Tag: Human Services Department

Poll Tests Encampment Crackdown; Turf Battles Possible as Homelessness Authority Takes Shape

1. A recent poll asked respondents about a potential Seattle ballot initiative that would use existing government funds to support treatment for mental illness and drug addiction while giving police more authority to “intervene” if people experiencing homelessness didn’t accept the “help” they were offered. The hypothetical ballot measure would also re-establish the police-led Navigation Team, which removed encampments and offered information about shelter and other services to their displaced residents.

The poll also included a number of test messages supporting and opposing the theoretical measure. Among the opposition messages: The groups supporting this initiative don’t really care about solving homelessness and this solution doesn’t include housing; encampment sweeps are unethical or immoral; it’s wrong to involve police in homelessness; and big business contributed to the problem of homelessness and should help solve it.

The “pro” messages included: We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars and the problem is still getting worse; the council is too lenient on repeat offenders, including one council member (Lisa Herbold) who is trying to pass a “poverty” defense for crimes; businesses are struggling and facing the possibility of having to reopen with encampments everywhere.

Gauging the impact of negative and positive messages helps supporters of ballot measures (and candidates) craft a campaign that responds to the strongest objections while pushing the most compelling message in favor of a measure.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll. PubliCola has reached out to several groups that have advocated for the city to change its approach to unsheltered homelessness, including the Seattle Metro Chamber, which did not respond to questions.

An early version of the regional homelessness authority structure, circa 2019.

2. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced this week that it has finally chosen a director to lead the agency, which was supposed to take over most of the functions of Seattle’s Homelessness Strategy and Investments division beginning last year. The new director, Regina Cannon, is the chief equity and impact officer at C4 Innovations, which released an influential report on racial inequities in homelessness.

One of the chief authors of that study was Marc Dones, the other finalist for the director position and the lead architect of the original plan for the authority itself. Dones was a frequent presence at City Hall in 2018 and 2019, when Seattle and King County were discussing the makeup of the future authority. As a city consultant, Dones advocated for “digital IDs” that would enable people experiencing homelessness to access services using biometric markers (such as fingerprints) or some other form of digital “signature,” and in 2019, Dones’ firm received $637,000 from the county for various contracts.

Assuming Cannon accepts the $200,000-plus position, she will be in charge of creating an organizational structure for an entirely new agency that will oversee homeless services throughout the county, including both Seattle (the primary fiscal contributor to the authority) and three dozen smaller cities, many of which have their own ideas about how to deal with homelessness in their communities. And she will be responsible for taking over hundreds of homeless service contracts currently held by the city, which plans to shut down its homelessness division over the next year.

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3. In the meantime, the city’s Human Services Department plans to retain control over homeless service contracts in 2021, and, in at least one instance, perhaps beyond. Prior to the elimination of the encampment-removing Navigation Team last year, Durkan had planned to keep that team—and only that team—at the city. Now that the Navigation Team is no more, Durkan reportedly wants to keep the outreach providers that currently contract with the city, primarily REACH, under city control.

Durkan’s office did not respond directly to a question from PubliCola about whether she was “seeking to hold outreach contracts at HSD, as opposed to moving outreach to the new authority.” Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower confirmed only that the city would retain its contracts with outreach providers such as REACH “through the end of this year.” Continue reading “Poll Tests Encampment Crackdown; Turf Battles Possible as Homelessness Authority Takes Shape”

City’s Hotel-Based “Shelter Surge” in Jeopardy Over Financial, Logistical Concerns

By Erica C. Barnett

The city’s plan to use federal COVID dollars to move unsheltered people to hotels, then housing, has hit a serious snag—several, actually—that could put the centerpiece of the city’s planned 2021 “shelter surge” in jeopardy.

Last year, after a bruising budget season, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced a $34 million plan to use federal Emergency Solutions Grant (COVID) grant dollars to create hundreds of new shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness, including 125 new enhanced shelter beds in traditional congregate settings and 300 hotel rooms that would be repurposed as noncongregate shelter.

According to a request for qualifications for the funding, the grant money is supposed to pay for programs that “assist those experiencing homelessness in finding safe alternatives through investment in shelters/hotels that result in permanent housing through Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing.” The idea is that homeless service providers will move hundreds of people out of encampments and into hotels, from which they’ll emerge on one of two tracks: Permanent supportive housing (for those who require comprehensive, 24/7 support) or market-rate apartments (for everyone else.)

