Tag: Seattle Public Library

Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax

1. Bird, a scooter provider that’s already ubiquitous in cities across the country, will soon enter the Seattle market, while Spin and the venture-backed sit-down scooter company Wheels will no longer be seen on Seattle streets. In addition to Bird, Link and Lime will continue as scooter providers in Seattle.

The Seattle Department of Transportation announced the scooter shuffle on its website last week, just weeks after publishing the results of a controversial, nonscientific survey concluding that more scooter riders are injured while riding than previously reported.

The city will also permanently permit a new bikesharing company, Veo, whose low-slung bikes have vestigial pedals but function more like a sit-down scooter, with a throttle that allows riders to propel them while using the pedals as footrests.

Seattle’s relationship with scooters (and bikesharing) has long been ambivalent. In 2020, two and a half years after banning scooters entirely, the city took a baby step forward by issuing permits to three companies for 500 scooters each. Since then, the city has expanded its scooter permits to allow each of three providers to put 2,000 scooters on the streets; Lime, which provides both e-assist bikes and scooters, has a fourth permit for a total of 2,000 bikes and scooters.

According to SDOT’s scoring matrix, Spin narrowly lost out to Bird, Link, and Lime after scoring slightly lower on two measures: Parking (which includes policies the company implemented to make sure people parked correctly and how it responded to improperly parked scooters) and “operations and equity,” which included a number of factors such as how the company responds to complaints and its efforts to place scooters in “equity areas” outside the center city, including southeast and far north Seattle.

According to the city’s scooter data dashboard, Wheels scored particularly poorly compared to other companies, including Spin, at providing equitable access to its scooters.

Veo, which operates like a scooter but is classified as a bicycle, poses what SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson calls “interesting questions” for the city. Unlike traditional scooters, Veo devices are legal on sidewalks; because they aren’t classified as scooters, they also occupy one of just three potential bikeshare permits, which could limit the number of shared e-bikes allowed on city streets in the future, if other companies decide they want to enter the Seattle market.

“The bike/scooter share landscape is very dynamic and has shifted considerably since the bike share program began in 2017,” Bergerson said, and now includes “more companies offering devices which combine some of the features of bikes and some of the features of scooters. … If this market trend continues, it may make sense to consider how to adjust our permits to reflect the changing technology and industry trends.”

2. The Seattle Public Library is ending its contract with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which for more than five years has provided a part-time “community resource specialist” to connect patrons to food, social services, and shelter, and hiring its own social service specialists.

The new hires include an assistant managing librarian at the downtown branch to oversee the work; a new social services librarian who will “work with information staff to maintain current information and contacts, coordinate the Bus Ticket program, and act as a link between our regular information services and our Community Resource Specialists,” according to library spokeswoman Elisa Murray; and two new in-house community resource specialists, including one who will focus on outreach to youth and young people.

“While this new model doesn’t necessarily provide patrons more time with on-site staff, we do think we can maintain more partnerships with this model, which we hope will lead to increased opportunities for patrons to access the supportive services they need,” Murray said.

For years, libraries (including Seattle’s) have debated whether, and to what extent, library staffers should be responsible for connecting patrons not just to library materials, but to social services and resources outside the library’s direct control. By hiring staff to oversee some of this work, SPL is making a more direct investment in the the theory that libraries can and should do both.

3. A new independent expenditure group representing marijuana retailers, called People for Legal Cannabis, just filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, reporting $16,000 in debt to the polling firm EMC Research. The group’s intent: To fight off potential legislation, first reported by David Hyde at KUOW, that would impose an additional sales tax on weed sales in Seattle. If the legislation, currently being floated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000, passes, the group could propose a referendum to overturn the law.

According to a presentation first posted on KUOW, which PubliCola obtained independently, the UFCW’s still-nascent proposal would impose a “cannabis equity tax” of 25 cents a gram on flower; $2.00 per half-gram of high-potency concentrates; and a penny per milligram of THC in everything else. The money would fund a paid “cannabis equity commission”; “workforce training” for cannabis workers; and a “cannabis equity fund” that would “prioritize the needs of those most impacted by the War on Drugs,” which locked up millions of Black and brown Americans for possessing and consuming weed. Continue reading “Seattle Shuffles Scooter Share Deck, Library Invests in Social Services, Campaign Forms to Fight Potential Cannabis Tax”

DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons

1. Proponents of a bill (HB 2075) that would force the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to offer services in person scored a victory this week, as the agency agreed to reopen almost all its community services offices—key access points, prior to the pandemic, for people seeking services ranging from food stamps to cash assistance.

