Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

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Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

“It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter

West Seattle American Legion Hall
West Seattle American Legion Hall

By Erica C. Barnett

As snow, ice, and freezing temperatures closed in on Seattle in late December, the city opened three shelters in the downtown Seattle area, with enough beds to serve several hundred people. The emphasis on the center city reflected an implicit assumption that most people living unsheltered in Seattle either live near the center city or could get there easily on public transit, using transit passes or the free bus tickets the city’s outreach teams distributed for this purpose.

At the same time, over in West Seattle, Keith Hughes was worried. Since 2019, the retired carpenter and electrician has run an occasional, informal shelter out of the American Legion hall on Southwest Alaska Street, providing a place to stay for a handful of local unhoused residents during the coldest winter nights. Initially, Hughes opened the building, which is owned by the West Seattle Veterans Center, as a place for unsheltered people “to get dry and warm up” after noticing that “four, five, six people” would often sit under an overhang in front of the building to get out of the rain. Later, when the temperature dipped into the 20s, “I couldn’t get myself to throw them back out of the building,” so he started keeping the building open on the coldest night of the  year.

“I started it because it needed to be,” Hughes, who is 74, said. “The hall is there, not getting used, 95 percent of the time, so I decided it needed to get used.”

Ordinarily, according to Hughes, the shelter, which is run by Hughes and a handful of volunteers, serves between 6 and 12 guests a night, although it often has fewer. Hughes said this year was shaping up to be much the same as previous winters—until the county, city, and Seattle Times included the shelter on their official, public lists of available shelters just after Christmas.

“I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”—Keith Hughes, volunteer operator, West Seattle Veterans Center shelter

The result, Hughes said, was instantaneous. “I was trying to take care of people locally in West Seattle, and suddenly I was getting phone calls from Beacon Hill, and SoDo, and Capitol Hill, and a Sound Mental Health clinic, and Navos Mental Health [in Burien], asking if I had space in my shelter. I’m not a professional. I’m not a mental health counselor. I’m not a social worker. It was too much.”

Tomasz Biernacki, a West Seattle resident who volunteered at the shelter several nights, said the shelter was “being run by three people with no training, zero support, and our only hope was that Tracy [Record, the editor of the West Seattle Blog] would post updates on what’s going on with the shelter so that people would” volunteer for shifts, which she did. Biernacki described several instances when shelter volunteers were overwhelmed by situations they were underqualified to deal with, including “at least one person in mental distress that was sent from another shelter” and a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who involuntarily “crapped all over the place” and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital.

“Somebody brought in a Somali woman who said she was running away from an abusive family—they found her in the snow wearing just a t-shirt and a pair of pants, so they brought her in,” Biernacki said. “I started calling every single phone number I could get my hands on for, like, a women’s shelter— I only have so much knowledge about this—and nobody ever called me back.”

Hughes said the influx of people needing a place to stay overwhelmed the shelter. “Basically, all the city did was add me to the list of shelters out there and made my address public, which doubled the number of people that showed up,” Hughes said. “On really cold nights this year, I had 18, 20, 22 people, some of which were being sent to me directly from mental health facilities. I had a guy sent to me who had been hit by.a car, patched up by the crisis clinic, and released back onto the street with a bus ticket and my address. He couldn’t hardly walk. I’m not a medical facility.”

It’s unclear who, exactly, made the decision to list the West Seattle site on both the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s list of available shelters. Lisa Gustaveson, a former HSD staffer who now works as a senior advisor to the KCRHA, was apparently the first to identify the site as a viable shelter option for people outside downtown Seattle, and initially advocating against making the shelter location public.

“The facility didn’t report being above capacity, and was only at capacity on one night according to the census counts provided. Keeping open capacity hidden from the community seems counter to the point of opening emergency severe weather shelter.”—Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Jenna Franklin

Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city listed the shelter after it became a “funder,” which it did by agreeing to pay Hughes’ higher-than-average utility bills during the official winter emergency—the only reimbursement the city has offered. In contrast, other winter shelter providers, which (unlike Hughes) have formal contracts to provide shelter services, will be compensated for additional staff, services, and supplies associated with the winter shelters they operated. Editor’s note: This paragraph initially said that the city “had to list” the shelter once it became a funder, which was inaccurate. PubliCola regrets the error.

Franklin said the city was not the first to publicly advertise that the shelter was open. “The shelter was listed in the broader news (West Seattle Blog and Seattle Times) prior to HSD listing it, and KCRHA published this location on their site and map on 12/25, prior to HSD sharing it as well.”

