Tag: shelter

“Housing Command Center” Has Housed 4 So Far; Council’s Budget Could Shake Up Homeless Funding

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Update: On Monday morning, a spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the Housing Command Center will have housed 11 people by the end of the day.

A consultant working with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), David Canavan, updated the King County Regional Homelessness Authority last week about the work being done by the “Housing Command Center,” which aims to house homeless people living downtown by moving them directly from the street into privately owned units, with full rent subsidies for the first year. The Command Center opened began its work in late August.

Of the 748 people on the regional authority’s “by-name list” of people living unsheltered downtown, Canavan said, three households, including a total of four individuals, have signed leases and are getting ready to move in to apartments. “We’re really at the beginning of moving folks, and there’s a tremendous amount of work goes into aligning these systems, executing contracts, developing the workforce, [and] building assessment tools” for people on the list, Canavan said. So far, he said, the command center has identified 310 housing units.

According to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, two-thirds of those 310 units are studio apartments; the rest are one-bedrooms. “The amount of time it takes to get a person housed is dropping,” Martens said, from 36 days to “18 or 19 days” after “a site is prioritized for [removal]” by the city. (During last week’s meeting, Canavan said the first housing placement took 34 days and the second took 17.)

Implementation board member and Lived Experience Coalition representative Lamont Green asked Canavan whether the command center was doing anything to add temporary shelters or transitional housing “so we can more quickly get people off the streets across King County,” since “the majority of our unhoused neighbors do not want to be living outside.”

“I don’t see shelter as part of that solution. I don’t think we have to have shelter designed into our process. But I’m also not a decision maker.” —David Canvan, HUD

No, Canavan said; HUD’s focus is entirely on permanent housing. “I don’t see shelter as part of that solution. I don’t think we have to have shelter designed into our process. But I’m also not a decision maker. I don’t get to make decisions for other people. So I’m trying to add choices to your portfolio, which means putting permanent housing solutions in front of folks experiencing homelessness. That doesn’t eliminate any of the choices that are available and my understanding is your jurisdiction has shelter options with many vacancies.”

In reality, according to outreach providers and city officials who have attempted to take a more deliberate approach to encampment removals, there are general only a handful of shelter beds available across the city on any given day. Moreover, the shelters that have more frequent openings are congregate or semi-congregate shelters like the Navigation Center in Chinatown, rather than more desirable forms of shelter, such as hotels and tiny houses.

As we noted when we reported exclusively on the command center in September, the “command center”—a room at the city of Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center in Pioneer Square—did not come with any additional funding.

At the time, the KCRHA was hoping for future funding from, among other places, the city of Seattle, from which the authority requested tens of millions of dollars in new funding for a new high-acuity medical shelter, new temporary bridge housing, and new safe lots for people living in their vehicles. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s initial budget proposal funded none of these items, but did include $10 million in new funding for temporary shelter, which wasn’t among the authority’s requests.

Since then, the KCRHA has come back to the council to ask for money to pay for programs and services that were originally funded with about $45 million in one-time federal COVID emergency dollars that will no longer be available after this year. (Once city budget adds are factored in, the KCRHA stands to lose about $30 million in COVID-era funding).

An amendment sponsored by Councilmember Tammy Morales would add $9.4 million a year to partially backfill this funding, which paid for “program modifications, shelter deintensification, and service changes that were instituted during the pandemic and have now been incorporated into the expected service models,” according to a council staff description of the amendment. However, Morales proposed that amendment before the latest dire revenue forecast, which blew new holes in both the general fund ($4.5 million next year) and revenues from the real-estate excise tax, which funds capital projects ($26.7 million next year.)

Update Monday: A city council balancing package released today includes $3.9 million in one-time funds for 2023 to partially pay for the KCRHA’s request.

A separate  proposal, which council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda is expected to release as part of an overall council budget proposal on Monday, would move some funding Harrell proposed spending on the new Unified Care Team, which oversees the city’s encampment cleanup and removal efforts, to the KCRHA.

As we reported, the city has proposed moving encampment outreach (currently performed by a small group called the HOPE Team, which has been subsumed into the UCT) to the regional authority instead of keeping them at the city. The Harrell administration, like the Durkan administration before it, has maintained that the HOPE Team has to stay at the city to avoid exposing the city to legal liability over its encampment removal practices.

Mosqueda will release her budget “balancing package” on Monday morning;  PubliCola will have full coverage after the council meets to discuss the proposal Monday afternoon.

Under Pressure, County Executive Constantine Cancels Plans to Expand SoDo Shelter

King County Department of Community and Human Services Director Leo Flor with one of the Pallet shelters that would have been part of a shelter expansion in the SoDo neighborhood.

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced on Friday that in response to “community feedback,” the county will abandon plans to provide new shelter beds and a sobering center on vacant land next to the existing 270-bed Salvation Army shelter in SoDo. In a statement, Constantine said, “It is clear that building trust and resolving underlying concerns about the conditions in the community today will take considerable time before we can move forward with any added service capacity.”