Since 2020, DSHS has required people seeking services to use an online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. The department opened the community service office lobbies late last year so that people seeking services could call the department on a land line or use a computer to access its online portal, but only agreed to offer services in person again after months of pressure from advocates for low-income and homeless people.

In a letter to stakeholders last week, DSHS Community Services Division director Babs Roberts wrote, “we have heard clearly from many of you and agree that some elements of our plans will not sufficiently meet the needs of all the people we serve, particularly those experiencing the deepest impacts of poverty and homelessness. Thus, we are making changes.”

However, Roberts added, short-staffing and social distancing requirements may result in “limited waiting space and possibly long wait times in our lobbies. This moment (like so many before) will require flexibility and patience.”

As PubliCola reported in January, the closure of in-person services made it essentially impossible for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unsheltered people, to access critical services to which they are entitled, including food stamps, cash assistance, and housing subsidies.

Advocates are still pushing for the bill, which would direct DSHS to “strive to ensure” telephone wait times of no more than 30 minutes and would bar DSHS from restricting the kind of services clients can access in person. Friday is the cutoff date for the bill, which is currently in the senate rules committee, to pass out of the senate.

2. After a surprisingly contentious process, the Seattle Public Library Board unanimously appointed interim library director Tom Fay as the city’s Chief Librarian yesterday, rejecting another candidate, former Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library director Chad Helton, who resigned from his previous job amid criticism over his decision to work remotely from Los Angeles.

The vote, coming after a process that was mostly invisible to the public, shed little light on why the board chose Fay over Helton. (The two men were the only candidates that made it to the public stage of the vetting process.) During his one public interview, Helton defended his decision to run the Minnesota library system from California, saying he was just one of many people who started working from home during the pandemic. “The staff wasn’t really aware” that he lived elsewhere, Helton told the board, adding, “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary.” Fay lives in Pierce County.

As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported last week, Helton resigned from his position on February 1, after the Hennepin County Board of Supervisors passed a law, effective January 1, requiring the heads of public-facing departments like the library to live inside the state. Helton received $60,000 for “emotional damages,” plus $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, as part of a settlement.

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

3. Hours after the vote, Fay gave a presentation on library operations to the Seattle City Council’s public assets and homelessness committee. Although the presentation was mostly a high-level look at how the library spends its money, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used the opportunity to ask Fay whether the library would consider allowing social-service providers to open and operate library branches as day centers during rare weather emergencies like last year’s Christmas snowstorm, when most library branches were closed.

“Does your plan [for emergency weather operations] consider the possibility of opening as a [day] shelter only, not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter, like we do [when] we open up City Hall as a shelter?” Herbold asked. Continue reading “DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons”

Library Finalists Discuss Security, Vaccine Requirements, TERFs, and More

Library director finalists Chad Helton (l) and Tom Fay (r)
Library director finalists Chad Helton (l) and Tom Fay (r).

By Erica C. Barnett

In public interviews last week, the two candidates for Seattle’s Chief Librarian position outlined their priorities for the library system, described how they would manage controversies over intellectual freedom, and responded to questions about what it means to serve the local community—and whether it’s possible to do so from thousands of miles away.

The first finalist, Tom Fay, has been interim chief librarian since the last permanent library director, Marcellus Turner, left the city in March 2021. The second, Chad Helton, is currently on leave from his job as director of the Hennepin (MN) County Library system. Last year, Helton came under fire for moving from Minnesota to Los Angeles, where he lived before taking the job, and running the library system remotely from his home there. Outcry over Helton’s move eventually prompted the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners to pass a law requiring directors of all departments that directly interact with the public to live in the state.

“As a public good, we have the responsibility for unfettered access, whether we agree with the people that are coming in or we don’t.”—Chief Librarian candidate Chad Helton, referring to SPL’s decision to host a group that advocates against the civil rights of transgender people

Asked about his decision to run the Minnesota library system via video conference, Helton said he was hardly the only county employee who chose to work from home. “It wasn’t this thing that I just woke up one day and decided to move to California,” he told the SPL board. “People just found out about it [after the fact]. The staff wasn’t really aware. That wasn’t communicated greatly. But … I didn’t think it was something that was necessary. And I worked off site the entire time that I was there, so it wasn’t really much of an issue for me.”

