Tag: Renton

Former Council Candidate Ousted Over Billing Irregularities, Fewer Seek Homeless Services, and More on Renton’s Shelter Saga

1. Wellspring Family Services, a homeless service provider that holds a $465,000 rapid rehousing contract with the city of Seattle, fired two of its housing specialists, Walter Washington and Jon Grant, after discovering that around $35,000 had been billed inappropriately to the wrong contracts—in effect overcharging some agencies that provide funding to Wellspring, with the money going into the nonprofit’s housing division. Washington was Wellspring’s senior director of housing services; Grant, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council Position 8, was the agency’s director of program development.

In a letter to agencies that fund the organization, including the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department, Wellspring president and CEO Heather Fitzpatrick described the discrepancy as a “billing error” in which “payroll expenses were erroneously billed to a contract for which the employee did not perform services.”

In an interview with PubliCola, Fitzpatrick said the “billing mistakes” were “predominately legitimate charges that should have been paid by the housing department but were billed to the wrong contract.” She said the agency acted quickly to address the problem. “We immediately reversed the charges and took immediate and appropriate action, including management changes, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Fitzpatrick would not identify the agency that got overcharged; nor would she confirm that $12,000 of the total came in the form of “severance pay” to a female employee who raised alarm bells and subsequently left the agency, as other sources indicated to PubliCola. A spokesperson for the agency said a thorough review of Wellspring’s finances found no evidence of outright embezzlement or misspending beyond the $35,000.

Neither Grant nor Washington responded to requests to talk on the record about their involvement in the discrepancies. According to Washington’s LinkedIn, he is now a team manager at United Way of King County. Grant, whose departure from a previous job as director of the Tenants Union involved allegations of “oppressive and tokenizing” practices, has not updated his LinkedIn bio.

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2. King County’s homeless population won’t be counted this year—as we reported on Twitter last month, the county agency that ordinarily conducts the street count and survey received a waiver this year because of the pandemic—but the number of people who are going unserved by the region’s homelessness agencies can be quantified by their absence from the homeless system.

According to the county’s homelessness dashboard, the number of people experiencing homelessness who are receiving services from providers in the region dropped dramatically between March and July, the last month for which data is currently available—declining from 13,343 households at the beginning of the pandemic to 11,053 three months later. This trend has held across all demographics, but was especially pronounced among single adults, according to county data.

The number of people experiencing homelessness who are receiving services from providers in the region dropped dramatically between March and July, the last month for which data is currently available.

Antonio Herrera Garza, a spokesman for the King County Department of Community and Human Services, says the county is exploring several theories for why the numbers have dropped, but a reduction in homelessness isn’t one of them. One possibility, he said, “is that households accessing the system during the pandemic show greater stability in services and longer lengths of stay, which means fewer households coming through the system during a given timeframe.”

Another possibility, Herrera Garza said, is that some people “more reluctant to access emergency services,” such as congregate shelter, because of the perceived risk of contracting COVID. Although there have been some outbreaks in tent encampments (including, contrary to claims in a recent Seattle Times piece, people living at Fourth and Yesler and Denny Park in downtown Seattle), most outbreaks have taken place in indoor settings. The county plans to release data through September sometime this month; Herrera Garza said they “expect to continue to see a decline in the numbers through September, although at a slower pace.”

3. Renton Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Dobson, an outspoken opponent of a Red Lion hotel-based shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, apparently threatened to revoke the membership of the Renton LGBTQIA+ Community, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in Renton, over advocacy by one of its board members in favor of the shelter.

The board member, Winter Cashman-Crane, has advocated in favor of the shelter and its residents, most of them former residents of the crowded Morrison Hotel shelter in downtown Seattle, since it opened last year. Cashman-Crane provided screen shots in which Dobson appears to say that Cashman-Crane has “flared up again” on Twitter, apparently referring to two tweets in which they noted that the city planned to give the Chamber a $150,000 grant after Dobson “personally spent this year advocating and inciting the community against the Red Lion shelter.” In the screen-grabbed conversation, Dobson says that if the LGBTQIA+ Community wants to stay in the Chamber, they will have to adhere to new “ground rules toward interaction and relationships.”

