Tag: Human Services Department

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

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week

Seattle Center Exhibition Hall | TeenTix

By Erica C. Barnett

With freezing weather and possible snow in the forecast for the coming week, the city will make about 200 emergency beds available for single adults living unsheltered to come inside. The temporary shelters will be at two locations: The Compass Housing Alliance day center at 210 Alaskan Way S (80 beds) and Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall at 301 Mercer St (between 100 and 130 beds). There are currently no plans to open City Hall, which has historically served as severe-weather shelter, or other city locations, such as community centers or the Seattle Municipal Tower.

The emergency shelters will open at 7pm and close at 7am, despite the fact that daytime forecasts call for sub-freezing weather throughout the day from December 26 through the end of the year. A daytime warming center at the Seattle Center Armory building is currently supposed to open at 10am, and the Compass building is open to clients during the day. UPDATE December 24: The city announced that several more warming centers will be open during the day for the duration of the declared winter weather emergency; information and hours are available on the city’s website.

Otherwise, the city is encouraging people living unsheltered to go to public libraries, which are open various hours (and not at all on holidays.)

Families with children who need shelter from the cold should call the King County emergency family shelter intake line at 206-245-1026.

The city’s emergency winter shelter protocols call for emergency shelter to open whenever the forecasted temperature is 25 degrees or less for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulates on the ground, which is known as a “Phase II” winter weather event. A Phase III event—requiring “prolonged emergency response,” potentially including shelters in community centers and other city buildings—is the same as a Phase II event, plus a snow accumulation of six inches or more.

Historically, the city has opened emergency shelters before the city reaches these thresholds, which haven’t been updated for more than 20 years; last year, when PubliCola asked about the 25-degree threshold, HSD told us that changing the criteria (and thus opening emergency shelters in slightly less harsh subfreezing temperatures) would have cost implications. According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the city has two contracts for emergency shelter this year—one with Compass, and one with the Salvation Army. Each is required to offer 15 days of 24-hour shelter per year; we’ve asked HSD for more information about why each agency is only offering shelter for 12 hours a day.

In years past, the city’s temporary emergency shelters have not always filled up despite the cold. The group primarily responsible for going out to encampments and identifying people who are at risk of dying if they stay outside in freezing weather (and transporting them to city-funded shelters) is the HOPE team, a group of Human Services Department employees who offer shelter and services to people living in encampments the city is about to sweep. During a major snowstorm last February, according to Mundt, the team transported a total of 40 people to shelter.

Health One, the Seattle Fire Department team that responds to non-emergency crisis calls, won’t be mobilized until December 27 because of staffing shortages; when they do, according to SFD spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley, their job will be to “reactively and proactively respond to distribute supplies (food, hand warmers, blankets, etc.) and offer transport to severe weather shelters.” Continue reading “Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week”

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday afternoon, the city council’s homelessness committee will get a long-awaited update from the city’s homelessness division about what the division, and the homeless service providers the city funds, have done over the past seven months to move people into shelter and housing—including a report on the two hotel-based shelters the city belatedly funded as part of its pandemic response earlier this year.

Both hotels—the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, and the 139-room Executive Pacific, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute—are nearing the halfway mark on their 10-month leases. Yet neither has made much visible progress toward a key goal of their contracts: Moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness and into permanent housing, using short-term rapid rehousing subsidies to help fund apartments on the private market.

While both rapid rehousing programs have enrolled a similar percentage of clients into rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually identified housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments.

After resisting calls to open hotels to shelter people living outdoors during the COVID pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announced it was signing short-term leases on the two hotels in February. The plan, announced by then-deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller (who quit to run for mayor) and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis last October, was to take people directly off the streets, stabilize them and assess their needs, and move most of them quickly into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies administered through separate contracts with the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, respectively. By cycling most clients quickly through the hotels and into private-market apartments, proponents said, the hotels could serve hundreds of people.

The reality, however, hasn’t lived up to the initial promise. While both Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services have signed up a similar percentage of clients for their rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually found housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments. (Although the online presentation says the Chief Seattle Club has enrolled no households in its rapid rehousing program, its executive director, Derrick Belgarde, says the current number is 38). At the Executive Pacific, 17 people have moved into apartments with rapid rehousing subsidies—seven more than the total three weeks ago. At King’s Inn, not a single person has moved out using a rapid rehousing voucher. Several people have exited both programs into other types of housing—moving in with relatives, for example—and some simply left the hotels and didn’t return.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly. “It’s going to be hard to find them a place they can afford with little to no income,” Belgarde said. “With their underlying conditions, they’re going to need permanent supportive housing.”

