City Resumes RV Sweeps; Another High-Level Staffer Leaves Homelessness Authority

Yellow eco-blocks line a street in West Seattle where RVs used to park.
After sweeping an RV encampment in West Seattle, someone installed bright-yellow “eco blocks” to prevent people from returning.

1. After the city announced it would begin enforcing the long-suspended “72-hour rule”—which requires vehicle owners to move their car, truck, or RV every three days—back in May, it was only a matter of time before the Harrell Administration started cracking down on people living in their vehicles. Less than two weeks later, workers arrived to clear out a group of people living in their RVs at Ruby Chow Park in Georgetown, towing away vehicular homes that could not be moved and sending some residents off to emergency shelters across town.

Last week, the same story played out at a longtime RV encampment on SW Andover Street in West Seattle, when the city gave residents 72 hours to leave the site. According to a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Utilities, which conducts what the city calls “RV remediations,” there were 15 RVs, 11 vehicles, one tent, and one trailer on site when the removal signs went up.

On Thursday, when workers showed up to clear the site, the SPU spokeswoman said “six RVs, three trailers, one box truck, three vehicles, two tents and 13 people” remained. Overall, three people accepted referrals to shelter, in addition to nine who left with shelter referrals over the previous month. That leaves nine people who were on site when crews came out who “self-relocated” to unknown locations.

In a recent newsletter, West Seattle city council representative Lisa Herbold noted that when people lose the RVs where they have been living, they lose not just a parking space but their actual home; emergency shelter, where people live in close proximity with no privacy or space to store personal belongings, isn’t an equivalent substitute for a private space with a locking door. “RV residents are a different group, with different needs, from other folks experiencing homelessness. They quite literally already have a home,” Herbold wrote.

A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.
A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.

Once the city towed the last remaining vehicles and hauled off what SPU describes as more than 50,000 pounds of trash, workers  replaced the RVs with large concrete “eco-blocks” meant to prevent RVs from parking at this location in the future. According to the West Seattle Blog, nearby Nucor Steel installed the blocks (illegally) in the public right-of-way. We have asked the city why they have not removed the blocks or required Nucor to remove them.

Parking an oversize vehicle on public streets overnight is illegal almost everywhere in the city, with the exception of small swathes of industrial land in Ballard, Georgetown, Interbay, and West Seattle.

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority awarded $1.9 million to the Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates most of the city’s tiny house villages, to open a safe parking lot for up to 50 RVs later this year. The funding, and the spaces themselves, represent a very small umbrella against a deluge of need: According to the most recent census of people experiencing homelessness, about 2,700 people were living in cars or RVs in King County in 2020, before the COVID pandemic.

The city has scheduled six RV removals in June; the next two on the schedule are on N Northlake Way, near Gasworks Park on June 28 and 4th Ave. S. in Georgetown on June 29. So far, seven RV sweeps are on the schedule for July.

2. Dawn Shepard, a former outreach director at REACH who took a high-profile job as co-director of the KCRHA’s peer navigator program earlier this year, has left the agency after just three months—the latest in a wave of high-level departures from the homelessness authority.

Peer navigators, now known as “system advocates,” are case managers with lived experience of homelessness who will work with people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle, with the goal of connecting them to services and appropriate shelter or housing—and “drawing down” the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero.” The privately funded effort got underway earlier this year.

As one of four co-directors of the system advocates program, Shepard shared her personal story at public meetings and to press outlets like Crosscut, which presented the concept of hiring people with lived experience as a unique new approach to unsheltered homelessness. Shepard is hardly the only KCRHA employee to describe her traumatic experiences in public; agency director Marc Dones frequently talks about their past struggles with mental illness and brushes with homelessness.

Some longtime direct-service providers and others doing on-the-ground work with homeless people in Seattle have quietly criticized this approach, noting that most of their employees also have lived experience with the homelessness and criminal justice systems. They’ve also objected to the idea that lived experience in itself is the most important qualification for jobs working with vulnerable people, and raised concerns about the need to protect employees from being retraumatized by telling their stories publicly as part of their jobs.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens acknowledged that most homeless service providers “hire many people with lived experience, and lived experience is often what draws people to wanting to do the work of helping others and creating change.” Although several KCRHA employees do share their past experiences publicly as part of their jobs, Martens says it’s entirely their choice to do so.”