Asked why he was drawn to Seattle, in particular, Helton returned to a theme he cited several times in his 90-minute interview: Intellectual freedom, particularly when it comes to allowing unpopular voices to speak. “One of the big things that happened here was [when] there was a feminist group that booked the study room, and, you know, they booked it within their rights,” Helton said, referring to the library’s controversial decision to rent its main auditorium to an group that advocates against the civil rights of transgender people in 2019.

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As we reported at the time, the group’s legal work included efforts to ban trans women from restrooms on the grounds that they would sexually assault “real” women.

“The way that the library handled that really made the want to be a part of this organization. Yes, the group that came in, I’m sure it hurt,” he continued. “But understanding that as a public good, we have the responsibility for unfettered access, whether we agree with the people that are coming in or we don’t.”

“If a hate comes through that particularly hates African-Americans, and they follow the process, it is my responsibility to support that group with their First Amendment rights. And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do in this work. That’s the vision that I had for [Hennepin] County, and that’s the vision that I have for SPL.” Continue reading “Library Finalists Discuss Security, Vaccine Requirements, TERFs, and More”

Parking Officer Falsified Tickets, Canceled Homeless Count Un-Canceled, City Pays to Clean Up Mess at Police Firing Range, and More

1. Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released its first investigation into misconduct by a parking enforcement officer since the city’s parking enforcement unit moved from the Seattle Police Department to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year. OPA investigators found that the officer had falsified more than 100 parking citations and warnings to appear more productive.

The officer’s supervisor complained to the OPA after a review of the officer’s work turned up more than a dozen warnings and citations issued to the same car in a short time span—supervisors later learned that the car belonged to the mother of the officer’s children. Looking deeper into the officer’s work log, supervisors discovered that his GPS location often didn’t match the location of cars he cited. The officer later confessed to the OPA that he pretended to be productive by creating warnings or citations for nearby vehicles and listing an inaccurate location for the non-existent parking violation. The OPA determined that the officer had committed perjury and fraud, leaving SDOT leadership to decide how to discipline him.

The OPA’s investigation began while the parking enforcement unit was still housed within SPD, but it concluded after the unit moved to SDOT in the summer of 2021. The OPA is still technically a part of SPD, but the city’s ongoing efforts to move some law enforcement functions out of the police department has expanded the OPA’s footprint; the parking enforcement officer’s case, the first OPA has referred to SDOT for discipline, is a prime example. The OPA also has jurisdiction over the city’s 911 dispatchers, who moved out of SPD last year into the newly created Community Safety and Communications Center.

2. In a reversal of a decision announced late last year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will perform an in-person manual count of the region’s homeless population in March. According to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens, the March count will serve as the official Point In Time (PIT) Count for King County. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires homelessness agencies, including the KCRHA, to physically count the unsheltered homeless population in the area they oversee every two years, although King County has historically done an annual count.

The last scheduled count, in 2021, was scuttled by COVID. In announcing their initial decision to skip this year’s count, the agency argued that because the count is only required in odd-numbered years, “2022 is not a required year.” HUD disagreed and said that KCRHA could be penalized in future requests for federal funding, but Martens told PubliCola in December that HUD had agreed to waive the requirement after the agency announced a new tally based on data obtained from homeless service providers, among other sources.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee earlier this month, authority CEO Marc Dones characterized the March head count as “a rough count” and noted that the authority is basing its planning on the data-based estimate of 45,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County in 2019. That number dropped to around 40,000 in 2020, largely because fewer people were accessing the homeless services on which that estimate is based.

Martens said the March head count “will be deemed a PIT Count for HUD purposes.” The agency will also be doing qualitative research to determine “the ‘why’ and the context around homelessness… to help us build our system in a way that centers people with lived experience,” Martens said.

3. The city of Seattle has paid more than $140,000 to clean up a wetland in Tukwila after the Seattle Police Athletic Association (SPAA), a 70-year-old nonprofit that runs a clubhouse and firing range for Seattle police officers, dumped truckloads of dirt, tires, concrete and other debris onto the marshy banks of the Duwamish River last year.

SPAA is currently not paying for any part of the restoration effort; instead, that burden falls to Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), which owns part of property occupied by the gun range. FAS spokesperson Melissa Mixon told PubliCola that her department can’t comment on whether SPAA will contribute to the restoration costs because of pending litigation.

