Tag: shelter

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

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Fizz: Smoke Shelter Closes, HSD Apologizes, and City Ditches Gold-Plated Shower Vendor

Today’s Morning Fizz:

1. The onset of hazardous air quality conditions led King County to open up a little-known site in SoDo this week—not as a full-time homeless shelter, but as a temporary smoke shelter serving about 100 people. But demand was greater: The shelter, located inside a former Tesla dealership the county is leasing from developer Greg Smith, had to stop taking referrals on Monday, citing lack of staff to expand the site to its full capacity of around 300 beds. The shelter will close today and remain on call as a potential isolation and quarantine site should hospitals become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases in the future.

According to King County Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor, staffing is a significant bottleneck at every current shelter, making it hard to increase the number of beds available even when there is plenty of room, as is the case at the massive former showroom in SoDo.

“Staffing has been one of the critical constraints on this system since February,” Flor said. One reason it’s hard for agencies to staff up to expand shelter capacity right now, Flor added, is that the federal money that pays for COVID-specific shelters is temporary—people would rather have jobs with some guaranteed longevity than a three-month gig that could be extended to six.

But the county’s conservative approach to COVID plays a role, too. The SoDo site was originally designed as an isolation and quarantine site (with HVAC and filtration systems that help prevent disease transmission as well as smoke inhalation) and could still be used for that purpose. So could a similar facility in Bellevue, which remained empty this week as smoke settled over the region. “We need a system that can flex, if we start to see increases in the prevalence of the virus, [to accommodate] that can’t be housed in their own homes,” DCHS housing and community development division director Mark Ellerbrook said.

The long-term purpose of the SoDo site is unknown, although the county has reportedly been working on plans to convert it to enhanced 24/7 shelter.

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2. The social media manager for the Seattle Human Services Department (whose name I am not printing, since he is not a public figure) was reprimanded and relieved of his Twitter and Facebook duties after posting a series of sarcastic, borderline hostile responses to people raising questions about the city’s response to homelessness.

For example, in response to someone who said the city should house people instead of relying on temporary shelters, @SeattleHSD responded that it was “reckless and irresponsible” of them to suggest that simply moving every single unsheltered person into an apartment would solve the problem” of homelessness.

When someone tweeting asked a question about the terminology HSD uses to refer to people experiencing homelessness, @SeattleHSD responded, “Unfortunately, there are people on Twitter and in the media who like to complain and spin misinformation when what we say to the public doesn’t match exactly with internal data or communications even when it is just making these kinds of distinctions.”

And when several people questioned the city’s relationship with the historically anti-LGBTQ Salvation Army, @SeattleHSD responded defensively, implying that the tweeters did not understand how shelter contracts work and snapping at one, “If you are aware of a local organization with trained staff that is prepared to operate a new 24/7 shelter, please go right ahead and share that information with us.”

This is the second time in less than four months that the HSD staffer behind the account has lashed out at critics. In late May, after a controversial homeless encampment removal, the staffer spent the better part of a day scrapping with random people who opposed the sweep, often dismissing criticism with sarcastic and heated language.

On Thursday afternoon, the Human Services Department tweeted out an apology for the “content/language/tone” of the tweets. The person who posted the apology tweet closed the replies, eliminating the public’s ability to comment directly (if not indirectly) on the outburst.

3. As we noted in Fizz on Tuesday, the city just ditched its high-cost mobile shower vendor, VIP Restrooms, for three new contracts —two with United Site Services, for two shower trailers at King Street Station and the Green Lake Community Center, and one with OK’s Cascade Company, for a trailer at Seattle Center.

While difficult to compare directly because different things are included in each contract (for example, two of the trailers don’t require daily pumpout services because they’re connected directly to the city’s sewer system), the two new contracts are both less expensive than VIP, which charged the city ultra-high prices when mobile showers were in high demand at the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Seattle Public Utilities, the United trailers—not counting pumpouts, staffing, and materials such as towels and toilet paper, which add significant costs to the flat rental fee—will cost between $6,000 and $7,000 a month, and the OK’s trailers (with all the same caveats) will cost just over $16,000. Altogether, the three contracts are providing 15 shower stalls. VIP’s bid to continue its existing contract was a little over $19,000 a month. For comparison, in March, as I reported, the city put nearly $30,000 on a credit card to rent two three-stall VIP trailers for just one week.