Shepard did not return a call for comment, and Martens said she couldn’t provide any details about why she left. REACH program director Chloe Gale, Shepard’s former boss, noted that REACH has several open positions at the director level and recently increased its salaries to a level closer to what the KCRHA offers its own outreach workers. The pay differential between the new government agency and nonprofit service providers has been a bit of a sore spot, since most nonprofits can’t compete with the salaries KCRHA can offer.

Other high-ranking KCRHA employees who have left this year include senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, who returned to the Seattle Human Services Department; special assistant Naomi See, who left for a position in Washington, D.C.; and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer, who headed up the agency’s new interview-based homeless population count and returned to the Seattle Housing Authority. “Given that we are a start-up, some turnover is to be expected and I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary,” Martens said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudden Eviction Leaves Residents of Aurora “Nuisance” Motel With Few Options, Little Recourse

By Erica C. Barnett

The hallways inside the Everspring Inn on Aurora Avenue North are a hive of activity on Friday morning, as dozens of residents shuffle in and out of doorways, loading up trash bags, calling for friends down the hall, and trying to stuff a life’s worth of possessions onto carts and into shabby suitcases. The place smells sour, like sweat and mold, and some of the doors have messages scrawled or taped on the outside: “Hope.” “Happiness.” “Fuck you.” One of the doors has been kicked completely off its hinges; according to residents, it’s been that way for months.

Last month, the Seattle Police Department declared the motel a “chronic nuisance” and ordered its owner, Ryan Kang, to correct the problems, which included drug activity, rapes, and two recent murders—one in the parking garage and one in the motel lobby. On Tuesday, residents say, they received a notice on their doors ordering them to vacate the premises.

“[O]ur agreement with the City of Seattle and the Chief of the Seattle Police Department requires that we remove all guests and persons currently occupying the property… effective immediately,” the notice said. “The Seattle Police Department will be on the premises for a scheduled walkthrough on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 11:00am to help ensure compliance with this requirement.”

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The move was a bluff. According to SPD, there is no agreement between Kang and the department. Nor did police officers do a “walkthrough” on Thursday; although a couple of officers did show up, residents and case managers who were present say they never got out of their car.

José Carrillo, who has lived at the Everspring Inn for four years, said he didn’t understand how Kang had the right to kick everyone out without notice. “The notice just said we have to leave because there’s been some shootings and murders. They’re blaming all 25 people who live here for the shooting. I was as scared as anyone when that happened.” Carrillo, who buys cars at auction, fixes them up, and sells them, said he had just gone upstairs to his room when a woman living in the motel was shot in the garage. “That’s when it started feeling unsafe,” he said.

Even so, residents say, it’s better than being on the streets. “Anything is better than being homeless,” said Olivia Lee. Her girlfriend, Nevaeh Love, is the sister of the woman whose killing Carrillo almost witnessed. The two women lived in a single room with another resident, Curtis Coleman; now, Lee said, they would have to go back to living in their car. “They didn’t offer us any resources, nothing. They just told us we had to be out that day,” Lee said. “It should have been done the legal way.”

Love, who is seven months pregnant, said she was in the hospital until last week because of a lung infection she believes was caused by black mold at the property. Her sister was one of the two people who were shot at the motel.

“They’re sitting on their high horse right now,” Love said. “Well, karma’s a bitch, and they’re going to be in this situation one day, only it will be tenfold.”

Kang was in front of the motel on Friday morning, sweeping up glass and trash as two private bodyguards looked on from a few feet away. He pointed to paint that a resident had poured in the driveway. “This is what I’m dealing with,” he said. He said emptying the motel of tenants was the first step toward addressing the problems identified by SPD. “I believe in second chances but the most important thing for me is public safety,” Kang continued. “We gave them proper notice. I have to get into an agreement [with the city] and this is part of doing that.”

In ordinary times, a mass eviction like the one at the Everspring Inn would require due process, including prior notice of up to 90 days and tenant relocation assistance, depending on the reason for the eviction. Even individual evictions for cause, such as failure to pay rent after a three-day notice to pay or vacate, would have to be filed in King County Superior Court, where the tenants would have the right to challenge their evictions.

