Tag: public health

County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks

1. During a campaign debate sponsored by the King County Young Democrats on Saturday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), had a testy exchange about the issue of corporate PAC contributions.

It started when Nguyen said he didn’t accept any money from “corporate PACs.” Constantine said he was “interested to hear [Nguyen] say that he doesn’t take corporate PAC money,” given that he has received thousands of dollars from political committees for credit unions, health care, dentists, beer and wine distributors, and auto dealers, as well as individual lobbyists from industry groups. “I’m fine if you want to say  you’re not taking any corporate PAC money, but just make sure that you actually weren’t taking corporate PAC money, which you clearly were,” Constantine said. 

Nguyen, sputtering a bit, responded, “I’m happy to explain the difference between an association and a PAC … and in fact, if that’s the bar, then if you did the same thing, then that’s totally fine. So feel free to do the exact same thing that I am doing, that’s totally fine.” 

Later, Constantine brought up the PAC issue again, Nguyen responded: “Are they PACs? Were they PACs?”

“Yeah,” Constantine replied.

“They’re not. So look again. Look again,” Nguyen said. “They were associations… not the corporations themselves. But if you think that’s an issue, do the same. I’m happy to have you follow my lead, so don’t take corporate PACs and call it good.”

For the record, both candidates have accepted money from PACs, although Constantine—as the more established candidate—has accepted more. Nguyen’s PAC money came during his run for state senator in 2018.

SeattleMakers’ street sink model.

2. Six months after the city council allocated $100,000 to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective,” Seattle Public Utilities has finally chosen two vendors to receive the money.

Slightly more than half, $60,000, will go to the Clean Hands Collective, an organization founded by Real Change that includes landscape architects and public health experts; the rest, $40,000, will go to SeattleMakers, a South Lake Union “makerspace” that designed a prototype “handwashing station” at an estimated cost of $7,250 per unit—about ten times the price of Clean Hands’ Street Sink. According to SeattleMakers’ website, the city reached out to them to design the sink. Continue reading “County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks”

Afternoon Fizz: “A Dictator Posturing As a Mayor,” Another Preventable Disease Outbreak, and CPC Challenges Cops’ Crowd Control Plans

Not a handwashing station.

1. The manager of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative, Ubax Gardheere, and EDI staffer Boting Zhang sent out an open letter today denouncing Mayor Jenny Durkan as “a dictator posturing as a Mayor” and leading a city in which “women and people of color step up inside the institution” to do emotional labor for others.

“We’re done working for a dictator posturing as a Mayor,” the letter says. “We’re done feeling increasingly out of touch with our communities and friends. And we’re done being women of color bearing a disproportionate emotional labor burden in our civilization’s collective reckoning with our mid-life (or is it end-of-life?) crisis.”

The Equitable Development Initiative exists within the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development, which answers directly to Mayor Durkan. The purpose of the EDI is to fund and promote projects that prevent displacement in communities of color.

However, in their letter, Gardheere and Zhang suggested their jobs had become more about taking on emotional labor and “producing” on deadline than helping the communities EDI is supposed to serve.

“When we each took our jobs, we were afraid that we’d get pulled away from the values and people we hold most dear,” the letter reads “To an extent, we have. Our bodies have been weaponized in an institution that historically and presently has actively fought against [community], and you have sensed this.”

“There is an ongoing joke about the Seattle Process, this notion that when you bring too many people together, we don’t get anything done. Fuck that. It’s not bringing together too many people that makes us slow. It’s bringing together so much trauma that gets us trapped in gridlock. And time and again, we have seen women and people of color step up inside the institution to massage at the knots.”

Contacted by email, Gardheere and Zhang declined to comment or elaborate on their letter, which says both are “taking some time off to regain our mental health” before deciding what’s next.

Prior to working at the city, Gardheere was a program manager for Puget Sound Sage, the Seattle-based race and social justice advocacy group. Zhang was named “one to watch” in Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the city’s most influential people.

The best way to prevent disease outbreaks, county public health officer Jeff Duchin emphasized, is to ensure that people have access to soap and running water so that they can actually wash, not just sanitize, their hands.

2. At a meeting of the Seattle/King County Board of Health last week, King County Public Health director Patty Hayes described new outbreaks of shigella (a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, fever, and vomiting) and cryptosporidiosis (a diarrheal disease caused by a parasite.) Both spread through fecal matter on unwashed hands. In the latest shigella outbreak, 84 percent of 142 cases were among people experiencing homelessness. (Sixty-three percent of those people had to be hospitalized, according to Hayes).Among 47 people with cryptosporidiosis, about half are homeless, Hayes said.