Residents of the Chinatown International District have held protests outside the shelter and during King County Council meetings objecting to the shelter expansion, which many described during county and city public comment sessions as another example of “dumping” services for homeless people in a neighborhood that was hard-hit by the pandemic and has seen an increase in both crime and gentrification over the past few years.

Tanya Woo, a Chinatown-International District business owner who has helped organize opposition to the shelter expansion, told PublICola before today’s announcement that she wanted the county to put its plans on “pause” and have more conversations with neighborhood residents, including discussions about potential shelter locations in other parts of the city.

It doesn’t matter what side the community is on this shelter issue, the most important thing is having our voices heard,” Woo said. “My one wish is that the county and city can come to a conclusion that may include looking at other sites and looking at a more equitable distribution of shelter resources so that it’s not all concentrated in one area.”

In addition to community members, paid outside advocates have involved themselves in the debate, including the King County Republican Party (which paid for and handed out “Down With Dow” signs to tweak the county executive, who has a history of being rattled by vocal criticism) and the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that launched the career of far-right activist Chris Rufo.

Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, DCHS director Leo Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.

Reporters received tours of the existing shelter, and the areas where the shelter would have been expanded, earlier this month. In total, the expansion would have added 90 new shelter beds: 40 beds at a new high-acuity shelter, focused on bringing people with the greatest health needs (and visible impact on the surrounding neighborhood) off the street, plus 50 new tiny house-style Pallet shelters. In addition, the county would have moved the existing sobering center, currently housed in the Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, to the complex, adding up to 60 non-shelter beds.

The high-acuity shelter has been a longtime priority for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is an independent entity funded jointly by the city of Seattle and King County. A spokeswoman for the KCRHA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about this latest setback for the shelter.

The director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS), Leo Flor, said last month that the new shelter would help get many people off the street who are unable to access traditional shelter like the Salvation Army’s SoDo shelter because of serious physical and behavioral health needs—the kind of needs that often lead to disruptive behavior and neighborhood complaints.

Pointing toward a large encampment that has grown up next to the existing shelter, Flor told reporters, “Some of the folks in that encampment actually came from the shelter. They’ve got behavioral health conditions that we need a different type of solution for.” With today’s decision, Constantine has put off that solution indefinitely.

Constantine’s office did not provide any information about whether the county is planning to revisit any of the new services and shelter that were canceled today. The decision will save the county some money, though it’s unclear how much; a planned lease with the property owner, developer Greg Smith of Urban Visions,  would have rolled the existing lease for the Salvation Army shelter up in a new six-year contract that would have cost King County $10 million a year.

Nor is it clear when the onsite encampment will be resolved. A spokesman for Constantine directed questions about the encampment to the KCRHA; a spokeswoman for the authority told PubliCola that the site is “within the Partnership for Zero focus area” and will be addressed as part of that work and, presumably, closed down once the homelessness authority moves the people living there into housing or shelter.

Harrell’s Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Shows Plenty of Sweeps But Little Progress on Shelter, Housing

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell, whose macho comments to a group of cops about encampment sweeps, the regional homelessness authority, and the city council were not as private as he thought, has said he will provide unprecedented transparency into encampment removals and progress toward addressing homelessness in the city. Earlier this year, he unveiled a “data dashboard” on homelessness that turned out to be a mostly static website displaying information about where the city’s budget for homelessness goes along with general information about new housing units that will become available this year. 

The mayor’s office promised to update this “dashboard” four times a year. Earlier this month, new information appeared under a section of the site called “Bringing People Indoors”; according to the update, the city counted 814 tents and 426 RVs citywide, and made a total of 191 offers of shelter, in June, out of 616 in the second quarter of 2022.

The city’s Human Services Department, which keeps tabs on shelter referrals leading up to and during encampment sweeps, breaks down its shelter referral numbers by both total number of referrals and the number of individual people who received referrals—a smaller number, since some people get more than one referral from the city’s HOPE team and contracted outreach providers.

Assuming the numbers on the dashboard were calculated the same way, and applying HSD’s estimate that 38 percent of shelter offers during the same period resulted in a person enrolling at a shelter for at least one night, that means—very roughly—that around 72 people from those 814 tents and 426 RVs spent any time at all time in a shelter bed.

Of course, there are caveats to those numbers. The first is that the number of shelter referrals listed on the dashboard is higher, by about 150, than HSD’s citywide estimate. (We’ve contacted HSD for an explanation of this seeming discrepancy). The second is that the number of people who get shelter referrals is slippery, because it may exclude some people who aren’t registered in the regional Homeless Management Information System, which tracks unhoused people as they access various services.

The third caveat speaks to a primary issue with Harrell’s “dashboard” itself: The information is very obviously incomplete, as it was when the website first debuted. Although it purports to show both the number of “verified” tents and RVs by neighborhood, along with the number of people removed from “closed” encampments designated by dots on a map, it’s obvious that the map isn’t comprehensive (with thousands of unsheltered people living in the city, there are clearly more than 426 tents in Seattle, for example) and a closer look at many “closed” encampments provides no information about what happened to the people living there, or even the number of people who were displaced.

