Tag: Navigation Team

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

Seattle Council Legislation Would Rein In Encampment Sweeps During Pandemic

A few of the 68 tents I counted along South Weller St. between Rainier Ave. S and 12th Ave. S. The city’s Human Services Department plans to remove this encampment next week, along with a smaller one nearby.

City council member Tammy Morales, whose South Seattle district includes two encampments in the International District that the Seattle Human Services Department plans to remove next week, has introduced legislation that would restrict the circumstances under which Mayor Jenny Durkan can order encampment sweeps during the pandemic.

The proposal comes after Durkan announced that “all encampment removal operations have been suspended,” with exceptions for “extreme” circumstances, on March 17. Although the directive gave five examples of situations that would qualify as “extreme,” including tents in the middle of roads or completely blocking a sidewalk, it did not actually define “extreme,” allowing sweeps to continue on an essentially ad hoc basis.

The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, would prohibit the city from removing encampments except when the encampment poses an “immediate hazard” (as defined here); blocks a curb ramp, bike lane, or most of a sidewalk; presents a fire or safety hazard to infrastructure; obstructs the entrance or exist of a building; or is located in a children’s play area. The city could also remove encampments that constitute “an active health threat,” but only if the people living there have been offered “appropriate public health resources” that have failed to resolve the threat, and if “relocating would resolve the health threat.”

Mosqueda says she added the public health language after Durkan’s office cited “hepatitis A and COVID” as public health reasons to remove encampments, without explaining whether they were referring to diagnosed cases of COVID-19 or merely the concern that people living in encampments aren’t staying six feet apart.

“If they are citing COVID as a reason [for removing tents], that is very problematic, because we need to know where those folks are so that we can respond immediately and get people the appropriate public health resources that they need,” rather than “dispersing them throughout the city,” Mosqueda says.

Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Navigation Team has not provided hotel rooms to people at the encampments it has removed. Instead, the team has promised spaces in mass shelters such as the Navigation Center or spots in tiny house villages, a form of authorized encampment where people sleep in individual “tiny houses” but share restrooms, eating areas, and other common facilities.

“We know that congregate shelters are counter to what the CDC guidance has said, and it is not realistic, even in congregate shelters that have beds six feet apart,” to keep COVID from spreading, Mosqueda says.

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“We need to make sure that the city is sticking to what we declared, which was that during this crisis, we were not going to be moving people, and I think that the fact that this continues to happen is really beginning to erode the trust in the city,” Morales says. “The mayor can make al the pronouncements she wants, but if HSD isn’t actually following those declarations, then we need to make sure that there’s a policy in place.”

Morales says that unlike the situation in Ballard, where an indignant online petition signed by thousands of people and an incendiary KOMO report may have helped tip the mayor’s hand, the community around the two International District encampments is not clamoring for sweeps. “People want solutions to the problem,” Morales says. The city could have partnered with Co-LEAD, a new program that places people experiencing homelessness in hotels and connects them to services, but chose not to do so—a decision Morales calls “a failure of leadership” by the mayor and HSD. “If there is a program that is set up that can provide people a safe place to move to and provide them with other resources that can help them get stable, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t do that,” she says.

Because of the COVID emergency, the council is barred from passing most legislation that is not directly related to the pandemic. Morales’ legislation, which requires seven votes to pass, would expire at the end of 2020 or when the city state of civil emergency ends, whichever is earlier. The full council will vote on the legislation on Monday, May 25.

As County Opens More Non-Congregate Shelter to Prevent Spread of COVID, City Plans to Remove Two More Encampments

Nearly two years after King County first announced that it planned to open a modular shelter for people experiencing homelessness on county-owned property in Interbay, the project is almost ready to open for a new purpose: Providing non-congregate shelter for between 45 and 50 homeless men over 55 from the St. Martin de Porres shelter, run by Catholic Community Services. The modular buildings, which are essentially trailers with windows, fans, and high-walled cubicles to provide privacy and protection from disease transmission between the four men who will share each unit, were originally supposed to be dorm-style shelters housing up to eight people on beds or cots.

The project, which will include eight individual showers, 10 single-stall restrooms, laundry facilities, a dog run, and a community room with a meal delivery area, cost $7 million, up from a 2018 projection of $4.5 million. Operating the site will cost around $2 million a year.

“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus”—King County Executive Dow Constantine

King County has focused much of its response to homelessness during the COVID emergency on moving people out of mass shelters—where, County Executive Dow Constantine pointed out Thursday, “we’re likely to have runaway infections before you know it”—and into individual hotel and motel rooms or other non-congregate temporary housing.

Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID emergency unless they can offer each person “individual housing,” not space in congregate shelter, to prevent the virus from spreading. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the federal guidance says.