One option, Belgarde said, would be moving some of the people currently at King’s Inn into ?ál?al, a Club-owned 80-unit studio apartment building that’s opening in Pioneer Square in October. Some of those living at King’s Inn could use rapid rehousing vouchers to live at ?ál?al, for a year, Belgarde said, and then, if they couldn’t afford market-rate housing, they could apply to move into Sacred Medicine House, a 125-unit permanent supportive housing development in Lake City that’s supposed to open in October 2022. Both buildings, which are designed to cater specifically to Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, are subject to fair housing law, so ensuring that their residents are by and large Native is a matter of getting people’s applications in quickly.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, said he initially hoped that the hotels would enable the city to “rapidly house hundreds of people … but that does not seem to be where we are at right now.” Instead, he said, the hotels have turned into a “bottleneck” while the subsidies go unused.

One option, Lewis said, might be to “open up” access to the subsidies to other providers, such as the Public Defender Association and its JustCare program, whose clients might be a better fit for rapid rehousing. Rapid rehousing programs typically best for people who can return to full employment before the subsidy ends—people facing temporary setbacks, not permanent disability. Continue reading “The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check”

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the members of the HOPE team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.

Instead, the HOPE team member, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email, staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.

In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the state Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.

Support PubliCola

PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the city and outreach providers have traditionally used to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users. (Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users). Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.

The city of Seattle’s IT department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The state Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.

According to Mundt, after consulting with the IT department, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process or any related City business “due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability. Continue reading “Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App”

Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Olga Park, a small swatch of green space near Ravenna and Cowen Parks in Northeast Seattle, has been the site of a fairly small but disruptive encampment for about a year. Neighbors in nearby apartments and houses have complained frequently to the city about noise, drug use, and hostile treatment from the people living there—typical points of friction between housed and homeless people in densely populated residential areas.

But many in the neighborhood have also worked to find alternatives that wouldn’t simply displace the encampment residents, meeting with outreach workers from REACH who have developed relationships with people living in the park to discuss options that would keep them in the neighborhood. “My ideal approach so far, which we’ve been advocating with the city to do, is something like the JustCARE program, where people move into hotels on a voluntary basis,” Teresa Barker, from the Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance, said.

Those conversations came to an abrupt halt last week, when the city decided to sweep the encampment after a man who lived elsewhere shot and killed an encampment resident. Those living in the park got about two days’ notice; two accepted referrals to the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and one got a referral to Otto’s Place, a 100-bed shelter in Pioneer Square. The rest moved elsewhere, leaving behind tents, property, and trash for the Parks Department to haul away.

The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the University Heights Center, said.

Neighbors who’ve been asking the city to address the encampment for months were relieved that it’s gone, but said they also understand that the city isn’t solving anything by moving traumatized people from place to place. The tiny number of people who “accepted” shelter referrals in the days leading up to the sweep “just goes to show that the person-centered, relationship building approach works better than the kneejerk response,” Maureen Ewing, director of the nearby University Heights Center, said. “It’s unfortunate that we wait to drop the hammer and force people out when they already traumatized by the murder.” 

Both Ewing and Barker said the city needed to do something about the encampment; both pointed out numerous examples of aggressive behavior and dangerous incidents, including a large fire, screaming fights, verbal threats, and a man who climbed 40 feet up a tree and wouldn’t come down. But they both said that most of the neighborhood wanted the city to provide alternatives that would actually work for the encampment residents, rather than a standard-issue sweep, in which people are offered whatever shelter happens to be available at the moment.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood.” —Theresa Barker, Ravenna-Cowen Community Alliance.

I think individuals who are living in homes are conflicted, because they care about the well-being of the people living there but they also care about the impact of  the impact of the people living there on the neighborhood,” Barker said. “The challenge is that in a few weeks we’ll see them back—if not at that site, they may be down the street or at the playground or playfield, with even more defense mechanisms because of the trauma that just happened to them.” Continue reading “Residents Ask City to Help Unsheltered Neighbors; City Responds by Sweeping Park”

Native-Led Homeless Outreach Groups Reject Contracts They Say Will Harm Their Clients, Exacerbate Inequities

By Erica C. Barnett

[Editor’s note: See UPDATES in this post.]