The site also continues to misstate the amount of money the city contributes to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, padding the city’s direct contribution, around $70 million, with nearly $50 million in federal relief dollars for a total of $118 million. Harrell used the same inflated number when talking to police, telling them (according to KTTH’s Jason Rantz, who appears to have gotten a recording from an officer), “I’m funding an organization that seems to be working against what I’m trying to do” (removing encampments) and suggesting he might consider cutting their budget this year.

KCRHA director Marc Dones— clearly a thorn in Harrell’s side, based on the mayor’s many public comments about his frustration with the agency—has asked the city to not only renew its existing budget but give the agency tens of millions more to fund new high-acuity shelter beds; purchase buildings, such as hotels and single-family houses, to serve as “bridge” housing; and open several new safe parking lots for people who live in their vehicles.

In response to our request for comment about Harrell’s biting comments, the KCRHA provided a terse statement that says a lot by saying very little. “The Regional Homelessness Authority was designed as a community-wide effort, working together with all 39 cities, King County, businesses, philanthropy, housed and unhoused neighbors, in order to implement real solutions. With our partners, we are working to create vibrant, inclusive communities where everyone has a safe and stable place to live, and we can accomplish that goal when we work together,” the statement said.

New Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Highlights Harrell Administration’s Priorities—Including Sweeps

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks outside the new Dockside Apartments near Green Lake Tuesday.
Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks outside the new Dockside Apartments near Green Lake Tuesday.

By Erica C. Barnett

Standing outside the  Dockside Apartments, a new Low-Income Housing Institute affordable housing project in Green Lake, Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out an online dashboard on Tuesday that includes high-level information about housing and shelter projects that will move forward this year, the location of encampments the city has removed in the last several months, and the number of people Seattle outreach workers have referred to shelter at those encampment removals.

“For the first time in the city’s history, this dashboard that we’ve created allows the public to follow expansion of accessible shelter and supportive housing development, from the initial planning phase to their eventual opening,” Harrell said. The dashboard includes a list of 1,300 housing units and shelter beds that are either open or underway. “My administration has pledged to identify 2,000 [housing or shelter] units by the end of the year. So far, we’ve identified 1,300 expected to open this year.”

During his campaign for mayor, Harrell told reporters he would “identify” 1,000 units of “emergency, supportive shelter” in his first six months in office, with another 1,000 units in the six months after that. At the time, this was broadly interpreted to mean 1,000 new units (or shelter beds), not a progress report on units that were already underway. But a review of the 23 projects highlighted on the mayor’s dashboard—all of them funded or partially funded by the city and opening this year—shows that all of them were underway before Harrell took office. In other words, Harrell could have compiled an almost identical list at almost any point during his 2021 campaign.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the existing plans were, because quite candidly, they did not exist. And certainly not in a manner where you saw today where you can actually scroll over in a map and see what we’re dealing with.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

For example: Chief Seattle Club’s 80-unit ?ál?al apartment building in Pioneer Square has been in the works since 2017, and opened, after many delays, earlier this year. JustCare, a program that provides long-term hotel-based shelter, has been around since 2020. And several Low Income Housing Institute-run tiny house villages have been in the works for years, but only opened recently because the previous mayoral administration repeatedly refused to spend funds allocated for the villages.

Harrell and two city council allies pushed back on the narrative that the housing and shelter in the dashboard was already in the works before he took office. Under previous administrations, Harrell said, “nothing was really identified because there was no plan. … I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the existing plans were, because quite candidly, they did not exist. And certainly not in a manner where you saw today where you can actually scroll over in a map and see what we’re dealing with.”

District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss, comparing Harrell to his foot-dragging predecessor Jenny Durkan, noted during a press briefing that “the mayor has the ability to move quickly or slowly with deploying housing units once they’re funded; what I’m seeing here is that there’s an urgency in place.” In other words: It isn’t the number of units or shelter beds in the pipeline that counts, but the fact that the city is moving to get them open.

The mayor’s dashboard also includes a bar graph showing the number of “offers of shelter” the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach to encampments the city is about to sweep, has made to people living in encampments. The graph shows this data as a “running tally” over several months; Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Michael Bailey said he did not know if the cumulative number, 513 referrals over five months, included duplicates—people who had received a shelter referral more than once.

As we’ve reported, the majority of unsheltered people who get a shelter referral from the city don’t actually end up staying in that shelter, making referrals a poor measure of shelter effectiveness. Asked why the city is tracking referrals rather than enrollments (the number of people who show up at a shelter and stay there for a night or longer), Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said it was because the city is legally required to track referrals.

People have the ability to get to shelter if they want to go, she added. “They’re adults. And when we say we’re going to go live somewhere, no one walks us to the place that we’re living to make sure we get there. Homeless people aren’t children. And if they say they’re going to go inside, then we trust that they’re going to go inside.”