The best way to prevent the spread of such diseases, county public health officer Jeff Duchin emphasized, is to ensure that people have access to soap and running water so that they can actually wash, not just sanitize, their hands. “Handwashing is definitely superior to” hand sanitizer, Duchin added. The city of Seattle, under Durkan, is considering what multiple people familiar with the conversations called “Purell on a pole” as an alternative to the handwashing stations that the city council funded in its budget last November.

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Hayes did praise the city for turning on 12 water fountains in downtown Seattle, which the city had turned off in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the top priorities was to get potable water, drinking water, out there—that was a super concern,” Hayes said. “We’re exploring more safe water options with Seattle Public Utilities and Parks. In the coming weeks, we’ll make additional recommendations for high-priority areas and we’ll continue to talk to the city about these hygiene issues.”

PubliCola’s has asked SPU how many water fountains are still out of commission across the city.

The department is holding an online seminar for groups interested in submitting a proposal for its handwashing station pilot—now expanded to include food waste disposal and rebranded the “Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program”— tonight at 6.

3. A blog post the Seattle Police Department published Monday announcing reforms to the department’s crowd control and use-of-force policies caught the Community Police Commission off guard, according to a letter from commission’s co-chairs. SPD’s post said the CPC’s “feedback” had contributed to the reforms. In a public response to SPD posted on the CPC’s website, co-chairs LaRond Baker and Erin Goodman wrote that the new policy changes largely do not reflect their recommendations and will “not do enough to keep protesters and other members of the community safe.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: “A Dictator Posturing As a Mayor,” Another Preventable Disease Outbreak, and CPC Challenges Cops’ Crowd Control Plans”

Six Weeks After City Announced Plans for 50-Bed Shelter, Southwest Teen Life Center Opens to Eight Homeless Youth

More than six weeks after the city publicly announced that it planned to convert the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle into a temporary shelter for 50 people by early April, the new shelter finally opened on Friday—with just five young adults as guests. (According to the city, three more had moved in by Monday). The residents of the new expansion shelter had been staying at YouthCare’s overnight shelter in Southeast Seattle, which has a (cramped) capacity of 20 clients under ordinary, non-COVID conditions.

When COVID started forcing shelter operators to find more space for people to sleep, Youthcare development and communications officer Jody Waits said, it became clear that “our choices were: Cut services in half, or let’s see if we can find a bigger space.”

“What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

The shelter’s clients are mostly from Southeast Seattle, which was one reason the agency scoured the area for a suitable temporary location before moving to a location seven miles, and an hour’s bus ride, away. Eventually, it came down to the Teen Life Center or a disused funeral home in South Seattle that would require extensive retrofits. Shelter clients and staff considered both options, and ultimately picked West Seattle.

“Our clients in that space [on Rainier] are so highly tethered on a community level to that neighborhood that moving out felt really impossible to consider,” but eventually, “we realized that despite all of the desire to stay in South Seattle, as opposed to Southwest Seattle, we just weren’t going to find an option that we could do fast enough” in the area, Waits said.

Before YouthCare moved the shelter, they tried to downsize, finding temporary housing for some residents and expediting permanent housing for others. That left just a handful of people—those who truly had nowhere else to go—to move into the Teen Life Center, which has been closed to the public since March 13.

The city has confirmed that the center will be staffed by employees from Seattle’s parks department and patrolled by guards from Phoenix Security, a private security firm that  charges the city $90 an hour to provide security at two temporary shelters in the Central District and on Capitol Hill.

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A spokesman for the city said the space would “shelter up to 30 young adults” once it gets up to full capacity. Separately, an HSD spokesman forwarded an email from the city staffer who is leading the Teen Life Center effort, who wrote that HSD had “set a deadline for full utilization of 20 participants by [the] week of May 18.” 

Waits says it’s unlikely the temporary shelter will ever have 30 clients, which is 50 percent more than the shelter had when it was located in a convenient, familiar location. “Our contract doesn’t support provision for 30 [young adults], we’re not compensated to take care of 30 young people and … we don’t have the staffing for 30,” she said.

As for the lower number:  “Everyone is hopeful that we will get back up to that 20-youth threshold.” But there’s no way to force young adults to come to the shelter, or stay there—a problem Waits expects to become more acute when the weather turns warm and the city starts to reopen.