The surge was also supposed to include 125 new 24/7 congregate shelter beds. So far, the city has only granted funding for the hotel-based shelters, and it’s unclear whether any agencies applied for the additional shelter funding.

The hotels were supposed to be up and running “beginning in December 2020.” None have opened, and a number of serious issues remain unresolved. The first is a $17,000-per-unit spending cap, established by the city budget office, which will limit what services and amenities are available to clients staying in the rooms. (The city is paying for the rooms themselves separately using the federal ESG funds.) The mayor’s office has said they expect the hotel units to turn over as people move rapidly through the hotel rooms and on to permanent housing, so the $17,000 cap is for each unit, not each client. 

From that money—a total of around $5 million, assuming the city eventually opens all 300 rooms—the service providers must pay for food, supplies, janitorial services, security, protective equipment, and salaries for the onsite case managers who will be charged with setting clients up for success in housing. So far, the city has offered contracts to two providers, Chief Seattle Club and the Public Defender Association, to run the hotels. The agencies have reportedly balked at this spending cap, which could make it difficult to provide the kind of high-touch services necessary to deal with the complex behavioral health issues, including addiction, that are common among people living unsheltered, especially those who are chronically homeless.

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Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said a typical enhanced shelter or tiny house village unit costs between $16,000 and $22,000 a year. “We are in active contract negotiations with multiple providers to operate new hotel shelter units,” Lemke said in a statement. “As expected, each provider has a different proposed approach and we are working through those details now. …Program approach and associated costs are key drivers.”

The city has set aside almost twice as much money, $9 million, for the rapid rehousing component of the program, which it has dubbed “Street to Housing.” The city has picked Catholic Community Services as its rapid rehousing provider, in addition to the Chief Seattle Club’s own rapid rehousing program. The city plans to use those funds to move 231 single hotel shelter clients into market-rate apartments and subsidize their rent for up to 12 months. As PubliCola has reported, the premise behind rapid rehousing programs is that many, perhaps most, people experiencing homelessness need only minimal assistance, including rent subsidies and financial counseling, to afford an apartment.

The people who provide rapid rehousing tend to disagree with this optimistic assessment. They say the clients who do best in rapid rehousing are the ones who have just become homeless, who are already employed or  recently lost a job, and who don’t require intensive case management or other services, such as mental health or addiction treatment. People with addiction, untreated mental illness, or other temporarily disabling conditions often need more than a short-term financial boost, but don’t require the comprehensive, long-term services offered in permanent supportive housing programs. There simply aren’t many programs for people who fall into that gap.

Another issue with the hotels the city has chosen is that the rooms are not set up for long-term residents. Neither of the two hotels the city is currently considering—King’s Inn, a block away from Amazon headquarters, and the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown—offers in-room kitchenettes or microwaves, meaning that the providers will have to either purchase microwaves so people can heat up food they bring in (impossible in the case of the Executive Pacific, whose wiring is apparently too old to withstand microwaves in every room) or pay for catering at significant expense.

Additionally, the Executive Pacific is in the middle of downtown, and offers no common area for residents to gather, making it likely that they will congregate outside and contribute to the sense of “disorder” that causes business groups and law-and-order activists to call for crackdowns. Both hotels are clearly better than nothing, but they need to be places people want to stay. It’s unclear the city is setting either up for success.

Ultimately, the question the city has to consider is this: What is the point of these new shelters, and is a program that skimps on direct services while investing lavishly in a market-based solution likely to lead to that result?

If the point is to simply create the appearance of responding to the homelessness crisis  during a global emergency that—like Durkan’s term— will have largely ended by the time the grant runs out, then limited-service shelters that spit chronically homeless people into the private market may do the trick. But if the goal is to actually move people facing complex, persistent challenges into housing where they will thrive, it will take more than a single “shelter surge,” and very likely more than a few thousand dollars a person, to get there.

The mayor’s office will provide a “Status Update on 2021 Homelessness Investments” at the city council’s Homelessness Strategies and Investments meeting today, Wednesday, at 2pm.

Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests

Image by Robert Ashworth on Flickr.