Dobson did not return an email seeking comment about her messages to the board member. In an email sent this past summer, she accused Cashman-Crane of “libel” for a private email expressing disappointment that the Chamber had opposed the shelter, which Dobson said was untrue.

Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The Renton City Council will take final action next week on legislation that would require the Downtown Emergency Service Center to kick out about half the population of its shelter in the Renton Red Lion at the end of May, and evict the remaining shelter residents by the end of 2021. PubliCola covered the council’s initial discussion of the proposal last month.

The legislation also creates a restrictive new land use designation for “homeless services,” limits the number of clients any homeless service location can serve to 100 people, and imposes a number of requirements on service providers and people experiencing homelessness in Renton, including a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service provider. Homeless service providers say the restrictions—modeled on legislation in other cities that continue to lack permanent shelters, like Bellevue and Puyallup—effectively bans non-emergency shelters from Renton.

A hearing on the legislation Monday night brought out a mix of supporters (who pointed to the incredible improvements people living at the hotel have experienced and pointed out that without shelter, people die) and opponents (who expressed “empathy” for homeless people right before suggesting that these homeless people ought to be arrested, or shipped “back” to Seattle, or taught the value of hard work). Although the vote was a foregone conclusion, some council members did suggest extending the date of the shelter’s eviction notice and increasing the number of people the shelter can accommodate from 125 (100 in the initial version of the bill) to 175. Those proposals failed.

In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density.

For months, Renton has maintained that the use of the Red Lion as a shelter violates its zoning laws, which don’t include a specific designation for shelter. Renton has interpreted this lack of special shelter zoning to mean that shelters are currently banned every in Renton, but this is an interpretation that assumes that unless a special designation exists for a land use, it isn’t allowed. In Seattle, there’s no special “shelter” zoning—shelters are simply an allowed use citywide, subject to the underlying zoning rules that dictate things like density. Renton is acting like it’s doing homeless service providers a favor by adding a zoning designation that might, theoretically, allow a very small shelter to operate somewhere in a non-residential part of the city, but in reality it’s creating new restrictions that didn’t previously exist.

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There were a number of changes between the version of the legislation released in November and the version the council considered this week. The wordiest of these was the addition of more than 20 “whereas” clauses, most of them arguing that the shelter’s residents, by virtue of their “violent” nature and the fact that so many are living in proximity to each other, are dangerous to the surrounding community and to each other. The legislation now argues even more explicitly that DESC and the county have been breaking the city’s zoning laws by operating the shelter, a claim that is currently being litigated. Continue reading “Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill Moves Forward in Renton”

Homelessness Authority Weighs In On Battle Over Future of Renton Shelter (and Shelters in Renton)

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority held a previously unscheduled meeting of its implementation board last night to discuss how to respond to a city of Renton proposal that would shut down a shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at the Red Lion hotel in Renton. The legislation would also ban most, if not all, homeless shelters from the city.

PubliCola reported on the plan last week. Essentially, the legislation would create a temporary “COVID deintensification shelter” zoning designation for the Red Lion, which would expire in June, when the hotel’s 230 residents would be forced to leave the premises. At the same time, it creates new restrictions on all facilities serving homeless residents—including a 100-bed maximum and a requirement that appears to make providers responsible for the behavior or homeless people in public spaces—that homeless service providers say are impossible to meet.

Some members of the RHA implementation board, including Lived Experience Coalition members Sara Rankin and Harold Odom, argued that the board needed to take a strong stand in favor of the regional approach Renton signed up for when it joined the RHA. In addition to being “onerous” and undercutting the ability of any homeless service provider to operate in Renton, Rankin said, the legislation represents a “fracturing” that “undercuts the whole spirit and substance of what the purpose of this regional authority is supposed to be.” The Sound Cities Association, which includes Renton, demanded and got changes to the authority’s governing structure along with two seats on the implementation board last year.

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Others, including Renton School District superintendent Dr. Damien Pattenaude and Church Council of Greater Seattle president Michael Ramos, argued that it was important not to alienate the Renton council by suggesting that the city of Renton didn’t have the right to set its own homelessness policy. “The question of the role of this authority is significant, and one of the underlying factors is the perceived imposition by the county of its [own] proposed solution on homelessness,” Ramos said. “We need to bring some of these cities into the conversation.” Ramos added that he would not sign off on any letter that didn’t express a willingness to work with Renton on a consensus solution.