During the pandemic, however, there are additional protections against eviction, including both a citywide and statewide ban on most evictions. The statewide ban applies at motels that serve as long-term residences, like the Everspring. On Friday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan extended Seattle’s eviction moratorium to the end of the year.

Landlords are still allowed to file eviction lawsuits against individual tenants in extreme circumstances, but that isn’t what happened in this case, either. “There’s nothing in the mayor’s or the governor’s proclamation that says a public nuisance is a just cause for [mass] evictions,” Edmund Witter, managing attorney at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, said. “At the very least, he would have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against each individual person.”

In theory, Witter said, the tenants could file an injunction allowing them to stay at the motel for now, or seek redress from the state attorney general, who enforces the statewide eviction ban. (The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond Friday to a question about the legality of the evictions). “It basically sounds like an unlawful eviction,” Witter said. But, he added, “it’s going to be a lot more complicated to help them if they all leave.”

Residents said Kang didn’t give them much of a choice. Last week, residents said, two armed security guards started hanging around in the parking lot and attempting to enter people’s rooms. (When I was inside the motel, the security guards were wandering up and down the hallways sticking their heads into open doors.)

On Thursday, multiple residents said, Kang cut off the’ hot water to all the rooms, and had several tenants’ cars towed, taking away their last significant possession and a potential source of shelter. “Those that have a car, and were going to leave, were probably going to sleep in their cars,” said Kim Harrell, an outreach worker with REACH who was at the motel until 11:00 Thursday night. “What is it hurting him to let the car sit here for one night?”

For some, the final straw came around 1:00 on Friday morning, when the security guards locked the gate surrounding the motel and refused to let anybody in or out. One tenant, Bruce Red, said he felt like he was “back in prison again.”

“[The security guards] locked the gate, and then one of them tried to jump me because I didn’t want them to come into my room to escort someone to help get her stuff,” he said. “I told him I didn’t need him to be on my ass. I’m not acting out of character. I’ve been incarcerated eight times and you’re a [corrections officer] coming into my room.” Harrell said negotiated with the guards for 45 minutes to allow the children of another resident to come inside the gate, “and then they didn’t want to anymore.”

“Their dad had to come out and talk to them,” Carillo, the four-year resident, said. “It was a messed-up situation.”

Both Red and Coleman said they worked for Kang, making ten dollars an hour—nearly six dollars less than Seattle minimum wage—to manage the front desk and defuse dangerous situations when they arose. Coleman said the work was dangerous and hard. “You just have to deal with everything: People drunk, high, coming with knives and bats.

“I was working 12- to 15-hour shifts for [Kang],” Coleman said. “For him to just push everyone out now—it’s not right. They’re messing up all my plans.” Continue reading “Sudden Eviction Leaves Residents of Aurora “Nuisance” Motel With Few Options, Little Recourse”

Ending the Navigation Team Isn’t As Easy As Just Cutting their Budget

By Erica C. Barnett

Tomorrow, the Seattle city council will take its most definitive action yet to eliminate the Navigation Team—a group of police, litter removal workers, and outreach staff that removes encampments from public places—by voting on a mid-year package of budget cuts that eliminates funding for the program. But the ultimate fate of the team will lie with Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who have the final say over departmental spending.

The two votes attempt to cut the team, which costs the city around $8.4 million a year, using two different types of budget actions. The first vote would prohibit SPD from spending money allocating 14 of its officers to the Navigation Team, using a spending restriction called a proviso to remove police from the team. The second would cut funding for the rest of the team, which includes staffers from the Human Services and Parks departments, and direct the mayor to reallocate that funding to contractors that do outreach and engagement to people experiencing homelessness, such as the nonprofit group REACH. REACH was originally part of the Navigation Team, but stopped participating alongside police as the team shifted its emphasis to encampment removals.

“The Navigation Team exists for the purpose of forcing people to move without giving them somewhere better to go,” Alison Eisinger, the longtime director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said after last week’s vote.Shelters and tiny house villages were routinely full before the pandemic, when the team performed multiple sweeps every week, and since then, the city has added fewer than 100 new shelter beds.