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“The work we’ve gone to move people out of congregate settings and into hotels has been remarkably successful in terms of preventing the spread of the virus,” Constantine said. “We continue to test [people living in] relocated shelters who are in hotels and would be in facilities like this, and we are finding very little if any transmission of the disease.” At the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is serving as temporary housing for people who had been staying in the Downtown Emergency Services Center’s main shelter in downtown Seattle, 177 people have been tested for COVID-19; zero have tested positive.

The city has focused its response to homelessness on adding more congregate shelter spaces so that people living in mass shelters can sleep further apart, and on providing referrals to shelter for people at the encampments it removes, which the city says are limited to those that cause a public health or public safety risk. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan took issue with the notion that the city and county had adopted different approaches. “There is no ‘or’ here,” she said. “We are taking every approach we can and adding significant additional financial resources from the city to make sure that we are bringing as many people inside as we can.”

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” —Centers for Disease Control

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of police officers and Human Services Department staffers, has removed at least two large encampments in recent weeks—one outside the Navigation Center shelter in the International District and one at the Ballard Commons park. In both cases, the city said the encampments posed a public safety and health risk, because people were congregating in violation of state and city orders. In the case of the Commons, the city said that a hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened 17 homeless people in the Ballard area endangered the safety of people living in and around the park.

“The CDC guidance made very clear that our number one priority would be outreach to people experiencing homelessness, to provide them hygiene, to provide them information, and to try to bring them inside,” Durkan said. “But if there are areas where there is a public safety or public health [issue], we will try to mitigate against that threat.”

The city has said that there were beds in enhanced shelters (24/7 shelters with amenities such as case management and the ability to stay with partners or pets) available for every person living at the Commons, although the city’s official count of 40 residents is significantly lower than estimates provided by both people living at the site and by homeless service providers at the Bridge Care Center across the street. “Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside,” Durkan said.

“Before we remove people for public safety or public health reasons, we’re working on an ongoing basis to offer people the opportunity to come inside.” —Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan 

Next week, the Seattle Human Services Department’s Navigation Team will remove two separate encampments in the International District. On two recent visits to both sites, I counted a total of at least 80 tents, the vast majority of them on South Weller Street between 12th Ave. S. and S. Dearborn St. Durkan did not respond directly to a question about whether the city had sufficient enhanced shelter beds for 80 people. “We will continue to do our best, and we will make offers to everybody who we try to relocate. We want to put compassion first but it has to work with the policy of public safety and public health in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

The Public Defender Association has offered to place people displaced when the city removes encampments in hotel rooms through its new Co-LEAD program, which is aimed at reducing recidivism by providing case management and temporary non-congregate housing during the COVID crisis. The city did not take them up on their offer, although Durkan has signed off on the program in principle and name-checked it during Thursday’s press conference. Given that the International District encampments are scheduled for removal starting next Tuesday, it appears unlikely at this point that the people living in these encampments will be candidates for Co-LEAD either.

Navigation Team Removes Ballard Encampment After Petition Demands Sweep

Armed police officers far outnumbered the handful of unsheltered people who still lingered at an encampment at the Ballard Commons park this morning, two days after the city posted paper notices that the encampment, which has occupied the area since early March, had been deemed an “obstruction” and would be removed. The police stood around, chatting amongst themselves, until 9am, when it was time to roust people from their tents and get them to move along.

Officially, the city is no longer removing encampments unless they constitute an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living at a site. In reality, it would have been next to impossible to provide shelter, much less personalized shelter appropriate to each person’s health condition and situation, to the dozens of people who were living at the Commons and in front of the nearby Ballard Library before the notices went up.

Even with just 15 people remaining late this morning, according to the city’s official blog post about the sweep, there were only 12 beds available in enhanced shelters or tiny house villages. That means that if everyone had wanted a shelter bed, the options would quickly come down to a cot or mat on the floor at one of the large mass shelters that are still accepting clients—shared living spaces where infection can spread quickly, including COVID-19 spread. And the number of accessible beds was actually much lower than the city’s blog post lets on: Just 3 of the 12 beds were open to single men, who appeared to make up the vast majority of the people living at the Commons; the rest were for single women (seven) or couples (two).

 

The city did not say how many people actually accepted offers of shelter, only that there was shelter available for everyone who wanted it. Since April 22, according to HSD, the Navigation Team gave shelter referrals to 19 people. As I’ve reported, even in normal times when there is more turnover at shelters, a tiny fraction of referrals by the Navigation Team actually lead to shelter; most people who receive referrals never follow up, indicating either that the referral was unacceptable to them or that they didn’t have a way to get there.

Joseph, who had a broken foot, told me he had lived living at the Commons for several weeks after the winter-only emergency shelter where he was staying shut down. (To protect the privacy of vulnerable homeless people, and in acknowledgement of the fact that the people removed from the Commons today were experiencing trauma, I am not using their last names or running photos that include their faces.) He received a referral to the Navigation Center, and told me, “I have no idea what the Navigation Center is.” The center is located about six miles away in the International District—a trip that requires two buses and takes about an hour. According to an HSD spokesman, the Navigation Team did not offer transportation to the people who received shelter referrals this morning.