1. For more than two months, the homeless women’s shelter provider WHEEL has been asking Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to let them operate a nighttime-only women’s shelter on the Fourth Avenue side of City Hall—an area known colloquially as the “Red Room” because of the frosted red glass doors that give the space a bloody cast. Although staffers in the city’s Human Services Department have reportedly expressed a willingness to let the group open a shelter in the space, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office tells PubliCola that they need to keep the Red Room vacant in case they need it for winter emergency shelter.

“We’ve received WHEEL’s request and HSD is working to identify potential locations to operate a program hosted by that agency,” Durkan’s communications director Kamaria Hightower said. She did not offer any additional information about the timeline for this work or where the potential locations might be.

Even before COVID, the city had few shelter beds available for women on a typical night, particularly for single women who don’t want to stay in co-ed shelters. Now, with shelters either full or admitting only a couple of new clients a night, there are even fewer open beds.

WHEEL’s current shelter, at Trinity Episcopal Parish near downtown, can only accept about 30 clients a night because of COVID social-distancing restrictions, down from a high of as many as 60 pre-COVID. In its most recent letter to the mayor, on January 6, a group of WHEEL representatives wrote that “[w]ith the capacities of so many shelters cut in half or more, we need to add capacity to make up for the loss. … Shelters have been closed for intake due to COVID outbreaks-this will happen again, and again. Others are top bunkbeds [which aren’t accessible to people with mobility issues], or require a COVID test and a quarantine for intake, or require staying put and making curfew, or just have higher-barrier requirements for stay.”

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A WHEEL member told PubliCola that the only response they received from Durkan’s office was a form letter touting her administration’s work on homelessness titled “Helping to Address Homelessness in Our Region” and addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

Until last November, the Red Room and the main lobby of City Hall on Fifth Avenue served as an overnight shelter space for 75 people, operated by the Salvation Army on a walk-in basis. That month, the Salvation Army shelter was relocated to a former car dealership in SoDo and stopped accepting walk-in clients.

SHARE, WHEEL’s partner organization, also requested permission to operate the main lobby as a co-ed shelter.

Anitra Freeman, a SHARE/WHEEL member, said WHEEL’s low-barrier model makes it more accessible than other shelters, which have “very strict rules” about client behavior, substance use, and willingness to participate in case management. “There are a lot of people out on the street who don’t fit in a very structured program,” she said. “These are the hardest-to-serve people who are also the most vulnerable and the most likely to die outside.”

In an email to a contract specialist at the city last month, an unnamed WHEEL representative gave several examples of recent clients that fit into that category, including a woman who showed up at the shelter, soiled herself, and remained nearly “catatonic” when the shelter took her in; a frequent client with “significant and profound mental health issues” who was kicked out of the hotel where she was staying; and woman who had just been released from a hospital in the middle of the night.

2. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s legislation that would allow attorneys to argue that an indigent client committed a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting, to meet their basic needs is prompting a new round of misinformation, this time from the Downtown Seattle Association, which claimed in an email to members yesterday that the bill would “simply make crimes legal.”

This, as PubliCola has written previously, is untrue. The legislation would simply allow attorneys (general public defenders) to assert that a client committed a crime to meet an “immediate basic need,” such as the need for food or shelter, as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then consider whether the person’s actions met the burden—did they commit a low-level crime to meet a basic human need, or not?—in determining whether the person’s behavior was criminal or not.

Opponents of a basic-need defense have argued that it will legalize all crime and allow people to ransack the city, particularly downtown businesses hit hard by shoplifting and other low-level offenses. But the fact is that the current policy of demonizing and jailing people who commit low-level survival crimes has not worked to reduce these crimes, nor does it benefit the city to lump all misdemeanors together as if people all commit the same crimes for the same reason. Someone operating a large secondary market in stolen merchandise is not engaging in the same act as someone stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store. Continue reading “Women’s Shelter Rejected, More Hyperbole About “Basic Needs” Defense, Former Chief Equates Right Wing Riots to BLM Protests”

Former Council Candidate Ousted Over Billing Irregularities, Fewer Seek Homeless Services, and More on Renton’s Shelter Saga

1. Wellspring Family Services, a homeless service provider that holds a $465,000 rapid rehousing contract with the city of Seattle, fired two of its housing specialists, Walter Washington and Jon Grant, after discovering that around $35,000 had been billed inappropriately to the wrong contracts—in effect overcharging some agencies that provide funding to Wellspring, with the money going into the nonprofit’s housing division. Washington was Wellspring’s senior director of housing services; Grant, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council Position 8, was the agency’s director of program development.