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“The number one thing that determines whether or not somebody who is homeless and without shelter gets off the streets is whether or not there is an accessible, appropriate, available better alternative—and the person who can connect them to that alternative is a person who has some kind of trust relationship with them,” Eisinger said.

Although the team was originally envisioned as collaboration between police and human service providers that would combine the stick of enforcement with the carrot of shelter and services—the “navigation” part of the equation—its role shifted under Mayor Jenny Durkan, and in recent years it has focused primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments from parks and other public spaces, a type of action that does not require any prior notice or offer of services or a better place to go.

Durkan has resisted every effort to cut the Navigation Team, which has nearly doubled in size since it was created in 2017. In 2018, Durkan even characterized a move by the council efforts to merely slow down the expansion of the team as a devastating “cut.”

Given that history, council members and advocates are worried that Durkan will simply ignore their budget directives. Although the budget proviso says SPD can’t spend the money it had allocated this year for the Navigation Team, it acknowledges that any effort to lay off the officers on the team will create labor issues—a problem Paul wrote about in detail on Friday.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed.”—Human Services Director Jason Johnson

Additionally, the chief could ignore the council’s directive to reassign the 14 officers and look for savings elsewhere in the department, or move the officers off the Navigation Team without actually cutting the size of the police force. Hammering out those issues could delay any cuts to the sworn portion of the team.

A bigger barrier for those hoping to eliminate the Navigation Team is that unless the council uses a proviso to explicitly restrict spending, city law does not require the mayor to obey the council’s budget directives. Historically, this hasn’t been a problem, because the council and mayor have had an understanding that, with some exceptions, the mayor will spend the budget in the manner the council directs. But Durkan has repeatedly ignored the council’s directions when she has disagreed with them, leaving open the possibility that she will do so with the Navigation Team as well.

For example, Durkan recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and has refused to approve an expansion of the LEAD program that could have temporarily housed dozens of people and provided them with case management and a path out of the criminal justice system. The open warfare between the mayor and council could well lead to a situation where the council issues a forceful directive to defund the Navigation Team—and the mayor shrugs.

“There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”—City Council member Tammy Morales

REACH director Chloe Gale, who testified before last week’s vote that the Navigation Team “conduct[s] expedient, politically motivated transactions that result in continuous displacement and trauma,” says Durkan “has a lot of opportunities to not implement this, and she also can set things up to fail by not having responses where you need to have responses in the community.”

In a scathing letter to the council last week, HSD director Jason Johnson suggested that without the Navigation Team—specifically, the four “field coordinators” from HSD and Parks— the city would be unable to respond to the more than 16,000 calls for service it receives about encampments each year.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed,” Johnson wrote. “The Council’s actions effectively returns the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments. This model was a failure, demonstrated by the proliferation of large, unsafe and unhealthy encampments that spread across Seattle.”

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the amendment to defund the Navigation Team, countered last week that the council has heard from outreach workers that litter pickup and removing tents that are blocking entire sidewalks “is really important, but they would like someone else to be doing it so they can focus on outreach and engagement.” Eisinger adds: “There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”

Eliminating the Navigation Team would not prevent the police from removing encampments without prior notice—a fact Gale says still needs to be addressed, whatever happens to the official team. Police are still authorized to remove encampments that constitute “obstructions” with little or no notice, and will retain the ability to do so even if the Navigation Team goes away. Police were taught to “define an obstruction or hazard [as] all right-of-way and every piece of park property,” Gale says—a definition that has allowed the Navigation Team, as well as regular SPD officers, to remove encampments without any notice or offers of shelter or services.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda says Johnson is wrong when he says the council has no plan to respond to encampments without the Navigation Team. “There is a plan, and it’s not just a plan it’s a program that’s already in place,” she says. “We have partners like REACH and LEAD who are already doing this work and are already showing better outcomes at getting folks into housing options and shelter options. It’s a matter of directing funding out of the Navigation Team and into REACH and LEAD and other organizations that have already built trust” with people experiencing homelessness, she says.

