says she added the public health language after Durkan’s office cited “hepatitis A and COVID” as public health reasons to remove encampments, without explaining whether they were referring to diagnosed cases of COVID-19 or merely the concern that people living in encampments aren’t staying six feet apart.

“If they are citing COVID as a reason [for removing tents], that is very problematic, because we need to know where those folks are so that we can respond immediately and get people the appropriate public health resources that they need,” rather than “dispersing them throughout the city,” Mosqueda says.

Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Navigation Team has not provided hotel rooms to people at the encampments it has removed. Instead, the team has promised spaces in mass shelters such as the Navigation Center or spots in tiny house villages, a form of authorized encampment where people sleep in individual “tiny houses” but share restrooms, eating areas, and other common facilities.

“We know that congregate shelters are counter to what the CDC guidance has said, and it is not realistic, even in congregate shelters that have beds six feet apart,” to keep COVID from spreading, Mosqueda says.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

“We need to make sure that the city is sticking to what we declared, which was that during this crisis, we were not going to be moving people, and I think that the fact that this continues to happen is really beginning to erode the trust in the city,” Morales says. “The mayor can make al the pronouncements she wants, but if HSD isn’t actually following those declarations, then we need to make sure that there’s a policy in place.”

Morales says that unlike the situation in Ballard, where an indignant online petition signed by thousands of people and an incendiary KOMO report may have helped tip the mayor’s hand, the community around the two International District encampments is not clamoring for sweeps. “People want solutions to the problem,” Morales says. The city could have partnered with Co-LEAD, a new program that places people experiencing homelessness in hotels and connects them to services, but chose not to do so—a decision Morales calls “a failure of leadership” by the mayor and HSD. “If there is a program that is set up that can provide people a safe place to move to and provide them with other resources that can help them get stable, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t do that,” she says.

Because of the COVID emergency, the council is barred from passing most legislation that is not directly related to the pandemic. Morales’ legislation, which requires seven votes to pass, would expire at the end of 2020 or when the city state of civil emergency ends, whichever is earlier. The full council will vote on the legislation on Monday, May 25.

City Auditor: Homelessness Contracts Awarded “Properly,” but Delays, High Turnover, and Inappropriate Metrics Remain Issues

The city auditor issued a report last week on the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, which concluded that while HSI is awarding contracts to homeless service providers “properly, HSD is not executing contracts in a timely manner.” Because the city is awarding budgeted contracts late, providers are being forced to use their own funds to cover services during these delays.

“We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late,” the report says. “Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses[.] …We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late. Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses and needing to use other funding sources to keep programs in operation.”

(The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is considered a homelessness program despite the fact that it focuses on criminal recidivism and quality of life outcomes, not housing, finally received city approval for its 2020 contract in late March).

A big reason for the delays, according to the auditor’s report, is that most contracts start on January 1, which gives the city’s grants and contracts administrators only a few weeks after the budget is adopted in November to execute these contracts. Another issue is that turnover among the grants and contracts specialists who are in charge of monitoring contract compliance is extremely high—30 percent in the first half of 2019, according to the audit—and new hires are being trained by their coworkers instead of through any formal training program. In his response to the audit report, acting HSD director Jason Johnson, who has announced he will leave in June, said HSD has hired temporary workers to help grants and contracts specialists who are “working beyond their capacity.” These are among the workers who are being trained on the job by their peers.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

As I reported last year, the Human Services Department dismantled its formal contracts compliance unit and directed contract specialists in each division to have “a high level of individual accountability” to catch errors in contracts. HSD set up the unit in 2014 after a scathing state audit found that the HSD lacked “adequate controls” to monitor how contracts were being written as well as how human service providers were spending grant money.

The city auditor did not report on specific errors that had escaped contract reviewers’ attention, but did note that many large contracts were being reviewed through “desk reviews” that do not involve on-site visits, meetings with program staff, or reviews of client files.

The auditor also highlighted an issue homeless advocates have been pointing out since before the city implemented “performance-based contracting,” which allows the city to withhold funding from providers if they fail to meet certain milestones: Requiring homeless service providers to produce a high number of “exits to permanent housing” in order to get full funding is unrealistic in a city that is not building enough of this type of housing to serve the need, and ignores other types of success stories that do not involve, say, a person leaving emergency shelter and moving directly into permanent housing.