As a procurement agent for the city noted drily on the letter transmitting the United contract, “At the start of the COVID-19 emergency, we were only able to find shower trailers from VIP Restrooms due to high demand and short supply. The demand/supply issue still exists but we were able to obtain quotes from two other suppliers that offer the trailers at a lower price.”

Modular Men’s Shelter, Announced in May, Delayed Four Months by Fire Concerns

By Erica C. Barnett

Back in May, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan invited reporters on a tour of a new facility that would provide safe, non-congregate shelter in modular buildings to as many as 50 homeless men over 55—clients who had previously stayed at Catholic Community Services’ St. Martin de Porres Shelter, which was closed down during the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The new modular shelter, located on a piece of county-owned land along Elliott Ave. West in Interbay, was designed to inhibit the spread of the virus, with high-walled individual cubicles set inside modular trailer units with fans and cross-ventilation, a large kitchen for prepared meal delivery, and 10 single-stall restrooms for the men. 

More than four months later, the shelter still hasn’t opened. According to King County Housing & Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook, the Seattle Fire Department raised a number of issues that the county had to address before the city would sign off on its permits, including physical components of the trailer-style buildings that had to be replaced. “This is a new type of shelter with a new type of facility—these modular components that haven’t been used in this way, for this purpose,” Ellerbrook said.

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Leo Flor, the director of the county Department of Community and Human Services, told PubliCola, “From our perspective, anything that’s [related to] fire safety is a significant issue, especially when we’re going to have 40 people in one place.” However, he added, “certainly we did not plan on this amount of time to complete the permitting process.”

Neither the county nor the fire department would provide specific details about what fire safety issues have kept the site in mothballs since May. SFD spokeswoman Kirsten Tinsley said that “during an initial inspection of the site, the [Fire Prevention Division] identified a number of fire code issues that needed to be addressed prior to opening; the main issues have since been addressed by the site managers.”

The shelter reportedly was not supposed to open until next week, but the ongoing wildfire smoke emergency apparently pushed up the opening date; according to Ellerbrook, the men—who have been scattered to various location across the city—could begin moving to the site as soon as tomorrow.

A few outstanding issues still remain, but none apparently serious enough to keep the county from opening the shelter this week.

I’ve asked the county and fire department for more details about the specific fire-safety issues SFD identified as well as any additional costs associated with the upgrades and delay.

This story is developing, and will be updated with additional details when they become available.

City Considered, and Rejected, “Voluntary Relocation” Policy for Homeless Encampments

An encampment on South King Street, just prior to removal. Within days, tents had popped up a block away on South Jackson Street.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group of Human Services Department staffers and Seattle police officers that removes homeless encampments from parks and other public spaces, considered formally adopting a new policy under which homeless people removed from one location would be told to “voluntarily relocate” to another spot, either “self-selected” or identified by the city, internal memos and emails obtained through a records request reveal.

The discussions took place in April, as HSD, the parks department, and the mayor’s office discussed how to deal with an encampment near the Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that is perennially full.

In an April 16 memo to deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, HSD director Jason Johnson laid out a plan in which the Navigation Team would “encourage and support individuals residing on the [Navigation Center] stairs to accept shelter resources or to voluntarily relocate to a wide stretch of sidewalk at S Dearborn St & 10th Ave S.”

Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The site was chosen, according to the memo, because it was wide enough to allow some pedestrian access, close to a proposed hygiene station, and accessible for emergency and sanitation workers. (Other emails indicate that the Navigation Team also considered identifying “a large parking lot that people can be directed to camp in” after being removed from around the Navigation center). In an email to Navigation Team members and HSD staffers expanding on the memo, Navigation Team director Tara Beck indicated that people living in encampments slated for removal would be told to “self-select areas to relocate to”—a more politic way of saying, “Move along.”

Before the pandemic, the Navigation Team removed dozens of encampments every month, avoiding a legal requirement that they provide advance notice and offer shelter and services to every encampment resident by designating most encampments as “obstructions,” which are exempt from those requirements.