Johnson’s letter explicitly calls out REACH, specifically, as a “data-less model” that “cannot produce the same level of data, detail, or examples of success” as the Navigation Team. “This is another example of a budgeting process that is untethered from operational impact, designed to achieve a near-sighted and expedite political outcome— with little regard to City employees or the people the Navigation Team serves.”

Eisinger counters that existing providers could be very effective if they were actually funded sufficiently, empowered, and provided access to shelter and housing options. (Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to many of the enhanced shelter beds that people prefer, including the entire Navigation Center). “I think what’s going on now is a much longer, larger, long-overdue conversation about where to prioritize public dollars,” Eisinger says.Eight point four million dollars a year could go a log way towards increasing quality, culturally appropriate, community-based, non-congregate, accessible shelter and affordable housing.

Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer”

The city is paying $35,000 apiece for six portable toilet sites, the deputy mayor revealed Wednesday.

Human shit clinging sliding down the street and squishing under a nonprofit director’s shoe as she walked to her car in Pioneer Square. Women bleeding through their clothes because they lack menstrual supplies and a place to get clean. Street-level social service workers forced to pee in alleys because all the restrooms are locked.

These are some of the stories front-line workers told the city council on Wednesday during a meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee. Committee chair Andrew Lewis called the meeting in response to the lack of clean, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to use the restroom and wash their hands during the COVID crisis—a shortage that, as I first reported,  has contributed to an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ballard.

Dawn Whitson, an outreach worker for REACH – Evergreen Treatment Services who works in Georgetown, said she has resorted to handing out toilet paper to homeless people in the area, because the restroom at the Georgetown Playfield—which she said is open only sporadically—often lacks both toilet paper and soap. “I actually have been out in the field and have had to use the restroom in several different alleys myself” since all the businesses have closed, Whitson said.

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As streets, parks, and playfields have become restrooms of last resort, Whitson said the city has stopped talking to social service providers about whether and when more portable toilets and accessible hand-washing stations are coming. “We’ve managed to develop a field hospital [in CenturyLink Field], and we haven’t been able to get any port-a-potties and we haven’t been able to get any answers,” she said. “I have pointedly asked, ‘Who do we need to call to express our concerns, and I was pretty much stonewalled and told that there was no one I could speak to.”

Casey Sixkiller, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, launched into his prewritten presentation not by responding to the advocates’ concerns, but by praising Human Services Department employees for “putting their lives at risk” to stand up hygiene stations and asserting that “at least 127” park restrooms are currently open.

The city plans to add eight more port-a-potties to the six locations it announced last week, Sixkiller said, but it would be prohibitively expensive to add many more. Each portable toilet, he said, costs $35,000 a month, a price tag that some council members said sounded like price gouging to them. Honey Bucket does not have an exact price list on its website. In 2017, Willamette Week in Portland reported that the company’s prices had skyrocketed during the solar eclipse—from $140 a week to a whopping $650 per unit.

According to council member Lisa Herbold, as of late February—around the time the first US death from COVID was reported in a Kirkland nursing home—executive-branch staffers were still requesting “basic information about what a mobile pit stop was.”

Sixkiller said he didn’t “know that it’s price gouging” for Honey Bucket to charge what the “market conditions” will allow. “We are competing with everybody else for those resources,” Sixkiller said. “It’s just simple supply and demand.”

The deputy mayor also cited other “challenges” the city has faced in standing up portable toilets and handwashing stations, including “vandalism” and “theft of hand sanitizer” by homeless people—a comment that brought to mind reports of desperate people “looting” food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Council president Lorena Gonzalez said whatever the price, “when we are talking about 14 toilets”—the six existing sites, plus eight new ones—”for upwards of 6,000 people, I just feel like we aren’t having a conversation based in reality in terms of what the actual need is.” Continue reading “Advocates Beg for Toilets, Running Water; Deputy Mayor Cites Cost and “Challenges” Like Vandalism and “Theft of Hand Sanitizer””

City’s Outreach Partner Disengages from Navigation Team as City Removes More Encampments Without Notice

The city’s Navigation Team, a group of Seattle police officers and social service workers that removes  unauthorized encampments from public places and offers referrals to shelter and services to their displaced residents, has shifted its focus at the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan. Instead of providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments (the “navigation” part of the equation), the Navigation Team is now focused primarily on removing encampments deemed to be “obstructions,” a designation that exempts the team from the usual notice and outreach requirements.