For example, the city’s performance metrics penalize programs that move clients into “foster care, nursing homes, hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing and transitional living programs for youth” by counting those as “negative” rather than positive exits from the programs. In its response to this criticism, included in the audit, HSD said that it chose exits to permanent housing as a performance metric “because the goal of the homeless response system is to end an individual’s experience of homelessness and HSD is committed to ensuring investments work towards this goal”—a response that ignores the fact that the city’s homeless population far outnumbers the number of units that are available to house it.

Additionally, the audit found that the fact that the city has no way of tracking how many shelter beds are available in real time “creates inefficiencies for overworked shelter staff” who are forced to call around to other shelters when clients show up at shelters that are full. And it concluded that the current system for tracking client’s “vulnerability,” which puts some people on track for housing while leaving others in limbo indefinitely, exacerbates the existing racial inequities in the homeless service system, particularly for undocumented people.

Hepatitis A Spreads Among Ballard Homeless Population, As Hygiene Stations and Restrooms Remain in Short Supply

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A new outbreak of new Hepatitis A cases among people experiencing homelessness in Ballard could get worse if people are unable to access sinks and showers, both of which remain in short supply in the neighborhood and across the city.

King County Public Health confirmed 11 new Hep A cases among people who self-identified as living homeless in Ballard this week, of 25 new confirmed cases in March. In January, when it became clear that the city was experiencing an outbreak but before COVID-19 shut down libraries and businesses open to the public where homeless people typically access restrooms, public health spokesman James Apa noted that “People who are living homeless or who are using drugs are more likely to have underlying health conditions that can be worsened by hepatitis A.”

Dr. Richard Waters, the medical director of homeless and housing programs for the Neighborcare Health clinic network, says that hepatitis A cases during the last two outbreaks, in 2018 and 2019, “were predominantly among people experiencing homelessness, in large part because of the lack fo sanitation facilities.” Now that there are even fewer places for people to wash their hands because of restroom closures, he worries that the virus will spread. “People use the bathroom who don’t, or are unable to, perform adequate hand hygiene, touch things that other people may touch … and it spreads. Hand hygiene is key,” Waters says.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. 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.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Today, Apa said that the health department’s environmental health team is “connecting with Seattle Parks & Recreation to confirm best practice sanitation procedures of the Portland Loo at the Seattle Commons as a precaution.” The Portland Loo—a $550,000 public restroom designed to deter illicit behavior that was set up at the park last year—could be a vector for disease if people use the toilet and do not, or are unable to, use the handwashing station on the outside of the unit.

The Loo remained locked this afternoon, and several Honey Bucket port-a-potties——which the city refers to as “comfort stations”— had been set up nearby. Will Lemke, a spokesman for the city’s Human Services Department, says the restroom was closed “to ensure that staff were prepared and equipped to do the appropriate deep cleaning of the facility. The loo will reopen in the near future.”

Neither of the sinks at a temporary handwashing station adjacent to the portable toilets were working this afternoon, although the station was stocked with soap and paper towels.

Lemke also said that the Navigation Team was out in Ballard this morning handing out hygiene kits and information, and providing information about vaccinations. King County Public Health and Neighborcare provide hepatitis vaccinations to people experiencing homelessness. The area outside the Ballard library and the perimeter around the Ballard Commons, which is ordinarily cleared by the Navigation Team or Seattle police, has been crowded with tents ever since the library closed its doors on March 13. Much of the park was fenced off.

Earlier this week, the city released a map of the six new handwashing stations it is providing in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. An HSD blog post on hygiene services that was updated yesterday says that “at least four” mobile hygiene trailers, with showers, sinks, and toilets, will be coming online “soon” and are “under procurement.” As I reported yesterday, the city budget passed last year included $1.3 million to buy these units, but the city did not start looking for them in earnest until after the COVID-19 epidemic was underway. By that point, the trailers were in high demand, and the city has been unable to procure them.

Currently, the city’s plan is to rent two trailers from out of state, with the contract going through Seattle Public Utilities (SPU recently took charge of finding the trailers, which was previously the responsibility of HSD.) A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said Thursday that the trailers “are being delivered this week,” but that “we are still working through logistical and operational approaches including staffing. SPU needs to consider all public health guidelines to ensure the health and safety of employees and clients.”

