Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of efforts to shelter people in some of the city’s thousands of empty hotel rooms, the closure of public restrooms during the COVID pandemic, or the delayed transition of city homelessness services to a new regional agency, read on.

City OKs Hotel Shelter

After staunchly resisting requests from advocates and service providers to fund and facilitate non-congregate shelter in hotels, the city reversed course this fall, agreeing to use federal dollars to fund a 10-month pilot program that will place several hundred people in hotel rooms. The plan, shepherded through by deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller earlier this year, is to move people through the hotel rooms and into regular apartments through short-term “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

The Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services will be the service providers at the hotels the city will soon announce it is renting as part of its 10-month hotel-to-housing program, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.

The city has not announced which nonprofit agencies will receive the contracts or which hotels they’ll be renting with federal relief dollars, but PubliCola has learned the names of the three agencies and one of the hotels. The Public Defender Association, which provides hotel rooms and case management to unsheltered people through its existing Co-LEAD and JustCares programs, and the Chief Seattle Club will provide services at the hotels, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown and at least one smaller motel.

Catholic Community Services will serve as the rapid rehousing provider, connecting shelter residents to housing in market-rate (non-subsidized) apartments by providing short-term (up to one year) housing assistance.

Restroom closures

At the beginning of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population faced an elevated risk of exposure not just to COVID-19, but to other communicable diseases such as hepatitis A, because the closure of public buildings and retail businesses greatly diminished their access to restrooms and running water. According to the city auditor, the number of public restrooms available to people experiencing homelessness was already inadequate before the pandemic.

As we documented throughout the spring, the city itself exacerbated the problem by shutting down or failing to reopen dozens of public restrooms, then claiming that they were actually open and providing a map directing people to restrooms that weren’t actually available. In our review of 27 restrooms the city claimed were open to the public at the end of March, eight were closed and locked.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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

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

Eventually, the city did reopen many of the restrooms it shut down (although most library and community center restrooms remain closed), and it slowed down the barrage of press releases touting wide availability of restrooms for unsheltered people. Restroom access after hours remains a major problem, as does access to potable water, but things are better now than they were in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.

As winter approaches, many public restrooms will be shut down again, although many that were subject to “seasonal closures” last year (those at beaches and parks that don’t get much winter traffic) will stay open. According to Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, many of the city’s park restrooms were built more than 70 years ago and have pipes that can’t withstand winter weather. Schulkin provided a list of nearly 30 parks restrooms that will be closed for the winter, including Alki Playground, Greenwood Park, Little Brook Park, and others across the city. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs”

Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority

1. After listening to public comment from both sides of the debate (one woman, who rattled off the first names of several homeless people she claimed to know, said a guy named “Josh” told her, “The only way you can help me is to arrest me and have me sweat it out”), the council’s public safety committee discussed a proposal from council member Lisa Herbold that would create a new affirmative defense for people who commit crimes of poverty.

The proposal, a version of which Herbold originally proposed as part of the 2021 budget, would enable people who admitted to committing misdemeanor crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, to meet a basic human need to use this fact as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then determine whether the defendant actually committed the crime to meet a basic need or not.

The concept has been widely mischaracterized as a plan to “legalize all crime” by conservative interest groups Change Washington and business leaders who claim it would allow people to vandalize small businesses, walk out of stores with armloads of cell phones, and squat on people’s property with impunity. In reality, creating a “basic need” defense would  merely add one more affirmative defense to the list that already exists in city law. Defendants already have the ability to argue, for example, that they committed a crime because they were under duress. Judges and juries then have the ability to agree or disagree with this defense.

These facts didn’t stop public commenters from claiming that creating a new defense would effectively unleash “addicts” and “criminals” on the streets of Seattle. And it didn’t stop council member Alex Pedersen from rattling off a list of extremely implausible scenarios if the bill passed.

The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone made Seattle a “national embarrassment,” he said—and a basic need defense might do the same, impacting everything from the US Senate races in Georgia to the future makeup of the Supreme Court. Renters, he said, might see their renters’ insurance premiums go up as insurance companies decide en masse to “classify all of Seattle as a high-risk zone.” And how, he wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?” (Never mind that the scenario he’s describing would involve going to jail, getting out, getting an attorney, going to court, and convincing a judge or jury that the defense was valid).

And how, city council member Alex Pedersen wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?”

In any case, Pedersen continued, it makes no sense to address the judicial system’s response to crimes of poverty before the city knows the impact of cuts to police, the outcome of the participatory budgeting process that just got underway, and the details of the next Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. “Let’s first see how these other changes work before this council is immersed in a time-consuming and distracting debate over whether we would be the first city in the US to weaken our laws that protect each other,” he said.

Finally, Pedersen argued that City Attorney Pete Holmes has already said that he doesn’t prosecute crimes of poverty, which means that there’s no reason to even discuss the issue for “one to five years,” the length of Holmes’ current and (likely) upcoming terms.

Herbold is still working on draft legislation. Outstanding questions (outlined in this memo) include whether to narrow the defense to a specific list of misdemeanors, whether to put the burden of proof on defendants to show that they had no choice but to commit a crime, and whether people who shoplift merchandise for resale should be allowed to use the defense.

2. Documents just posted on the website of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority indicate that the timeline for hiring a director for the agency has slipped again, from mid-January to mid-February of next year. Originally, the new homelessness agency—which is supposed to come up with a unified, regional approach to homelessness for the entire county, including Seattle and dozens of suburban cities—was supposed to approve the CEO in September. Continue reading “Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority”

Homelessness Authority Weighs In On Battle Over Future of Renton Shelter (and Shelters in Renton)

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority held a previously unscheduled meeting of its implementation board last night to discuss how to respond to a city of Renton proposal that would shut down a shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at the Red Lion hotel in Renton. The legislation would also ban most, if not all, homeless shelters from the city.

