Tag: King County Executive

Public Restroom Closures Coincide With Shigella Outbreak Among Seattle’s Homeless

Plus election speculation and news from City Hall.

1. As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches the one-year mark, the city of Seattle has decided to keep some restrooms in parks and other public spaces open over the winter so that people who might ordinarily use restrooms in fast-food restaurants or libraries can have more places to go.

As PubliCola reported last month, the city’s Parks Department says it has no choice but to close certain parks restrooms down during the winter months because their plumbing can’t withstand freezing temperatures. The department provided PubliCola with a list of all the restrooms that are currently closed, either for winterization or for other reasons, such as fires, vandalism, or structural damage.

The upshot: Of more than 130 restrooms operated directly by the city, and not counting restrooms in library buildings or shelters operated by nonprofit providers, more than 60 are currently closed. Of those, fewer than half have been replaced by what the city euphemistically calls “sanicans,” better known as portable toilets, and only a relative handful of which include a place for people to wash their hands after doing their business.

In Judkins Park, near PubliCola HQ, a lonely pair of portable toilets that replaced two multi-stall restrooms looked the worse for wear this weekend, as did toilets placed in nearby Sam Smith Park. The official restroom map maintained by the city’s Human Services Department lists two open restroom buildings and a 24-hour “sanican.” Other restrooms that only have portable toilets, according the Parks Department’s list, show up on HSD’s list of open restrooms, as do many non-city restrooms that are open limited hours, such as Immanuel Community Services (open from 8 to 2 on weekdays) or are only accessible to certain groups, such as the women-only day center at Mary’s Place.

The result is that—like last year—the city’s list of “open” restrooms overstates the actual number of restrooms that are open, accessible, and safe, not to mention clean.

2. Limited-access day centers, the five library branches (of 27) that allow walk-in restroom use, and portable toilets with handwashing stations are certainly better than nothing. But during a pandemic, when people experiencing homelessness have less access than usual to basic hygiene, portable toilets without toilet paper or a sink invite the spread of disease. Last month, King County Public Health issued a warning about an outbreak of Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. According to the county, “the [Shigella] germs can spread when someone with Shigella does not wash their hands well after using the toilet then contaminates objects, food or water.”

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Since the end of October, Public Health has received 61 reports of Shigella, 46 of those after December 14. Of that total, the vast majority—47—occurred among “people who reported experiencing homelessness or unstable housing or who accessed homeless services,” a spokeswoman for Public Health told PubliCola. Because these numbers only reflect reported cases, the true number is undoubtedly higher.

According to King County’s info page, simple “handwashing with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself and others against Shigella infections.” Many homeless people lack this option, and we’re seeing the results.

3. Lorelei Williams, the deputy director overseeing capital projects for the Seattle Department of Transportation, is leaving the city after more than 16 years to take a job with WSP, a mega-engineering firm that has many current contracts with the city, including a contract to monitor the structural integrity of the West Seattle Bridge. Williams will be WSP’s Pacific Northwest Transportation Business Line Leader.

According to an SDOT spokesman, Williams “has not had any role in selecting WSP or overseeing their contracts” for SDOT. She’ll be the second high-ranking SDOT staffer to make the jump to the engineering firm in recent years, after Mike Terrell left his position as deputy director in charge of capital projects and roadway structures to take a job at WSP in 2018. Although city rules bar certain high-ranking employees from lobbying elected officials for three years after leaving the city, there are no rules prohibiting city employees from taking jobs at firms that compete for city contracts.

4. Although conventional wisdom has it that King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is running for reelection this year, has a lock on the position, one name keeps coming up as a potential challenger: Washington State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34). Nguyen won his senate seat in 2018, defeating Constantine’s deputy executive, Shannon Braddock. He did not return a call seeking comment about whether he’s running.

County: Widely Reported Data Point in “Prolific Offenders” Report Was Wrong

Earlier this year, Scott Lindsay—a former adviser to Ed Murray who unsuccessfully challenged city attorney Pete Holmes in the 2017 election—published a report in collaboration with the Downtown Seattle Association and other downtown groups called “System Failure.” The report, which was featured prominently in the viral KOMO 4 special “Seattle Is Dying,” highlighted 100 so-called “prolific offenders,” including 87 who had been arrested in Seattle more than four times in a 12-month period and another 13 who Lindsay felt had “a particularly high impact on public safety,” as SCC Insight reported.

The report included one particularly startling statistic: More than 30 percent of the time, “prolific offenders” were released from King County jail onto the streets at midnight, when social services and shelter are unavailable. “For homeless individuals struggling with substance use disorders and mental health conditions, this practice can be hazardous to the individual and to the immediate surrounding neighborhood,” Lindsay reported. The statistic was reported by most major local outlets, including Crosscut, KING 5,  and the Seattle Times, which said the practice “put[s] at risk those who are homeless and struggling with substance-abuse disorders and mental conditions.”

“It’s not up to  me to correct publicly the inaccuracy of the information they’re making public.”—Consultant Tim Ceis, who worked on the “System Failure” report

The real number of people being released from King County jail onto the streets at midnight, according to the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention? Zero.

“We researched the past year and determined that no inmate was released out of custody from DAJD facilities at midnight,” says Captain Captain Lisaye Manning, a spokeswoman for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. “The terminology of ‘released’ refers to being released from the King County Jail and transferred custody to a different agency, not released out of custody to the streets. There are some occasions that those outside agencies aren’t available until late evening or early morning hours.”

Screen shot from “System Failure” Report

 

Manning said Lindsay and his fellow researchers should have used the county’s public booking database to determine when and why people were released from custody (and to whom). Instead, Lindsay apparently used used the county’s Jail Inmate Lookup System, a blunter instrument intended to help people look up information about specific inmates. That system does not specify the reason an inmate was released or whether he or she was released into the custody of another agency.

“The Executive’s Office conveyed to the report’s author, Scott Lindsay, that he did not use correct data in his evaluation,” Capt. Manning says.

Alex  Fryer, a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine, confirms that Constantine’s office told a consultant who helped Lindsay on the report, Tim Ceis, that the information in the report was wrong. DADJ provided The C Is for Crank with a link to what Fryer calls “the correct database, showing that we’re not putting people out on the streets of Seattle” at midnight. Fryer adds that Lindsay’s error was understandable, given that the jail list is the county’s public-facing database of inmate information. Ceis confirms that the county did inform him and Lindsay “that the information that we were seeing was inaccurate, for whatever reason,” but says he saw no reason to correct the record, since the errors, in his opinion, were the county’s.

“Their record-keeping and what they were putting out there in the jail records was not accurate,” Ceis says.  “It’s not up to  me to correct publicly the inaccuracy of the information they’re making public.”

Lindsay responded at 5:30 this evening to an email I sent three hours earlier. However, his response did not include answers to my questions about the apparent data discrepancy. I have sent him a more detailed list of questions and will update this post if I hear back.

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, who has said that the “System Failure” report should have been called “Systems Failure,” to emphasize that the justice system is not the only system failing chronically homeless people, says that if the county isn’t releasing people onto the streets at midnight, that’s a welcome change from something that “has been a problem in years past.”

Daugaard says that if the county isn’t, in fact, releasing prolific offenders into downtown Seattle at midnight, that just “underscores my feeling about the takeaways from the report —it’s less that the criminal justice system is failing, as that the criminal justice system, operating in the ways it inevitably does, is not the right system to address these problems, except at the margins and when other systems”—such as health care and housing—”have gaps.” Why, Daugaard asks rhetorically, “is this group [of “prolific offenders”] not prioritized in the large investments that have been made in each of those systems in recent years?”

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