State Buys Central District Nursing Home for Hospital Relief, City Hall Shelter Clients Still Sleeping Inches Apart, and More COVID News

1. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services has purchased the former Paramount Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Seattle’s Central District to serve as a hospital for people without COVID-19, at a cost of $13.5 million, The C Is for Crank has learned. The 165-bed nursing home closed down last month, after an analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services called it one of the worst-performing nursing homes in the country.

Chris Wright, a spokesman for the state COVID Joint Information Center, said the goal of the purchase is “to free up beds in hospitals during the crisis by finding patients who are currently in hospitals, but could receive the same level of care in this nursing home.” He says the state is “trying to find a contractor to run the facility and hope to open by the end of April.” The facility will create about 100 job openings, for nurses, food service workers, maintenance workers, and supervisors, Wright says.

2. As homeless shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit groups “de-intensified” their existing shelters by moving some clients to new locations, people are still sleeping inches apart at the nighttime-only shelter at City Hall, which is run by the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center. Staffing is apparently an issue; expanding the shelter to the red-glass lobby on Fourth Avenue (as has been discussed) or moving some shelter clients elsewhere would require additional Salvation Army employees or other staff.

A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said that “Many shelter operators, including the operator at the City Hall shelters, are facing staffing capacity constraints that make it challenging to split operations between multiple sites quickly. City staff have been stepping in to help staff shelters to meet this need, and we are working with the service provider to identify solutions.” A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said the group had nothing new to announce about the shelter.

The basic shelter at City Hall consists of 75 mats on the floor inside the Fifth Avenue lobby, which is open daily from 7pm until 7 in the morning.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

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. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

3. Staff at the city’s Human Services, Parks, and Seattle Center departments are being reassigned to front-line positions working in some of the new shelter spaces that have been opened for residents at  as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and distributing food through HSD’s division of Youth and Family Empowerment. These reassignments apply not just to the approximately 70 workers who have been specially trained to work in shelters, but also to other staffers who will be reassigned as part of the departments’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs), which shut down certain city facilities and functions while defining others as “mission essential.”

It’s unclear what, if any, long-term plan exists for city employees who would ordinarily be reassigned to front-line jobs but are in a high-risk group for COVID exposure. The mayor’s order authorizes departments to provide “full or partial compensation” to these workers, but the city did not provide any specific details about what that will look like, or whether some employees may eventually have to be furloughed until front-line services can open again.

4. Governor Jay Inslee confirmed on Saturday that the state is using prison labor to make hospital gowns during the COVID crisis. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the gowns are being produced by inmates at the Coyote Ridge medium-security prison in Franklin County. Inslee said Saturday that the prisoners were “very eager for this job, and we’re eager for their success in this regard.” Prisoners in Washington State make a fraction of the state minimum wage.

Prison reform advocates across the country, including in Washington State, have argued that state prison systems should release many incarcerated people to protect their health during the COVID crisis. Inslee said Saturday that “we have a commitment … to keeping these incarcerated individuals as safe as humanly possible” during the pandemic.

5. The Seattle City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution this afternoon asking Gov. Inslee to use his emergency powers to implement a moratorium on all residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments in the state, and to forgive any debt accumulated by renters and property owners after the COVID crisis has passed. The resolution, which also calls on the federal government to enact a similar policy nationwide, passed unanimously, though not without a bit of incredulous guffawing from council member Debora Juarez, who (along with her colleague Alex Pedersen) seemed skeptical about the idea of effectively canceling all rent and mortgage payments for the indefinite future.

“So you’re saying that a commercial [landlord] that owns 20-plus units, or apartments, who also has a mortgage to pay … that we are lobbying for them as well, under this administration and to our governor, that they too don’t have to pay their mortgage to the bank?” Juarez asked.

“That’s right,” the resolution’s sponsor, council member Tammy Morales, responded.

Pedersen expressed doubt about the legality of preemptively forgiving all rent and mortgage debt, and seemed to question whether renters would really need the help. “I’m concerned that [if] people are getting other relief, why would we want to then suspend the payments that are due when they’re getting relief from other angles?” he said. On the other hand, Pedersen said, “I have received lots of emails from constituents who are expressing their major concern and fear and pain that they’re suffering during this crisis, so I wish we had more time to think this through.”