Since mid-March, in recognition of the fact that moving people from place to place could accelerate the spread of the virus, the team has only conducted a handful of large-scale encampment removals. After each such operation, the city has said that every unsheltered person remaining at a location on the day of a swee received a legitimate offer of shelter that was accessible and appropriate for their specific circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s an easily observable fact that encampments tend to come back after they’re removed, a sign that people either aren’t actually showing up in shelter or aren’t staying there.

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The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets within the current shelter system. Moreover, by conceding that the best they are able to offer many homeless people is a different camping spot, the city would have also had to acknowledge that it would rather have people living in tents on sidewalks during the COVID-19 pandemic than offer them space in vacant motel rooms, as many other cities across the country—but not Seattle—have done.

Ultimately, the city decided not to adopt the new “voluntary relocation” policy. According to HSD spokesman Will Lemke, in the case of the Navigation Center encampment, HSD “opted to offer shelter and service rather than suggest that people move nearby.” But the discussions that took place back then shine a light on the city’s early thinking about how to deal with encampments at a time when they are temporarily unable to simply declare encampments “obstructions” and remove them.

The tension over how to deal with the 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle—a number that could soon swell as unemployment benefits dry up and eviction moratoriums end—isn’t going to let up. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive referral rights to most of the 95 new shelter and tiny house village beds that opened in response to the pandemic. If encampment removals start up again in earnest, those 95 beds won’t just be inadequate—they’ll be overrun.

As the pandemic drags on into its seventh month, the city is actually preparing to close shelters at community centers that were originally opened as “redistribution” sites for existing shelters where conditions were too crowded. Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets

One place they won’t be moving is to the enormous “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Sixkiller said was coming back in April. The tent was supposed to provide shelter for up to 250 clients of the Salvation Army, which is currently operating shelters out of City Hall and in Seattle Center.

Documents obtained through a second records request show the enormous cost and size of the tent, which would have been provided by Volo Events, “a leading producer of live events and experiential marketing agency” and cost nearly $1 million—just for the tent—for two months. The 30,000-square-foot tent was going to be set up inside another structure—most likely Memorial Stadium.

City-Funded Downtown Hotel Housed 12 People a Night While Thousands Slept in Tents and Crowded Shelters

In his budget presentation last week, Seattle budget director Ben Noble include a slide indicating that the city planned to spend (and seek reimbursement for) more than $3 million on hotel rooms for “essential workers,” plus $325,000 for rooms for “first responders,” during the COVID crisis. The line items represent the maximum cost to rent out the entire downtown Executive Pacific Hotel for three months.

As I’ve reported, the likely total cost is somewhat lower, because for three months, the hotel has been sitting virtually empty.

How empty? Well, about a month ago, the city was concerned enough about the fact that almost no first responders were staying in the rooms that they expanded the criteria for hotel stays to include “essential workers,” including health care workers and a handful of homeless service providers. Since then, the numbers have inched up—slightly. According to the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, during the three-month duration of the contract, the hotel logged 1,156 bed nights, which each represent a person occupying a room for one night. Put another way, the hotel had, on average, 12 guests per night—and 143 empty rooms.

The city could not, of course, have anticipated that the need for COVID first responders would flatten so quickly along with the curve of infections, or that so few firefighters and police would want or need to self-isolate in a downtown hotel. But the city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

Mayor Durkan, when pressed, has said that the city is paying for hotels—for example, they’re contributing to the cost of the Red Lion in Renton that the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been occupying for months. But she has doggedly resisted calls to move people from ad hoc mass shelters the city set up to respond to COVID—most of them bare-bones facilities with cots set up six feet apart—into hotels inside the city. And she even put roadblocks in front of a program that would move people from encampments to motel rooms that, like the Executive Pacific, are already paid for and sitting vacant.

The city, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, are responsible for the decision not to fill some of those vacant rooms with people experiencing homelessness, who are still sleeping on cots and mats in mass shelters while a paid-for downtown hotel sits almost empty.

I sent the mayor’s office and the Human Services Department a list of questions about the city’s long-term plans for people staying in “redistribution” shelters (temporary spaces in city-owned buildings where people can sleep six feet apart). I included a list of locations that I was especially curious about—high-volume shelters that have been moved to places like Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, and the city’s community centers.

The city responded by saying, essentially, that they still haven’t determined exactly when people will be moved from the current temporary shelters, or to where. “These conversations… are underway,” HSD spokesman Will Lemke said. Lemke added that HSD is “working with Public Health, DCHS, and agency partners to develop a strategy for addressing both short and long-adjustments needed to operate the homeless response system in light of COVID-19.”