“Good weather changes young people’s decisions,” she said. “What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

Early on in the COVID crisis, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department frequently claimed that the city and county had jointly created “1,900 new temporary housing options.” These “options,” as I reported at the time, consisted mostly of hospital and isolation/recovery beds that were not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness, plus shelter beds that had been temporarily moved to new locations so that people could sleep six feet apart. But they also included beds that never actually opened—including 50 at the Teen Life Center. The Loyal Heights Community Center, site of another 50 of the 1,900 beds announced in March, remains closed.

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”

Seattle Pays Premium for Shower Trailers, Regional Leaders Still Support Mass Shelter Over Hotels


Hygiene trailers at King County’s COVID assessment and recovery site in Shoreline.

1. Two mobile hygiene trailers that the city of Seattle is renting from a California-based company called VIP Restrooms will likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to operate, Seattle Public Utilities confirms. The city budget adopted last year included funding to purchase and operate five mobile hygiene trailers, which include showers and toilets, at an estimated cost of $1.3 million, but the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department, which oversaw the project until SPU took over last month, did not start working to procure them until mid-March, when the COVID-19 epidemic was already underway and most of the available trailers had been snapped up by other jurisdictions.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, according to a spokeswoman for SPU, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, depending on how many times the water is pumped out per day (the estimates range from once to six times daily), plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for “security [and] cleaning and hygiene supplies like towels, shampoo and soap,” according to SPU.

Security costs can be considerable, perhaps especially during the pandemic. For example, the city is currently paying Phoenix Security Corp $120,000 a month, or $90 an hour, to maintain 24-hour patrols at two “redistribution” shelters at community centers, each containing 50 guests from  existing shelters run by nonprofits such as the YWCA, Catholic Community Services, and Compass Housing. While it’s unclear whether the city plans to hire Phoenix guards to patrol the restrooms as well, Phoenix recently placed a large number of ads for new armed and unarmed security guard jobs in Seattle, starting at $17 an hour.

The city paid $14,000 to tow the two trailers from California to Seattle, and will pay $36,000 a month to rent them from VIP Restrooms. On top of that base cost, the city will pay between $22,800 and $136,800 a month to pump out wastewater, plus an unknown amount to clean the showers after each use, “significant costs” for cleaning and maintenance staffing, and additional money for security and supplies, according to SPU.

Other cities provide mobile showers at much lower cost. For example, in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called Shower of Hope operates showers at 24 sites at a much lower cost than the price Seattle is paying for its temporary shower trailers. Mel Tillekeratne, the founder and executive director of Shower of Hope, says the trailers themselves typically cost about $30,000 to buy, although “you could buy a high-end one for $60,000,” plus about $1,200 each to operate per day. Shower of Hope trailers don’t operate every day, but if they did, that would work out to about $36,000 in operating costs every month, a price tag that includes staffing (usually, shower staffers make $16 an hour, but Shower of Hope has bumped that up a few bucks during the COVID-19 outbreak).

Tillekeratne says he thinks cities like Seattle are being gouged by private companies because so many cities are scrambling to provide services during a crisis that they should have taken care of years ago. “This is decades of neglect that now they’re paying a premium to address,” he says.

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In Seattle, Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee says the shower building LIHI installed at its tiny house village in Interbay, which is hooked up to plumbing and electricity, cost about $50,000; a shower trailer with a gray water tank at Camp Second Chance in West Seattle cost between $25,000 and $30,000, plus about $1,200 a month to pump out gray water from the showers.

“For the price they’re renting [them for], we could just build them,” Lee says. Last week, Lee sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department offering to “build hygiene facilities and locate them in Sodo… Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere,” to staff existing public restrooms in Pioneer Square and at pools in Ballard and the Central District, and to open up more tiny house villages around the city. Lee says she has not heard back from the mayor’s office or HSD.

2. As the city of Seattle pays hundreds of thousands of dollars staffing and patrolling spaces where homeless people sleep head to toe, with six feet separating them from the people to their right and left, advocates have repeatedly made the point that congregate shelters do not allowed the social isolation that housed people are told to practice if they want to avoid COVID infection. In LA, mayor Eric Garcetti threatened to commandeer hotel rooms if the hotels didn’t make them available for homeless people.

Here in Seattle and King County, however, only a relative handful of people experiencing homelessness have been able to access hotels (well, motels) as an alternative to large mass shelters. Earlier this month, about 390 clients of three shelter providers moved to three motels in Renton, Bellevue, and SeaTac, a scant 3 percent of the county’s homeless population of more than 12,000. The city of Seattle rented out a high-end downtown hotel for first responders at a cost of around $1 million a month, but has preferred to move people from crowded shelters into slightly less crowded ones, rather than give them their own hotel rooms.