PubliCola reported on the plan last week. Essentially, the legislation would create a temporary “COVID deintensification shelter” zoning designation for the Red Lion, which would expire in June, when the hotel’s 230 residents would be forced to leave the premises. At the same time, it creates new restrictions on all facilities serving homeless residents—including a 100-bed maximum and a requirement that appears to make providers responsible for the behavior or homeless people in public spaces—that homeless service providers say are impossible to meet.

Some members of the RHA implementation board, including Lived Experience Coalition members Sara Rankin and Harold Odom, argued that the board needed to take a strong stand in favor of the regional approach Renton signed up for when it joined the RHA. In addition to being “onerous” and undercutting the ability of any homeless service provider to operate in Renton, Rankin said, the legislation represents a “fracturing” that “undercuts the whole spirit and substance of what the purpose of this regional authority is supposed to be.” The Sound Cities Association, which includes Renton, demanded and got changes to the authority’s governing structure along with two seats on the implementation board last year.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

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

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

Others, including Renton School District superintendent Dr. Damien Pattenaude and Church Council of Greater Seattle president Michael Ramos, argued that it was important not to alienate the Renton council by suggesting that the city of Renton didn’t have the right to set its own homelessness policy. “The question of the role of this authority is significant, and one of the underlying factors is the perceived imposition by the county of its [own] proposed solution on homelessness,” Ramos said. “We need to bring some of these cities into the conversation.” Ramos added that he would not sign off on any letter that didn’t express a willingness to work with Renton on a consensus solution.

In joining a regional authority, Renton agreed to the basic principles set down in the interlocal agreement, which include “housing first” principles, best practices, and evidence-based solutions. “Best practices” is generally understood to mean approaches that have a demonstrated record of success, which describes the Red Lion in particular and hotels as a temporary shelter option during the COVID-19 pandemic broadly.

Odom objected strongly to the idea that the regional authority should take a conciliatory approach when dealing with cities that want to split off from the region and adopt policies contrary to RHA principles. If the regional authority allowed every city who disagreed with some aspect of its approach to split off on its own, he said, it would mean a return to the same old system that has failed to reduce homelessness in the region for decades. “We have the five-year plan, the ten-year plan, and [we’re going to have] the 100-year plan if we continue going about things the way we have been,” Odom said.

Ultimately, the board voted to form a committee that will write a letter to the council expressing some level of opposition to the legislation evicting the Red Lion tenants and using zoning to restrict homeless services. They’ll have to act fast: The council plans to vote on the legislation Monday—a move that could prompt litigation from both DESC and the hotel’s owner, whose attorney said he “faced unbelievable discrimination and harassment, including from some of the folks who are advocating for this particular ordinance change.”

Morning Fizz: Homeless Agency Hiring Delayed, Benefits of Hotel Shelters Confirmed, Parking Meters Canceled

Expiring. Image by Josh Newton, via Unsplash.

1. The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority won’t choose a director until mid-January, pushing back the timeline for the new authority to get up and running into next spring, according to a document posted to the authority’s website on Thursday.

Under the original timeline, the CEO would have been hired in September The timeline has been pushed back repeatedly as the county hired an executive search firm, the California-based Hawkins Company.

Delaying the hiring process, and thus the timeline to hire staff and stand up the authority, has impacts on other agencies, such as Seattle’s homelessness division. That division is supposed to sunset when the authority is up and running, and its staff are not guaranteed jobs in the new authority. One result is that HSI is increasingly short-staffed, which makes it harder for the city to get contracts (and money to providers) out the door.

This may seem in the weeds, but the worst-case scenario is that the city will be unable to get money to nonprofit service, shelter, and housing providers, who would then be unable to provide those services.

Will that happen? Who knows. But right now the remaining staff are working under major uncertainty, with moving timelines and little solid information about what things will look like in December, March, or next summer, when all contracts are supposed to transfer to the KCRHA.

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2. This week, researchers at the University of Washington and King County DCHS confirmed what service providers like the Downtown Emergency Service Center have been reporting anecdotally for months: Opening hotels to people experiencing homelessness not only reduced the spread of COVID-19, it also contributed to residents’ feelings of stability, health, and well-being, reducing conflict between residents and leading to more exits to permanent housing than congregate shelters.

The preliminary findings come as the city of Seattle is finally considering hotels as an option for people living unsheltered; last week, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller outlined a plan to lease up to 300 hundred hotel rooms for about 10 months. The goal of the city’s program will be moving people rapidly out of the hotels and into housing, either through referrals to “rapid rehousing” in the private market or to one of the 600 permanent supportive housing units that will open over the coming year.

“Pay stations will no longer be on every block. For some spaces, the nearest pay station will be one block away.”

Last week, Sixkiller said the service provider at the largest county-funded hotel, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, lacked an “exit plan” for people living there, leading to long-term stays rather than quick turnover of rooms, as the city’s plan calls for. Asked for more details about how the city’s hotels will differ from those funded by the county, a mayoral spokeswoman said, “The City’s new plan moves unsheltered people from the street into a hotel unit.” (The county-funded hotels are occupied by people who moved from shelters, not the street.) Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Agency Hiring Delayed, Benefits of Hotel Shelters Confirmed, Parking Meters Canceled”