Joseph said he has had a voucher for housing for months, and has been working with Catholic Community Services to secure permanent supportive housing. He said this was the first time he has ever been contacted by the Navigation tTeam since moving to the Commons in April. “Look at all that stuff they’re throwing away,” he said, gesturing toward a pair of orange-vested team members who were tossing a tent and pile of items, including what looked like an old, wood-paneled stereo, into a waiting dump truck. “I’ve never seen anybody get their stuff back.”

The sweep came as a surprise to many advocates, as well as some within the Human Services Department itself. Just three days ago, HSD was touting its outreach to people living at the Commons, and there had been no public indication before this weekend that the agency considered the situation an “emergency” that required immediate removal. Examples of circumstances where an encampment would constitute an “emergency,” according to the city, include “living structures completely blocking the entire sidewalk, living structures prohibiting safe entry and exit from a building or use of a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

None of the tents at the Commons this weekend obstructed any part of the sidewalk, much less the entire thing, and there were no tents near the entrance to the library, the one public building that is open for a very limited purpose—to provide a restroom for people experiencing homelessness in the area, which until today primarily meant people living at the Commons. Nor did the city claim to have found any criminal activity taking place in the tents.

The only “public safety” or “health” justification HSD provided for the removal was a recent outbreak of hepatitis A, which, as of last month, included 11 people experiencing homelessness in Ballard. But new numbers released by King County Public Health today showed what the county called a “small reduction in cases,” with just six new cases among homeless people in Ballard. For comparison, there were five cases associated with a single restaurant, Señor Moose, that was shut down by the county for less than a week.

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It’s unclear where the decision to sweep the Commons originated, although several people at the site speculated that it came after a KOMO report featuring a woman brandishing a gun and saying she planned to take “safety issues” at the park into her own hands. Last week, homeowners in the area circulated a petition demanding the tents be removed and suggesting that homeowners would sue the city for “emotional distress” and loss of property value. A spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the decision to remove the encampments was made “by HSD and in consultation with City stakeholders, including SPD, Parks, SPU, and the Mayor’s Office” in response to “deteriorating” conditions at the site.

If anything, the encampment has been significantly cleaner and more orderly in recent weeks than it was during the early days of the pandemic, when tents spilled onto sidewalks near the library and onto the actual park grounds. On Saturday, the encampment was quiet, with dozens of tents arranged on the parking strips and only one tent in the park itself, under a tree near the corner of the one-block grounds.

By 8:30 this morning, the place was already almost empty. Social service workers who showed up to observe the sweep said this morning’s action undermined the many weeks of work they’d done to build relationships with people living at the encampment. And it makes them harder to reach.

“With a lot of my clients right here, it was easy for me to give them the resources they need,” said Joshua Perme, outreach manager for The Bridge Care Center near the park. “Now, with all these people scattered to the four winds, I’m going to have to go back out and find them.” This afternoon, Perme said, he planned to meet with a volunteer who sewed fabric masks for all the encampment residents. “NowI’m going to have to put them in a backpack and go out and find all of them. I’ll make it happen, but it makes my job much harder.”

Howard, a man who has been living in his truck near the Commons, said he didn’t see the point of moving people from place to place. “It’s during a pandemic. Where are they going to go?” he said. “They still have to have a place to lay their head and go to sleep. I can kind of understand from the community perspective—if some single gal wants to bring her little kid out here to the park— but it’s not like you can run and take a leap into one of those apartments” overlooking the park.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, sent a letter to Durkan’s office this morning calling the encampment removal “rash, disrespectful, and unlikely to assist people in need of help in a crisis.” As I did, Eisinger visited the site over the weekend—on Sunday—and said that it was “clean, and aside from the fact that the handwashing unit is not working, the facilities seem to be well-used. There were many parks users engaging in normal activities across the space and on the adjoining streets.”

The people who sign petitions to remove homeless people from parks and importune the mayor to earn their vote by “doing something” about the visibility of urban poverty may indeed feel that they accomplished something. But the thousands of people currently trying to survive on the streets of Seattle in the middle of a global pandemic would be right to wonder why, if the city has the resources to send dozens of cops to remove 15 nonviolent people from a public park, it can’t do something to get them into a place where they’re actually safe. While the city offers cots in congregate shelters to people who are already vulnerable, an entire downtown hotel sits almost empty, racking up a bill of $1 million a month. We have the money. It’s just a question of priorities.

As Tents Proliferate, It’s Time to Figure Out What Comes Next

One of the most obvious sidewalk-level impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic, in Seattle as well as other West Coast cities, has been the proliferation of homeless encampments in public spaces. Prior to the epidemic, the encampment-clearing Navigation Team, aided by the police and the parks department, were removing about 100 encampments a month, 96 percent of them without providing any prior notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services to the people living there. Since mid-March, the city reports that the Navigation Team has shifted its role and is now offering information about “expanded shelter resources,” testing referrals, and hygiene kits that include bars of soap—not terribly useful without a ready source of running water.

