Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule

King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones

1. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will fire a detective for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” before fatally shooting a car theft suspect near Enumclaw in 2019.

Detective George Alvarez is a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office with a lengthy use-of-force record, including five shootings and a criminal charge for assaulting and threatening an informant in 2003. In November 2019, Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, driving in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, but when the detectives found him, he had parked next to a power station to smoke a cigarette. At the time, Johanknecht wrote, “there was no imminent risk” to members of the public.

Nevertheless, without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver’s-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the stolen SUV across the road and broke the driver’s-side window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

In a letter to Alvarez explaining her decision, Johanknecht emphasized that she did not decide to fire him for the shooting itself, but for his decisions that led up to the shooting. “You did not use the opportunity you had to slow things down,” Johanknecht wrote. “The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect.” Johanknecht and other department leadership also called into question Alvarez’s claims that Chilcott posed an “immediate danger” to witnesses at a bus stop nearby. Instead, Johanknecht argued that Alvarez’s actions had placed bystanders—and Lerum—in danger by sparking an unnecessary confrontation with Chilcott.

For his part, Lerum received a written reprimand for not wearing his ballistic vest or clothing identifying himself as a law enforcement officer during the encounter.

In a press release on Thursday, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sergeant Tim Meyer drew a parallel between Chilcott’s death and the failed sting operation in 2017 during which plainclothes sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on a residential street in Des Moines. King County agreed to pay a $2.25 million settlement to Dunlap-Gittens’ family in May 2020; however, according to Meyer, Alvarez is the first officer whom Johanknecht has fired for misuse of force or failure to de-escalate since taking office in 2017.

Cooper Offenbecker, an attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times that his client intends to appeal Johanknecht’s decision.

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.”

2. In a media availability this week, new King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones said they intended to “allow for regional variations” in how various parts of King County respond to homelessness, giving the example of a “mega-shelter in Black Diamond” as something that “would not make sense” as part of a regional response. “I don’t see this job as being about running roughshod or issuing policy fiats; it will be about building things together,” they said.

However, Dones added, they are not interested in promoting the narrative that Seattle is somehow producing homelessness or generating the region’s homeless population; cities are natural “draws” for people experiencing homelessness in nearby areas, they said and “there is a natural pull to where there are services. We see this in jurisdictions across the country—people go where they think they can get the help they need.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule”

Fizz: Homeless Authority Tries Again, Election Update, and a Double Standard on FEMA Funding?

Local government loves a flow chart. This one outlines the process for hiring a director for the county homelessness authority.

1. In a process that remains opaque to the public, the implementation board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which includes advocates and representatives of local organizations and people with lived experience of homelessness, voted unanimously to hire New York City-based consultant Marc Dones as head of the authority. 

The decision came after a meandering discussion last week about how to move forward after the hiring committee’s first pick, Regina Cannon from C4 Innovations, turned down the position. Dones, who led the process that resulted in the authority’s current structure, was the second runner-up.

Although Cannon did not, as some on the board had suggested she might, appear before the board to explain why she didn’t take the job, she did talk to individual board members. Harold Odom, a Lived Experience Coalition member who was also on the hiring committee (which otherwise consisted mostly of representatives from Seattle, King County, and suburban cities), said Cannon told him the new CEO would need to be committed to “building community” by finding common ground among all parts of the region, and would need to have some experience with housing, not just homeless services.

To read between the lines: One issue Cannon reportedly raised when declining to take the job was that the region is extremely balkanized between Seattle and its suburbs, which often disagree with the city’s (and King County’s) approach to homelessness. This, arguably, is the problem underlying this entire project. The biggest challenge for the agency, as it always has been, will be crafting a united regional approach to homelessness that incorporates the views and preferences of the suburbs and unincorporated King County as well as Seattle. Whether this is even possible remains an open question.

Dones has not said publicly whether they will take the position, but it seems unlikely that the board would have voted unanimously to hire him without having some inkling of whether he would accept.

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has raised numerous logistical objections to requests that the city open hotel-based shelters for vulnerable unsheltered people as part of its pandemic response, claiming, among other objections, that FEMA’S documentation requirements are “onerous” and that FEMA does not provide reimbursement for any human services. As turns out, the Durkan administration did seek FEMA reimbursement for a hotel last year—one that sat mostly empty while thousands of people slept in tents or in overcrowded shelters in the early days of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the city persisted in seeking full reimbursement for the entire, mostly empty hotel.

