Tag: safe parking

Responding to Feedback, Skepticism, Homelessness Agency Proposes Modest Changes to Ambitious Five-Year Plan


The KCRHA has an ambitious plan to fund and reform the homelessness system over the next five years.

By Erica C. Barnett

After an initial draft of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Five-Year Plan prompted skeptical responses from local leaders—who questioned the proposal’s multibillion-dollar price tag and ambitious timeline for addressing issues the region has been struggling with for decades—the agency is considering a slate of revisions that aim to address some, but not all, of those concerns. The Five-Year Plan is the document that will guide KCRHA’s budgeting and policy decisions for the next five years.

The staff report, which recommends a total of 78 technical changes, substantive policy updates, and new strategies, will be the basis for the final, revised Five-Year Plan that the KCRHA’s implementation board is set to adopt in April. A subcommittee of that board has agreed to let the agency move forward with all the “technical” changes (including some that are arguably substantive, such as folding in tiny house villages with other types of congregate shelter instead of singling them out for zero funding—more on that in a moment) and plans to focus on the 24 substantive policy changes during its weekly meetings over the coming month.

The draft plan proposes that the region spend $10 billion or more over five years to create more than 18,000 new temporary spaces for people to live, including 7,100 new shelter beds, 3,800 medical respite beds for people with acute health-care needs, 4,700 new safe parking spaces for people living in RVs or their cars, and 2,600 beds for people who need support with addiction recovery. The plan estimates that RV and vehicle parking lots alone will cost almost $200 million over five years.

“The costs associated with this Plan, particularly those identified for increasing housing supply, clearly far exceed any currently available funding in the region,” Bellevue City Manager Brad Miyake wrote in a letter responding to the initial plan. “Further, housing development is beyond the scope of KCRHA’s mission and relies on other housing providers.”

Others objected to what they called an unrealistic timeline. Each strategy in the five-year plan includes a 24-month “action plan,” and many of these action plans call for quick resolution of problems that have persisted for years—establishing a system where anyone can see real-time shelter availability across the region, convincing suburban cities in every part of the county to sign on as funders of the regional homelessness system, and requiring all service providers to pay “liveable wages,” to name a few examples.

One recurring piece of feedback KCRHA staff didn’t include in their is skepticism about the number of “safe parking” spaces the plan would fund—more than 3,100 spaces for passenger vehicles and 1,600 for RVs. Siting even a handful of spaces for RVs has been a nearly insurmountable challenge, and most existing “safe parking” lots for cars are hosted by churches and other private organizations on a temporary basis, each hosting no more than a handful of cars at a time.

Some suburban leaders objected to the plan’s emphasis on non-congregate shelter—an umbrella term for shelter where people sleep semi-privately, instead of sleeping in large rooms—over traditional congregate shelter, which is the most common form of shelter on the Eastside and in South King County. The current plan calls for phasing out all congregate shelters; meanwhile, Bellevue’s long-planned (and much delayed) Eastgate men’s shelter will have its grand opening later this year.

“The Eastside is not seeing a decrease in demand for congregate shelter,” Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett wrote in his letter responding to the plan. “Additional temporary housing models would need to come online to address existing need as congregate shelter is phased out. The Plan needs specific strategies for how this shift happens.”

Congregations for the Homeless, which runs Bellevue’s existing men’s shelter, also objected to the plan’s emphasis on non-congregate shelter, noting that the methodology KCRHA used to come up with the plan relies heavily on 180 interviews with people experiencing homelessness that did not directly ask people what kind of shelter they preferred. Instead, the interviews relied on questions like “During this time, what things or people have been helpful to you?” and “What has your experience been like accessing [various types of] services?”

Alexis Mercedes Rinck, KCRHA’s sub-regional planning and equitable engagement director, said the authority has heard cities’ feedback about the need to “maintain the existing spaces that we have,” including congregate shelter, and will be “taking that into account, looking at the local context of very recent local investment into some newer facilities that have been built and are coming online,” like the Bellevue men’s shelter, while focusing on “non-congregate options” in the future.

Those non-congregate options will now include tiny house villages, after persistent lobbying from the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs most of the tiny house villages in the region. LIHI and other proponents of tiny houses—small, individual shelters clustered in “villages” of several dozen—have objected vociferously to the fact that the Five-Year Plan calls for no new funding for tiny houses, using the same set of 180 interviews to determine that people experiencing homelessness prefer other options.

“Anecdotally, we repeatedly hear from outreach workers that nine out of ten of unsheltered people tell them their first choice is a tiny house,” Lee wrote. “This raises a big question about the plan’s methodology. We understand that to determine the relative needs for different temporary housing models, KCRHA used a sample of 180 individuals, selected from 1000 interviews they conducted during the 2022 point in time count. That means KCRHA based the entire 5-Year Plan for the 53,754 individuals they estimate may become homeless in each of the next five years on one sample of 180 individuals.”