Three organizations serving American Indian and Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, and Human Services Department interim director Helen Howell rejecting provisions of their 2021 contracts that they say will harm the groups they serve and force them to “facilitate encampment removals” by doing outreach at encampments the city designates as “high-priority,” a precursor to sweeps.

Mother Nation, which serves Native women, has decided not to sign its 2021 contract, the letter says.

UPDATE: In a separate letter to HSD and the mayor’s office that was cc’d to the city council, Mother Nation wrote that “the new conditions, the reporting and requirements to be part of the sweeps with the Hope Team, and requirements to participate in other camps outside of our where our Indigenous community resides, and the additional daily reporting, gives us very little time to the nature of our work with Native traditional practices and support to build and earn a trust relationship to third generations of our People homeless due to the Indian Relocation Act. :

Seattle Indian Health Board “will not sign this contract in its current form, jeopardizing our ability to provide services to our unsheltered relatives in the near future,” the letter from the three providers continues. UPDATE: In an email transmitting the letter, SIHB CEO Esther Lucero added that the changes “threaten the on-going services provided by outreach and engagement service providers. We request that HSD immediately remove these concerning new contract provisions to remedy these concerns and maintain the continuity of care for our unsheltered relatives. 

Chief Seattle Club “has signed the contract because of the immense needs in our community, but will suspend submitting any further invoices to HSD until the issues” raised by all three groups are resolved, the letter says.

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said the providers will get paid for work they’ve done so far this year even if they don’t sign their contracts. Since Chief Seattle Club has signed their contract, it’s possible the city could withhold future funding if they stop providing invoices to the city.

As I reported last Monday, outreach providers have been working without contracts since the beginning of the year. Although it’s fairly routine for the city to deliver contracts several months into the year, providers say it is extremely unusual for new contracts to include major changes without consultation with the providers themselves.

In late April, seven outreach groups sent a letter to the mayor and HSD objecting to the changes, which Chief Seattle Club interim director Derrick Belgarde said would place the organizations at the “beck and call” of the city’s HOPE (formerly Navigation) Team, which provides outreach and shelter referrals to encampments that the city places on its priority list for sweeps. 

In effect, the new rules would require agencies to drop whatever targeted outreach they are doing with their existing client base—chronically homeless individuals with severe, disabling mental illness, for example—and rush out to whatever encampment happens to be on the city’s “priority” list that week.

“For too long the City has held significant set asides of shelter beds and resources that are now contingent upon provider participation in priority encampment removals,” the letter says. “We are concerned this strategy continues to drive further inequities experienced among our Native community who are geographically dispersed and often reside in smaller groups that may not be deemed a priority by the City.” 

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up less than 1 percent of King County’s population, but represent around 15 percent of its homeless population. Despite this extreme disproportionality, Native people experiencing homelessness are not highly visible; according to advocates, they tend to stay away from the large, highly visible encampments the city usually targets for removal. When they’re forced to spend limited resources responding to those encampments, Native-led groups say, it takes away from time helping their clients and exacerbates existing inequities.

“Program regulations requiring HOPE Team geographic prioritization and coordination of outreach providers limits our ability to meet our relatives where they are at and deprioritizes our work as culturally specific providers,” the providers’ letter says. Additionally, they note, allowing “property-holding” city departments like Parks, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Seattle Department of Transportation to decide which encampments are a “priority” for the city—for example, by removing an encampment after someone complains it’s blocking a sidewalk in front of their business—puts the emphasis on protecting property rather than helping people.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about a quarter of the city’s shelter beds, including beds at the new Executive Pacific Hotel-based shelter and in tiny house villages. This makes them a gatekeeper for some of the most desirable shelter beds in the city, and it means that other service providers, including those that serve clients who do not live in large or highly public encampments, have access to a limited slice of a tiny number of shelter beds available each night.

“For too long the City has held significant set asides of shelter beds and resources that are now contingent upon provider participation in priority encampment removals,” the letter says. “We are concerned this strategy continues to drive further inequities experienced among our Native community who are geographically dispersed and often reside in smaller groups that may not be deemed a priority by the City.”

A final concern is around new reporting requirements, which the city says are necessary so that they can know who is living in encampments and what kind of services they need. In their letter, Mother Nation says the new contracts would require outreach workers to “gather sensitive information including mental health, substance abuse history, sexual orientation, immigration status, and any other information the City deems necessary in data reporting.”