In a letter to agencies that fund the organization, including the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department, Wellspring president and CEO Heather Fitzpatrick described the discrepancy as a “billing error” in which “payroll expenses were erroneously billed to a contract for which the employee did not perform services.”

In an interview with PubliCola, Fitzpatrick said the “billing mistakes” were “predominately legitimate charges that should have been paid by the housing department but were billed to the wrong contract.” She said the agency acted quickly to address the problem. “We immediately reversed the charges and took immediate and appropriate action, including management changes, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Fitzpatrick would not identify the agency that got overcharged; nor would she confirm that $12,000 of the total came in the form of “severance pay” to a female employee who raised alarm bells and subsequently left the agency, as other sources indicated to PubliCola. A spokesperson for the agency said a thorough review of Wellspring’s finances found no evidence of outright embezzlement or misspending beyond the $35,000.

Neither Grant nor Washington responded to requests to talk on the record about their involvement in the discrepancies. According to Washington’s LinkedIn, he is now a team manager at United Way of King County. Grant, whose departure from a previous job as director of the Tenants Union involved allegations of “oppressive and tokenizing” practices, has not updated his LinkedIn bio.

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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.

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2. King County’s homeless population won’t be counted this year—as we reported on Twitter last month, the county agency that ordinarily conducts the street count and survey received a waiver this year because of the pandemic—but the number of people who are going unserved by the region’s homelessness agencies can be quantified by their absence from the homeless system.

According to the county’s homelessness dashboard, the number of people experiencing homelessness who are receiving services from providers in the region dropped dramatically between March and July, the last month for which data is currently available—declining from 13,343 households at the beginning of the pandemic to 11,053 three months later. This trend has held across all demographics, but was especially pronounced among single adults, according to county data.

The number of people experiencing homelessness who are receiving services from providers in the region dropped dramatically between March and July, the last month for which data is currently available.

Antonio Herrera Garza, a spokesman for the King County Department of Community and Human Services, says the county is exploring several theories for why the numbers have dropped, but a reduction in homelessness isn’t one of them. One possibility, he said, “is that households accessing the system during the pandemic show greater stability in services and longer lengths of stay, which means fewer households coming through the system during a given timeframe.”

Another possibility, Herrera Garza said, is that some people “more reluctant to access emergency services,” such as congregate shelter, because of the perceived risk of contracting COVID. Although there have been some outbreaks in tent encampments (including, contrary to claims in a recent Seattle Times piece, people living at Fourth and Yesler and Denny Park in downtown Seattle), most outbreaks have taken place in indoor settings. The county plans to release data through September sometime this month; Herrera Garza said they “expect to continue to see a decline in the numbers through September, although at a slower pace.”

3. Renton Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Dobson, an outspoken opponent of a Red Lion hotel-based shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, apparently threatened to revoke the membership of the Renton LGBTQIA+ Community, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in Renton, over advocacy by one of its board members in favor of the shelter.

The board member, Winter Cashman-Crane, has advocated in favor of the shelter and its residents, most of them former residents of the crowded Morrison Hotel shelter in downtown Seattle, since it opened last year. Cashman-Crane provided screen shots in which Dobson appears to say that Cashman-Crane has “flared up again” on Twitter, apparently referring to two tweets in which they noted that the city planned to give the Chamber a $150,000 grant after Dobson “personally spent this year advocating and inciting the community against the Red Lion shelter.” In the screen-grabbed conversation, Dobson says that if the LGBTQIA+ Community wants to stay in the Chamber, they will have to adhere to new “ground rules toward interaction and relationships.”

Dobson did not return an email seeking comment about her messages to the board member. In an email sent this past summer, she accused Cashman-Crane of “libel” for a private email expressing disappointment that the Chamber had opposed the shelter, which Dobson said was untrue.

Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed

It’s an Afternoon Fizz today, in two parts!