As PubliCola reported last year, the association used the dirt and debris, which came from an unknown construction site in the Seattle area, to build a backstop for the association’s firing range. Tukwila’s code enforcement office issued a stop-work order in May. According to Mixon, the city is still working to restore the site and is “staying on target with deadlines discussed with Tukwila.”

4. Seattle Public Library employees who staffed library branches during the recent winter weather emergency will receive retroactive payments of $150 for every shift they worked between December 24 and January 3. Former mayor Jenny Durkan issued an executive order providing incentive pay to all “frontline” executive-branch employees on December 24, but because the library is not an executive department, the offer did not extend to library staffers. According to an SPL spokeswoman, the payments will go out to all eligible employees, including library associates, librarians, security officers, and custodial workers, once it’s approved by the library union.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

 

Seattle Library Finalist at Center of Remote-Work Controversy

Seattle Public Library finalist Chad Helton. Image via Hennapin County
Seattle Public Library finalist Chad Helton. Image via Hennapin County

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Public Library announced two finalists for its chief librarian position on Wednesday: Current interim chief librarian Tom Fay, and Hennepin County, MN library director Chad Helton. Fay has headed up the library on an interim basis since former chief librarian Marcellus Turner left to head up the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system last March.

The Hennepin County library hired Helton in May 2020, apparently believing he would relocate to Minnesota. Helton did live in the state for about a year, but last summer, according to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, he informed employees via email that from then on, he would do his $183,855-a-year job remotely from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.

Helton’s decision to run the 42-branch system from 2,000 miles away made national news, prompted at least one scathing editorial, and prompted a new county policy last month requiring county supervisors whose employees interact with the public, including the library director, to live in the state unless they receive special dispensation from the county administrator.

Last summer, Helton informed employees via email that he would do his $183,855-a-year job remotely from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.

Seattle library board chair Carmen Bendixen told PubliCola that while she couldn’t “share anything that Mr. Helton shared with us in his first-round interview… it is important to me that a successful candidate shows a commitment to the Library’s community focus in the final round of interviews with the Board.”

The job description the library used during its national search, Bendixen added, was “intentionally community-focused, making it important that the successful candidate be able to conduct community-centered work, including staying connected to our physical facilities and interacting in-person with Library patrons, partners, staff and other stakeholders.” When Helton was first hired in Hennepin County, he said he had an “inexplicable love for Minnesota,” according to the Star Tribune.

Helton told PubliCola, “I am in compliance with the directive of Hennepin County Administration in regards to its Future Ready Hennepin plan,” which outlined standards for county employees to work remotely or on hybrid in person/remote schedules. “Should I be hired as the next Chief Librarian, I will be in compliance with all directives set forth by the SPL Board,” Helton added.

The library board will hold one public forum on each of the finalists in February; information about the forums is available on the library’s website.

Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

Council Chooses Juarez, Library Explains Systemwide Closures, “Seattle Nice” Debates Durkan Legacy

1. District 5 City Councilmember Debora Juarez will serve as the next city council president, PubliCola has learned, after an intense and unusually public campaign for the position.

In addition to a lobbying campaign by Juarez’ supporters (including the leaders of a dozen Native American tribes), the Seattle Times weighed in on Juarez’s behalf, arguing for Juarez over her chief rival for the position, District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, on the grounds that Juarez would strip Herbold of her position as chair of the council’s public safety committee. (The Times’ editorial board, which usually talks about “the council” as an undifferentiated mass, seems to believe that  Herbold is far to the left on police funding; in fact, she fought consistently for reductions to the budget cuts her colleagues proposed).

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. In the past, council presidents have used the role to represent the interests of the council in negotiations with the mayor’s office, to mixed success. The usually low-profile job typically goes to a senior council member.

2. Seattle Public Library branches, which were supposed to serve as places where people could get warm during the cold and snow emergency last week, were mostly closed last week. Over the course of a weeklong emergency, the entire library system shut down for two full days because of weather (in addition to previously planned closures on Christmas and New Year’s Days), and opened between 9 and 12 of its 27 branches during the other four days of the emergency.

“It requires a certain number of staff in certain job classifications to safely and effectively open each branch, and we need to feel confident that those staff can make it in to work and make it back home safely,” SPL spokeswoman Laura Gentry said. “[W]hile we can change an employee’s work location, we cannot change their scheduled shift or their job classification. Contractually, we also cannot ask someone like a Security officer to staff our Circulation desk, or ask a Children’s Librarian to shovel and de-ice our walkways.”

While library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers.