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If you think of the current shelter system as fundamentally broken, and COVID as not just a crisis to respond to but an opportunity to rethink shelter (and other systems) as a whole, then it’s disheartening that the city is still thinking in terms of “adjustments” to respond to COVID rather than thinking of the pandemic as a chance to make wholesale changes. The Red Lion offers a promising example. After it opened, residents who were used to staying in DESC’s overcrowded, dirty, chaotic downtown shelter exhibited fewer behavioral problems, got in fewer fights, and used fewer substances—simply because they had privacy, a shower they didn’t have to fight for, and some space to relax.

DESC director Daniel Malone has said he hopes the agency never has to reopen the downtown shelter, a plan that will require the agency to purchase motels for long-term use. But Lemke’s comments (which represent the perspective of the mayor’s office), and the city’s history of pouring money into a shelter system that people experiencing homelessness consider alienating, traumatizing, and inhumane, suggest that other shelters may go back largely to business as usual unless the city council, or a groundswell of political opposition to warehouse-style shelters, intervenes to push the city in a different direction..

The total cost to rent the Executive Pacific Hotel, FAS spokeswoman Melissa Mixon says, will likely be closer to $2 million rather than $3.4 million, since the hotel gave the city a break on taxes and the city did not end up paying for many meals. Empty rooms don’t eat. What’s impossible to know is how much money the city might have saved in the long run by turning those empty rooms into shelter for people experiencing homelessness and working intensely to ensure that they had a place to stay when they left. Those aren’t the kind of calculations that Seattle, as a city, is good at making.

As Seattle Reopens, the City Faces Tough Questions About Its Response to Homelessness

The crisis of homelessness, which exists alongside and intersects with the issue of police violence and the tendency by government to insert cops into situations where their presence exacerbates tensions or just isn’t needed, has fallen below the fold over the past few weeks, but the crisis continues.

Last week, the county and city held the second monthly meeting of the new county-run regional homelessness authority, which is supposed to take over the duties of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division by the end of the year. Although they mostly just discussed the process for selecting a firm to come up with a list of candidates for “CEO” of the authority (“CEO” being the universal new term for public servants employed by the government, apparently), there were tensions over whether the input of the “lived experience” members of the authority’s governing board—all of them people of color—was being taken seriously.

Here’s a roundup of some other homelessness-related news that has slipped below the radar in the past few weeks.

• The city’s Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed. This dramatic discrepancy was first reported by writer Guy Oron on Twitter. In April, I requested the same information Oron received through his press release; the city notified me that the records were available last week, but has not yet produced them, despite the fact that I paid for them three days ago and have followed up with two emails without any response.

HSD did not respond by press time to questions, sent early Monday, about the difference between the numbers the city gave me back in March and the actual number of “obstruction” removals. When official numbers have proved to be inaccurate in the past, the department has generally responded by saying that their early numbers were “preliminary” and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Navigation Team, which the mayor’s office told me made “15 obstruction removals” before encampment removals were partially suspended in mid-March, actually removed more than 60 encampments designated as “obstructions” or “hazards” during this period—a fourfold increase over what the city claimed

It’s important to note that there would be no discrepancy between the numbers HSD initially pushed out and the actual numbers if HSD hadn’t chosen to push out the narrative that they had slowed down encampment removals in response to the pandemic in the first place. By claiming that the Navigation Team had only removed 15 encampments in March, HSD was trying to promote the narrative that they had dramatically reduced the number of sweeps they conducted in the early weeks of the pandemic before suspending them completely on March 17. As the agency put it on March 17: “Since the beginning of March and in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Navigation Team has primarily focused on conducting outreach. … Since March 2, there have been limited Navigation Team removals.”

Even accepting that the original number of 15 was preliminary, the actual number of removals was not “limited” in comparison with the Navigation Team’s track record during previous months. Extrapolated out to cover the month of March, 60 removals between March 2 and March 15 represents a higher rate of removals than what the Navigation Team reported in its most recent quarterly report—120 per month, versus just 101 per month in the last three months of last year. (For obstruction and hazard removals only, March was on track for 114 removals against an actual average of 97.) In other words, not only did the Navigation Team not slow down encampment sweeps in early March, it appears to have accelerated them.