However, the team was still doing sweeps—which the city refers to, in language that removes humans from the equation, as “cleans”—through mid-March. After that, they moved to doing “litter picks,” another odd term that implies people living unsheltered are wantonly tossing trash about, when the reality is that only a handful of established encampments get trash bags and pickup from the city. In all the “site journals” the team produces during their operations, the “before clean” photos are zoomed-in, prurient—a bottle of pee, an extreme close-up of a piece of feces on a sidewalk, a tight crop on two needles sitting on a ledge. The “after clean” shots, in contrast, are zoomed out, territorial—they take in the entirety of an area, demonstrating the fruits of a job well done.

But you can’t deny the encampments. They’re everywhere, from Ballard to Highland Park to Beacon Hill. The city, county, and state have failed to provide housing for the thousands of homeless people living unsheltered, and the thousands more who spend their nights on shelter floors, in transitional motel spaces, or moving from couch to street to couch. That was before the epidemic. Now, they’ve failed to provide safe places for most of these people to go.

The tents, sprouting everywhere, are the fruits of that inaction. There simply is no “good” story to tell on housing or shelter right now, because so many people are unhoused, and because the shelters aren’t safe. The city of Seattle has created just 95 new spaces—half of them in tiny houses, half in shelter—for people to sleep, and “solved” the problem of overcrowded shelters by opening bigger spaces so that people can sleep head to toe, six feet apart. People are trying to survive an epidemic in conditions no elected official would want for their own family members—sharing air, bathrooms, and common areas at a time when the rest of us are ordered to stay at home and far away from other people.

The county has opened hundreds of hotel rooms, but thousands more are needed, and the city has resisted even discussing the idea. On Monday morning, city council member Teresa Mosqueda quizzed staffers from the City Budget Office about what the city is doing to provide individual spaces for homeless people to shelter in place; the answer was that the city was “focused on trying to provide additional space for our existing shelters” and that the county was “taking the lead on isolation and quarantine rooms,” which was not what Mosqueda asked about.

Meanwhile, the tents proliferate. And even if the city decides to follow the lead of the county, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities and find the money to put people in hotels, it’s unclear what happens next. It seems impossible, in this moment, to think of returning to the old system of endless sweeps—if nothing else, the city is now in a budget crisis and the Navigation Team costs more than $8 million a year—but no one at any governmental level has proposed an exit strategy for all these people, whose current living situation is untenable in the long run. Elected officials say we have to deal with the immediate crisis in front of us and worry about funding and housing options later. Advocates say there has to be a solution that doesn’t retraumatize people by returning them to chaotic, overcrowded shelters. Right now, we’re still in a middle of a crisis, but things are also on hold. Perhaps that creates some space to consider our priorities, what we owe to each other, and the consequences of doing things the way we’ve always done them.

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Morales Proposes Eliminating Most Encampment Sweeps, Mayor’s Office Says Huge New “Shelter Tent” Is Coming, and More

Two of the beds the city is counting as “temporary housing” for homeless people, at an isolation/quarantine facility for COVID patients

1. City council member Tammy Morales plans to introduce a budget proviso that would restrict the Navigation Team’s ability to remove encampments that are not true hazards or obstructions. The proposal, a proviso on the adopted 2020 budget, would bar the city from spending money on sweeps except in a few specific circumstances.

The city has suspended most encampment removals during the COVID epidemic, but several homeless advocates expressed concern this week that the city plans to aggressively sweep encampments as soon as the crisis is over. Prior to the pandemic, the team, made up of police officers, outreach workers, and a cleanup crew, was removing most encampments without notice or mandatory outreach, thanks to a loophole in the city’s encampment rules. Although these rules, known as Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, require the team to provide 72 hours’ notice and an offer of shelter to every encampment resident, the Navigation Team has gotten around this requirement by designating the overwhelming majority of encampments as “obstructions,” which allows them to remove encampments with no notice or outreach.

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Morales’ proposal would allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments only under a narrow set of circumstances. For example, if an encampment obstructed the entrance to a building; presented an immediate fire hazard; or was located inside a children’s play area, it could be removed without warning. A draft of the bill lists six situations when a removal would be justified.

Morales says the Navigation Team “is using this obstruction language as an excuse, really, to remove people, and so we are trying to limit the funds that can be used to remove encampments. … [Withholding funds] is the only leverage we seem to have. People have been calling on the executive branch since longer than Jenny Durkan’s been there to stop this process, and that message doesn’t seem to be getting through.”