1. Scott Lindsay, a former public safety advisor to ex-mayor Ed Murray and a contractor for the pro-SPD lobbying group Change Washington, didn’t just appear in the latest piece of KOMO poverty porn, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”—he co-produced it.

Since losing a race for city attorney to incumbent Pete Holmes in 2017, Lindsay has transformed himself into a spokesman for the belief that homelessness is caused by drugs and drug addiction can be fixed by forced treatment and jail. This perspective is popular among many fed up with seeing the aesthetically unpleasing signs of visible suffering, such as the people unwittingly featured without their apparent knowledge or consent in KOMO’s latest “news documentary,” because it suggests an easy, obvious solution that politicians are simply unwilling to adopt. But as experts on homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction (alcohol being the most common street drug), and mental illness have documented for decades, mental illness and addiction are not conditions that respond to even the sternest talking-to.

Lindsay, a star of both “Seattle Is Dying” films and a co-producer of the most recent installment, strides quickly past tents in a segment from “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle”

Lindsay, whose on-camera contribution to KOMO’s simplistic narrative is to suggest that jail and mandatory treatment (of what sort, no one ever seems to say) will solve Seattle’s problems with homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and property crime, told PubliCola he was not paid for his work as a co-producer on the 90-minute film. Longtime KOMO employees, however, are reportedly unhappy that the activist received a producing credit for his behind-the-scenes work on a film that was presented as a piece of journalism.

2. As other media have documented (exhaustively—one wonders where all the cameras and helicopters were when larger encampments were removed over the past year, or why protesters haven’t descended on other long-term camps and walled them off with fortresses of junk), Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill was swept this morning. The Seattle Times has been covering the removal from the scene, as has Capitol Hill Seattle. 

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One incident that hasn’t been mentioned in the coverage so far is what happened when the city’s Human Services Department tried to set up a resource tent on the periphery of the scene. The usefulness of such outreach methods is questionable—setting up a canopy tent labeled “City of Seattle” in the middle of a protest against the city seems quixotic—but what isn’t in question is why the table is no longer there: According to HSD, protesters threw bricks and eggs at the city employees sitting under the canopy, leading them to make a hasty retreat. (PubliCola has reviewed a photograph of the scene, which show chunks of bricks and multiple broken eggs.) The employees included three social workers known as system navigators who were previously part of the Navigation Team.

3. Those social workers are now part of a new(ish) program called the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) team. (Everything’s an “ecosystem” now.) In addition to coordinating outreach efforts that will be done by nonprofit providers, rather than by the city itself, the HOPE team is supposed to help direct unhoused people into shelter, including 300 new hotel units that are supposed to serve as short-term lodging for people moving rapidly from homelessness into either permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing programs. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz Part 1: Conflicts at KOMO, HSD Egged, Hotels for Homeless May be Delayed”

Shakeups at the City: Durkan Announces New Interim Directors for Human Services and Arts Departments

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Human Services Department interim director Jason Johnson—interim, since 2018, because the city council declined to approve his nomination after a series of contentious hearings—is leaving his position at the end of the year. In his place, Mayor Jenny Durkan is appointing King County Housing Authority senior policy director Helen Howell on an interim basis “while the City embarks on an inclusive, nationwide search for the permanent director,” according to a press release announcement the appointment.

Interim deputy mayor Tiffany Washington—who just replaced Shefali Ranganathan in the mayor’s office—will head up the search for a permanent director.

Johnson will officially leave the city on January 15, but will be taking a “long planned vacation” starting next Monday, he told staff in an email. “My work throughout 2020 has been on borrowed time,” Johnson’s email continued. “As you may recall, I delayed an earlier announced departure from HSD in order to help the City and our partners respond to COVID-19, develop the department’s 2021 budget, and to ensure the governance structure of the regional homelessness authority was launched and positioned to hire a CEO. … This was not an easy decision for me to make—especially given how much the department is holding at this time—but with these priorities accomplished and in good hands, it is time for me to step away. ”

Howell, the new interim director, is also the former executive director of Building Changes, a Seattle-based group that focuses on homelessness.

Howell is In 2016 and again in 2018, Howell wrote op/eds for the Seattle Times promoting diversion—programs to move people from homelessness to better housing situations, such as “getting back in the good graces of a previous landlord or negotiating with a relative who can offer a place to stay”—as “a common-sense and cost-effective strategy that helps families identify immediate options for housing without relying on housing provided by or subsidized through the homeless system.”