Finally, the map includes a general estimate of the number of tents and RVs in various neighborhoods and the number of people who were on site at specific encampments when they were closed, according to the HOPE team. The total number of tents in the city in mid-May, according to the dashboard, was 763— an undercount, officials acknowledged Tuesday, because it only includes tents people have reported to the city.

They’re adults. And when we say we’re going to go live somewhere, no one walks us to the place that we’re living to make sure we get there. Homeless people aren’t children. And if they say they’re going to go inside, then we trust that they’re going to go inside.”—Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington

Inside each general area, the map identifies encampments the city removed, along with (in some cases, but not all) the number of people who accepted shelter referrals from the HOPE Team. The purpose of this tracking, according to the dashboard, is as “a baseline to track progress” at removing encampments.

Washington said Tuesday that the city is seeking to apply an “equity lens” to encampments. What that meant, she explained was that the city will spend significant resources removing encampments in neighborhoods that have typically had fewer encampment sweeps, and where residents complaining about encampments may feel ignored. In the new system, complaints will “get more weight if you’re in places that are typically ignored. And so it’s not the squeakiest wheel. The squeakiest wheel way would mean that I live in North Seattle, and I got my whole neighborhood watch group to call 700 times,” it would elicit a response from the city, Washington said.

The data in the map does not appear to directly represent conditions in various neighborhoods. For example, according to the map, there were 183 tents in downtown Seattle as of mid-May—the most of any neighborhood—while there were only 15 tents in all of Capitol Hill. The map indicates there were no encampments at all in the University District, Madison Park, or Rainier Beach, and virtually none in most of North Seattle, including Lake City, while neighborhoods like Wallingford and Montlake reported dozens. Continue reading “New Homelessness “Data Dashboard” Highlights Harrell Administration’s Priorities—Including Sweeps”

Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers

By Erica C. Barnett

Next week, the governing board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will vote on a proposed budget that would nearly double the amount of money the authority is requesting from Seattle and King County, which fund the authority.

Overall, the proposed $209 “base budget,” not counting $12 million in one-time COVID relief funds, would require the county and city, collectively, to contribute an additional $90 million to the regional authority, on top of this year’s total contribution of $119 million. The majority of the KCRHA’s existing funding—about $70 million—comes from the city through its annual budget process; the rest comes from the county.

Nearly 40 suburban cities, organized as the Sound Cities Association, receive services funded through the KCRHA and have seats on its governing board, but do not contribute any funding to the authority.

The KCRHA has not presented a detailed breakdown of its budget requests to each of its two funders yet, but if the money was divided up along similar lines as this year’s contributions, it would amount to about $54 million in additional funding from the city, for a total of more than $122 million.

At a recent meeting of the authority’s implementation board, agency CEO Marc Dones said, “I agree that this is a hefty ask,” but added that even doubling the authority’s budget won’t fundamentally transform the homelessness system, given the scale of the need in King County. “We went into this saying, and maintain, this is not the transformational budget for us,” Dones said.

PubliCola asked the spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, county council budget chair Joe McDermott, and city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, how realistic they considered the KCRHA’s request, given the likelihood of significant budget gaps this year. The city, for example, currently estimates next year’s budget shortfall at around $34 million, and has asked departments to come up with potential cuts of 3 to 6 percent.

The budget proposal includes tens of millions for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve a total of 130 vehicles at a time.

Harrell’s spokesman said the mayor’s office “is still in the early stages of evaluating this preliminary budget proposal. We look forward to working with the KCRHA and CEO Dones, as well as our partners at King County, to help develop a budget through a collaborative and iterative process. We will at the same time be considering our own budget needs, addressing a significant financial gap, and working to determine what investments will most effectively address the homelessness crisis.”

A spokesman for Constantine said the county executive’s office is “reviewing the draft budget and are in communication with KCRHA and our partners at the City of Seattle to discuss needs and realistic budget expectations, as well as potential opportunities for funding.”

Mosqueda said she had not seen the budget proposal yet, “but with Seattle currently funding 68 percent of the budget, it underscores that regional funders are necessary.”

McDermott did not respond to our request for comment.

Lewis, the council’s homelessness committee chair, said the size of the request demonstrates the scope of the need. “I don’t think, in and of itself, that the total number is an unreasonable amount of money to be asking for some of the stuff that they want to do,” he said. “But we’re already paying 70 percent of [the agency’s budget], and Seattle taxpayers are actually paying more, because we pay into the county’s contribution too.”

On Thursday, Dones told PubliCola that even if the authority factored in all the money suburban cities are spending on homelessness, there would still be a “substantial” need for more funding. Under its charter, the authority has no ability to raise taxes or require suburban cities to help fund it: “The limit of what we can do is, this is what is necessary. This is the price tag,” Dones said. The governing board, made up largely of elected officials, could, however, advocate for a new local or county tax to fund homelessness. “They can’t effectuate it, but they are the ones politically situated to call that question and to be the appropriate envoys of the discussion.”