The hotel was the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and it was supposed to serve as temporary housing for first responders who needed a safe place to isolate while they helped respond to the pandemic. Instead of renting individual rooms as needed, the city leased the entire hotel—155 rooms, every night, for three months. When only 17 people stayed in the hotel, total, during the first month of the lease (averaging nine days per stay), the city expanded eligibility to other kinds of essential workers, which added another handful of previously ineligible guests.

At the time, it seemed possible that FEMA would only pay for about $325,000 of the cost of the hotel because it was mostly unused. Nonetheless, the city persisted in seeking full reimbursement for the entire, mostly empty hotel. According to a spokesperson for the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, the city has submitted a request for $1,931,060, “and we are awaiting approval.”

The Executive Pacific will also be the site of a hotel-based shelter the city plans to open late this month using money from a federal Emergency Solutions Grant. In the seven months after the Executive Pacific’s initial $2 million, three-month contract ran out, according to FAS, the city spent $12,641 on rooms in the same hotel—a quarter of one percent of the monthly cost.

3. This is the current list of declared candidates for mayor and city council, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, but the final list will almost certainly include many additional names. Those could include former council member Bruce Harrell (perpetually said to be announcing soon), onetime mayoral candidate and former state legislator Jessyn Farrell (ditto), and Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller.

New names of note on this list include both viable candidates— activist and attorney Nikkita Oliver, who ran for mayor in 2017 and just joined the race to fill citywide position 9, being vacated by Lorena González—as well as those that merit the adjective “perennial,” such Nazi-saluting public commenter Alex Tsimerman, who has been repeatedly banned for city hall for disrupting council meetings.

Not yet on the city’s list, but certainly approaching perennial status, is North Seattle activist Kate Martin, who has registered to run for Position 8, held by Teresa Mosqueda—twice. She has also registered to run for mayor.

Martin has run for local office twice before, in 2013 and 2019. (In 2016, she ran an unsuccessful but well-funded initiative to build an elevated park next to the remains of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.) Tsimerman has run for local office in every election year since 2015.

Fizz: As Homeless Authority Regroups, City’s Homelessness Division is At the Breaking Point

1. On Monday night, less than a week after Atlanta homelessness consultant Regina Cannon declined an offer to serve as the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the authority’s implementation board met to debrief and talk about what comes next. That was the plan according to the agenda, anyway; in reality, the meeting devolved into a lengthy discussion about whether it was more important to act quickly (the authority is already six months behind schedule, due in large part to its lack of a leader) or carefully (to ensure that whoever the board picks, they’ll be prepared and able to do the job.)

The options on the table Monday included appointing an interim director, starting the entire recruitment and hiring process over, and choosing a new director from among the 17 candidates who were in the potential hiring pool as of late last year. The city of Seattle hired the Hawkins Company, an LA-based executive recruitment firm, to narrow down the list of candidates. According to board member Gordon McHenry, the president and CEO of United Way King County, Hawkins had narrowed the list to four candidates before their contract ended. The second runner-up for the position was Marc Dones, a New York City-based consultant who drafted the original blueprint for the new authority.

After an hour of public discussion about values and priorities, the board retreated to a private session to talk about what they wanted to do. When the public meeting reconvened, the group announced that they would take another look at each of the candidates in the original 17-applicant pool, essentially replicating Hawkins’ work in search of a different result.

Durkan press secretary Anthony Derrick said that two people have accepted the city’s offers of shelter so far, which still leaves an unknown number who will be displaced when the parks department clears out a 16-tent encampment at Denny Park morning.

Board members said they would reach out to Cannon to see if she could elaborate, publicly or in small-group meetings with board members, on why she decided not to take the job. Some have speculated that one reason was the divisive relationship between some of the county’s smaller cities, such as Renton, and Seattle (as well as King County government) on the causes of and solutions to homelessness. Earlier this year, Renton, Bellevue, Issaquah, and other cities opted out of the county’s Health Through Housing sales tax for homeless services, and Renton just passed a law evicting a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run shelter at the Renton Red Lion in June and effectively banning homeless shelters within city limits.

When the public meeting reconvened, the group announced that they would take another look at each of the candidates in the original 17-applicant pool, essentially replicating Hawkins’ work in search of a different result.

2. Helen Howell, the interim director of the Seattle Human Services Department, was among those urging the board to act quickly to appoint a new interim or permanent director, in part because HSD’s own Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division of HSD has been hemorrhaging staff for more than a year and is nearly at the breaking point. Since last year, as PubliCola has reported, the division has been doing more work than ever with half the staff it had a year ago—just 15 people, most of them in temporary or “out of class” positions. “If there’s going to be a significant delay, we would probably have to look at hiring, and the training is a burden on the people there” who are already stretched thin, Howell said.