Still, it would be misleading to suggest that the city wasn’t primarily responsible for making Seattle residents aware of what shelters were available. Throughout the weather emergency, the city’s public information officers, including Franklin, directed the media to use and link to the HSD website in stories about available shelter; the KCRHA’s winter shelter blog post also directed visitors back to the city’s website. Continue reading ““It Was Too Much”: Volunteer Shelter Operator Says City Policy Overwhelmed Tiny West Seattle Shelter”

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week

Seattle Center Exhibition Hall | TeenTix

By Erica C. Barnett

With freezing weather and possible snow in the forecast for the coming week, the city will make about 200 emergency beds available for single adults living unsheltered to come inside. The temporary shelters will be at two locations: The Compass Housing Alliance day center at 210 Alaskan Way S (80 beds) and Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall at 301 Mercer St (between 100 and 130 beds). There are currently no plans to open City Hall, which has historically served as severe-weather shelter, or other city locations, such as community centers or the Seattle Municipal Tower.

The emergency shelters will open at 7pm and close at 7am, despite the fact that daytime forecasts call for sub-freezing weather throughout the day from December 26 through the end of the year. A daytime warming center at the Seattle Center Armory building is currently supposed to open at 10am, and the Compass building is open to clients during the day. UPDATE December 24: The city announced that several more warming centers will be open during the day for the duration of the declared winter weather emergency; information and hours are available on the city’s website.

Otherwise, the city is encouraging people living unsheltered to go to public libraries, which are open various hours (and not at all on holidays.)

Families with children who need shelter from the cold should call the King County emergency family shelter intake line at 206-245-1026.

The city’s emergency winter shelter protocols call for emergency shelter to open whenever the forecasted temperature is 25 degrees or less for multiple days, or when more than an inch of snow accumulates on the ground, which is known as a “Phase II” winter weather event. A Phase III event—requiring “prolonged emergency response,” potentially including shelters in community centers and other city buildings—is the same as a Phase II event, plus a snow accumulation of six inches or more.

Historically, the city has opened emergency shelters before the city reaches these thresholds, which haven’t been updated for more than 20 years; last year, when PubliCola asked about the 25-degree threshold, HSD told us that changing the criteria (and thus opening emergency shelters in slightly less harsh subfreezing temperatures) would have cost implications. According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the city has two contracts for emergency shelter this year—one with Compass, and one with the Salvation Army. Each is required to offer 15 days of 24-hour shelter per year; we’ve asked HSD for more information about why each agency is only offering shelter for 12 hours a day.

In years past, the city’s temporary emergency shelters have not always filled up despite the cold. The group primarily responsible for going out to encampments and identifying people who are at risk of dying if they stay outside in freezing weather (and transporting them to city-funded shelters) is the HOPE team, a group of Human Services Department employees who offer shelter and services to people living in encampments the city is about to sweep. During a major snowstorm last February, according to Mundt, the team transported a total of 40 people to shelter.

Health One, the Seattle Fire Department team that responds to non-emergency crisis calls, won’t be mobilized until December 27 because of staffing shortages; when they do, according to SFD spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley, their job will be to “reactively and proactively respond to distribute supplies (food, hand warmers, blankets, etc.) and offer transport to severe weather shelters.” Continue reading “Seattle Opens Nighttime-Only Shelters In Anticipation of Freezing Week”

City Attorney-Elect Fires Civil Division Chief, Homelessness Authority Gets Exemption from HUD Mandate, and More

1. Ann Davison, the new city-attorney elect, abruptly fired the head of the civil division of the city attorney’s office, Jessica Nadelman, last week, multiple sources tell PubliCola. The news came as a surprise to many inside and outside the city attorney’s office who had been under the impression that Davison planned to retain the civil chief, who provides legal advice to all branches of city government and defends the city against legal challenges, among many other responsibilities.

Nadelman sent an email to her coworkers on Saturday morning telling them, “Last night Ann and Scott [Lindsay, Davison’s deputy] informed me that I will no longer be civil chief when they take office in January.”

In her capacity as civil chief, Nadelman trained the two public disclosure officers, Stacy Irwin and Kim Ferreiro, who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Mayor Jenny Durkan and her legal counsel, Michelle Chen, violated state public disclosure law when they advised Irwin and Ferreiro to help cover up the deletion of several months’ worth of text messages from Durkan’s phone. The phone’s settings were adjusted to set to auto-delete in July 2020, just as the administration came under fire for its handling of protests against racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, an investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission investigation found.