In 2005, she stepped down from her position as director of the state Department of Financial Institutions. According to a Seattle Times report, she was popular with consumer advocates—and unpopular with the institutions she regulated, including payday lenders—because of her focus on consumer protection. She was also the head of Washington state’s Obama delegation in 2008 and one of 11 applicants to fill Dow Constantine’s county council seat when he was elected county executive in 2009.

The Human Services Department is transferring much of its role overseeing Seattle’s homelessness system to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority next year, although HSD will continue to oversee outreach to unsheltered people through the new HOPE team established in the 2021 city budget. Encampment removals, once the purview of the Navigation Team and largely halted during the pandemic, will likely resume to some extent next year, although it’s unclear how the responsibility for future removals will be distributed among the various departments that are responsible for them now.

Johnson officially resigned his position at the end of February, but stayed on because of the pandemic, which required major shifts in how the city responded to homelessness. The city council decided not to approve his appointment, in part, because several members felt he did not respond adequately to questions about his willingness to make decisions independent from Mayor Jenny Durkan, his commitment to race and social justice, and his lack of responsiveness to questions about layoffs at the homelessness division, among other issues.

In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan praised Johnson’s decision to stay on board during the pandemic. “His quick and decisive actions kept our most marginalized communities safe throughout the pandemic,” Durkan said. “Because of his vision and leadership, the Human Services Department is primed to build on these efforts for years to come.”

Although the job of HSD director will be less directly focused on homelessness in the future than it has been under Johnson, the new director will also be in charge of a perpetually dissatisfied Homelessness Strategy and Investment division that has been bleeding staff due to uncertainty over whether and when they’ll get jobs in the new RHA; the delayed hiring of a CEO for that authority has exacerbated the uncertainty.

Durkan also announced two other departmental shakeups this morning: Randy Engstrom, the longtime director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, will be replaced by current deputy director Calandra Childers on an interim basis. According to Durkan’s announcement, Engstrom “will turn his attention to teaching, advocating for national cultural policies, and spending time with his family.”

Durkan is also replacing the acting director of the Office of Emergency Management, Laurel Nelson since longtime director Barb Graff left (only to come back temporarily to head up the city’s COVID emergency response) in 2019, will be headed by Curry Mayer, who was most recently director of Bellevue’s Office of Emergency Management.

Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department

By Erica C. Barnett

The cessation of open warfare between Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council over the 2021 budget doesn’t make for the most dramatic headlines (see above), but the detente between the two feuding branches could mean a budget compromise that won’t end in another spate of open warfare.

The council’s budget proposal makes dramatic cuts to Durkan’s proposal to designate $100 million in funding “for BIPOC communities,” fulfills the city’s 2019 promise to invest proceeds from the the sale of publicly owned land in South Lake Union into housing and anti-displacement programs, and cuts the size of the police department by about 20 percent, with a commitment to spend the savings from those reductions on community safety projects through a participatory budgeting process, which the budget also funds.

On Monday, Durkan issued a statement praising the council’s budget for “continuing that historic $100 million for communities through slightly different community-led processes.” This was a departure from Durkan’s previous position on the council’s spending priorities. Last month, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions about the racial equity implications of Durkan’s $100 million plan by suggesting that the council’s own spending proposals, including plans for COVID relief, participatory budgeting, and police department cuts, had not gone through a proper vetting to see if they truly benefited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.

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During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked about this seeming contradiction. Durkan responded that while she hasn’t read all of the council’s budget amendments, “my read on it is that they are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” Durkan said she was “disappointed” that the council wasn’t spending even more on BIPOC added, given a new revenue forecast that adds more than $32 million to the 2021 budget.

“I’m very hopeful that when we come out of this, and when there’s a final budget, that we actually have a path forward that makes real on the commitment that we will invest generational investments in the city of Seattle” over the next 10 years, she said.

The council’s proposal is still a recessionary budget. Instead of massive spending increases, it reprioritizes limited dollars, in ways that advocates for sweeping, immediate change may find frustrating. But it also puts significant leverage in the hands of the community groups leading the process of participatory budgeting, and promises significant funding for that process.