2. During a presentation about the challenges the city faces in opening parks restrooms and standing up portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID crisis, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller repeated what has become one of the mayor’s favorite talking points: “We recently announced our partnership with the county in creating 1,900 new spaces” for people experiencing homelessness, he said. Sixkiller’s comments came shortly after street outreach workers and advocates described the situation on the ground, where thousands of homeless people without access to shelter or public restrooms lack places to use the restroom or wash their hands. Sixkiller said the new beds were part of the city’s efforts to “[move] people inside so hygiene can be accessed there.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.”

When council members pointed out that this number is not correct—the 1,900 spaces, which the mayor’s office has also described as “temporary housing,” are mostly hospital and isolation/quarantine beds for people who are sick, and the 700 “new” shelter spaces are existing spaces that have been relocated during the crisis—Sixkiller called their objections “semantic.” “The reality is that there are 1,900 beds coming online,” he said. King County’s website is the most accurate guide to these 1,893 beds, some of which may not yet be online; they include about 700 existing shelter spaces that have been relocating to achieve social distancing, plus more than 1,000 hospital beds for people in isolation, quarantine, or recovery.

3. SIxkiller also said the city planned to open a “shelter tent for 180 individuals” in partnership with the Salvation Army. Homeless advocates who were participating in, and watching, the meeting said that this was the first they had heard of such a tent, and it was unclear whether the new tent would be for redistribution or an entirely new shelter. (I’ve asked the city for additional details about the tent). Up and down the West Coast, cities are beginning to move away from congregate shelters, which put people in close proximity, with people sleeping head to foot on mats or cots six feet apart and sharing air and mass restroom facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would pay for 15,000 motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and the city of Los Angeles plans to pay for 15,000 more.

A common objection to putting homeless people in hotel or motel rooms is that they need high levels of “staffing” to supervise them, a claim that advocates say is not true for most homeless people, who are capable of caring for themselves but lack the money to pay sky-high rents. Another objection, which came up at a county briefing on shelter and behavioral health on Wednesday, is that hotels aren’t interested. Some homeless advocates, including Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director Sara Rankin, have suggested that the city or county should put out a request for qualifications to hotels and see who bites. “Right now [the Downtown Emergency Service Center] is trying to reach out to hotel and motel facilities themselves, which shouldn’t be DESC’s problem. That should be something that the city is streamlining,” Rankin says.

Worker Benefits Expanded, Sweeps Suspended For Now, Navigation Team’s Future In Doubt

Ballard Business District, March 17, 2020

1. Governor Jay Inslee did not announce a statewide order to shelter in place on Wednesday afternoon, nor did he the bait when a reporter asked him whether he planned on doing so later this week. Instead, at a press conference in Olympia that was broadcast statewide, with reporters participating by teleconference, Inslee said he was issuing several new orders to ease the financial burdens the COVID-19 outbreak has placed on renters, small business owners, and workers statewide.

“My dad used to tell me, when you’re going through hell, keep going,” Inslee said, before announcing his latest statewide COVID financial relief package, which includes: 

• A statewide moratorium on evictions for residential tenants who are unable to pay their rent. Unlike a similar temporary eviction ban in Seattle, the statewide moratorium leaves some leeway for landlords to evict tenants for other reasons. “We just can’t have a big spike in homelessness … with this epidemic raging,” Inslee said. Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said that the order left room for landlords to evict tenants who were engaged in criminal activity or creating environmental hazards, for example.

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• A waiver of the usual one-week waiting period before people can receive unemployment benefits, retroactive to March 8, when Inslee expanded eligibility for unemployment to part-time workers. Inslee said today that he is waiting for the White House and Congress to declare a federal disaster in Washington State, making more employees, as well as some independent contractors, eligible for unemployment.

Employment Security Department commissioner Suzi LeVine said unemployment claims were up 150% last week, and claims for shared work arrangements (where people go to part time but also get unemployment) have spiked 500%. “There has been a tsunami of demand,” LeVine said.

• Small grants to small businesses that have been impacted by the epidemic, plus tax relief for businesses that are unable to pay their taxes on time, retroactive to February 29. This will include interest waivers and the suspension of tax liens and forced collections by seizing bank accounts.

• The extension of Emergency Family Assistance (cash assistance) eligibility to families without children.

“Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible [to COVID-19] than a lot of the general public.” — Steve, who lived in a trailer that was towed away by the Navigation Team last week

2. Yesterday, after declining to respond to questions from reporters about whether the Navigation Team planned to continue removing encampments and disposing of homeless people’s belongings during the pandemic, the city’s Human Services Department put up a blog post announcing the suspension of most sweeps, except in an “extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard.”

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said examples of an extreme circumstance would include any encampment that is “blocking the entire sidewalk, prohibits access to a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor says that both the Navigation Team and other city staffers authorized and trained to remove encampments on their own, such as community police officers and some parks employees, will abide by the moratorium. The blog post included a detailed itemization of the number of hygiene kits the city has distributed, the number of sites the team has visited, and the number of flyers about COVID they have handed out. But when it came to the number of encampments that have been removed since the beginning of March, when several people in the Seattle area had already died from the virus, the blog post said simply that they were “limited.”