Seattle Nice is now available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

At the time, then-city attorney Pete Holmes’ office told the Seattle Times his office considered the deletion of the texts a “deliberate act” that compounded what could end up being “tens of millions of dollars in damages and fees” to resolve lawsuits over Durkan’s handling of the protests. Lindsay, Davison’s deputy, is the son-in-law of a longtime friend and ally of Durkan, former Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Nadelman was not available to comment on her departure. Several people PubliCola contacted who worked closely with Nadelman spoke highly of her work and professionalism, but did not want to comment on the record.

On Tuesday evening, Davison informed employees that she had appointed Jack Johnson, who was civil chief under Mark Sidran from 1990 to 2001, to serve as interim civil chief. In a statement, Davison’s office said she would do a “robust national search” for Nadelman’s permanent replacement.

2. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has received a one-year exemption from a federal mandate that requires government agencies overseeing homelessness to do an in-person “Point In Time Count” of the unsheltered homeless population every two years. As PubliCola reported last month, the decision put the agency at risk of losing up to 40 points—out of a possible 200—on its next application for federal housing funds.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said HUD granted the exemption in light of the agency’s work to use different methodology to get a more accurate count of the region’s homeless population without a physical count. The new tally, which used data from several sources, suggests that the number of people experiencing homelessness in King County could be above 45,000—more than triple the tally from the latest in-person count, which advocates have always acknowledged was an undercount.

Martens said HUD gave the KCRHA an exemption for 2022 only, “with an opening to keep talking about it if we want to do something similar in future years.” On December 7, agency director Marc Dones sent a letter to King County Councilmember (and Republican congressional candidate) Reagan Dunn, responding to Dunn’s call for the agency to reconsider its decision not to do an in-person count. In the letter, Dones criticizes the methodology behind the Point In Time Count, noting that critics have said the count may not represent “an appropriate use of precious community resources.”

Advocates for the Point In Time Count have argued that the count has value beyond producing an annual number, including large-scale community engagement, and point out that they have never claimed the count represents anything other than a massive undercount.

3. Check out the second episode of Seattle Nice, where political consultant Sandeep Kaushik and I discuss what it means that Seattle elected a declared Republican, Ann Davison, as its new city attorney—and what having a Republican city attorney might mean for the city of Seattle. When we recorded, Davison had just selected Scott Lindsay—author of the “prolific offenders” report that became the basis for the infamous KOMO special “Seattle Is Dying—as deputy city attorney, and picked Natalie Walton-Anderson, a former King County deputy prosecutor popular with groups that advocate for alternatives to incarceration, to head her criminal division.

Seattle Nice is now available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

—Erica C. Barnett

A “New Approach to Encampment Removals” Is Limited by a Lack of Places for People to Go

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”

But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.” 

While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”

Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.

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At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.

The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.

The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter. 

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”

For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?

 

Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.

What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.

In a Move With Potential Funding Consequences, King County Won’t Count Homeless Population This Year

King County Regional Homelessness Authority logoBy Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this week, the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority announced that it will forego next year’s annual count of King County’s unsheltered homeless population, leaving the region without one major source of information about how many people are living unsheltered, and in what circumstances, for two consecutive years, after last year’s count was scuttled by the COVID pandemic.

The count, which is generally regarded as an undercount, is often used to measure whether homelessness is increasing or decreasing over time, and how; in 2020, for example, the count suggested a large increase in the number of people living in their vehicles.

In its announcement, the KCRHA said that it was not required to count the region’s homeless population this year, because the US Department of Housing and Urban Development only requires a count during odd-numbered years. “King County, like most Continuum of Care agencies”—entities, like the KCRHA, in charge of an area’s homelessness system —”received a federal waiver for the unsheltered PIT Count in 2021 because of COVID, and 2022 is not a required year.”

“For 2021, HUD allowed [continuum of care agencies, or CoCs] to skip that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, this year there is no allowance to skip the [point-in-time] count if they missed last year. If the CoC did not conduct a PIT count in January 2021, then the CoC must conduct a PIT count in January 2022 to meet the CoC program requirements.” —HUD regional spokeswoman Vanessa Krueger

In fact, according to HUD regional affairs spokeswoman Vanessa Krueger, the KCRHA is required to conduct a count this year—as is every Continuum of Care (CoC) agency that skipped the count last year. By opting out, the KCRHA will fail to meet a mandatory requirement to serve as the agency that receives federal funds from HUD.

Specifically, Krueger said in an email, “CoCs are required to conduct a [point-in-time] count every other year. For 2021, HUD allowed CoCs to skip that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, this year there is no allowance to skip the PIT count if they missed last year. If the CoC did not conduct a PIT count in January 2021, then the CoC must conduct a PIT count in January 2022 to meet the CoC program requirements.” (Emphasis in original.)