Both these examples are fairly implausible; a more likely real-world scenario would be one in which several library staffers of various classifications showed up to open a branch’s doors during a weather emergency, leaving libraries without a full complement of job classifications but enough to open safely at a time when most housed people were stuck at home. The lack of a children’s librarian or circulation desk staffer at any given branch would be significantly less urgent if the library decided that, for just a few days during a temporary weather emergency, the primary purpose of library branches was to give unsheltered people a to get warm.

This kind of flexibility might be rare for a government agency, but it isn’t impossible; for example, while library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers—duties for which the city offered between $150 and $250 in bonus pay.

In recent years, physical public library buildings have become havens for unhoused or unsheltered people who are not allowed in most other indoor public spaces during the day; during severe weather, libraries are among the only places unsheltered people (or those staying at nighttime-only shelters) can come indoors.

The issue of whether library workers should have to deal with homeless people has been a subject of debate in practically every major city, but the question of whether they do have to deal with homeless people has long been resolved; if you work in a public-facing role in a public library system, you will encounter unhoused and unsheltered people. In fact, “experience working with people who are unstably housed and/or with individuals who have mental health challenges” is one of the “desired characteristics” for entry-level positions at the Seattle Public Library.

3. If you haven’t tuned in yet to Seattle Nice, the new half-hour podcast where political consultant (and my longtime pal) Sandeep Kaushik and I spar about local news and politics (with producer David Hyde as moderator), this week’s episode, in which we discuss the legacy of ex-mayor Jenny Durkan, is a great place to start.

How did Durkan do on homelessness, COVID response, police accountability, and transparency? Find out what we have to say on those subjects and more and subscribe so you won’t miss a single week.

—Erica C. Barnett

Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil

1. The Seattle Public Library spent nearly $40,000 installing slanted steel sculptural grate covers above the grates outside its Ballard library branch to prevent unsheltered people from sleeping there. The grates open onto the parking garage, and are a warmer place to sleep than the nearby concrete sidewalks or the grass in Ballard Commons Park, a nearby park and plaza where homeless people also live.

According to library spokeswoman Laura Gentry, the new grate covers, which consist of steel plates pitched at a steep angle to the ground, are meant to “prevent people from placing items or sleeping on the grate due to the public safety risks involved.

“In particular,” Gentry continued, “the Library sought to prevent two regularly recurring incidents: 1) unsafe items, trash and human waste falling through the grate into the parking structure below and 2) the grate getting completely covered so that air could not flow through it, which creates serious safety hazards. Proper air flow is critical for fire safety, and is especially important during a pandemic.”

The sidewalks around the library, and the nearby park, have been a constant source of complaints by housed neighbors who argue that tents in the park are unsightly and that the people inside them pose a danger to children and others who use the park.

Two years ago, SPL took a similar action to deter people from congregating near the Ballard library, installing a series of bent metal pipes at a cost of $10,000 to serve a similar purpose. (At the time, library communications director Andra Addison said the purpose of the pipes was to address “unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles” in response to neighborhood and patron complaints.)

Both installations are examples of “hostile architecture”—elements, such as the “anti-homeless spikes” some cities install on railings and benches, designed to prevent people from lingering in a space or using it for something other than its intended purpose, such as sleeping. In a 2019 photo essay, the New York Times described hostile architecture as “ways of saying ‘don’t make yourself at home’ in public.”

According to Gentry, “the Library has no additional plans to install similar elements at other libraries.”

2. After nearly an hour of public comment, much of it from residents arguing that needle-exchange programs encourage addiction by providing clean needles to injection drug users (an argument that makes about as much sense as claiming the availability of glassware encourages alcohol abuse), the Federal Way City Council voted Tuesday night to suspend a 10-year-old program that provides overdose-reversal drugs, counseling, and access to treatment in addition to clean needles.

As a needle exchange opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

The resolution, which refers to needle exchanges as “hypodermic needle giveaway programs,” extends a voluntary suspension of the program by King County Public Health give an 11-person committee time to meet and decide whether to allow the program to operate and, if so, under what conditions. “It is our collective belief that handing out needles in parking lots does not further the goal of treatment or helping those they serve,” the resolution says.

Hysteria over the program ramped up, according to reporting in the Federal Way Mirror, after a local woman did a “stakeout” of a needle exchange van operated by the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE). The van responds to people who call the program requesting service. The woman said she requested, and received, 100 needles without turning any in—proving, at least to some residents who oppose the program, that the “exchange” program is really just a needle giveaway.