The budget proposal includes tens of millions of dollars for new shelter and “safe space” programs, including $20 million to add 55 new “high-acuity” shelter beds for people with acute medical needs; $20 million to purchase single family homes, hotels, single-room occupancy apartments, or other buildings that would serve as bridges between shelter and permanent housing for 345 people; and $5 million for six or seven safe parking sites that could serve up to 130 vehicles at a time.

Last year, the city council declined to fund the KCRHA’s request for the high-acuity shelter, citing a revenue shortfall and concerns that the authority had not coordinated their request with the city. Subsequently, King County expanded its shelter complex in the SoDo neighborhood, built with federal COVID relief funds, to include shelter for people with physical and behavioral health care needs. A  spokeswoman for the KCRHA said the $20 million would be for “new capacity, locations [to be determined].”

The 400 proposed new shelter and emergency housing beds represent just 20 percent of the 2,000 new shelter or housing beds Harrell vowed to add this year in the city of Seattle alone. Harrell’s office did not respond directly to a question about this discrepancy between the KCRHA’s proposal and his campaign promise.

Dones has advocated for emergency or “bridge” housing, which they recently described as “non-time limited housing-style options for people” moving from homelessness into permanent housing. The city began moving away from traditional transitional housing in the last decade, after a 2016 report by consultant Barb Poppe called the model “extraordinarily expensive” and the average time people stayed in transitional housing units “shockingly long.”

The agency’s analysis, in contrast, concluded that transitional housing had the lowest “cost per exit” of any shelter or emergency housing type KCRHA funds, and that tiny house villages—a type of shelter Dones has frequently criticized in the past—are the most expensive and have the longest average stay of any shelter type, with a 45 percent rate of exits to permanent housing.

The proposed budget increase would fund raises for nonprofit social service workers, who often make just a few dollars above Seattle’s minimum wage ($15.4 million); more emergency shelter beds for severe weather events ($750,000); up to 12 new day centers for people experiencing homelessness ($15 million); and more staff at the authority itself ($7.2 million).

It’s unclear how the authority derived the “cost per exit” metric, which differs from more frequently uses measures such as average cost per client per year. (Asked for more details about the math the agency used and for the data underlying the numbers, the KCRHA spokeswoman said the number came from “Performance data from HMIS, funding data from our contracts database” and did not provide the data itself.)

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates tiny house villages throughout King County, disputes the authority’s metrics, saying their own analysis shows about 50 percent of tiny house residents exit to permanent housing, and that the cost of sheltering one person in a tiny house for one year comes out to just over $9,000. Continue reading “Homelessness Authority Asks to Double Its Budget; Money Would Fund 400 New Beds, Safe Parking, Worker Raises, and Day Centers”

After Threat at Woodland Park, City Scrambled for Last-Minute Shelter Referrals, Then Swept

"Park temporarily closed" sign at an entrance to Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

When the city removed a large, longstanding encampment from Woodland Park last week, elected officials announced that they were able to refer almost everyone on site to shelter, an achievement they said was only possible because of long-term efforts to identify and provide personalized outreach to the people living in the park.

“After four months of intensive outreach, we moved 85 people out of the park and into shelter or transitional or permanent supportive housing… and this is because in January, we created a by-name list, and in February, we finished the needs assessment for these folks and began moving people inside,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, said at a council meeting Monday. (The Human Services Department said the total number was 83). In a statement last week, the city said it was aware of at least 12 people who “voluntarily relocated” from the park.

A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, echoed this line, telling PubliCola that the city had accomplished its “goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement[—]to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were connected to the best-suited shelter and support services.”

Behind the scenes, though, the city reportedly considered aborting outreach efforts and sweeping the camp immediately earlier this month, after an outreach worker with the Human Service Department’s HOPE Team—a group of social service workers who do outreach at encampments and offer shelter referrals prior to sweeps—was threatened with a gun by someone living in the park, several people familiar with the encampment told PubliCola. The incident, which has not been previously reported, caused city and nonprofit outreach workers to abandon the encampment for several days in the week prior to its removal last Tuesday.

All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

“When we heard there were guns in the area, we had our staff step back,” said Chloe Gale, the director of the outreach nonprofit REACH, which partnered with the city to provide outreach in Woodland Park. Seattle police officers were on site when outreach workers returned. “We definitely do not request for law enforcement to go” to encampments, but “they were there, and we were willing to be there with them,” Gale said.

Housen did not respond directly to questions about the gun incident, saying only that “outreach providers and City employees who engage encampments may encounter situations that are unsafe.” Asked if Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, who heads up homelessness for the mayor’s office, pushed to shut the encampment down sooner, Housen gave a one-word answer: “No.”

After the threat, efforts to find shelter options for everyone living at the encampment—including both those on the city’s “by-name list” and those who moved to the park in the months since, including the weeks and days immediately prior to the sweep—went into overdrive. All of a sudden, according to a neighbor who has been volunteering at the encampment for the past several months, “It was raining tiny houses. Where had they all been?”