HUD’s website goes into greater detail about this requirement, noting that “[w]hile HUD will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation, it does not plan on granting exceptions to the PIT count” in 2022. “CoCs should be preparing to count” this year if they received a waiver from the count last year, the website says.

According to Krueger, declining to do the mandatory count this year doesn’t mean that the KCRHA will automatically lose out on federal funding next year or risk its status as the region’s Continuum of Care. What it does mean is that HUD will knock points off the KCRHA’s score when it applies for federal funding in the future through a process called a Notice of Funding Opportunities, which could reduce its competitiveness for federal funding in the future.

The KCRHA appears to be unique among agencies across the state in declining to count the region’s homeless population after receiving an exemption from HUD last year. According to Washington State Department of Commerce Penny Thomas, “We don’t know of any other CoCs or counties that are opting out of the unsheltered count in 2022. As far as we know, everyone will do an unsheltered count.”

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens acknowledged this on Tuesday, saying that the agency was aware the decision “may have docked us a point” in future competitions for federal funding. On Wednesday, the agency had updated its site to say that they have discussed the decision to forego  the count, and KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the authority would have more to share about its official correspondence with HUD soon.

But failing to participate in the annual count doesn’t just dock agencies “a point.” Agencies that don’t participate in the annual count automatically lose six points, out of a possible 200, on their annual applications for funding through an annual process now known as a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO). Failing to participate in the count also makes agencies automatically ineligible for 34 possible points that require data from the count, for a total loss of at least six and up to 40 potential points. HUD uses these annual scores to determine which homeless agencies across the nation receive funding, and how much.

The KCRHA appears to be unique among agencies across the state in declining to count the region’s homeless population after receiving an exemption from HUD last year. According to Washington State Department of Commerce Penny Thomas, “We don’t know of any other CoCs or counties that are opting out of the unsheltered count in 2022. As far as we know, everyone will do an unsheltered count.”

In announcing its decision to forego the one-night count, the KCRHA raised a number of issues with the count itself, calling it an “inaccurate” representation of the region’s homeless population that relies on “what volunteers see during a few hours in the early morning, in a neighborhood that may be unfamiliar to them, recorded on a paper tally sheet, at a time when there could be heavy rain or cold.” Undercounting the region’s unsheltered homeless population, the announcement continued, could result in less funding and a reduced public sense of urgency.

Under an FAQ item titled “If the PIT Count is so inaccurate, why does HUD require it?”, the agency wrote that the count, “by default and without an alternative, has simply become a part of the regulatory environment in order to receive federal funding.”

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, agreed that the one-night count is, by definition, an undercount of the region’s unsheltered homeless population. But she said the count, which was organized by SKCCH for 37 years before transferring to All Home, the KCRHA’s predecessor, has served a useful purpose over the years and is based in sound methodology.

“We constructed a model that effectively used multiple methods, produced quality data, and engaged over a thousand people in a meaningful way—and we leveraged the whole effort to energize our state and local advocacy,” Eisinger said. “There’s a lot to learn from our years of work, and from the attempts under All Home to experiment with other approaches.” Continue reading “In a Move With Potential Funding Consequences, King County Won’t Count Homeless Population This Year”

City, County Officials Want to Keep Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Open Next Year. Providers Aren’t So Sure.

King's Inn
King’s Inn

By Erica C. Barnett

Both the city of Seattle and the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) have said they hope to extend the contracts for two hotel-based shelters until the middle of 2022—months longer than the existing contracts, which end on January 31. But it’s unclear where the money will come from, or whether the shelter providers themselves are on board with

Earlier this year, after a lengthy debate, the city approved contracts with three service providers—Chief Seattle Club, the Low-Income Housing Institute, and Catholic Community Services—to operate two hotels in downtown Seattle on a short-term (10-month) basis. The new program, which launched in April, was supposed to move people swiftly from the street into private-market apartments using “rapid rehousing” rent subsidies, which assume that a person will be able to earn enough money to pay full market rent within several months to a year.

“We would ideally like more time to keep the hotel open. But we still need a viable plan to transition people into low income and [permanent supportive] housing.”—LIHI Director Sharon lee

In theory, this constant churn would make it possible for fewer than 200 hotel rooms to move many hundreds of people in to permanent housing during the 10 months the city planned to keep them open, as people moved indoors, stabilized, and quickly found apartments they could pay for with their rapid-rehousing subsidies. Chief Seattle Club was chosen to run the rapid rehousing program at King’s Inn in Belltown, and Catholic Community Services operates the rapid rehousing program at the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.

In reality, this never happened at anything close to the scale the mayor’s office predicted when they were talking up the program last year. Instead, the city designated the hotels as receiving sites for people swept from large encampments, including high-profile sweeps at Miller Park, Denny Park, Cal Anderson Park, and Pioneer Square.

LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola she is “very concerned about what to do, as the end of January 2022 is fast approaching and we have over 140 people living in the hotel. … We would ideally like more time to keep the hotel open. But we still need a viable plan to transition people into low income and [permanent supportive] housing. We would also have to use attrition and stop taking in new people at EHP to meet the January deadline.”

Anne Martens, a spokeswoman for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, says extending both of the hotel contracts is “a priority for the RHA”—a priority that could be funded using “underspend” (money left over) from HSD’s 2021 budget.

Derrick Belgarde, director of the Chief Seattle Club, said CSC isn’t “keen on extending” their contract at King’s Inn, due to issues at the site (the elevator doesn’t work) and the mismatch between the people living at the hotel, a third of whom are elderly or disabled, and rapid rehousing.

In July, PubliCola reported that CSC plans to move many of the people currently living at King’s Inn into CSC’s own permanent supportive housing, including some units that haven’t been finished yet. However, that plan assumed people would have access to rapid rehousing subsidies for at least a year, which isn’t happening; according to Belgarde, funding for CSC’s rapid rehousing program is set to expire in September, before all the new housing is available.

“We have consistently been telling members they have a 12-month subsidy,” Belgarde said. “The [rapid rehousing] contract is moving to KCRHA so we plan to negotiate an extension with them directly.” Continue reading “City, County Officials Want to Keep Seattle’s Hotel-Based Shelters Open Next Year. Providers Aren’t So Sure.”

As Homelessness Contracts Leave the City, Seattle Still Wants a Say In How Its Money Gets Spent

Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Councilmember Andrew Lewis

 

By Erica C. Barnett

At the end of 2021, the city of Seattle will cede direct control over all its existing homeless service contracts to the King County Regional Homeless Authority. But the city’s 2022 budget deliberations have made one thing clear: The city still expects to have a direct hand in how the money it provides to the authority gets spent, down to the line-item level of earmarking funds for specific purposes.

The city could send the new authority up to $150 million next year, including both funding for existing contracts (which the authority will retain, unchanged, in 2022) and for extras requested by city council members and the KCRHA itself.  Of about $40 million city council members have proposed adding to the city’s budget for homeless services next year, about $12 million would expand or extend existing programs or fund new priorities, all through what the budget describes as “contracts” between the Human Services Department and the KCRHA, which is independent from the city.

For example, three budget amendments from homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis would provide a total of $1.5 million for YouthCare, which serves youth and young adults, to provide COVID pay and time off for workers and continue or expand programs like a youth shelter relocated to a larger location during COVID and a barista training program. Another amendment, by Councilmember Dan Strauss, would expand funding for the city’s RV outreach and parking ticket mitigation program, which Durkan, for the second year in a row, has proposed eliminating.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA, Anne Martens, said that any money the council adds through the city’s budget process “will be included in our service agreement with the City” but referred more detailed questions about how the contracts would work to HSD. According a spokesman for HSD, the contracts will be part of a “master services agreement” between the homelessness authority and the city, similar to an existing agreement between the city and county for public health services. 

Councilmember Andrew Lewis acknowledged that the city has few options to require the authority to spend money in a specific way, since the KCRHA is not part of the city, beyond passing a budget restriction called a proviso stipulating that the city won’t provide funding unless it goes to a specific purpose.

In addition to the amendments council members initiated on their own, the authority is asking for $27.6 million to fund a new high-acuity shelter for people living with serious physical and behavioral health challenges downtown, peer navigators to help unhoused access shelter and services, and funding for administrative costs that the KCRHA didn’t include in its initial budget.

Lewis, who sits on the regional authority’s governing board, acknowledged that the city has few options to require the authority to spend money in a specific way, since the KCRHA is not part of the city, beyond passing a budget restriction called a proviso stipulating that the city won’t provide funding unless it goes to a specific purpose. Councilmember Kshama Sawant has proposed just such a proviso on $9 million in funding for the authority, which, under her amendment, could only fund new and existing tiny house villages, a shelter type that KCRHA CEO Marc Dones has frequently criticized.

In recent years, the council has used provisos to try to prevent Mayor Jenny Durkan from repurposing funds for her own budget priorities, with mixed success. Continue reading “As Homelessness Contracts Leave the City, Seattle Still Wants a Say In How Its Money Gets Spent”

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”