In response to this shift in focus, REACH, the nonprofit that serves as the social-service and outreach arm of the Navigation Team, will no longer participate in encampment removals except when camp residents explicitly request their presence, the group’s co-director, Chloe Gale, says.

I asked Sgt. Eric Zerr, the Seattle Police Department team leader for the Navigation Team, about the shift after a recent public safety town hall meeting in North Seattle. “[Durkan] just said, ‘Given that we have limited resources… these are the things you guys should focus on,” Zerr said. “And it isn’t that we aren’t still doing 72-hour cleans”—the city’s preferred term for what many advocates refer to as sweeps—”we still are. But I think the priority of the team has changed, [in that] the mayor wants us to focus on cleans that are more obstruction-oriented.”

“It isn’t that we aren’t still doing 72-hour cleans. We still are. But I think the priority of the team has changed, [in that] the mayor wants us to focus on cleans that are more obstruction-oriented.—Seattle Police Sgt. and Navigation Team leader Eric Zerr

Over the course of five weeks in April and May, 96 percent of encampments scheduled for removal on the Navigation Team’s weekly unauthorized encampment removals list were for “obstructions,” and therefore exempt from the usual notice and referral requirements. This list does not correspond precisely to which camps are ultimately removed, because many factors can contribute to whether the city removes a particular encampment on schedule. However, a comparison to previous schedules shows a clear upward trend—in August 2018, for example, 74 percent of scheduled removals were for “obstruction” encampments exempt from the notice and outreach rules.

Ordinarily, under rules the city adopted in 2017, the Navigation Team has to provide at least 72 hours’ notice—and two visits from outreach workers—before it can remove an unauthorized encampment. The “obstruction” designation functions like a declaration of emergency, allowing the Navigation Team to bypass those requirements. (They typically offer 30 minutes’ notice to allow people to leave voluntarily, but are not required to do so by law). “The mayor really wants us to focus on [removing encampments in] rights-of-way and parks,” said Sgt. Zerr. “Our calendar is still full, but it just doesn’t have the amount of 72-hour cleanings it used to.”

Mark Prentice, a Durkan spokesman, denies that there has been any change in the city’s approach to encampment removals. “There has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals, nor is this a new trend,” Prentice said in an email. “Rather, there has been long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”

“There has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals, nor is this a new trend. Rather, there has been long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way.” —Mayor Jenny Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice

Prentice suggested that I may have missed coverage of the issue last summer by other local media, and provided a link to an August 2018 Seattle Times story that was about the increase in encampment removals in general. That story noted that at the time, about 40 percent of encampment removals for the year to date were exempt from the mandatory outreach and offer-of-shelter requirements. UPDATED: HSD’s most recent report on encampment removals shows that 82 percent of the removals were camps deemed to be “hazards” or “obstructions” and exempt from those requirements. That’s an increase from the last three months of 2018, when the report found that about 75 percent of removals were exempt from those requirements.

According to the city’s official encampment removal rules, a camp (which, as defined in the city’s rules, can consist of a single sleeping bag if it looks like it’s located in a public place for the purpose of sleeping overnight) is an “obstruction” if it’s “in a City park or on a public sidewalk; interfere[s] with the pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way; or interfere[s] with areas that are necessary for or essential to the intended use of a public property or facility.” Interpreted broadly, this means that a single tent in a city park can be considered an “obstruction” of the park’s intended use, and subject to removal without notice or outreach.

REACH’s Gale says her organization’s outreach workers—who are supposed to help encampment residents hook up with shelter and services— “don’t always feel comfortable there. We’ve agreed that that’s optional. We’ll go if we’re requested by the people at the site, but we’re not going to just stand by” as a matter of course, she says. REACH will still participate in outreach prior to the increasingly rare 72-hour removals.

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Instead, Gale says REACH is moving to a “neighborhood-based outreach model” that involves getting to know communities, including businesses as well as both sheltered and unsheltered residents—a better way to build trust, Gale says, than showing up for the first time on the day of an unannounced removal. REACH is in the process of embedding outreach workers in four quadrants of the city, where they’ll partner with local business improvement districts to identify people experiencing chronic homelessness and build relationships with them over time, with the goal of getting them into services and off the street.