Asked for a more specific number, the mayor’s office responded that the city removed just 15 encampments that were deemed “obstructions,” total, between March 1 and March 17.

3. I found out about one of those 15 removals on March 11, when Bailey Boyd, a North Seattle resident, took photos of its what was left after the Navigation Team towed away a trailer that was parked on the street near her home and posted them on Twitter. Boyd said and her roommate watched as the team tossed all of the items inside the trailer onto the street, where many of them remained until the couple who had been living there moved to a different location.

Source: Alliance for a HealthY Washington

“I went and got coffee in the morning, and when I came back, there was a squad car and another car there and the Navigation Team was going through all their stuff and throwing it on the ground,” Boyd said. “Then they brought a tow truck in and towed the trailer, and they just left all of their stuff on the side of the road.”

One of the two people who had been living in the trailer, whose first name is Steve, said the Navigation Team told him they could call a shelter for him and his girlfriend, who is disabled and uses a cane, and see if they had space. Steve says he told them not to bother. “I’m not going to a shelter. I’m with my girlfriend and I’m not going to split up from her,” he said. He also wants to avoid close contact with potentially infected people—something he doesn’t have to deal with living in a trailer. “Because of our living situation, we’re probably a little bit less susceptible than a lot of the general public,” he said.

Another issue, for Steve and his girlfriend, is that they don’t want to lose all their personal items—something Steve said has happened to him repeatedly after the Navigation Team has made him move. According to the city, the Navigation Team places all personal items removed from encampments in storage for a minimum of 70 days. However, according to the “site journals” posted on the city’s encampment abatement page, which has not been updated since the end of January, the last time the Navigation Team stored any property at all was last October.

4. This year’s city budget will need to be cut dramatically to deal with the economic impact of the COVID epidemic. Last week, the head of the city budget office, Ben Noble, estimated that the budget could take a $100 million hit. One place council members may look for savings is the Navigation Team, which has been expanded every year since Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in 2017. The team, at 38 members, now costs the city $8.4 million a year.

District 2 council member Tammy Morales, who vowed during her campaign to “stop the sweeps,” told me this week that the council had already started looking at the team’s budget before the current crisis hit. “Even before this emergency, our office was working to stop the sweeps,” Morales said. Expect the council to take a critical lens to the program once the dust settles and it’s clear how much the city has to cut.

Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma Is Homeless

Governor Jay Inslee

At a telephone press conference this morning, Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a stern followup to his statewide order, issued Sunday night, closing restaurants, bars, and other gathering spaces and banning all gatherings of more than 50 people: “If you’re thinking about having a [gathering] with 49 people in the same room, think again.”

Directing his remarks at people over 60 or with an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to infection to infection, Inslee continued: “you are at substantial risk because of this virus. I want to make a very personal and gubernatorial request to you: You need to self-isolate, starting right now, and that means you need to change the way you operate your life.”

“If your grandma is going out… to an art gallery, no!” Inslee said, his voice rising. “You need to talk to her and say, ‘You’re not going to do that for a couple weeks at least.” King County Executive Constantine added that while it’s okay for people to take a “short drive,” they should make sure they don’t go too far from home so that they won’t have to use a public restroom.

But when asked about a different group of people vulnerable to COVID-19—the thousands of people experiencing homelessness who have health problems or are over 60—the advice from government officials was different. Instead of giving those elderly and vulnerable homeless people the ability to self-isolate, the county has adopted a policy of “de-intensification”—opening more shelter spaces to allow people to sleep six feet apart.

Asked why the city and county are continuing to gather the most vulnerable homeless people in large congregate shelters, Dow Constantine, the King County Executive, pointed to the opening of a new shelter at Boeing Field “that is specifically for older and more fragile adults, and that is going to offer us the option to shelter [those people] instead of sending them out onto the street.” The airport space is currently serving as a shelter for 80 men over 55 who had been staying in more crowded conditions.

Obviously, vulnerable people are safer when they can sleep six feet apart, rather than crowded into tighter quarters (or forced “out on the street,” a cruel alternative no one has actually suggested.) But the difference between the official policy for homeless and housed people couldn’t be more stark. If your grandma is housed, she shouldn’t go outside, play with her grandkids, or visit an art gallery where other visitors might be present. If she’s homeless, her best option is to sleep in a room (and share a restroom) with dozens of other people who are uniquely vulnerable to getting sick.

There is actually another option—one that doesn’t involve putting vulnerable homeless people “out onto the street.” The county could offer hotel vouchers to every single homeless person who is over 60 or has an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to infection. This would undoubtedly be expensive, but perhaps not as much as one might expect—after all, hotels in Seattle have emptied out as tourism has dried up, making deals easy to come by.