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has shifted to doing “obstruction” removals almost exclusively; these do not require advance notice, outreach, or offers of shelter or services.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

• Another narrative that both HSD and the mayor’s office have pushed is that the Navigation Team has had an extraordinarily high shelter “enrollment” rate since the COVID-19 epidemic began. According to several separate posts on HSD’s website, “Preliminary data shows approximately 70% of all referrals the Navigation Team has made citywide since mid-April arrived and enrolled at these new shelter resources.”

This success rate, which deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller also touted during a tense city council meeting about legislation that would have reined in the Navigation Team’s powers, is the inverse of the team’s usual enrollment rate, which is less than 30 percent. This rate only reflects the percentage of people who “accept” offers of shelter and then follow through; those who aren’t interested are not counted in these percentages.

HSD acknowledges that the high enrollment rate is related to the fact that people living at the Commons encampment were offered guaranteed spots in highly desirable new enhanced shelter beds or spots in tiny house villages reserved specifically for the Navigation Team. The city has created fewer than 100 new shelter beds during the COVID crisis, and those are now full. When I asked HSD what the “preliminary data” have to say about the shelter enrollment rate from sweeps that took place after the city announced its 70 percent success rate, a spokesman said HSD couldn’t provide preliminary data for those removals because people at those encampments were referred to available shelter beds all over than town, rather than funneled into brand-new beds created for that purpose, making them harder to track in real time.

Fair enough. Or it would be, if HSD and the mayor’s office hadn’t repeatedly brought up the 70 percent rate specifically as evidence that the Navigation Team works and should not have its power to sweep encampments during the pandemic restricted by law in any way.

The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration

• One reason you’re reading about referrals to shelter, rather than temporary housing such as rooms in hotels, is that the city has been extremely reluctant to provide hotel vouchers for people living in encampments—to the point that dozens of hotel rooms are currently paid for but sitting empty because the city has repeatedly declined to approve people living in tents during the pandemic for the program.

Asked why the city has continued to put people into mass shelters, where COVID is more likely to spread, instead of hotels as King County has done, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office responded, “Through the City’s contracts, 318 unique individuals have been supported at various hotels, including the Red Lion in Renton. The initial costs are estimated to be $764,670 and are ongoing. These individuals were formerly staying at programs operated by DESC and Catholic Community Services.” I reported on the county’s efforts to move shelter residents into these hotels last month.

• The Salvation Army, another shelter provider whose guests have been redistributed to temporary sites like Fisher Pavilion to maintain social distancing between emergency-shelter cots, has relocated 28 veterans from its William Booth Center to a Holiday Inn in South Lake Union through a partnership with the Veterans Administration, both the Salvation Army and the VA have confirmed. The relocation, according to a VA spokesperson, was possible through a CARES Act provision that allows agencies like the Salvation Army to ask for a higher per diem for certain veteran clients, which has provided enough funding to put them in a hotel instead of bunk beds. Salvation Army spokeswoman Lora Marini Baker says the move is temporary, but there is no current end date for the arrangement.

• Finally, check this space for an update on the future of shelters in Seattle. During the pandemic, cities and states across the country turned to hotel rooms as a safer alternative to congregate shelter, giving people experiencing homelessness a rare opportunity to experience privacy, security, and an actual bed, and to escape the hectic chaos of a typical shelter. As cities open back up, they face a choice: Whether to reopen mass shelters, which are often traumatizing and dehumanizing, or find a way to provide some of the dignity and privacy of hotels to people without permanent homes.

In Seattle, where the city is already beginning to add people to shelters that were “de-intensified” to reduce COVID transmission, the city seems poised to return to the previous system, with the possible exception of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown shelter. I’ll be reporting more on this subject soon, so stay tuned.

Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

People wheeling suitcases, lugging hand baskets, and pushing grocery carts trailed slowly out of a large homeless encampment on South Weller Street Thursday morning, passing through police barricades and a crowd of onlookers as the city’s Navigation Team removed an encampment that, as recently as last weekend, included nearly 70 tents. About 30 police were on hand to escort an estimated 36 residents away from the area.