“They are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” — Mayor Jenny Durkan, referring to the city council

In reporting on the council’s previous budget discussions, I’ve talked about many individual, one-off budget changes council members are proposing—from an analysis of “transportation impact fees” levied on new housing to funding for energy efficiency audits to the restoration of the city’s nightlife advisor position. This post will look at a few high-takes, big-ticket spending areas, including investment in community-led alternatives to police,

Major cuts to the mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative

As I mentioned, the council’s budget chops $70 million from the mayor’s $100 million fund to pay for future investments in BIPOC communities. That money would be redistributed as follows:

• Durkan’s budget “abandoned”—and yes, that’s the technical term—$30 million that she promised last year for affordable housing and efforts to prevent displacement in gentrifying areas. The money came from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, and was key to getting anti-displacement groups like Puget Sound Sage not to protest the sale. The council’s budget restores this money to its original purpose.

• The Human Services Department would get $10 million to distribute to community organizations “to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.” The council allocated this money in 2020, but the city didn’t spend it, and Durkan zeroed it out in her proposed budget.

• Another $18 million would go toward the participatory budgeting project that the council began funding in 2020, which I’ll discuss separately in a minute.

• The remaining $12 million or so would replenish the city’s emergency reserve fund, which Durkan’s budget almost zeroed out (see graph above); restore funding for a restorative pilot program in schools; and restore funding for community-based alternatives to policing, among other smaller-ticket items.

As for the $30 million that remains out of the mayor’s initial $100 million: That money would still get allocated, through a process that would still include the mayor-appointed Equitable Communities task force, but only after the city council approves the spending plan.

Participatory budgeting

A total of $30 million, including the aforementioned $18 million, would fund community safety projects chosen through a participatory budgeting process; these projects would replace some functions (such as responding to crisis calls) that are currently performed by SPD. Continue reading “Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department”

Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization

Two city commissions have called on Mayor Jenny Durkan to resign, and at least one more is considering it.

1. On Wednesday, the Seattle LGBTQ Commission—one of five volunteer city commissions that deal with the rights of marginalized groups—voted narrowly to demand Mayor Jenny Durkan’s resignation, joining the Human Rights Commission, which made a similar demand earlier this month.

In a letter outlining the reasons for their decision, the commission said the mayor had failed to take meaningful action on police violence and accountability; had continued to remove encampments without providing unsheltered people with adequate places to go; and had “repeatedly undermined the budget proposals supported by Black communities,” by, among other things, using JumpStart payroll tax revenues that were already allocated to COVID relief and housing for vulnerable communities to pay for a new $100 million “equitable investment” fund to be spent based on recommendations from a mayor-appointed task force.

The letter notes that deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan was dispatched to speak to the commission to make the case for Durkan, as she did earlier this week at the Women’s Commission when it considered a similar move. According to the letter, Ranganathan told the commission that the mayor does not have direct authority over police actions (such as the use of tear gas against protesters) and that she supports a regional payroll tax, just not the local payroll tax the council already passed. (She made similar arguments at the Women’s Commission meeting Monday night).

“Mayor Durkan’s role is to serve as the executive for Seattle and not as a lobbyist in Olympia,” the letter says. “Ultimately, Mayor Durkan’s opposition to the Jumpstart legislation disempowered the process taken to get there, which included months of work from Black communities, Indigenous communities, other communities of color, labor, and many more to find a way to fund affordable housing.”

The mayor appoints nine members of the Human Rights, LGBTQ, and Women’s Commissions. All three commissions have numerous vacancies and expired seats, but there is currently no major imbalance between council-appointed and mayor-appointed board members on any of the three commissions.

Durkan is up for reelection next year.

2. As we’ve reported, the city council, mayor, and homeless advocates have been working toward a tentative agreement on a new approach to unsheltered homelessness—one that could include dismantling the Navigation Team and creating a new process where unsheltered people move quickly through hotel-based shelters and into new permanent supportive housing or market-rate units through rapid rehousing, a kind of short-term rental subsidy.

The mayor’s budget allocates nearly $16 million to lease 300 hotel rooms for 10 months, which works out to about $5,300 per room, per month, and about $9 million for rapid rehousing dollars to serve up to 230 households (which works out to an average per-household cost of about $3,300 a month).