Lemke, from HSD, says the city can’t direct providers to ask about immigration status and does not require them to ask other invasive questions. The daily data reports the contracts call for would require information about what kind of services outreach providers offered, including things like mental health services, referrals to substance use treatment, and legal services.

Continue reading “Native-Led Homeless Outreach Groups Reject Contracts They Say Will Harm Their Clients, Exacerbate Inequities”

Homeless Outreach Providers Balk at New Contracts That Would Put them at City’s “Beck and Call” for Sweeps

Tents at Gilman Playfield in Ballard, one of the city's "high-priority" encampment locations
Tents at Gilman Playfield in Ballard, one of the city’s “high-priority” encampment locations

By Erica C. Barnett

Homeless outreach agencies that contract with the city’s Human Services Department have threatened not to sign their 2021 contracts over new requirements that they argue would harm their relationships with clients and give unprecedented new power to the city.

Agencies that provide outreach and engagement to homeless encampments, including the outreach that happens before the city removes an encampment, have been operating without contracts since January. Late last month, HSD sent out new contracts that included requirements—not included in previous contracts—that would effectively subordinate the agencies to HSD’s HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team).

The new rules would require agencies to drop whatever targeted outreach they are doing with their existing client base—non-English-speaking day laborers, for example, or chronically homeless Native American men—and provide outreach and shelter referrals to whoever happens to be living in “priority” encampments identified by the city in the runup to an encampment sweep.

“We’d be at their beck and call,” said Derrick Belgarde, interim director of the Chief Seattle Club.

The new contracts would also require providers to create detailed “supplemental daily outreach reports” about who they contacted and what services they offered each day.

“For American Indians and Alaska Natives, we know they’re not grouping in these larger encampments—they tend to stick together in smaller groups, and they’re kind of hard to find,” Andrew Guillen, the grants and contracts director for the Seattle Indian Health Board, told PubliCola. “If we’re going to be prioritizing just the city-designated high-priority encampments, then we’re often going to be excluding American Indian and Alaska Native people.”

“The fact that they seemingly thought they would sneak it in and we’d sign the contracts and agree to these new changes without any negotiation—that’s the thing that’s been the most surprising.”—Andrew Guillen grants and contracts director, Seattle Indian Health Board

The Seattle Indian Health Board was one of seven outreach providers that signed a letter to HSD late last month saying they would not sign their new contract in its current form. The letter raised four broad objections to the new contract language, including the “lack of trauma-informed care” in the contract requirements, the fact that the city’s encampment removal schedule gives them just two or three days to meet with clients and refer them to appropriate shelter and services, and the fact that the contracts require agencies to go through the HOPE team to place people in shelter, imposing a new “middle-man” on their relationships with clients.

“There was a complete lack of communication around any of these changes,” Guillen said. “The fact that they seemingly thought they would sneak it in and we’d sign the contracts and agree to these new changes without any negotiation—that’s the thing that’s been the most surprising.”

The new contracts stipulate, among other requirements, that all the city’s outreach providers must “Engage in coordinated outreach strategies at City prioritized encampments as directed by the HSD’s HOPE team … Provide coordinated outreach at City prioritized encampments including day-of removals” and “utilize the City’s recommendation and referral process” for shelter beds.

New reporting requirements, which include monthly reports to the HOPE team, include items like, “Describe your program’s level of participation in HSD’s HOPE team-coordinated outreach strategies at City-designated high-prioritized encampments this past month”—a major shift, providers say, toward a centralized, top-down approach to outreach and engagement.

“They expect us to be on call when they need to focus on certain areas,” said Derrick Belgarde, interim director of the Chief Seattle Club. “We have a problem with what’s defined as a ‘problem area’—it’s always the ‘nicer’ areas with louder voices that seem to get the attention of the mayor.”

Belgarde said the criteria for outreach “should be what’s in the best interest of people on the streets. We have our outreach people out there—they’re the professionals; they should be able to go and work on these people they’ve built relationships with without being told they can’t because they have to go to other neighborhoods.”

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The city’s “recommendation and referral process” would require providers to work through an elaborate “decision tree” to make the case that individual people at encampments—people they may be meeting for the first time, and for whom their agency is not the best fit—deserve one of a small number of beds the HOPE team has reserved on any particular night. The process requires providers to take down detailed personal information from every person at each encampment the city prioritizes for removal, including mental health and substance abuse history, sexual orientation, immigration status, and other extremely personal information. Continue reading “Homeless Outreach Providers Balk at New Contracts That Would Put them at City’s “Beck and Call” for Sweeps”

“Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division

1. Last year, the city council set aside $100,000 in the 2021 budget to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective.” The idea was to rapidly install dozens of sinks in public places around the city where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands, a simple way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis and COVID-19.