The sweep was the second in two days by the Navigation Team, which is led by the Human Services Department. The team has touted its success at getting people to accept referrals to shelter from the two sites, plus another one at the Ballard Commons that was swept two weeks ago, through advance outreach and during the actual encampment removal. 

Officially, sweeps are no longer happening. According to a March order by the city, “all encampment removal operations have been suspended” during the COVID-19 outbreak unless the encampment constitutes an “emergency” and there are appropriate shelter beds available for every person living there.

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In reality, sweeps are still happening, and opponents believe they are ramping up. The city has acknowledged removing four encampments during the pandemic—the one in Ballard, one at South King Street on Wednesday, and two, including today’s, outside the Navigation Center. The justifications for these removals have varied widely, and not all of them fall under the criteria the city gave as examples of “extreme circumstances” in the March announcement. At a city council meeting on Monday, council member Lisa Herbold, the council’s longtime Navigation Team watchdog, said that “there seems to be continued divergence between what [people at HSD] say the policy is and what it is that the Navigation Team is actually doing.

In a blog post, the Human Services Department said it referred 88 people to shelter from the two locations between April 1 and today. As of last weekend, the two sites combined had around 80 tents, and dozens of people were walking around, so it’s unclear whether people who received referrals simply returned to the encampment. Team director Tara Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

Beck, who was on site at both removals, said the team has offered shelter to every person living at the encampments.

“I can guarantee that everyone here, we’ve explored shelter with them, and if they wanted shelter, we’ve explored transportation barriers,” Beck said. “Our job is to offer, and the person’s job is to accept. We do our part and we have to trust that the person is doing theirs. If they’re choosing to walk away, they were not interested in the services that we were able to offer.” Beck said the city is not providing actual transportation to shelter right now because of the need for social distancing in vehicles operated by city staff; instead, she said, they can call an Uber to transport people to shelter.

But several people I spoke to at both encampments said that they were not offered shelter, or, if they were, that it did not fit with their needs. One man who was helping a friend move his stuff across the street during Wednesday’s sweep at South King Street, who identified himself as “Smiley” Dixon, said he had been living outdoors for three years and had never been offered shelter. His friend, Jacob Davis, said that the Navigation Team had “come through to let us know that they’re going to remove us,” but that “no one offered us anything.” 

When I talked to Davis and Dixon, they were standing on South Jackson Street, exactly one block away from the encampment where Davis had been staying. Davis called the team’s claim to have offered shelter to every person “a bald-faced lie”—not that he would go “anywhere near” a mass shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t want to get the virus,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that cities should not remove encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic unless every person is offered “individual housing” such as a hotel room, rather than mass shelter, where disease can spread easily from person to person. King County has been following this guidance by moving people from existing shelters into hotel rooms, a strategy King County Executive Dow Constantine has credited for the fact that every person moved from the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s downtown Seattle shelter into a Red Lion hotel in Renton had tested negative for the virus. 

“That clearly would not have been the case if they had been left in the close quarters of a congregate shelter,” Constantine said during the first meeting of the Regional Homelessness Authority governing board on Thursday.

In contrast, the city is only offering shelter beds, not hotels or housing. “The first thing we did, based on CDC guidance, was to de-intensify our shelters and set up hundreds of of new beds throughout our city,” Durkan said at the RHA board meeting, referring to community centers and other facilities that have opened up so that shelters can place se existing (not new) beds further apart.

Davis said he had been moved by the Navigation Team or police “more than 100 times” in four years, and “I’ve never been offered housing.” Dixon added: “I would go to any hotel.”  Continue reading “Two More Encampment Removals as Council Prepares to Consider New Restrictions on Sweeps”

Six Weeks After City Announced Plans for 50-Bed Shelter, Southwest Teen Life Center Opens to Eight Homeless Youth

More than six weeks after the city publicly announced that it planned to convert the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle into a temporary shelter for 50 people by early April, the new shelter finally opened on Friday—with just five young adults as guests. (According to the city, three more had moved in by Monday). The residents of the new expansion shelter had been staying at YouthCare’s overnight shelter in Southeast Seattle, which has a (cramped) capacity of 20 clients under ordinary, non-COVID conditions.

When COVID started forcing shelter operators to find more space for people to sleep, Youthcare development and communications officer Jody Waits said, it became clear that “our choices were: Cut services in half, or let’s see if we can find a bigger space.”