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

“I’m guardedly optimistic,”  Alison Eisinger, the head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, told PubliCola. “I have some hope that there are folks [at the city] who recognize that requiring people to move, without addressing the state of homelessness, was never effective before COVID and is completely deficient now.” 

One element of the plan that has gotten little attention so far is that it would be extremely short-term. Funding for the hotel would run out after about 10 months—right around the 2021 election, if the city started leasing the hotel rooms at the beginning of next year. The extra funding for rapid rehousing would also come from temporary COVID relief dollars that expire next year. The upshot is that if the city wanted to rent the 300 hotel rooms and continue the rapid rehousing expansion after the one-time runs out, they would have to find a new source of funding for both. Continue reading “Evening Fizz: Another Call for Durkan’s Resignation, More Questions About Homelessness Reorganization”

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress on Outreach, Shelter, and Homeless Services Depends on Mayor-Council Unity. Good Luck With That!

By Erica C. Barnett

As Mayor Jenny Durkan rolls out the details of her proposed 2021 budget, an image has begun to emerge of the city’s post-COVID approach to unsheltered homelessness. Although the city budget office dropped the 751-page “budget book” last week, Durkan has continued to stage-manage announcements about specific budget line items, making it difficult for reporters and the public to get details about the budget until the mayor is ready to put out a press release.

The biggest headlines, so far, are the city’s decision to lease “up to 300” hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness—a significant change to the city’s previous policy of placing most people in large, “deintensified” congregate facilities; and the dissolution of the Navigation Team, which will be reconstituted as a new “outreach and response” team that currently lacks a catchy name.

Bye-bye, Navigation Team, Hello “Outreach and Response” Team

Last week, Durkan’s office put out a scorched-earth press release announcing that in light of the council’s decision to eliminate the Navigation Team, which has removed homeless encampments since 2017, she would cease all city-led outreach and engagement efforts immediately and lay off current team members or reassign them to other duties. In a letter to the council that accompanied the announcement, deputy mayor Mike Fong said the Navigation Team would stop responding to encampments and begin disposing of people’s property the city currently has in storage, returning the team to a pre-Navigation Team world where the only option for removing encampments was to call the police.

The letter sparked outrage on the council, and a retort from council members Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold that the council had never proposed eliminating the Navigation Team without replacing its outreach functions. In fact, the two council members noted in a joint statement, they had explicitly allocated $1.4 million in savings from eliminating the team to city-contracted outreach providers so that the outreach work the team has been doing during the COVID-19 epidemic could continue without a hitch.

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

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

“Let’s be clear. The Council had a plan. That plan would increase services and allow the Navigation Team a smooth cooperative transition,” Morales said. “What the Mayor is offering this week is counter to that plan, and honestly doesn’t serve our housed or unhoused neighbors. Neither does it start to repair the relationship between our constituents living outside and our City.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that it’s still unclear how the mayor’s proposed outreach and response team will work and how many encampment removals the newly reconstituted team will do after the mayor’s COVID-19 “moratorium” on sweeps expires.

The role the new team will play in “coordinating” outreach—and, specifically, how much authority the city will have over the day-to-day operations of nonprofit outreach providers that receive funding from the city—remains similarly unclear. What seems likely is that the new team will oversee outreach providers in a more direct way than the city has before—telling them, for example, where to deploy and which clients to serve, even if those clients are not among a provider’s traditional client base.

The new team may also require service providers to track metrics similar to those that the city council previously required of the Navigation Team, including things like shelter and service acceptance rates and the number of contacts a provider has with individual unsheltered people. Efforts to increase the amount of data providers give the city could be hampered, however, by the fact that providers don’t currently have the ability to track this kind of information; even the Navigation Team has reported difficulty, for example, tracking the number of people who receive referrals to shelter and actually follow up on those referrals.

New Shelter, Hotel Rooms, and Permanent Housing

The mayor’s 2021 budget proposal also includes COVID-19 relief funding “from the City reserves and other funding sources” for 125 new “enhanced” shelter spaces—24/7 shelters where people can store their belongings and have a guaranteed bed—and “up to 300” hotel rooms that will be available for about 10 months. Continue reading “Progress on Outreach, Shelter, and Homeless Services Depends on Mayor-Council Unity. Good Luck With That!”