As REACH phases out of its work with the Navigation Team, the city is taking its outreach services in-house, hiring two new “system navigators” who, according to Durkan spokesman Prentice, “will work in the same way as REACH does, providing outreach during  encampment removals and lead[ing] on making offers of shelter, referrals to shelter, and transporting people to shelter.” (Zerr said SPD also provides outreach when they can.)

As REACH phases out of its work with the Navigation Team, the city is taking its outreach services in-house, hiring two new “system navigators” who, according to Durkan spokesman Prentice, “will work in the same way as REACH does, providing outreach during  encampment removals and lead[ing] on making offers of shelter, referrals to shelter, and transporting people to shelter.”

In 2017, the ACLU of Washington unsuccessfully sued the city on behalf of encampment residents who said the city unlawfully seized and destroyed their property. ACLU spokesman Brian Robick said it was “especially troubling” to hear that the city had ramped up “obstruction”-related encampment removals, “given the undisputed fact that many unhoused people have nowhere else to go.”

“Seattle’s policy and practice of seizing and destroying unhoused residents’ property without adequate notice or an opportunity to be heard raises grave civil rights concerns,” Robick said. “Throwing away someone’s belongings without warning is not only unconstitutional—it is harmful, inhumane, and ineffective, and does nothing to help people get off the streets or address the housing crisis.”

The City Swept an Encampment Near the Ballard Locks. Here’s Where the Campers Went


About a week ago, the city cleared an encampment near the Ballard Locks that has been the subject of countless complaints in the past few months, despite the fact that it’s easy to overlook if you aren’t specifically looking for it. The camp has been stubbornly persistent over the past year or so, and when I visited several months ago, about a dozen people were living there, spread out in tents across a few hundred square feet of brushy land elevated above the street and tucked behind some trees.

Currently, complaining constantly to the city is one (unofficial, but effective) way to get them to come out and force people to move along; a proposed update to those rules aims to provide clearer guidance on which encampments are prioritized for removal, what kind of notice the city must provide, and how the city decides which items to save and store and which ones to throw away.

A story in the Ballard News Tribune reported that 12 “campers” had been “relocated” after the recent sweep, and “all campers were provided alternative shelter locations.” This struck me as highly unlikely, given that the reason people tend to live outside is because the only available shelter beds are at places that require them to relinquish or risk their possessions, sleep on the floor next to hundreds of other people, split up with their partners and abandon their pets, or submit to Christian programming including mandatory church attendance. Many require guests to be sober, too—a tough standard for many to meet, given that addiction is a physical disease.

So here’s what actually happened to those 12 or so individuals, according to Chloe Gale. Gale is the program director for REACH, the organization that provides outreach and offers services during encampment sweeps. REACH has been working with encampment residents “for about a year,” Gale says, “trying to figure out good solutions for the folks who were living there.”

One man got connected to a case manager and is being assessed for housing. (Gale said he didn’t want to go to the nearby Nickelsville encampment because the last time he was there, someone stole his bike.) One man received a special Section 8 voucher set aside for people with disabilities, and is moving to his new apartment in March. Two got their names put on the list for this year’s Section 8 voucher lottery, which will distribute vouchers to 3,500 people over the next two or three years. (The last time the Seattle Housing Authority held a lottery, 19,000 people signed up for a chance to win 2,500 vouchers.) One went back to sleeping on a friend’s couch. One got a bed at Peter’s Place, a shelter that allows people to store their stuff during the day and to have their own bed and sheets, rather than having to line up for a bed each night. And a couple told REACH they had bought a van, which they are now going to live in (and, if they’re lucky, lay low enough not to set off a new round of neighbor complaints.)

The rest of the encampment residents went off to set up camp somewhere else, declining REACH’s offer of shelter elsewhere. Gale says that’s understandable. “Generally, the beds we can offer are in shelters that many people don’t want to go to, like the shelters downtown where people may have to line up to get a bed, so they may not have a guarantee,” Gale says. “Often, these are shelters with mats on the floor. For someone in Ballard to come downtown to city hall to sleep on the floor might not make a whole lot of sense.”

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