As PubliCola reported back in February, the sink program has since stalled, as several city departments that answer to Mayor Jenny Durkan have raised concerns about runoff from the sinks going into planters rather than storm drains (will children eat the soil?), whether the pipes will function in cold weather, and ADA compliance—a concern that apparently does not extend to many of the city’s existing public restrooms.

Now, after the Clean Hands Collective has gone through another round of design in collaboration with the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities, the city has decided to open the whole process up for bids by any group that wants to apply. The rebranded “Seattle Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program” now includes an additional $50,000 for “waste prevention solutions focused on food and other materials.” According to the city’s handout on the two “innovation areas,” food waste prevention proposals could include things like “sharing, reusing, repairing, and repurposing.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources.” —SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register

We think it is important to provide a fair and equitable process for distributing funds and ensure the public receives the greatest benefit for its funding,” said Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. The city is holding an informational webinar for groups interested in applying on (UPDATED) April 22; Register said eight groups have signed up so far and “We are excited to see what community groups propose!”

The additional process means it will be even longer before sinks are available for people to access running water, something that has been necessary since pandemic-related shutdowns began more than a year ago. Street sink proponents—whose initial demonstration sink, outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District, opened almost a year ago—are starting to wonder if the mayor’s office is actually interested in helping homeless people wash their hands.

“Some of these arguments are arguments against hygiene services” in general, said Real Change policy director Tiffani McCoy. “One of them was, ‘We’re worried about vandalism and feces being spread around.’ That’s an argument against any hygiene model.”

SPU spokeswoman Register said the city is “eager to partner with community to provide hygiene options for the public that meet health, safety, and accessibility requirements, and that the new application process “helps guide applicants through these public health requirements to ensure their designs are meeting community needs.”

McCoy and others familiar with the meetings between the Clean Hands Collective and the city said one suggestion from the city was something proponents referred to as “Purell on a pole”—which is exactly what it sounds like. If the problem is disposing of the water, the argument went, why not just get rid of the water?

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Although street sink proponents pointed out that people experiencing homelessness have expressly expressed a need to wash their hands under running water, not squirt them with sanitizer (nor is sanitizing a best practice when water is available), the idea refused to die and is, according to Register, “not off the table.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources,” Register said.

Ironically, “theft of hand sanitizer” was one of the reasons the city was initially reluctant to provide portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness when the pandemic began.

2. The city’s Parks Department removed a small encampment in the dugout at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle Friday morning, after identifying the site as a “high priority location for engagement,” according to a joint statement from Parks and the Human Services Department provided to PubliCola Thursday. (The statement was identical to the response sent to at least one city council member who also asked about the sweep).

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said six people at the site received referrals into the Executive Pacific Hotel, about five miles from the site, from REACH, and “one individual voluntarily left the area.” The five men, all of them Spanish speakers, “were provided Uber rides to the hotel,” Mundt said.

It’s unclear why the city decided to prioritize Rainier Playfield specifically. On Thursday evening, the park was full of people playing tennis and football, walking dogs and strollers, and using every corner of the park. The dugout is tucked away at the edge of the park and no tents or trash were visible.

The city is also reportedly planning three more encampment removals in the coming weeks—a sign that sweeps, which had largely paused during the pandemic, are ramping up again in response to neighborhood complaints. The upcoming locations for encampment removals are: Miller Park on Capitol Hill (on or around April 13), Gilman Playground in Ballard, and the University Playground near the University District.

The city also recently removed tents at Fourth and Yesler, where, according to HSD, they were blocking access to the sidewalk. People living unsheltered downtown are reportedly being channeled into City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse, which is so crowded now that it resembles a densely packed shantytown, with dozens of tents instead of permanent structures. The city provides three portable toilets to serve all the people living in the park.

Efforts to provide places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands—a basic need that has been largely unmet throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to stall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and executive departments have raised objection after objection to proposals to create a street sink program that would help prevent the spread of disease.

3. Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s longtime advisor on homelessness, will take over as interim deputy director of the Human Services Department overseeing homelessness after the current deputy, Audrey Buehring, departs for a job in Washington, D.C. next week. Continue reading ““Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division”