Tag: hygiene

Morning Fizz: Smoke Shelter Closes, HSD Apologizes, and City Ditches Gold-Plated Shower Vendor

Today’s Morning Fizz:

1. The onset of hazardous air quality conditions led King County to open up a little-known site in SoDo this week—not as a full-time homeless shelter, but as a temporary smoke shelter serving about 100 people. But demand was greater: The shelter, located inside a former Tesla dealership the county is leasing from developer Greg Smith, had to stop taking referrals on Monday, citing lack of staff to expand the site to its full capacity of around 300 beds. The shelter will close today and remain on call as a potential isolation and quarantine site should hospitals become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases in the future.

According to King County Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor, staffing is a significant bottleneck at every current shelter, making it hard to increase the number of beds available even when there is plenty of room, as is the case at the massive former showroom in SoDo.

“Staffing has been one of the critical constraints on this system since February,” Flor said. One reason it’s hard for agencies to staff up to expand shelter capacity right now, Flor added, is that the federal money that pays for COVID-specific shelters is temporary—people would rather have jobs with some guaranteed longevity than a three-month gig that could be extended to six.

But the county’s conservative approach to COVID plays a role, too. The SoDo site was originally designed as an isolation and quarantine site (with HVAC and filtration systems that help prevent disease transmission as well as smoke inhalation) and could still be used for that purpose. So could a similar facility in Bellevue, which remained empty this week as smoke settled over the region. “We need a system that can flex, if we start to see increases in the prevalence of the virus, [to accommodate] that can’t be housed in their own homes,” DCHS housing and community development division director Mark Ellerbrook said.

The long-term purpose of the SoDo site is unknown, although the county has reportedly been working on plans to convert it to enhanced 24/7 shelter.

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2. The social media manager for the Seattle Human Services Department (whose name I am not printing, since he is not a public figure) was reprimanded and relieved of his Twitter and Facebook duties after posting a series of sarcastic, borderline hostile responses to people raising questions about the city’s response to homelessness.

For example, in response to someone who said the city should house people instead of relying on temporary shelters, @SeattleHSD responded that it was “reckless and irresponsible” of them to suggest that simply moving every single unsheltered person into an apartment would solve the problem” of homelessness.

When someone tweeting asked a question about the terminology HSD uses to refer to people experiencing homelessness, @SeattleHSD responded, “Unfortunately, there are people on Twitter and in the media who like to complain and spin misinformation when what we say to the public doesn’t match exactly with internal data or communications even when it is just making these kinds of distinctions.”

And when several people questioned the city’s relationship with the historically anti-LGBTQ Salvation Army, @SeattleHSD responded defensively, implying that the tweeters did not understand how shelter contracts work and snapping at one, “If you are aware of a local organization with trained staff that is prepared to operate a new 24/7 shelter, please go right ahead and share that information with us.”

This is the second time in less than four months that the HSD staffer behind the account has lashed out at critics. In late May, after a controversial homeless encampment removal, the staffer spent the better part of a day scrapping with random people who opposed the sweep, often dismissing criticism with sarcastic and heated language.

On Thursday afternoon, the Human Services Department tweeted out an apology for the “content/language/tone” of the tweets. The person who posted the apology tweet closed the replies, eliminating the public’s ability to comment directly (if not indirectly) on the outburst.

3. As we noted in Fizz on Tuesday, the city just ditched its high-cost mobile shower vendor, VIP Restrooms, for three new contracts —two with United Site Services, for two shower trailers at King Street Station and the Green Lake Community Center, and one with OK’s Cascade Company, for a trailer at Seattle Center.

While difficult to compare directly because different things are included in each contract (for example, two of the trailers don’t require daily pumpout services because they’re connected directly to the city’s sewer system), the two new contracts are both less expensive than VIP, which charged the city ultra-high prices when mobile showers were in high demand at the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Seattle Public Utilities, the United trailers—not counting pumpouts, staffing, and materials such as towels and toilet paper, which add significant costs to the flat rental fee—will cost between $6,000 and $7,000 a month, and the OK’s trailers (with all the same caveats) will cost just over $16,000. Altogether, the three contracts are providing 15 shower stalls. VIP’s bid to continue its existing contract was a little over $19,000 a month. For comparison, in March, as I reported, the city put nearly $30,000 on a credit card to rent two three-stall VIP trailers for just one week.