The inclusion of tiny houses with all other types of congregate shelter doesn’t mean KCRHA will actually pay for more of them, though. This year, the agency is re-bidding all of its homeless service provider contracts; according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, “we will be doing [requests for proposals] for non-congregate shelter, of which some of those may be tiny houses.”

One recurring piece of feedback KCRHA staff didn’t directly integrate into their revisions is fairly widespread skepticism about the number of “safe parking” spaces the plan would fund on an ongoing basis—a total of more than 3,100 parking spaces for passenger vehicles and 1,600 spaces for RVs. Siting even a handful of spaces for RVs has been a nearly insurmountable challenge, and most existing “safe parking” lots for cars are hosted by churches and other private organizations on a temporary basis, each hosting no more than a handful of cars at a time.

Although the Five-Year Plan categorizes car and RV residency as a type of “temporary housing,” the US Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies it as a type of unsheltered homelessness. In any case, Congregations for the Homeless interim director Steve McGraw wrote, “it is rarely the therapeutic or healthy option—either for the individual or the community. Safe Parking has a place in our tool box of temporary ‘housing’ options, but it should be the last choice to serve people … especially in a time of finite resources, even more so when there are better temporary housing options worthy of funding.”

The inclusion of tiny houses with all other types of congregate shelter doesn’t mean KCRHA will actually pay for more of them, though. This year, the agency is re-bidding all of its homeless service provider contracts; according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, “we will be doing [requests for proposals] for non-congregate shelter, of which some of those may be tiny houses.”

One area where there appears to be some general agreement among critics, board members, and the agency itself is that the region’s current approach to winter (and other severe-weather) shelter—a panicked annual rush to open ad hoc shelters in locations that change from season to season—isn’t working. “We know that this on-and-off-again system is really just not working for anybody,” Rinck said. The question is what to do about it.

Some advocates suggested opening winter-only shelters every year, as the city of Seattle did until 2021, instead of “activating” emergency shelters when the weather hits a certain threshold. KCRHA’s proposed changes call for incorporating funds for severe weather shelter into existing contracts and moving toward a “seasonal” rather than ad hoc system; it also includes a new “technical” (but actually substantive) change that would require the agency to ensure adequate staffing at severe weather shelters even when the agency itself shuts down, like the two-week holiday closure that coincided with a major winter storm last December.

However, Rinck noted that even with those changes, the region’s severe weather system will face challenges. “It tends to be in severe weather instances that folks who traditionally don’t come inside, [those with] really complex behavioral health needs and high-acuity folks, will come inside,” Rinck said, and many winter shelters are run by volunteers who “just aren’t trained to be able to meet [their] needs.” This year, Seattle’s main winter shelter, Compass Housing Alliance, decided not to seek a renewal of its contract with KCRHA, a major gap in service that needs attention this year, before the KCRHA can start working on loftier goals like a coordinated regional winter shelter system. 

During recent meetings about the draft five-year plan, KCRHA implementation board members have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the scale and ambition of the plan, worrying that it proposes too many unfunded plans, too fast, and with too little prioritization to represent a real plan that can be implemented in the next five years. Ben Maritz, an affordable housing developer and Bruce Harrell appointee, summarized this perspective at a recent committee meeting. “I  think that the focus needs to shift to what can we do to move people inside as quickly as possible and given that the major barrier to doing that is the availability of emergency housing or shelter, the focus of the plan really should be on trying to stand that up.”

The next virtual-only meeting of the system planning committee will be Tuesday, March 23, from 3 to 5pm; information about how to watch the meeting will be available at some point this week on the KCRHA’s website, where you can also view some (but not, at the time of this publication, the most recent) previous committee meetings.


Afternoon Crank: Opportunistic Dumping, Unredacted Documents

Image via city of Seattle

1. Every week, the city provides reports showing which encampments the Navigation Team—a group of police and outreach workers that removes unauthorized encampments—plans to clear out in the next five days, including the number of encampments on the list that constitute “obstructions,” a designation that exempts their removal from the usual notice and outreach requirements. (As I reported last week, the team now spends the overwhelming majority of its time in the field removing such “obstruction” encampments.)

In those reports, one phrase appears again and again as a justification for encampment removals: “Large amounts of garbage present on site.”

The problem of garbage pileups at encampments is undeniable—anyone who walks, rides, or drives by one of the city’s highly visible tent cities has seen them—but is it fair to pin the garbage problem entirely on the homeless population? More to the point, if the city is using garbage as one of the justifications for clearing encampments without providing even 72 hours’ notice, does the city know how much of the problem is caused by homeless people dumping trash, and how much is caused by housed people dumping their unwanted stuff in places where they know they’re unlikely to be caught?

Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?

These questions came up for me recently when I was reading the Navigation Team’s most recent quarterly report, which noted that SPU had picked up 335 tons of trash at the 71 encampments it removed in the first quarter of  2019. Those 71 encampments, according to the report, included a total of 731 unduplicated individuals. Doing the math, the report implies that each of those homeless individuals produced about 0.46 tons of trash in the 3-month period accounted for by the report. (Those 335 tons do not include trash picked up by a contractor through SPU’s pilot “purple bag” trash pickup program, which disposes of trash collected at a small number of unauthorized encampment sites.)

By comparison, Seattle Public Utilities’ 652,000 residential customers generated a total of 60,934 tons of garbage in that same period, or about 0.09 tons per person. How can that be? Is it really possible that each of a few hundred homeless people living in encampments accounted for more than five times as much waste per person than people living in houses and apartments?

Local right-wing media would have you believe that the answer is yes; a homeless person, who may literally be digging clothes and food out of other people’s trash, somehow produces more waste than you or me, with our Amazon orders and boxes of discarded takeout and boxes of books Kondo’d to the recycling bin.

But the answer is much more straightforward: Housed people (and construction contractors) use homeless encampments as their dumping grounds. “During encampment cleans, larger items including wood (used as shelter), appliances, generators, propane tanks, car parts and bikes are frequently removed in addition to the trash,” says Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. SPU refers to this practice as “opportunistic illegal dumping,” and Register says it often includes items like “couches, rugs and mattresses” from the homes of people who choose to dump those items at encampments rather than pay SPU to pick them up. SPU doesn’t distinguish between these two figurative piles of trash; rather, the couches and countertops and mattresses and toilets all go into the same pile that the city uses to justify removing encampments with no warning, and that conservative commentators use to justify calls for ramping up crackdowns on homeless people in general.

Given how misleading the city’s “tons of garbage” measure turns out to be, perhaps it’s time for the Navigation Team to retire those numbers from its quarterly reports—or for SPU to start differentiating between old bathtubs dumped by remodeling homeowners and sleeping bags left behind by homeless people when they’re told to move along.

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2. The city of Seattle’s Human Services Department has finally released a set of mostly unredacted documents about the scuttled plan to locate a secure parking lot for people living in their cars near Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. I requested the documents as part of my reporting on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to abandon plans for the parking lot, whose opening date was moved back repeatedly, most recently to sometime in March. The city initially released a set of heavily redacted documents, claiming that they were exempt from disclosure under a “deliberative process” exemption to the state Public Records Act; after I filed multiple challenges, including a request for review by the state attorney general’s office, HSD released less-redacted versions of the documents.

The city initially provided a set of highly redacted documents in response to a records request I filed back in April seeking information about how the mayor made the decision to reject plans for the Genesee location. The Low-Income Housing Institute had signed a contract to operate and provide security for the lot, which was initially supposed to open on February 28, but Mayor Durkan scuttled that plan after neighbors, led by Mount Baker neighborhood activist and District 3 city council candidate Pat Murakami, raised objections to the plan, which they called another example of dumping undesirable projects on Southeast Seattle.

As I noted in my story earlier this month, Durkan’s decision came after months of groundwork by HSD, which had been working on plans for a safe parking lot since at least last October, and had narrowed down potential sites to a short list that included the Genesee Park location by early January at the latest. Nonetheless, Durkan’s office said she had been briefed on the options for the very first time at the end of February, one day before the lot was initially scheduled to open—and a couple of days after the first critical news reports hit local TV airwaves.

The unredacted documents (communications plan; neighborhood flyer; outreach timeline) provide additional details about the scuttled pilot, including how long it was supposed to last (through December 2019); how the city narrowed down the list of sites (“The site identification focused on areas of the city where gentrification and housing displacement has been an issue”); and how the city will prevent “the behavioral problems” associated with RV residents (no RVs would be allowed). The materials place a great deal of emphasis on the idea that people living in their cars (as opposed to RVs) are regular, upstanding citizens who’ve simply fallen on hard times. “This program is designed for adults and students that drive to work or go to school but need a safe parking space to sleep while trying to find permanent housing,” a community flyer stressed. Similarly, the communications plan for the proposal highlights the fact that the lot would have been for people living in cars, not RVs:

According to the most recent Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in King County, about 3,372 people were living in their vehicles, an increase of percent over the 2017 count. People living in vehicles represented more than half of the county’s unsheltered homeless population. Of those 3,372 people, about a third were living in cars; more than half were in RVs.