As an opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

Needle exchange programs prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and provide health-care workers an opportunity to meet with drug users who may be isolated and lack access to health care and other services. (It is beside the point that, as another anti-needle exchange speaker said last night, that “the thing with AIDS is that AIDS is treatable now, and hep C is curable.”)

Since the 1990s, needle exchanges have been common (and are no long especially controversial) in cities; the programs King County funds in Seattle also offers medical care including vaccinations, hepatitis and HIV testing, and abscess treatment in addition to clean needles and Narcan.

Back in 2016, a countywide task force recommended that the county work quickly to stand up two safe consumption sites for drug users, including one outside Seattle. Nearly five years later, the county and city have made no visible progress toward that goal; banning a longstanding needle exchange program marks a significant step in the opposite direction.

3. Last week, environmental and transit access groups were disappointed by the House’s proposed transportation package. This week, their disappointment continued when the Senate Transportation committee unveiled an even more conservative plan on Tuesday. While the House package dedicated just 25 percent to multimodal projects, the Senate allocates even less to that side of the ledger, with just 1.7 percent of the total going to multimodal projects.

The Senate Transportation committee unveiled its new transportation package, “Forward Washington,” at a work session Tuesday. The Senate’s package will generate $17.8 billion in tax revenue over the next 16 years, most of it coming from gas taxes, a new cap-and-trade program, and electric/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle tax, and state bonds.

Transportation accessibility groups and environmental groups say the plan is only a slight improvement over previous packages, like 2015’s roads-heavy “Connecting Washington,” and doesn’t advance the state’s transit infrastructure in a meaningful way

City leaders from around the state showed up to the session to support the package, including the mayor of Issaquah, Mary Lou Pauly; the package includes $500 million to widen SR 18 through the city.

Continue reading “Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil”

City Plans to Reopen Restrooms at Six Library Branches (UPDATED: Five )

 

UPDATE: Late Tuesday afternoon, the city announced that it is opening five library restrooms; the Chinatown/International District branch, which was on the initial list of proposed branch openings, is no longer on the list. I’ve asked the city why this branch was omitted and will update this post if I receive more information.

The Seattle Public Library, which closed down all of its 26 branches on March 13 to protect patrons and employees during the COVID-19 epidemic, is planning to partially reopen a handful of branches to provide access to restrooms for people experiencing homelessness. Discussions are still ongoing about safety protocols, staffing levels, and hours, but an announcement could come as soon as this week.

The six branches where the city is considering restroom-only openings are the central library downtown and neighborhood branches in Ballard, Capitol Hill, the University District, the International District, and Beacon Hill. People using the restrooms would be required to line up outside, and patrons would not have access to other parts of the libraries.

Seattle City Council members Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, and Dan Strauss, whose district includes the Ballard library branch, first publicly suggested opening the library restrooms in early April, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller revealed that the city is paying $35,000 per month for each hygiene center, including the three Honey Buckets (pictured above) that are currently posted just across the street from the Ballard branch.

“I don’t set the prices, so I can’t speak for other people,” Sixkiller said at a meeting of the council’s homelessness committee on April 8.

Even if each library branch pays several staff members to keep the restroom area open and prevent patrons from wandering into the stacks, opening the libraries will still almost certainly cost less than what the city is paying for portable toilets. This is rough math, but three staffers who cost the city $50 an hour would cost around $25,000 a month, or $10,000 less than a single hygiene center.

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Besides the cost, which Sixkiller attributed to “simple supply and demand” at a time when many cities are looking for hygiene solutions, a recurring issue with portable toilets is that their handwashing facilities frequently run out of water and require constant maintenance. Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, argue that people need access to a toilet within a half mile of where they live, and has suggested partially reopening both libraries and community centers for this purpose.

After I reported that up to a third of the restrooms the city said were open were actually locked, the city opened up most parks restrooms and added new 24/7 “hygiene centers” (portable toilets with handwashing stations) at 12 locations . However, restroom closures continue to occur at unpredictable intervals; over the weekend, for example, restrooms at Volunteer Park were locked, and one of the restrooms at Leschi Park lacked both soap and any kind of toilet paper or paper towels.

It’s unclear precisely when the city plans to open the library restrooms, and what hurdles remain. Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said, “I can’t confirm any details or specifics at this time as we are continuing conversations with labor, management and city employees and developing potential operational plans including locations, staffing, and hours.”