In joining a regional authority, Renton agreed to the basic principles set down in the interlocal agreement, which include “housing first” principles, best practices, and evidence-based solutions. “Best practices” is generally understood to mean approaches that have a demonstrated record of success, which describes the Red Lion in particular and hotels as a temporary shelter option during the COVID-19 pandemic broadly.

Odom objected strongly to the idea that the regional authority should take a conciliatory approach when dealing with cities that want to split off from the region and adopt policies contrary to RHA principles. If the regional authority allowed every city who disagreed with some aspect of its approach to split off on its own, he said, it would mean a return to the same old system that has failed to reduce homelessness in the region for decades. “We have the five-year plan, the ten-year plan, and [we’re going to have] the 100-year plan if we continue going about things the way we have been,” Odom said.

Ultimately, the board voted to form a committee that will write a letter to the council expressing some level of opposition to the legislation evicting the Red Lion tenants and using zoning to restrict homeless services. They’ll have to act fast: The council plans to vote on the legislation Monday—a move that could prompt litigation from both DESC and the hotel’s owner, whose attorney said he “faced unbelievable discrimination and harassment, including from some of the folks who are advocating for this particular ordinance change.”

Renton Council Tries Land Use Maneuver to Evict Red Lion Homeless Shelter

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday night, the Renton City Council held a meeting to discuss “emergency” legislation that was apparently so urgent, not even the groups that advocate for the people most impacted by the legislation were aware it was happening until a few hours before the meeting got underway.

The legislation: A zoning bill that would effectively force 260 formerly homeless people who have been living at a Red Lion in the city south of Seattle onto the streets in the middle of a global pandemic.

The city of Renton has been fighting to evict the hotel’s current occupants—former clients of the overcrowded downtown Seattle shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center— since shortly after they moved in nine months ago. Arguing that DESC was not operating a hotel but a “deintensification shelter,” which is not a permitted use on the Red Lion site (or anywhere in Renton, for that matter), the council issued a code violation against the hotel in June and ordered DESC to move out. That battle has been winding its way through the courts ever since.

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The council’s latest legislation would explicitly require the Red Lion to close its doors to shelter clients six months after the new law goes into effect, most likely around June 7. It also makes it impossible for a similarly sized shelter to open in Renton, by limiting all future shelter uses to 100 beds beginning on that date and imposing new requirements on homeless services that advocates say would be nearly impossible to meet.

“When you talk about having to pass this ordinance on an emergency basis, I wonder what that emergency looks like compared to the emergency of COVID-19, the emergency of homelessness, and the emergency of racism in our communities,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger told the council, during a public comment session that lasted for nearly an hour. Noting that there are now at least 400 fewer shelter spaces in King County than there were before the pandemic, Eisinger added, “every single bed, every room, is helping keep the spread of COVID down and is helping [save] people’s lives.”

The legislation would ask homeless service providers to ensure that clients use specific routes when traveling through Renton; order them to monitor the behavior of homeless people in public spaces around the city, such as parks, libraries, and transit; and make them legally responsible for the behavior of former clients they exclude from their facilities for behavioral or other issues.

Proponents of the legislation, such as Renton Chamber of Commerce director Diane Dobson, accused DESC’s homeless clients of causing crime and disorder in the city, saying that the number of 911 calls in the general vicinity of the hotel had gone up since its 230 residents moved in nine months ago. Dobson went so far as to suggest that the real victims of the whole situation were shopkeepers who are “losing a part of their soul” when they have to remove homeless people from their stores and kick sleeping people out of their doorways.

But forcing people from the Red Lion onto the streets of Renton seems unlikely to reduce their impact on the city. And at least one study, as well as compelling evidence from DESC clients themselves, have demonstrated that giving unsheltered people a safe, private place to stay doesn’t just benefit their physical and mental health—it also reduces their impact on the surrounding community. Continue reading “Renton Council Tries Land Use Maneuver to Evict Red Lion Homeless Shelter”