During a press briefing last week, King County health officer Jeff Duchin responded to a question about hotels by reiterating the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for congregate shelters. Snohomish County’s Public Health Officer, Chris Spitters, said his county is promoting “widespread use of hotel/motel vouchers at an unprecedented rate,” but added that motel vouchers can have “side effects. … It’s definitely a good disease control tool to disaggregate and spread people apart. On the other hand, it moves them away from services that, in the long run, they need, so it’s a real challenge to find the balance.”

3. Meanwhile, a 180-bed “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller mentioned during a contentious public meeting about hygiene services for unsheltered people may not materialize. Homeless advocates I spoke to this week and last say that Sixkiller’s offhand comment that “we are siting a shelter tent here in the city for 180 individuals” was the first they’d heard of such a proposal, and a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, which was supposed to staff and run the tent, would say only that “the project has been discussed [but] is not yet confirmed.” Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Durkan’s office, responded to my questions by saying, “the City is having conversations about options and there is nothing else to share at this time.”

As West Coast Encampment Sweeps Slow During Public Health Crisis, Advocates Say It’s Time to Stop Them Altogether

The story excerpted here originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood has long been home to a large concentration of homeless services. It has two of the city’s biggest shelters, several public feeding programs, and day centers that offer showers, restrooms, and gathering spaces for people with nowhere else to be.

Lately, though, Pioneer Square has become another kind of gathering place: one where tents and makeshift shelters are crowded inches apart and people congregate in clusters on the sidewalk, in defiance of Washington state’s social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Because most public restrooms are now closed, and the city has provided only a handful of portable toilets to make up for the loss, it has become necessary to watch one’s step. Last week, the head of a social services agency said she was walking to her car when she stepped in a pile of human waste that was sliding down the rainy street.

In Seattle, as in other cities up and down the West Coast, officials are cutting down on encampment sweeps, a controversial practice in which city employees — often police officers or sanitation workers — remove a homeless camp and dispose of tents and other property. The change is born out of necessity: Many shelters are no longer accepting new clients during the pandemic, and cities have been slow to offer hotel rooms or other housing to the people currently living on their streets. People simply have nowhere else to go ― which means cities are finally, at least temporarily, slowing the practice of removing them and their belongings from public spaces.

Advocates for the homeless say Seattle’s partial moratorium on encampment removals is, at best, an overdue first step. The question is whether the city is doing enough to keep those living in the encampments safe ― and whether the moratorium will stick once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to understand how extremely damaging it is to uproot people, discard their personal possessions and survival gear, and not give them a solution to their homelessness,” said Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and a vocal opponent of encampment sweeps.

Back in March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted new guidelines advising cities to stop removing encampments “unless individual housing units are available” and to ensure that encampments have access to 24-hour restrooms or portable toilets with sinks. Most cities on the West Coast have only partly followed these guidelines. Seattle and two large California cities ― Oakland and San Jose ― have all formally adopted partial moratoriums on encampment sweeps, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, have adopted less specific or informal policies that critics say allow too much leeway for sweeps to continue.

“At the beginning of this crisis, we realized very quickly that sweeps were going to be exactly contrary to public health,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which pushed the CDC to issue its guidance. “The ability to shelter in place as much as possible in your own self-shelter environment, where you can at least have a tent wall between you and your neighbor, is better than a facility where it’s just an open area and the air is circulating and you’re all using the same sinks and toilets.”

Homelessness is hard on a person’s body, making people more susceptible to illness, like COVID-19, and more likely to develop chronic conditions at a younger age. The vulnerability of homeless people to disease outbreaks can, in turn, lead to broader public health implications.

“The message we’ve been trying to send is, it’s not just about people experiencing homelessness in your community,” Tars said. “This is about your entire community, because if you don’t want a hospital bed to be taken up when your grandmother, your brother or your sister needs that bed, you need to take steps now to make sure that bed is empty.”

Read the whole story at HuffPost.

Driving a Metro Bus Through the Pandemic

The post excerpted here originally ran on Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Driving a city bus has always had its hazards. Until recently, exposure to a deadly pandemic was not among them. But as most workers are staying home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, bus drivers remain on the front lines, transporting strangers around the city in what one driver referred to as “rolling petri dishes.”

With protective equipment such as masks and gloves in short supply, drivers say they have no way of knowing whether they’ve been exposed. Every interaction with a rider, another driver said, is a potential opportunity for infection: “Everybody’s got a gun now, but we don’t know who has bullets.”

In Seattle, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were detected in February, conversations with nearly a dozen bus drivers revealed widespread anxiety about driver and passenger safety.