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

Debris left outside a picnic shelter after an encampment removal at Woodland Park

According to Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, her organization was “asked to accommodate 30 people” from the Woodland Park encampment  “all at once,” and scrambled to create space in eight of its tiny house villages across the city. Four moved into LIHI’s Whitter Heights village in northwest Seattle. Another 12 went to Interbay, North Seattle, and South Lake Union, respectively. Five ended up—temporarily, Lee says—at LIHI’s new Southend Village in Rainier Beach, whose 40 slots are intended for people living unsheltered in South Seattle.

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park,” Lee said, “and we told them, no, we are not going to move everybody into Southend Village because we have a commitment to the neighborhood to take in local references.” According to Lee, LIHI held beds open for Woodland Park residents as people moved out of tiny house villages and opened up some slots by expediting some residents’ placements into permanent supportive housing. “If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”

Exacerbating the problem was the fact that, according to several people familiar with the encampment’s shifting population, dozens of people moved into the park in the weeks immediately prior to the encampment removal. Many arrived after the city swept other nearby encampments, including some who had been living in Ballard’s industrial “brewery district.” It’s common for some people to relocate to encampments the city is about to sweep in the hope of accessing resources, such as tiny houses, that aren’t otherwise available to people living unsheltered. Some may have also been encouraged to move to Woodland Park by a neighborhood resident who has been doing ad hoc outreach at the park for months.

In the end, the majority of the people who moved out of Woodland Park and into shelter—about 50—were relocated not over the three months since the city finalized its “by-name list,” but in the final week of the encampment’s existence, including 27 who moved on the very day of the sweep.

As PubliCola reported last week, just four people living in the park got housing. Of the 79 people who got referrals to shelter, 49—almost two-thirds—received their referrals in the final week before the sweep.

This raises the question: Why couldn’t the city have offered spots to people living in Woodland Park much sooner, rather than going to the trouble of creating a “by-name list” that had no bearing on the final outcome? If “restoring Woodland Park to its intended use,” as the mayor’s office has put it, was a top priority, why not move people into tiny houses or other shelter over the course of months, rather than rushing everyone out at the last minute?

According to Harrell spokesman Housen, one reason the city didn’t move faster is because people simply refused to take the shelter they were offered. “Referrals were made throughout the engagement process with the first referral taking place on January 28th,” Housen said. “While outreach providers made diligent efforts to refer individuals throughout their time at Woodland, some individuals chose to decline shelter until a removal date was communicated.”

The last-minute rush of referrals led to some last-minute chaos. “It was still a mass eviction, and things were happening at the last possible minute,” with people having to make quick decisions about whether to move across town or lose out on shelter, the neighborhood volunteer said. “If people were told they had to be out at 10 and they were given a [tiny] home at 9, some of their possessions might have ended up in a car going to the north end and they might have been in a car going to the south end.”

“We were not told until the end of last week”—the week before the sweep—”that [the city] would like us to help them at Woodland Park. If we were told sooner, obviously, over the last few months we could have done it more naturally as vacancies occurred.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

Almost everyone PubliCola spoke to about the Woodland Park encampment removal—from mutual aid volunteers and outreach workers to elected officials—said that the removal was ultimately a “success,” in the sense that nearly everyone living in the park received an offer of shelter before the dump trucks rolled in. “I think the biggest accomplishment here was not moving people inside, and was not returning the park to its intended use—the biggest accomplishment was changing how the city does business when it removes encampments,” Strauss said.

What it also demonstrates—and what previous encampment removals, such as a similar slow-motion sweep of the Ballard Commons, have shown—is that when the city decides to reserve a large number of shelter beds and resources for a single encampment, the people in that one encampment are very likely to end up in shelter. Meanwhile, thousands of other people living outdoors remain in tents, vulnerable to sweeps.

“At the Ballard Commons, with shelter expansion, we were able to move people in differently than when we have to rely on throughput” from people leaving shelters, Strauss said. “And when we’re having to rely on throughput, it also means that we’re prioritizing shelter beds for people in Woodland Park while there’s a need citywide.”

So far, both of the city’s efforts to take a “new approach to encampment removals” have taken place in wealthy, mostly white North Seattle neighborhoods where people frequently complain about encampments. Meanwhile, people living unsheltered in other neighborhoods—like the International District, where the city swept about 50 people from private property after a shooting in March—receive minimal notice and no long-term, personalized outreach before the city sends them packing.

“Why did this happen at Woodland Park?” the volunteer asked. “It happened because our neighborhood is largely white and privileged… not because these were the people who were suffering the most, but because the city wanted this park clear, so it suddenly got prioritized.”

Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase”

1. On Tuesday, the city council will impose new restrictions on construction or alterations at two historic landmarks: The Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union, and an early-20th-century houseboat known as the Wagner Floating Home.

One building that won’t be getting new protections—at least, not yet—is a one-story former bank building near downtown that, for more than a decade, has housed a drive-through Walgreen’s store. Fifteen years ago, the Seattle landmarks board granted landmark status to the building, which has a handsome facade on one side but is otherwise unremarkable. In its “statement of significance,” the landmarks board seemed to struggle to explain why, exactly, the building on Denny Way—one of multiple copies around Seattle of a building designed by a different architect—merited extraordinary protection. Among other points largely unrelated to the 1950 building itself, the board cited the defunct bank’s connection to the city’s logging history and the Denny Regrade, the history of drive-through banking in the US, and the “unprecedented freedom” of mid-century Modernist style.

It doesn’t take much for a building to win landmark status in Seattle; a building is only required to be at least 25 years old and meet one of a list of criteria that includes being “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation” or being characteristic of an area.

Landmarks status usually leads to limits on the demolition of, or changes to, buildings; the Walgreen’s building is unusual in that 15 years have passed since it first received landmark status. During a meeting of the council’s neighborhoods committee two weeks ago, an attorney with McCullough Hill, representing Walgreen’s, explained that protections would result in profits for the company, which could sell off the development rights for the site. This “transfer of development rights” would allow another developer add density elsewhere while preserving a one-story, car-oriented building in the middle of one of the city’s densest neighborhoods.

Committee chair Tammy Morales decided to delay imposing controls on the building, saying she was “just trying to understand what the benefit for the city is” of protecting the one-story Walgreen’s. We asked a similar question on Twitter. In our highly nonscientific poll, 89 percent opposed protecting the former bank. The committee will take up the landmarks question again at its next meeting on May 14.

2. Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell used as the backdrop for his campaign vow to remove troublesome encampments, is still the site of a large encampment, several months after Harrell initially told neighboring residents it would be removed. The delay has allowed the city to use the same deliberate approach that was largely successful in relocating most of the people living at the Ballard Commons, which the city closed and fenced off last December. City Councilmember Dan Strauss and advocates for unsheltered people have been championing this approach, even as sweeps have ramped up dramatically since Harrell took office.

According to outreach workers and advocates who have been working with encampment residents over the past several months, the city has worked effectively to find shelter or temporary housing for several dozen people living at the encampment. As they did at the Commons, outreach workers with the nonprofit REACH and the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team created a list of 61 people living at the encampment in February and began working to move people on that list off site. At the same time, the city’s Parks Department set up portable toilets and started removing trash—two key factors that reduce the amount of visible garbage and human waste, which result when people don’t have places to throw stuff away and relieve themselves.

Data show that between September and March, just 196 of 534 people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up at shelter within 48 hours and stayed for at least one night—an enrollment rate of less than 37 percent.

The result, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, has been “at least 30 referrals to shelter or housing,” including three housing referrals and 26 referrals to enhanced shelter or tiny house villages, in addition to 10 people who have “voluntarily relocated from the park” and are presumably living unsheltered elsewhere.

A spokesman for HSD said outreach “efforts will continue over the coming weeks in an attempt to resolve this encampment through outreach strategies alone.” However, advocates working at the encampment note that unsheltered people have continued to move to the area since February, when the city created its list; as a result, the encampment is scarcely smaller than it was when the city’s outreach efforts began. (The HSD spokesman notes that the city has referred at least five of the new people to shelters).

“We’re seeing people get into at least transitional shelter or tiny houses,” a neighbor who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment told PublICola. “We wish there were more staff to do [outreach and placements] and, really, more resources behind it.” Continue reading “Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase””

Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs

Low-Income Housing Institute tiny house village
Tiny houses, like this one in a village operated by the Low-Income Housing Institute, are a form of non-congregate shelter—the type of shelter Governor Jay Inslee says he wants to prioritize statewide.

by Leo Brine

As a counter to their meek policy achievements in Olympia this year, Democrats loaded their capital and operating budgets with historic investments in housing and homelessness response—$829 million, nearly half of which will go to local governments and nonprofits to develop new shelter and permanent housing. Governor Jay Inslee estimates the state will add 3,890 new housing units or shelter beds with $413 million in funding from the Housing Trust Fund and appropriations for rapid capital acquisitions.

The rest of the money ($416 million) will go to things like rent, mortgage, and utility debt assistance. An Inslee-backed bill to create a new office inside the Department of Social and Health Services to address homeless encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, like freeway underpasses, failed, but the budget includes $52 million that will go to local governments for the same purpose, including $7 million to help prevent future encampments in places where encampments have been removed.

Democrats killed several pieces of their own progressive housing legislation that would have created incentives for denser housing development after those bills were watered down by amendments from Republicans and other Democrats. In the house, they  killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) denser housing bill (HB 1782) at the first legislative cutoff of the session. At the next cutoff, senate Democrats killed Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit legalization bill (HB 1660).

And on the final night of the session, the clock ran out on the year’s last hope for housing policy reform—a bill sponsored by Rep. Davina Duerr (D-1, Bothell) bill (HB 1099) that would have required cities to adjust their growth plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled. The bill, which would have updated the state’s Growth Management Act to respond urgently to climate change, was a top priority for the environmental advocacy group Futurewise.

Inslee’s senior adviser for housing, Jim Baumgart, said Inslee wants to move away from “mats on a floor,” and “cots in a big open room” shelter model and toward a system where people get their own space. “If we can, the goal is always to get people into permanent housing. The way to end homelessness is to get people into permanent housing,” Baumgart said.

“It’s really hard to know what projects will come in and what those proposals will be for. Thomas said. “Our hope is the vast majority of the funds are for permanent housing solutions.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how much permanent housing the state will add with the Democrats’ investments. According to Baumgart,  “housing units” refers to “all non-congregate housing options,” from shelters  and transitional housing to permanent housing, supportive and otherwise.

Baumgart said it’s “really hard to estimate” that figure because of the rising cost of building materials and they don’t know which projects local governments and nonprofits will submit for grant funding.

Michele Thomas, from the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, is also trying to figure out how much permanent housing the budget creates, but says she won’t know for a while. She said the grants in the budget can go to a variety of projects that deal with homelessness, not just permanent housing. Continue reading “Democrats Try to Counter Their Meek Housing Policy Achievements with Major Investments in Homelessness Programs”

Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Last Wednesday, police and parks department workers removed a highly visible encampment in downtown Seattle after a weekslong standoff between protesters and the city. Mayor Bruce Harrell justified the no-notice sweep by saying the encampment was an “obstruction to pedestrian access” along Fourth Avenue between James and Columbia Streets—a stretch of sidewalk that happens to be visible from the mayor’s office on the seventh floor of City Hall.

Across town, the sweep left advocates and outreach workers wondering whether the city would take similarly swift action to clear a controversial encampment at Woodland Park—the largest remaining park-based encampment in the city, and one Harrell has repeatedly identified as a top priority for his administration. During his campaign, for example, Harrell said the encampment would be gone by “January or February” of this year, “because I work with a sense of urgency.” In January, Harrell officially identified Woodland Park as a “top-priority” site. Then, last month, he re-emphasized the point in his state of the city speech, saying, “we will continue our efforts on top priorities like Woodland Park. … Woodland Park is a gem in our city—and trash, fires, continued inhumane conditions are not acceptable, period.”

Last month, a fire at a campsite in Woodland Park destroyed a tent and damaged a park shelter, prompting renewed neighborhood calls for the city to clear the encampment.

To address trash, the city installed five Dumpsters in the park at a cost of $2,000 each, according to a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents the neighborhood surrounding the park, has said the city will take a methodical approach to clearing the encampment—creating a list of every person living there, then moving each of them individually to appropriate shelter or housing before securing the area against future encampments and reclaiming it for general public use. The city took a similar approach at the Ballard Commons, with one major difference—when the city closed the Commons, dozens of new shelter and housing spots had just become available, making it much easier than usual to relocate people into places they actually wanted to be.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park. We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.”—City Councilmember Dan Strauss

At Woodland Park, in contrast, the city must rely on its existing, inadequate pool of shelter and housing options—a tiny house here, a single bed in a gender-segregated shelter there—and hope that people both “accept” referrals to shelter and actually go shelter and stay there instead of coming back.

To that end, the city is reserving “approximately half” of whatever shelter beds open up for people living in Woodland Park, Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “Otherwise, the timeline for making offers of shelter to those residing in Woodland Park would only be further extended given the number of people residing onsite”—between 60 and 80, according to outreach workers in the area.

Another difference between Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons is that Woodland Park is much larger and can’t easily be contained, like the Commons, by a fence. This makes it easy for new people to move in—which, Strauss acknowledges, they are doing now.

“I have heard about people coming to Woodland Park,” Strauss said, including some who have arrived specifically because they’ve heard that the city is making shelter and housing available to people living there. “We’re trying to make sure folks know, you’re not going to move here and get bumped up a list or anything like that.” Outreach workers say that when the city announces an encampment will be swept soon, people usually show up from other places, hoping to get access to shelter and services that are unavailable to people living elsewhere.

To ensure the list of people on the list for shelter and services at Woodland Park doesn’t get longer, outreach workers are creating a “by-name list” of people eligible for expedited access because they lived in the park before a certain date; those who arrive later will get “the same priority as everyone else in the city,” Strauss said. The city prioritizes people for shelter based on their “vulnerability,” a grim calculus that includes factors like a person’s age, disabilities, and the length of time they’ve been homeless. Currently, there are only a handful of shelter beds available on any night for the tens of thousands of people the King County Regional Homelessness Authority now estimates are homeless across the region.

Katie Jendrey, a volunteer with a mutual-aid group that has been working in Woodland Park for months, said the existence of a fixed “by-name list” suggests an officially sanctioned division of Woodland Park’s homeless population into haves and have-nots—those who might get shelter because they got there first, and those who will, by official city policy, be left behind.

“I do think the city is doing something right in doing intensive outreach over an extended time,” Jendrey said. But, she added, “we’ve been nervous about this by-name list thing, because the population always fluctuates. To say ‘We’ve got a list’ [is to say], ‘This is who we’re going to give services to, not those people.'” Continue reading “Downtown Sweep Highlights Urgency of Resolving Seattle’s Other “Top-Priority Encampment,” Woodland Park”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”