And beyond the cost to local governments, it’s worth considering the moral cost of deliberately creating a two-tiered system, one in which the recommended strategy for staying alive in a deadly pandemic depends on whether you, or your grandma, are homeless or housed.

King County Department of Community and Human Services spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton said the county is providing some additional vouchers; I’ll update this post when I find out more about how many vouchers will be offered and to whom.

Meanwhile, the city’s Navigation Team was reportedly continuing to remove homeless encampments over the weekend. According to the Alliance for a Healthy Washington, the team of police and Human Services Department staffers towed away a trailer occupied by three homeless people at N 137th Street and Midvale Ave. N on Saturday, leaving the group to sleep with their belongings under a tarp.

HSD has not yet responded to questions sent over the weekend about why the city is continuing to remove encampments during the outbreak, and Mayor Jenny Durkan did not answer the same question when Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone asked it during this morning’s press conference.

Human Services Director Resigns Days After Contentious Meeting Leaves Navigation Team’s Future in Question

Jason Johnson, the embattled acting director of the Seattle Human Services Division, announced his resignation in a letter to staffers Friday morning—two days after an off-the-rails presentation to the city council about the work of the encampment-clearing Navigation Team. Johnson will leave the city in June. Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson, who presented at that meeting alongside Johnson and team director Tara Beck, announced her retirement shortly after Johnson’s resignation announcement went out. The high-level departures come on top of a wave of resignation notices within HSD’s homelessness division, which recently started offering unprecedented incentives to keep staffers from leaving.

I first reported the news of Johnson’s resignation on Twitter.

Johnson’s tenure as HSD director has been contentious. As deputy HSD director under former mayor Ed Murray, Johnson oversaw the implementation of Pathways Home, a realignment of the city’s homelessness spending toward “rapid rehousing” rather than temporary shelter or transitional housing, a framework that has ended up being more theory than practice. Also as deputy, Johnson oversaw the department’s shift toward performance-based contracting, in which agencies do not receive full funding unless they meet performance goals. And he oversaw the city’s new investments in enhanced shelters—shelters that offer some combination of 24/7 access, storage, services, and a lack of barriers such as sex segregation and sobriety requirements.

Johnson came under fire from the beginning of his tenure as acting director. As soon as Durkan sent his name to the city council for nomination (nine months after she tapped him for the job), HSD employees raised objections, saying he was not responsive to lower-level staff and requesting that the city do an open search process for a new director. (Employees from the homelessness division, in particular, were unhappy under Johnson and his predecessor Catherine Lester’s leadership; according to internal surveys, the number of people in the division who felt unappreciated and unacknowledged increased under their tenure.) During his appointment process, council members grilled Johnson on allegations of harassment and intimidation within the department, as well as whether he would make decisions independent of political direction from Mayor Jenny Durkan; after it became clear that he did not have the council votes to win nomination, Durkan withdrew his nomination, and he has served on an interim basis ever since.

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Under Johnson’s leadership, the Navigation Team, which removes encampments from parks and public spaces, shifted its focus away from its nominal purpose—navigating homeless people to shelter and housing—to simply removing encampments whenever they pop up in parks, on rights-of-way, and in other public spaces, with no advance notice or offers of shelter or other services. As the team’s latest quarterly report revealed, the Navigation Team now declares virtually all the encampments it encounters  exempt from all of the once-standard notice and outreach requirements established in 2017, by deeming then “obstructions”—a designation that allows the team to remove them right away. As Johnson articulated on Wednesday, HSD considers any encampment or tent in any park to automatically constitute an “obstruction,” whether it is actually obstructing anyone’s ability to use the park or not. In the last quarter, the team provided advance notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. This is likely among many reasons that only a tiny fraction of the team’s contacts with people living in encampments  lead to shelter.

At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier. This escalation corresponded with annual increases in the size of the team: Over two years, the team ballooned from 16 members, including eight outreach workers from nonprofits that specialize in case management, to 38, which allowed the team to remove encampments seven days a week. Also over that period, contracted outreach workers from REACH (Evergreen Treatment Services) stopped participating in encampment removals, citing the damage their participation caused to their relationships with the vulnerable people they serve, which prompted the city to hire two in-house “system navigators’ to be on site during encampment sweeps. The Seattle Police Department also trained 100 bike and Community Police Team officers to remove encampments directly, vastly increasing the number of police officers who can remove encampments without any participation from outreach workers.

Johnson’s departure (and Drake-Ericson’s, for that matter) leaves the future of the Navigation Team in question. Although most of the functions of the homelessness division are moving over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority over the course of 2020, the city insisted on keeping the Navigation Team in-house, moving it to another division within HSD (likely Youth and Family Services.) The council, which has been reluctant to rein in Durkan’s yearly expansion of the team, may finally balk this year, as council member Teresa Mosqueda takes over as head of the budget process.

