Tag: Human Services Department

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 six 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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“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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“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!”

Durkan Unveils 2021 Budget that Uses JumpStart Tax to Fill Shortfall, Fund $100 Million In Unspecified BIPOC Investments

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated.

In a pre-recorded message complete with swelling background music, multiple backdrops, and B roll from locations around Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan unveiled a 2021 budget proposal today that relies heavily, as PubliCola was first to report, on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax passed by the city council earlier this year. The council expressed its intent to wall off the revenues from the tax for direct COVID-19 relief to Seattle residents in the first two years, and to spend the money in 2022 and beyond on affordable housing, non-housing projects outlined in the Equitable Development Initiative, Green New Deal investments, and small business support. Durkan vetoed the spending plan (the council overturned that veto) and allowed the tax to become law without her signature.

“We’ve balanced the 2021 budget, with a $100 million investment for BIPOC communities,” budget director Ben Noble said at a press briefing this morning, referring to the money the mayor has proposed parking in the city’s “general finance” budget until a Durkan-appointed “equitable development task force” comes up with recommendations for spending the money. (PubliCola was also first to report on the task force). “If we identify a sustainable source for that in 2022 and beyond,” such as a local one-percent income tax, “those resources could be redirected towards the council’s original intent. … Budget priorities for the city have changed, arguably, since that [JumpStart] plan was developed.”

Durkan first proposed spending $100 million on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities last summer, as protesters called on the city to defund the police department. This morning, she argued that it was appropriate to use the payroll tax revenues for this purpose. “Everyone wants to make deep, deep commitments to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities and investing in those communities,” she said.

“‘Dedicated’ is not really the term used with resolutions,” Durkan continued, referring to the fact that the council’s JumpStart spending plan was not a budget ordinance. “We did everything we could this year to honor the allocations [for COVID relief], and next year we will have a discussion with council to really honor the city’s commitments going forward.”

Durkan’s budget includes a $21.5 million line item for COVID relief in 2021, and $86 million in combined “continuity of service and COVID relief” this year. It’s unclear how that combined $86 million differs from the $86 million that payroll tax sponsor Teresa Mosqueda proposed spending on COVID relief, specifically, this year. The budget presentation notes that the city will also fund COVID-related activities in various departments.

The mayor did not answer specific questions about the future of the city’s Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that, prior to the pandemic, removed encampments and offered shelter referrals to some of their displaced residents.

From the budget itself, it appears that the work of the existing team will be dispersed among various departments, and that some of the funding for Navigation Team positions (though not necessarily the people themselves) will be moved into a new Safe and Thriving Communities division of the Human Services Department. That division will include staff from the existing Youth and Family Empowerment Division, domestic violence advocates that already work in HSD, and domestic violence victim advocates that would be transferred out of SPD. Some DV advocates have opposed this transfer from SPD, which is a subject I’ll write about in greater detail in a future post.

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All HSD contractors will see their contracts extended at the same levels as 2020, with a small inflationary increase, and will not be subject to the previously required performance reviews that determined whether they would receive fully funding. The decision to extend these contracts is related to the fact that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take over most of these contracts, has been unable to hire a director on its original time frame, which has pushed the schedule to get the authority up and running further into 2021.

The mayor didn’t dwell much this morning on her Seattle Police Department budget, which she said she will have more to say about in the spring. So far, it includes the reductions she has already announced, which mostly result from transferring items that can be civilianized, such as the 911 call center, into other departments. Durkan vetoed the council’s revised budget in August over the council’s plans to cut the police department by 100 positions, not all of those resulting from layoffs. (That veto was also overturned.)

The $100 million for BIPOC communities is a “blank” item in the budget. The mayor wants that spending to be determined through the work of the task force whose members she will announce this week. At the same time, the city council allocated $3 million to a separate “community research” effort headed up by King County Equity Now; at a press conference yesterday, the group announced that they had already hired dozens of staff and planned to employ more than 130 researchers. (Paul will have more on that story later today.)

Durkan’s plan would keep some parks facilities, including many pools, closed throughout 2021, and would cut back spending on many transportation projects, including bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure improvements.

Overall, Durkan’s budget includes about 40 outright layoffs, a number the budget office was able to keep down by drawing down on revenues such as the payroll tax and levy funding, and by reducing the city’s emergency reserves to $5 million next year. The revenue forecast for 2021 is actually less dire than the shortfall that resulted in major budget reductions in the budget the council adopted in August, which just withstood a mayoral veto—the budget office expects the city to take in about $1.7 billion in revenues, including the payroll tax, next year, compared to just $1.4 billion this year. In addition to the general 2020 economic collapse, this year’s shortfall resulted in lower revenues from funding sources that were impacted by COVID, including parks fees, parking taxes, and taxes on real estate transactions. “We do see that there’s hope on the horizon,” Durkan said.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Morning Fizz:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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