HSI staffers have already received layoff notices saying their positions will end in June—one reason so many have already left the department. According to PROTEC17 labor representative Shaun van Eyk, the latest CEO hiring delay will probably push that date back another several months, creating more staff uncertainty about whether they will have jobs and where.

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

Meanwhile, van Eyk said, HSD has has not hired for a position the city council added in last year’s budget to help reduce the burden on HSI employees tasked with managing and fulfilling contracts for homeless services, many of which are already substantially delayed, and has refused requests from some of the 15 remaining staffers to go back to their original positions or take new positions within the city. Van Eyk said he is trying to get a succession agreement in place to guarantee HSI staffers jobs at the new authority if they want them.

“I have a real hard time with everyone talking about how great and vital their work is and the best you can do is say, ‘We’ll offer them a great letter of recommendation’?” van Eyk said. “I’m not going to let my members suffer that indignity.” 

Meanwhile, van Eyk said, HSD has has not hired for a position the city council added in last year’s budget to help reduce the burden on HSI employees tasked with managing and fulfilling contracts for homeless services.

3. On Wednesday, the city’s parks department will remove a longstanding encampment in Denny Park. The removal is one of the first high-profile sweeps the city has done since disbanding the Navigation Team, a group of police, city staff, and outreach workers who removed encampments and offered information about shelters and services to their displaced residents. For months, according to Mayor Durkan’s office, members of the new HOPE team and Health One, a Seattle Fire Department unit that responds to non-emergency calls, have been doing outreach and offering services to residents of the camp. Continue reading “Fizz: As Homeless Authority Regroups, City’s Homelessness Division is At the Breaking Point”

Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority

Image via Wikimedia Commons

1. On Tuesday, the Mercer Island City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposal to ban all “camping” in the city, including sleeping unsheltered in public places and sheltering in a vehicle overnight. People who violate the ban—anyone who remains unsheltered in the city overnight—could be jailed for up to 90 days and fined $1,000 for each violation. Any vehicle that is used for overnight shelter, including RVs, could be impounded.

At a Mercer Island City Council meeting last month, Councilmember Jake Jacobson said the proposed ordinance “addresses public safety concerns [about] people who, but for this ordinance, would be staying in public properties for an infinite period of time and certainly are in a position to be of concern to people on the island. Fear—there is fear out there, and this is a way to deal with it.”

“And if people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,'” Jacobson continued, “then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

A federal appeals court ruling, Martin v. Boise, bars cities from passing outright bans on homelessness. Instead, it allows cities to ban sleeping outdoors unless there is no “available” shelter in the area—but the definition of “available” and in the area are very much open to interpretation.

The Mercer Island proposal gets around Boise by saying that police who encounter unsheltered people may direct them to shelter outside Mercer Island but on the Eastside, since Mercer Island does not have any homeless shelters. In practice, this means one of four shelters—one for women, one for men, one for families with children, and one for youth. In exchange for these services, Mercer Island would pay a consortium of Eastside service providers a total of $10,000 a year.

The bill defines “available” broadly, allowing police to enforce the law against people who can’t be admitted to their designated shelter because of the “voluntary actions of that person,” including :intoxication, drug use, unruly and/or assaultive behavior and like behaviors.” Under proposed ordinance, for example, if a homeless man was ineligible for the lone men’s shelter because he was exhibiting behavioral health symptoms that made him “unruly,” he could be seen as refusing shelter and jailed.

If people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,’ then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes assured the council that then police were interested in helping homeless people, not further marginalizing them. “Rest assured… we won’t take enforcement action until there’s repeated issues,” he said. But Sergeant Mike Seifer, who presented the legislation to the council, noted that it was aimed at addressing a specific group of people—”about four individuals that we deal with on a very serious or consistent basis” in public spaces, plus “about six or seven that are in vehicles that are consistently coming into contact with the officers.”

One way or another, the law would allow Mercer Island police to remove those ten or so people from the island, either by jailing them in another city, such as Issaquah, or by sending them to a shelter off the island. Councilmember Craig Reynolds, who cast the lone “no” vote against the ordinance on first reading, noted that the city’s jail contracts don’t come cheap—jailing a person costs the city about $200 a day, or up to $18,000 for the maximum 90-day sentence.

2. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci  will replace her fellow Councilmember Reagan Dunn on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, as we reported exclusively on Twitter Friday.

In January, as PubliCola reported, governing board member Zaneta Reid took Dunn to task for positions he has taken on homelessness, including his opposition to the “Health Through Housing” sales tax proposal and his efforts to fund one-way bus tickets out of King County. “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan shut down the conversation before Dunn could answer. Continue reading “Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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 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.

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

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

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.

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, 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.

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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”