And whoever Durkan nominates to replace Johnson should expect intense scrutiny. As new council member Tammy Morales—a former member of the city’s Human Rights Commission who opposes encampment sweeps—put it, “Seattle deserves leadership who listens, even when they might not like what we have to say, and it’s incumbent on this city’s leadership to include the community for HSD’s next director in the hiring process.”

Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter

Photos from a site journal for the removal of an “obstruction” encampment inside a small forested area in MLK Memorial Park

A presentation by the Human Services Department on the latest quarterly report from the Navigation Team, which showed that 96 percent of encampment removals are now occurring with no advance notice or outreach, was derailed almost immediately this afternoon, as city council members objected to the premise of a presentation touting the team’s success. The Navigation Team is a 38-member group of police and Human Services Department staffers that removes encampments.

No sooner had Navigation Team director Tara Beck told the council, cheerfully, that “every person the Navigation Team engages with is offered shelter,” than council member Kshama Sawant interrupted, saying, “I just cannot wrap my head around how out of touch this sort of bureaucratic presentation is.” Her colleague Teresa Mosqueda chimed in: “We’re having a hard time accepting that statement” that everyone is offered shelter. As the Navigation Team’s own report makes clear, just 24 percent of people the Navigation Team speaks to, or “contacts,” during encampment removals receive shelter referrals.

Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Navigation Team director Tara Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been working with encampment residents told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients.”

As I reported yesterday, the number of those people who actually go to shelter (as opposed to verbally accepting a referral in the middle of a chaotic and traumatic situation), fewer than 23 percent actually report to shelter within two days—a number that works out to just 6 percent of those contacted by the Navigation Team, or 45 people over a three-month period. Johnson suggested that the number would be higher if the people who went to shelter after 7 or 14 days elapsed were included, prompting Sawant to remark that the point of referring people somewhere when their encampment is removed is to get them sheltered right away, not weeks later. “What happens in… those [48] hours could be devastating to them. I feel like we have to at least make an attempt to not have a cavalier approach to this,” Sawant said.

The presenters—who, in addition to Johnson and Beck, included Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson—seemed to be caught flat-footed by the council’s barrage of questions, attempting to stick to a presentation that painted a sunny picture of the Navigation Team’s work. Beck referred repeatedly to efforts by Navigation Team field coordinators and system navigators (the two in-house outreach workers who took over when the city’s outreach partner, REACH, disengaged from the team last year) to “get to yes” with people living in encampments who were reluctant to “accept” offers of shelter, suggesting a level of sustained outreach that homeless service providers, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly said the team is not providing.

As it happens, that sweep in Martin Luther King Memorial Park occurred on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a day that the Navigation Team takes off. On the team’s internal encampment removal schedule, the holiday is notated with an inspirational quote: “Injustice anywhere is an injustice to people everywhere.”

Again and again, council members questioned the staffers’ claim that the Navigation Team offers shelter, storage, and assistance to everyone living in encampments—pointing out, for example, that the team often removes encampments that are obviously occupied without recording any “contacts” with any of the people living there at all. “How can you say that you are offering people shelter when 96 percent of encampment removals are exempt from prior notice?,” Mosqueda said. In response, Beck clarified: When she said that the Navigation Team offers shelter and services to everyone, she was only referring to traditional, 72-hour removals—which now make up just 4 percent of the Navigation Team’s work.

During one such removal—the clearing of a large encampment at South Dearborn Street and I-5—Beck said that all 40 or so encampment residents were offered shelter, but just 10 accepted. “Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been connecting people living there with emergency clothing, food, and medical care told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients,” according to an email obtained through a records request.

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“Case workers from various organizations have poured their energy into working together to provide assistance for folks living in that space,” the letter, from a case worker who is no longer with REACH, said. “All of this effort, all of the progress (however minimal it may appear) clients at [the Dearborn] Cloverleaf have made will be lost.”

here is a perverse incentive for HSD to continue calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, in the commonly understood meaning of that term, and to keep clearing encampments where they know people will either be absent or will not accept their offers of shelter. If the Navigation Team had a higher success rate, the system would quickly run out of beds to accept all their referrals. On an average night, according to the Navigation Team’s report, there are about 12 beds available among the ones set aside for Navigation Team referrals. (This point was not clear in the presentation or report, but a spokesman for HSD said this is what the number represents.) Half of these are in basic shelters where people sleep crowded together in bunks or on the floor—the type of shelter people who live in tents are the least likely to accept. Fundamentally, the system only “works” because most people don’t take shelter; if they did, the system would break down.

This would seem to suggest that the city needs to build more of the kinds of shelter people are likely to accept, such as tiny house villages, but Johnson said this would create another problem: “If we built enough shelter, we would then have another bottleneck, which would be at the front door of housing. You will never hear me say ‘let’s not build enough shelter,'” he continued, but it does move the goalposts in a way.” If we believe that shelter is better than living on the street, however, “moving the goalposts” even a little would still mean fewer people living, and dying, on sidewalks and in parks across the city. Continue reading “Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter”