Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Partnership for Zero, a $10 million public-private partnership aimed at ending visible unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle. During the official announcement on February 17, 2022, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said they considered it “feasible” to reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the downtown core to “30-ish people” within a year. “Straightforwardly based on the data, yes,” it is doable, Dones said, “and then secondly, straightforwardly based on what we have to do to help people—yes.”
Since that announcement, the partnership between the KCRHA and We Are In, the umbrella group for the KCRHA’s philanthropic donors, has hit a number of milestones—including a “by-name list” of almost 1,000 people living downtown and the establishment of a “housing command center” to coordinate housing placements—but has not come close to the goal of housing or sheltering a large majority of people living unsheltered downtown. According to an announcement from We Are In and the KCRHA last week, the downtown effort has housed 56 people so far in a combination of permanent supportive, rent-restricted, and private-market housing—about 5 percent of the people the agency’s outreach workers have identified downtown.
As of last week, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, another 96 people were in “interim options”—mostly hotel rooms paid for by vouchers distributed by the Lived Experience Coalition—waiting for housing placements. Hundreds more have either filled out questionnaires about their housing needs, gotten new IDs, or are “moving through the housing process at three prioritized sites (specific encampments or geographic areas),” according to last week’s announcement.”
Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.”
The KCRHA is under intense pressure to resolve several encampments in and around the Chinatown/International District, which is in the Partnership for Zero area, as well as another longstanding encampment in North Seattle that neighborhood residents have called a threat to public safety. During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board, agency CEO Marc Dones said the agency is working to “activate pathways inside” for people living in those encampments, “inclusive of the existing shelter resources, emergency housing, and permanent housing as available.” Mostly, these pathways appear to involve hotel vouchers, not housing.
Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.” Most of the people the KCRHA’s outreach workers, known as systems advocates, have identified downtown have been homeless for years and have significant behavioral health conditions, Scholes added. “This is a population that can be challenging to get into housing quickly, and then once you get them there, to keep them there,” he said.
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Still, Scholes said, he’s hopeful that “as they are able to free some resources up from the work in some of these encampments, they’re able to continue to move into the central neighborhoods of downtown.” Kylie Rolf, the DSA’s vice president for advocacy and economic development, added that “in the amount of time that the Unified Command Center has been operational and the system advocates have been on the ground, I think they have made remarkable progress.”
Martens said the agency learned several “key lessons and improvements” for the program in the first year. The first: “Setting up the infrastructure takes time.” Training the system advocates, setting up the housing command center, and creating a new outreach system has taken longer than expected, as has “gathering the documentation to obtain a photo ID” for people who have been living outside for years and, in many cases, don’t have an official address or other documents that could prove they are who they say they are.
The agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, instead of every advocate managing every step of the process,” according to a spokesperson.
Additionally, Martens said, the agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, she said, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, so instead of every advocate managing every step of the process, we now have teams of advocates focused on Outreach & Engagement, Housing Navigation, and Housing Stability.”
This appears to be a shift from the original concept of system advocates, who were supposed to be a single, “longitudinal” point of contact through every stage of the housing process, from identifying a person and getting them on a “by-name list” to connecting them to housing to ensuring that they have the resources they need to stay housed. We’ve reached out to the KCRHA for clarification about the currentrole of the system advocates.
Scholes said one complicating factor downtown is that many of the people causing a feeling of “disorder” downtown are fentanyl users who aren’t actually homeless. “They may be housed and they may have a fentanyl addiction, and that’s why they’re on the sidewalk. And we sort of shorthand it as homelessness… [but] they’re going to need a different set of interventions” than what the homelessness authority can provide.
Last week’s anniversary announcement included news that the Partnership for Zero has received another $1 million in funding, bringing the total to around $11 million. Although the KCRHA previously said it would use Medicaid funding to pay for the system navigators after last year (prompting skepticism from some Seattle councilmembers) the authority is paying for the outreach workers through its general budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County.
Members of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, including Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, expressed concerns over the scale and scope of the agency’s draft Five-Year Plan to address homelessness, which calls for 18,000 new shelter beds and parking spots for people living in their vehicles—and an annual price tag in the billions. Currently, the city of Seattle and King County are the authority’s only funders.
We dug into the details of the draft plan on Tuesday.
Harrell, who declined to fund any of the KCRHA’s requests for new programs in last year’s city budget, said he didn’t “see a route to achieve” the full five-year plan, which includes $8.4 billion in capital costs and between $1.7 and $3.4 billion in annual operations and maintenance costs. “That’s almost another city [budget],” he said. Instead, Harrell said, the authority should figure out what it can do with incremental increases of 5 or 10 percent a year and come back with a plan that focuses on responding to the immediate need for emergency shelter. “Maybe it’s there and maybe I’m just not seeing it, but I just want a little more meat there.”
In response to concerns from elected officials, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones the reason the plan zeroes out tiny houses is that “the modeling calls for fewer modular shelters than we currently have—it’s just math.”
Lewis echoed Harrell’s comments, saying he’d like to see a “price tag that is more within existing norms that can be nimble, responsive, and bring the kind of response we’re hearing from the public that they want to see … like hotel/motel acquisition, tiny homes, and pallet shelters that can be scaled with urgency and scaled more achievably within existing resources to mitigate those most significant encampments that are rightly causing significant community consternation.”
While the city declined to fund the KCRHA’s budget requests last year, they did pay for new emergency shelters and tiny houses, a type of shelter Dones has singled out for criticism for years. The agency’s five-year plan includes additional funding for every existing shelter type except tiny house villages, which are featured in a chart showing “$0” across the board.
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In response to questions from Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who noted that the five-year plan actually shows a 55-bed reduction in tiny house village spots, Dones said the reason the plan zeroes out tiny houses is that “the modeling calls for fewer modular shelters than we currently have—it’s just math.” As we reported last week, the KCRHA determined how much of each type of shelter the region needs based largely on interviews with 180 people experiencing homelessness about their needs; they did not ask any questions about specific shelter types. Dones said even though the plan shows an overall reduction in tiny houses, “we would not look to pull funding out of the existing THV stock or what has been funded in order to make the numbers and the math” match up with actual shelters on the ground.
The governing board isn’t scheduled to meet again until April, when they’re supposed to vote to approve the five-year plan. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and Herbold both questioned this timeline, saying they’d like an opportunity to review the final version and discuss it again publicly before voting to approve it. The authority is up against an 18-month deadline to approve the plan, which was originally supposed to be out last fall. The board— whose job is to sign off on the plan as approved by a separate implementation board, not to amend it—agreed to tentatively add one additional meeting in May to take a final vote on the plan.
When King County and the city of Seattle established the King County Regional Homelessness Authority in 2019, the two governments signed an agreement that required the new agency to adopt a five-year implementation plan that would include, at a minimum, “strategies to reduce homelessness in at least the following populations: youth and young adults, families, veterans, single adults, seniors, and those experiencing acute behavioral health challenges.”
The draft plan the KCRHA released late last month later goes far beyond that mandate, proposing a series of actions that would—in combination with separate investments in permanent housing—effectively eliminate unsheltered homelessness in King County within five years, mostly by investing in shelter.
Overall, the plan proposes spending between $1.7 billion and $3.4 billion a year to add 18,000 new temporary spaces for people to live, including 7,100 new shelter or “emergency housing” beds, 3,800 medical respite beds for people with acute health-care needs, 4,600 new safe parking spaces for people living in RVs or their cars, and 2,600 beds for people who need addiction recovery support. Altogether, the proposal represents a more than fourfold increase in shelter beds and safe parking spots over just five years. Separately, the plan says the region will need to invest around $8.4 billion in one-time capital costs for permanent and “temporary housing,” a term that encompasses all kinds of shelter.
The focus on shelter and other forms of “temporary housing,” like recovery housing for people struggling with addiction, represents a turnaround from the region’s previous strategy of de-emphasizing shelter in favor of programs like rapid rehousing, which aims to move people directly from the street into private apartments, where they receive short-term subsidies but are expected to pay full rent within a matter of months. Rapid rehousing programs still exist (and can be successful), but they are no longer touted as a panacea the way they were during the Ed Murray administration.
“The plan is really structured around ending unsheltered homelessness, not all forms of homelessness, and that is important,” KCRHA CEO Marc Dones told PubliCola earlier this month. “We built this draft plan in relationship to what would be necessary in order to significantly reduce or eliminate folks sleeping outside, acknowledging that that doesn’t address the other forms of homelessness, like couchsurfing [or people living] doubled up. Things that like are also a significant concern. But we decided that we needed to go towards one thing first, and it was ‘people shouldn’t sleep outside.'”
Implementing the new plan would cost an order of magnitude more than what the region currently spends on homelessness. One reason for that is that the KCRHA, using a model created by the state Department of Commerce, now estimates that there are far more unhoused people in King County than any previous study has concluded—around 56,000, or roughly one out of every 50 people. That number dwarfs the county’s own 2021 estimate; it’s also significantly larger than the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s estimate of 25,000 people experiencing homelessness across the entire state of Washington.
“For every unit of permanent, affordable housing that comes online, we don’t need as much temporary stuff. If there was a big push to site and develop permanently low-income housing, we could retool [the plan] literally over the course of a week.”—KCRHA CEO Marc Dones
Here’s another data point: As part of its effort to identify and permanently house everyone experiencing homelessness in downtown Seattle, Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA has spent part of the last year creating a “by-name list” of everyone experiencing homelessness in the area, which extends from Belltown to the Chinatown-International District. So far, they’ve identified around 800 people. Even assuming that number is an undercount, it suggests that almost all the homeless people in King County live outside downtown Seattle—an area originally chosen, in part, because it has one of the highest concentrations of homelessness in the county.
KCRHA community impact officer Owen Kajfasz, who leads the agency’s data team, said 56,000 only represents the “floor” for homelessness in King County—in other words, it could be an undercount. However, he acknowledged that the new estimate includes everyone who identified as homeless at any point during the year—including those who were only homeless for a short period, such as a week or a day, and who found places to live on their own.
Numerous studies, spanning decades, have concluded that a large number of people “self-resolve” their homelessness within a few days or weeks, although at least one recent analysis has found that number is decreasing. If the number of people who need longer-term interventions, such as case management and temporary housing, is only a fraction of the total people who are homeless in King County every year, the cost to shelter and assist those who need more help could be lower than the KCRHA’s eye-popping estimates.
“To say we need to stand up 18,000 emergency shelter beds, in absolute terms, for 53,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County doesn’t make sense,” said Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, whose organization operates low-income apartments and “tiny house village” shelters around the county. “The costs of adding spaces just for RVs and car safe parking total $139 million! This is not the correct strategy nor is this in any way financially feasible.”
Local political leaders praised KCRHA for laying out a plan to address unsheltered homelessness, but also seemed unconvinced that the proposal is politically or financially realistic.
A spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell, for example, said that while Harrell “supports KCHRA’s dedicated focus on ending unsheltered homelessness and prioritizing immediate and long-term solutions to help get people indoors with access to services and a path to recovery,” the city already funds the majority of the KCRHA’s budget and increased its contribution slightly last year “despite a significant budget deficit.” Last year, the KCRHA asked the city for an additional $54 million to fund 400 new shelter beds and 130 safe-parking spaces; they didn’t get it.
“For budget estimates included in the five-year proposal, we look forward to better understanding how existing investments will be applied and how we can unite support from local, state, and federal governments—along with private and philanthropic sources—to realistically meet budget expectations and advance solutions that drive tangible positive impact,” Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said.
Seattle City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis said he has “faith and confidence that that (cost) number does reflect probably what the investment would be to truly end homelessness and have a flexible system where homelessness is brief, people can get rapidly rehoused, and everything else. That said, the product I would like to see is a corollary tactical, substantive plan … that we can implement in one to two years with things like pallet shelters, RV safe lots, tiny houses—things that people can see and have confidence that we can get on top of this problem.”
His fear, Lewis said, is that if Seattle doesn’t make a visible dent in unsheltered homelessness, people will lose confidence in strategies that work, like low-barrier housing for people struggling with addiction. “We did, in this biennium, make a half-billion-dollar investment in housing [through the city’s capital budget], and for a city, that is a really big contribution to the regional solution. So I think it is possible for us to build on that and continue to be a partner within the reasonable constraints of our means. But,” he added, “I do think it requires us to demonstrate visible progress with a shorter-term, tactical plan” that will build “currency” for larger investments later.
Lewis has been a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, noting that people living in encampments will often “accept” a referral to a tiny house after saying no to traditional shelter. Dones, in contrast, has argued repeatedly that tiny houses cost too much and don’t get people into housing fast enough. Notably, the Five-Year Plan proposes spending no new money on tiny houses, and actually proposes decreasing the number of tiny-house units by 55—a stark contrast to the rest of the proposal, which proposes large new investments in every other type of shelter.
According to the plan, just 1 percent of people experiencing homelessness told KCRHA researchers that they preferred tiny house villages to other forms of shelter.
However, that conclusion is based on extrapolation from 180 interviews in which researchers asked people a list of open-ended questions, such as “what things or people have been helpful to you?” These interviews were also used to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness in last year’s “point-in-time count,” and to describe the living conditions of the county’s homeless population as a whole.
Researchers never asked respondents to identify which type of shelter they preferred. Instead, they asked then to describe, in an open-ended way, “an optimal condition that would support them to move on in their housing journey,” Dones said. The things they mentioned, Kajfasz added, “were very infrequently aligned with the tiny own village model.” For example, some people said they would prefer to have their own restrooms, or running water in their unit—in other words, a hotel room.
According to the plan, just 1 percent of people experiencing homelessness told KCRHA researchers that they preferred tiny house villages to other forms of shelter. However, that conclusion is based on extrapolation from 180 interviews in which researchers asked people a list of open-ended questions, such as “what things or people have been helpful to you?”
Lee called the KCRHA’s plan, which singled out tiny houses while lumping all other forms of shelter, including hotels, into a single category, “anti-tiny house,” adding, “we question the methodology and numbers.”
For example, “How come they don’t have breakout categories for congregate shelters, noncongregate shelters, hotels, and overnight shelters?” Lee said. “We actually need all of them.” During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s implementation board, several speakers urged the committee to support funding for tiny house villages. After listening to their comments, board member and former Bellevue mayor John Chelminiak said, “I agree with the speakers today who say, ‘Don’t take options off the table,’ and this [plan] takes options off the table.”
Dones said the authority put tiny houses in their own micro-category because “the community has sort of held [tiny houses] apart from other forms of shelter investment,” adding, “I recognize this is a departure, but what I heard [from the interviews] is that folks do prefer hoteling or emergency housing. … There is a point at which ‘because they told me’ is enough.”
Even if the KCRHA were able to secure funding for a sizeable portion of its five-year plan, some of its elements—like the proposal to secure and open hundreds of parking lots across the county for people living in RVs and cars—seem obviously unworkable based on the region’s recent history trying and failing to open even one such lot.
Consider, for example, the fact that the city of Seattle has been trying unsuccessfully for well over a decade to create a single safe lot for people living in their cars or RVs. So far, every attempt has been a failure. Just last year, plans for a small RV safe lot in SoDo were scaled back, then shelved, due to opposition from people living in the adjacent Chinatown/International District neighborhood—long before neighborhood opposition doomed an adjacent shelter expansion.
LIHI, which was the only applicant for a contract from KCRHA to open an RV safe lot last year, told KOMO recently that they’ll need a 30,000-to-40,000-square-foot parking lot to hold just 35 RVs. After six months of looking, they have not found a suitable lot.
Dones said the plan could change based on feedback the KCRHA receives about the draft, including the public. (The three-week public comment period closed on February 8). The level of need the plan anticipates, they added, could change dramatically if state and regional invests in housing quickly. “For every unit of permanent, affordable housing that comes online, we don’t need as much temporary stuff,” Dones said. “If there was a big push to site and develop permanently low-income housing, we could retool it literally over the course of a week or so to say ‘Now we need this much.” The question, for many of the officials who’ve staked their hopes on the new authority, may not be “how much” but “how?”
A former resident of the Low-Income Housing Institute’s Plum Street Tiny House Village in Olympia has sued the nonprofit shelter and housing provider in Thurston County Superior Court, claiming they unlawfully evicted him from his unit—an argument that, if it prevails, could reclassify tiny houses as a form of housing and give residents of tiny houses, and possibly other types of shelter, protection from eviction under state landlord-tenant laws. The lawsuit also names the city of Olympia as a defendant.
The former resident, Ryan Taal, was kicked out of his unit at the Olympia tiny house shelter after a verbal altercation with a staffer in March that, in LIHI’s telling, amounted to a threat. Taal, who had lived in his tiny house since October 2020, acknowledges that he told the staffer “you don’t know who you’re messing with right now” during an argument over the condition of his unit, but said he was referring to his struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks, not threatening her.
“I needed case management and help getting my prescriptions,” Taal said. “[The staffer] called the cops and lied to them and told them I was threatening her.” Shelter staff left a note on his door saying he had to be out within 48 hours or they would call the police, but Taal said he was gone by the following morning.
For the next two months, Taal lived in his car with his dog, using a nearby public restroom at night. At times, he couldn’t make it to the restroom, or found it occupied by people smoking fentanyl and meth. Taal says the food at the Plum Street Village was never great—the outdoor kitchen reminded him of “a refugee camp”—but his diet got worse when he was living in his car, and he developed gout.
“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction].”—Carrie Graf, Northwest Justice Project
Taal’s Northwest Justice Project attorney, Carrie Graf, says that even though Taal didn’t have a formal lease, kicking him out with 48 hours’ notice and a threat to call the police is “kind of the definition of a wrongful eviction” under the state’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA).
“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction],” Graf said.
The RLTA defines a tenant as anyone “entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.” Taal’s lawsuit argues that the three-page intake form he signed as a condition of living at the village constitutes a rental agreement that entitled him to his unit, and that tiny houses are a form of transitional housing under state law.
Legislators only incorporated a formal definition of transitional housing into the RLTA in 2021, so this case—if it goes forward—could be a test of that definition.
LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says that although the agency operates its own permanent and transitional housing programs, tiny houses are a form of emergency shelter, not housing—an argument she says is backed up by a court order in another recent case against LIHI, in which a King County Superior Court commissioner refused to grant a restraining order on behalf of a former resident of a Seattle tiny house village, finding that tiny house villages are “transitional encampments,” not housing. (That determination raises a whole other set of questions that, as much as I’m tempted to dive into them, are outside the scope of this article.)
“We take people who are being swept from parks and public places… and we don’t do a criminal background check, we don’t do a credit check, we don’t ask for references,” Lee said. “The moment you say ‘all shelters are going to be covered through the Landlord-Tenant Act’—which means you would have to go through this very extensive process of eviction—then I think you’re going to change the very nature of what a shelter is.” (Of course, if tiny house villages aren’t really shelter but “transitional encampments,” they would be subject to a number of restrictions that could force many of them to shut down—but, again, that’s outside the scope of this piece!).
LIHI staff pointed PubliCola to a 2008 case in which a resident at a YouthCare transitional housing program called ISIS House claimed YouthCare wrongfully evicted him for allegedly failing to follow rules and refusing to sign a behavioral contract.
In that case, US District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that ISIS House was exempt from tenant protections because Youthcare counted as an “institution” where “residence is merely incidental” to another purpose, such as providing “social services and life skills support.” Lasnik also wrote that the existence of strict rules, such as a prohibition on any sexual conduct, made YouthCare’s rental agreements different than a traditional lease.
“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process. I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people.'” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee
Similarly, Lee says, LIHI’s tiny house villages require residents to sign a code of conduct, participate in communal chores, and allow staffers inside their units at any time—all things a traditional landlord doesn’t do. Although some of LIHI’s tiny house villages are low-barrier, meaning people can use drugs or alcohol inside their units, Plum Street Village is not; the contract tenants sign bar them from using drugs or alcohol within a mile of the village property.
If tiny house villages were defined as housing, Lee said, it could lead to fewer low-barrier shelters that serve people with addiction and behavioral health needs, because shelter providers won’t want to take on the risk.
“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process,” Lee said. “I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people. We’re not going to open our doors and have everybody claim they have a right [to tenant protections] under the Landlord Tenant Act.”
Graf believes tiny house village residents do have a right to those protections, including those who—like Taal—are accused of violating their contracts. The Landlord-Tenant Act, she said, “is just establishing a pretty bare-minimum set of rights for the person living there, like: you get three days’ notice before you have to leave, and if you want to contest that you’re entitled to a court process. If someone is committing criminal acts within the tiny house village, they can always be arrested.”
Since his ejection from Plum Street Village, Taal moved into an apartment across town—his first real apartment after years of being homeless in Oregon and Washington state. He’s also gotten help with medical care and prescriptions from his case manager with Familiar Faces, a program run by the city of Olympia that provides support for people who have frequent encounters with police. “I’m still worried about what if I become homeless again, but the majority of the days are good days,” he said.
His personal turn of fortune hasn’t shaken Taal’s commitment to his case. “I’m not the only victim,” Taal said. “What they did was super wrong, and I feel like they should rewrite their policies on how they properly exit people—get them the right case managers, the right therapy, not ignore them … or kick them out. Give them some hope.”
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.
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 longtimepriority 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.
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.
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 broadlyinterpreted 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”→
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.)
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.
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.”