While many drivers sympathize with riders who still rely on buses to get to work or the store ― or just have nowhere else to go ―  some drivers said they didn’t understand why so many buses were still on the road. They have no idea how many of their fellow drivers have been infected because the public transit authority, King County Metro, won’t say. And drivers are frustrated with what they see as a lack of clear direction from management about how to protect themselves, when to stay home, and how they will be compensated if they take time off.

Nathan Vass is a veteran Metro driver who recently decided to take unpaid time off because he thinks he may have been exposed to the coronavirus. He said that his route, which is one of the busiest in the city, has remained crowded through the pandemic — an observation confirmed by Metro’s ridership statistics, which show that buses serving lower-income areas, like the one Vass drives, have seen much lower reductions than commuter and suburban routes.

Vass said he’s not sure what’s worse: Failing to serve people who rely on transit by shutting the buses down, or allowing the virus to spread unchecked by keeping them in service.

“If we’re going to continue allowing transit, we have to be OK with the fact that we’re spreading the virus as well,” said Vass, who recently published a book chronicling his experiences as a bus driver. “Transit is just not conducive to restricting the transmission of viruses.”

Metro, like other transit systems across the country, has reduced service dramatically during the pandemic. But drivers in Seattle — unlike, for example, in Vancouver, Canada, where the bus agency recently closed off every second row of seats — have been offered limited official options for enforcing social distance.

A recorded message, which is only in English, instructs riders to sit six feet apart, but that’s an impossible standard to achieve on the more crowded routes. And even if riders do sit six feet apart, the coronavirus lingers on surfaces, so if an infected person sneezes on a handrail or touches a seat with dirty hands, they can still infect the next person who sits there.

At the same time, Metro has officially designated bus drivers “first responders” and instructed all drivers who don’t show COVID-19 symptoms to keep showing up for work, even if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“That is the opposite of everything we’ve been told, from CDC on down,” said Audrey Monroe, who has driven for Metro for almost four years. “It seems wild to me that that’s their policy when we know that you can have no symptoms and still be shedding the virus.”

Metro will not say how many drivers have been infected. According to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, releasing illness numbers “could lead to individuals being identified and could cause other spaces to be mistakenly seen as being without risk,” and might cause drivers not to seek needed medical care. A driver for Community Transit, an agency that serves the suburbs north of Seattle, died of COVID-19 last month; so far, the agency has confirmed 10 cases among its drivers.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.

“Shelter In Place” Means Little If You’re Homeless

This piece originally appeared at HuffPost, where you can read it in its entirety.

Thousands of elderly and immunocompromised people are experiencing homelessness in Washington state, an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and the state isn’t giving them the option to self-isolate.

This puts them at serious risk for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. It’s also a dangerous double standard, advocates for homeless people say. At a time when officials are urging people to self-isolate to lower the likelihood of contracting the virus or spreading it, vulnerable people who are homeless are sharing sleeping quarters and restrooms.

“The city should be giving the kind of care to the homeless population that anyone would give their parents who are in their 80s,” said Rex Hohlbein, the founder of Facing Homelessness, a nonprofit that provides direct assistance to homeless Seattle residents. “Every person living outside is in the vulnerable category.”

Finding Spaces For Shelter

The state has taken some steps to protect its homeless population. The city of Seattle and King County are moving the shelter population into new, larger spaces so that they can sleep 6 feet apart. Residents who start showing symptoms are supposed to be moved into isolation units reserved for that purpose. But until then, they aren’t able to self-isolate, even if they’re vulnerable to the virus.

People experiencing homelessness who are older than 50 tend to have more underlying health problems than the general population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and are at higher risk for both chronic and contagious diseases.

One solution would be to offer more motel vouchers to people at high risk of infection. So far,  King County has funded about 60 motel vouchers for older and high-risk shelter residents, according to Sherry Hamilton, spokesperson for the King County Department of Human and Community Services. 

But that’s not nearly enough, advocates say. The latest one-night count of King County’s homeless population identified more than 5,200 people in shelters.

The city and county need to think long-term, said Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for the Seattle homeless advocacy group Real Change and a contributor to its newspaper.

“It would be better to get folks inside, where they could self-isolate, have access to hygiene services and follow public health guidelines in a way that maintains their dignity,” McCoy said.

Other people experiencing homelessness are sleeping outside, where they face other challenges as many public facilities have shut down, leaving them with no access to bathrooms or indoor spaces.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week that the city would deploy four hygiene trailers, along with handwashing stations and portable toilets, across the city. But with most other public restrooms shut down and just six 24-hour restrooms available citywide, it will take a lot more than a few portable toilets to meet the need.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.