As a procurement agent for the city noted drily on the letter transmitting the United contract, “At the start of the COVID-19 emergency, we were only able to find shower trailers from VIP Restrooms due to high demand and short supply. The demand/supply issue still exists but we were able to obtain quotes from two other suppliers that offer the trailers at a lower price.”

Found: One City Shower Trailer, Not Quite Open, In Secluded Location With Minimal Foot Traffic

UPDATE: Seattle Public Utilities got in touch to say that, at some point between Friday (when I took and posted photos of the King Street trailer) and today, “SPU evaluated the trailer’s lower level location at King Street Station and determined that the upper plaza is a better location. It has since been moved and is serving clients.” A spokeswoman for the utility also said that the trailer was open and served five clients on Friday. The trailer was not open at 3:30pm, when the photo above was taken, despite the fact that its official hours of operation are 10am to 4pm. I’ve asked SPU which hours the trailer was open and will update this post when I heard back.

As I reported last week, the city has been renting two hygiene trailers from a California-based company called VIP restrooms for the last two months without deploying them to provide showers to people experiencing homelessness. The city’s estimated cost to operate both trailers is just under $500,000 a month, which would work out to around $500 a shower if the trailers were providing 16 showers a day (the city’s estimate for a trailer operating for eight hours, once cleanings and pump-out periods are factored in), seven days a week.

The day after my story ran, the city announced the trailers would start providing showers on Friday, May 22, at King Street station and, on a “roving” basis, at the Lake City Community Center and Seattle Center. Instead of the full-time schedule the city initially proposed, the King Street trailer will be open from 10-4, Monday to Friday, and the Lake City/Seattle Center “roving” trailer will be at Seattle Center “typically on Tuesdays and Wednesdays” and at Lake City on Saturdays and Sundays, also from 10 to 4. Cutting hours by one-quarter will also reduce the number of showers the trailers, which will be operated by Seattle Public Utilities, by a similar percentage each day.

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On Friday, I walked down to King Street Station to see the trailer in operation. Initially, I thought it wasn’t there. But after some searching, I found it, fenced off and not in operation, in a parking cul-de-sac down a set of stairs from the station entrance and not visible from any street. There was no signage at the station to indicate that showers were or would be available in the area.

In an March 20 memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan about the location of the trailers, SPU director Mami Hara and deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller wrote that the city had chosen Occidental Park for the Pioneer Square trailer “based on trends of where unsheltered people congregate in the downtown core.” Now it’s in an area that gets no foot traffic. Much like the four library restrooms that the city reopened earlier this month, these trailers may see low use without concerted efforts to advertise their existence.

County Rents Hygiene Trailers for a Fraction of What the City Is Paying

Hygiene trailers at King County’s COVID assessment and recovery site in Shoreline.

King County, which has opened isolation, assessment, and recovery sites in several locations in and outside Seattle, will pay a fraction of what the city of Seattle is paying to provide mobile toilet and shower trailers to people staying at these locations, The C Is for Crank has learned.

Between March and April, the county is spending, on average, $60,000 a week on to provide 36 shower stalls at three locations, including staffing, maintenance, cleaning, supplies, and other costs, while the city will spend as much as $43,000 a week plus staffing, security, maintenance, cleaning, supplies and other costs, to provide six shower stalls at two locations. 

As I’ve reported, the city council added $1.3 million to the city budget last November to purchase five shower and hygiene trailers, but the city’s Human Services Department did not begin trying to procure them until mid-March, after the COVID-19 epidemic forced the closure of private businesses and public buildings with restrooms and showers. By that time, according to the city, there were no shower trailers available locally, and the original plan to buy trailers rather than rent them had to be scrapped.

Between March and April, the county is spending, on average, $60,000 a week on to provide 36 shower stalls at three locations, including staffing, maintenance, cleaning, and other costs, while the city will spend as much as $43,000 a week plus staffing, maintenance, cleaning, and other costs to provide six shower stalls at two locations. 

The city eventually found two trailers available for rent from a company in California, at a cost of $36,000 per month, plus $14,000 in hauling costs, between $5,700 and $34,200 a week to pump out wastewater, an unknown amount for supplies, and a “significant” but unknown amount to hire additional staff to provide security, cleaning, and maintenance. The city is currently paying a private contractor $90 an hour for each of the guards who patrol its homeless shelters at community centers, so it’s likely that even if maintenance, cleaning, and direct-service staff receive minimum wage, the additional staffing costs will add thousands more to the weekly cost of each site.

None of the six city-funded shower stalls are technically ADA-compliant. A spokesman for the city said that one shower at each location will accommodate people who “need a larger stall.”

Again, these are rough estimates—the city did not provide any information about how much it will cost to staff, patrol, maintain, clean, and supply the trailers, so none of this information is exact—but the costs are sure to be substantial, and substantially more than what the county is paying.

Now let’s look at the county’s numbers, which are more inclusive of all costs and therefore more exact. According to a spokesman for the King County Department of Executive Services, King County has paid three companies a total of $270,000, over a period of about one month, to provide 20 hygiene trailers, including 36 showers, six of which are fully ADA-compliant.

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Like the city’s, these are rental units, and (also like the city’s) they are not all up and running yet, but the cost, according to the county, includes supplies, maintenance, cleaning, and pump-out services. Because the showers are at existing facilities, they don’t come with extra security (security costs are rolled in to the cost of the larger sites), but otherwise, the trailers are comparable to those provided by the city.

To break it down in a bit more detail, here is what the county has gotten for its $270,000:

Seven trailers at an assessment and recovery site in Shoreline, including 17 showers, one of them ADA-compliant. (Effective date: March 13)

Nine trailers at an assessment and recovery site in Eastgate, including 17 showers, one of them ADA-compliant. (Effective dates: March 20 and April 2)

Two trailers at a not-yet-opened assessment and recovery site in SoDo, including 2 ADA-compliant showers, with more likely to come when the site gets up and running, according to the county. (Effective date: March 27).

Assessment and recovery sites are for people who have COVID-19 and do not require hospitalization, but do not have the ability to shelter in place at home. This includes people experiencing homelessness as well as anyone who can’t go home safely because, for example, they live with someone who is immunocompromised or in another vulnerable category.

The county has declined to speculate on why they are paying so much less for hygiene trailers than the city, but one reason could be that the companies they are using—Snohomish-based OK’s Cascade and Seattle-based United Site Services—are local. The company the city is using, VIP Restrooms, is based in California.

City Plans to Reopen Restrooms at Six Library Branches (UPDATED: Five )

 

UPDATE: Late Tuesday afternoon, the city announced that it is opening five library restrooms; the Chinatown/International District branch, which was on the initial list of proposed branch openings, is no longer on the list. I’ve asked the city why this branch was omitted and will update this post if I receive more information.

The Seattle Public Library, which closed down all of its 26 branches on March 13 to protect patrons and employees during the COVID-19 epidemic, is planning to partially reopen a handful of branches to provide access to restrooms for people experiencing homelessness. Discussions are still ongoing about safety protocols, staffing levels, and hours, but an announcement could come as soon as this week.

The six branches where the city is considering restroom-only openings are the central library downtown and neighborhood branches in Ballard, Capitol Hill, the University District, the International District, and Beacon Hill. People using the restrooms would be required to line up outside, and patrons would not have access to other parts of the libraries.

Seattle City Council members Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, and Dan Strauss, whose district includes the Ballard library branch, first publicly suggested opening the library restrooms in early April, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller revealed that the city is paying $35,000 per month for each hygiene center, including the three Honey Buckets (pictured above) that are currently posted just across the street from the Ballard branch.

“I don’t set the prices, so I can’t speak for other people,” Sixkiller said at a meeting of the council’s homelessness committee on April 8.

Even if each library branch pays several staff members to keep the restroom area open and prevent patrons from wandering into the stacks, opening the libraries will still almost certainly cost less than what the city is paying for portable toilets. This is rough math, but three staffers who cost the city $50 an hour would cost around $25,000 a month, or $10,000 less than a single hygiene center.

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Besides the cost, which Sixkiller attributed to “simple supply and demand” at a time when many cities are looking for hygiene solutions, a recurring issue with portable toilets is that their handwashing facilities frequently run out of water and require constant maintenance. Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, argue that people need access to a toilet within a half mile of where they live, and has suggested partially reopening both libraries and community centers for this purpose.

After I reported that up to a third of the restrooms the city said were open were actually locked, the city opened up most parks restrooms and added new 24/7 “hygiene centers” (portable toilets with handwashing stations) at 12 locations . However, restroom closures continue to occur at unpredictable intervals; over the weekend, for example, restrooms at Volunteer Park were locked, and one of the restrooms at Leschi Park lacked both soap and any kind of toilet paper or paper towels.

It’s unclear precisely when the city plans to open the library restrooms, and what hurdles remain. Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said, “I can’t confirm any details or specifics at this time as we are continuing conversations with labor, management and city employees and developing potential operational plans including locations, staffing, and hours.”

Seattle Pays Premium for Shower Trailers, Regional Leaders Still Support Mass Shelter Over Hotels

 

Hygiene trailers at King County’s COVID assessment and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. Two mobile hygiene trailers that the city of Seattle is renting from a California-based company called VIP Restrooms will likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to operate, Seattle Public Utilities confirms. The city budget adopted last year included funding to purchase and operate five mobile hygiene trailers, which include showers and toilets, at an estimated cost of $1.3 million, but the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department, which oversaw the project until SPU took over last month, did not start working to procure them until mid-March, when the COVID-19 epidemic was already underway and most of the available trailers had been snapped up by other jurisdictions.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, according to a spokeswoman for SPU, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, depending on how many times the water is pumped out per day (the estimates range from once to six times daily), plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for “security [and] cleaning and hygiene supplies like towels, shampoo and soap,” according to SPU.

Security costs can be considerable, perhaps especially during the pandemic. For example, the city is currently paying Phoenix Security Corp $120,000 a month, or $90 an hour, to maintain 24-hour patrols at two “redistribution” shelters at community centers, each containing 50 guests from  existing shelters run by nonprofits such as the YWCA, Catholic Community Services, and Compass Housing. While it’s unclear whether the city plans to hire Phoenix guards to patrol the restrooms as well, Phoenix recently placed a large number of ads for new armed and unarmed security guard jobs in Seattle, starting at $17 an hour.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for security and supplies, according to SPU.

Other cities provide mobile showers at much lower cost. For example, in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called Shower of Hope operates showers at 24 sites at a much lower cost than the price Seattle is paying for its temporary shower trailers. Mel Tillekeratne, the founder and executive director of Shower of Hope, says the trailers themselves typically cost about $30,000 to buy, although “you could buy a high-end one for $60,000,” plus about $1,200 each to operate per day. Shower of Hope trailers don’t operate every day, but if they did, that would work out to about $36,000 in operating costs every month, a price tag that includes staffing (usually, shower staffers make $16 an hour, but Shower of Hope has bumped that up a few bucks during the COVID-19 outbreak).

Tillekeratne says he thinks cities like Seattle are being gouged by private companies because so many cities are scrambling to provide services during a crisis that they should have taken care of years ago. “This is decades of neglect that now they’re paying a premium to address,” he says.

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In Seattle, Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee says the shower building LIHI installed at its tiny house village in Interbay, which is hooked up to plumbing and electricity, cost about $50,000; a shower trailer with a gray water tank at Camp Second Chance in West Seattle cost between $25,000 and $30,000, plus about $1,200 a month to pump out gray water from the showers.

“For the price they’re renting [them for], we could just build them,” Lee says. Last week, Lee sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department offering to “build hygiene facilities and locate them in Sodo… Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere,” to staff existing public restrooms in Pioneer Square and at pools in Ballard and the Central District, and to open up more tiny house villages around the city. Lee says she has not heard back from the mayor’s office or HSD.

2. As the city of Seattle pays hundreds of thousands of dollars staffing and patrolling spaces where homeless people sleep head to toe, with six feet separating them from the people to their right and left, advocates have repeatedly made the point that congregate shelters do not allowed the social isolation that housed people are told to practice if they want to avoid COVID infection. In LA, mayor Eric Garcetti threatened to commandeer hotel rooms if the hotels didn’t make them available for homeless people.

Here in Seattle and King County, however, only a relative handful of people experiencing homelessness have been able to access hotels (well, motels) as an alternative to large mass shelters. Earlier this month, about 390 clients of three shelter providers moved to three motels in Renton, Bellevue, and SeaTac, a scant 3 percent of the county’s homeless population of more than 12,000. The city of Seattle rented out a high-end downtown hotel for first responders at a cost of around $1 million a month, but has preferred to move people from crowded shelters into slightly less crowded ones, rather than give them their own hotel rooms.

During a press briefing last week, King County health officer Jeff Duchin responded to a question about hotels by reiterating the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for congregate shelters. Snohomish County’s Public Health Officer, Chris Spitters, said his county is promoting “widespread use of hotel/motel vouchers at an unprecedented rate,” but added that motel vouchers can have “side effects. … It’s definitely a good disease control tool to disaggregate and spread people apart. On the other hand, it moves them away from services that, in the long run, they need, so it’s a real challenge to find the balance.”

3. Meanwhile, a 180-bed “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller mentioned during a contentious public meeting about hygiene services for unsheltered people may not materialize. Homeless advocates I spoke to this week and last say that Sixkiller’s offhand comment that “we are siting a shelter tent here in the city for 180 individuals” was the first they’d heard of such a proposal, and a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, which was supposed to staff and run the tent, would say only that “the project has been discussed [but] is not yet confirmed.” Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Durkan’s office, responded to my questions by saying, “the City is having conversations about options and there is nothing else to share at this time.”

As West Coast Encampment Sweeps Slow During Public Health Crisis, Advocates Say It’s Time to Stop Them Altogether

The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood has long been home to a large concentration of homeless services. It has two of the city’s biggest shelters, several public feeding programs, and day centers that offer showers, restrooms, and gathering spaces for people with nowhere else to be.

Lately, though, Pioneer Square has become another kind of gathering place: one where tents and makeshift shelters are crowded inches apart and people congregate in clusters on the sidewalk, in defiance of Washington state’s social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Because most public restrooms are now closed, and the city has provided only a handful of portable toilets to make up for the loss, it has become necessary to watch one’s step. Last week, the head of a social services agency said she was walking to her car when she stepped in a pile of human waste that was sliding down the rainy street.

In Seattle, as in other cities up and down the West Coast, officials are cutting down on encampment sweeps, a controversial practice in which city employees — often police officers or sanitation workers — remove a homeless camp and dispose of tents and other property. The change is born out of necessity: Many shelters are no longer accepting new clients during the pandemic, and cities have been slow to offer hotel rooms or other housing to the people currently living on their streets. People simply have nowhere else to go ― which means cities are finally, at least temporarily, slowing the practice of removing them and their belongings from public spaces.

Advocates for the homeless say Seattle’s partial moratorium on encampment removals is, at best, an overdue first step. The question is whether the city is doing enough to keep those living in the encampments safe ― and whether the moratorium will stick once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand how extremely damaging it is to uproot people, discard their personal possessions and survival gear, and not give them a solution to their homelessness,” said Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and a vocal opponent of encampment sweeps.

Back in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines advising cities to stop removing encampments “unless individual housing units are available” and to ensure that encampments have access to 24-hour restrooms or portable toilets with sinks. Most cities on the West Coast have only partly followed these guidelines. Seattle and two large California cities ― Oakland and San Jose ― have all formally adopted partial moratoriums on encampment sweeps, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have adopted less specific or informal policies that critics say allow too much leeway for sweeps to continue.

“At the beginning of this crisis, we realized very quickly that sweeps were going to be exactly contrary to public health,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which pushed the CDC to issue its guidance. “The ability to shelter in place as much as possible in your own self-shelter environment, where you can at least have a tent wall between you and your neighbor, is better than a facility where it’s just an open area and the air is circulating and you’re all using the same sinks and toilets.”

Homelessness is hard on a person’s body, making people more susceptible to illness, like COVID-19, and more likely to develop chronic conditions at a younger age. The vulnerability of homeless people to disease outbreaks can, in turn, lead to broader public health implications.

“The message we’ve been trying to send is, it’s not just about people experiencing homelessness in your community,” Tars said. “This is about your entire community, because if you don’t want a hospital bed to be taken up when your grandmother, your brother or your sister needs that bed, you need to take steps now to make sure that bed is empty.”

Read the whole story at HuffPost.

Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer”

The city is paying $35,000 apiece for six portable toilet sites, the deputy mayor revealed Wednesday.

Human shit clinging sliding down the street and squishing under a nonprofit director’s shoe as she walked to her car in Pioneer Square. Women bleeding through their clothes because they lack menstrual supplies and a place to get clean. Street-level social service workers forced to pee in alleys because all the restrooms are locked.

These are some of the stories front-line workers told the city council on Wednesday during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee. Committee chair Andrew Lewis called the meeting in response to the lack of clean, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to use the restroom and wash their hands during the COVID crisis—a shortage that, as I first reported,  has contributed to an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ballard.

Dawn Whitson, an outreach worker for REACH – Evergreen Treatment Services who works in Georgetown, said she has resorted to handing out toilet paper to homeless people in the area, because the restroom at the Georgetown Playfield—which she said is open only sporadically—often lacks both toilet paper and soap. “I actually have been out in the field and have had to use the restroom in several different alleys myself” since all the businesses have closed, Whitson said.

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As streets, parks, and playfields have become restrooms of last resort, Whitson said the city has stopped talking to social service providers about whether and when more portable toilets and accessible hand-washing stations are coming. “We’ve managed to develop a field hospital [in CenturyLink Field], and we haven’t been able to get any port-a-potties and we haven’t been able to get any answers,” she said. “I have pointedly asked, ‘Who do we need to call to express our concerns, and I was pretty much stonewalled and told that there was no one I could speak to.”

Casey Sixkiller, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, launched into his prewritten presentation not by responding to the advocates’ concerns, but by praising Human Services Department employees for “putting their lives at risk” to stand up hygiene stations and asserting that “at least 127” park restrooms are currently open.

The city plans to add eight more port-a-potties to the six locations it announced last week, Sixkiller said, but it would be prohibitively expensive to add many more. Each portable toilet, he said, costs $35,000 a month, a price tag that some council members said sounded like price gouging to them. Honey Bucket does not have an exact price list on its website. In 2017, Willamette Week in Portland reported that the company’s prices had skyrocketed during the solar eclipse—from $140 a week to a whopping $650 per unit.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

Sixkiller said he didn’t “know that it’s price gouging” for Honey Bucket to charge what the “market conditions” will allow. “We are competing with everybody else for those resources,” Sixkiller said. “It’s just simple supply and demand.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Council president Lorena Gonzalez said whatever the price, “when we are talking about 14 toilets”—the six existing sites, plus eight new ones—”for upwards of 6,000 people, I just feel like we aren’t having a conversation based in reality in terms of what the actual need is.” Continue reading “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer””

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

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

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.

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

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

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

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

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

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening Crank Part 2: Unanswered Questions

Coming soon to a sidewalk near you?

1. Since the COVID crisis began, it has become tougher than usual to get information directly from city departments, which now respond to pretty much any inquiry with some version of “all questions have to go through the mayor’s office.” (There is one exception, but I won’t tell you what it is.) The mayor’s office, in turn, typically responds to these requests with some version of, “We will have an announcement on that in the coming days,” which may or may not be followed by an announcement.

Things the mayor’s office was unable to tell me about in the past few days include:

When the city (specifically, Seattle Public Utilities) plans to deploy the portable toilets announced on the Human Service Department’s website one week ago; how many toilets there will be; where they will be located; and how (and how often) they will be maintained.

Where four mobile hygiene trailers funded in last year’s budget (funded last year but re-announced in the same HSD blog post) will be deployed, and on what schedule.

How, specifically, the city plans to fill the 50 new shelter beds, and 50 new spots in two tiny house villages, it plans to open in response to the COVID crisis, and how the city will choose who gets this scarce resource. Specifically, I’ve asked how many of those beds and slots will be reserved for people referred by the Navigation Team, which is providing outreach and information at unsanctioned encampments, and how many will be open to people who are contacted by other outreach workers, such as those at REACH, which is still doing encampment outreach during the pandemic.

These questions, particularly the ones about restrooms, are of critical and immediate importance to the thousands of homeless people, both unsheltered and staying in nighttime-only emergency shelters, in Seattle. Most of the city’s public restrooms, including those inside private businesses and those in libraries, hygiene centers, and social service agencies, have closed, giving people without homes few options in a city where restroom availability already fell far short of international standards.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

2. This afternoon (12 days ago in COVID time), the city council approved a plan to reallocate about $1 million (out of about $12 million total) in community development block grants originally designated for housing construction to pay for grants to low-income small business owners. Only council member Kshama Sawant voted against the plan, arguing that the city should dip into its “rainy day fund” instead of taking money that could have theoretically gone to housing (although it was not allocated to any particular project.)

The city has two emergency funds, the rainy day fund and the emergency subfund, which can be used to pay for unanticipated spending needs or to mitigate cuts during budget downturns. Earlier this month, city budget director Ben Noble estimated that the city could face a revenue shortfall this year of $110 million. Together, both emergency funds total about $125 million.

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the legislation, raised one concern last week that she said she’ll revisit after the funds are allocated and the current crisis has abated: Online application materials for the grants were initially only in English, potentially putting small business owners who don’t speak English as their native language at a disadvantage when applying for the grants.

“When those who don’t speak English have extra barriers put in place in order to participate… [it’s] an example of how often our city government operates with blinders on to anyone who isn’t part of the dominant culture,” Morales said at a council meeting last week. But, “rather than slow down the disbursement of this particular fund, I’m asking that we hear back from the [Office of Economic Development] this summer on how these funds were distributed” to make sure that non-English-speaking business owners had equal access to the funds.