“What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

The shelter’s clients are mostly from Southeast Seattle, which was one reason the agency scoured the area for a suitable temporary location before moving to a location seven miles, and an hour’s bus ride, away. Eventually, it came down to the Teen Life Center or a disused funeral home in South Seattle that would require extensive retrofits. Shelter clients and staff considered both options, and ultimately picked West Seattle.

“Our clients in that space [on Rainier] are so highly tethered on a community level to that neighborhood that moving out felt really impossible to consider,” but eventually, “we realized that despite all of the desire to stay in South Seattle, as opposed to Southwest Seattle, we just weren’t going to find an option that we could do fast enough” in the area, Waits said.

Before YouthCare moved the shelter, they tried to downsize, finding temporary housing for some residents and expediting permanent housing for others. That left just a handful of people—those who truly had nowhere else to go—to move into the Teen Life Center, which has been closed to the public since March 13.

The city has confirmed that the center will be staffed by employees from Seattle’s parks department and patrolled by guards from Phoenix Security, a private security firm that  charges the city $90 an hour to provide security at two temporary shelters in the Central District and on Capitol Hill.

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Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

A spokesman for the city said the space would “shelter up to 30 young adults” once it gets up to full capacity. Separately, an HSD spokesman forwarded an email from the city staffer who is leading the Teen Life Center effort, who wrote that HSD had “set a deadline for full utilization of 20 participants by [the] week of May 18.” 

Waits says it’s unlikely the temporary shelter will ever have 30 clients, which is 50 percent more than the shelter had when it was located in a convenient, familiar location. “Our contract doesn’t support provision for 30 [young adults], we’re not compensated to take care of 30 young people and … we don’t have the staffing for 30,” she said.

As for the lower number:  “Everyone is hopeful that we will get back up to that 20-youth threshold.” But there’s no way to force young adults to come to the shelter, or stay there—a problem Waits expects to become more acute when the weather turns warm and the city starts to reopen.

“Good weather changes young people’s decisions,” she said. “What happens when certain [restrictions] are lifted and we start to engage in the community and the economy with social distancing, and your place of familiarity, your cousins, your tutor, your old neighborhood are really quite far away?”

Early on in the COVID crisis, Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Human Services Department frequently claimed that the city and county had jointly created “1,900 new temporary housing options.” These “options,” as I reported at the time, consisted mostly of hospital and isolation/recovery beds that were not exclusively reserved for people experiencing homelessness, plus shelter beds that had been temporarily moved to new locations so that people could sleep six feet apart. But they also included beds that never actually opened—including 50 at the Teen Life Center. The Loyal Heights Community Center, site of another 50 of the 1,900 beds announced in March, remains closed.

City Auditor: Homelessness Contracts Awarded “Properly,” but Delays, High Turnover, and Inappropriate Metrics Remain Issues

The city auditor issued a report last week on the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, which concluded that while HSI is awarding contracts to homeless service providers “properly, HSD is not executing contracts in a timely manner.” Because the city is awarding budgeted contracts late, providers are being forced to use their own funds to cover services during these delays.

“We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late,” the report says. “Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses[.] …We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late. Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses and needing to use other funding sources to keep programs in operation.”

(The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is considered a homelessness program despite the fact that it focuses on criminal recidivism and quality of life outcomes, not housing, finally received city approval for its 2020 contract in late March).

A big reason for the delays, according to the auditor’s report, is that most contracts start on January 1, which gives the city’s grants and contracts administrators only a few weeks after the budget is adopted in November to execute these contracts. Another issue is that turnover among the grants and contracts specialists who are in charge of monitoring contract compliance is extremely high—30 percent in the first half of 2019, according to the audit—and new hires are being trained by their coworkers instead of through any formal training program. In his response to the audit report, acting HSD director Jason Johnson, who has announced he will leave in June, said HSD has hired temporary workers to help grants and contracts specialists who are “working beyond their capacity.” These are among the workers who are being trained on the job by their peers.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you.

Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

As I reported last year, the Human Services Department dismantled its formal contracts compliance unit and directed contract specialists in each division to have “a high level of individual accountability” to catch errors in contracts. HSD set up the unit in 2014 after a scathing state audit found that the HSD lacked “adequate controls” to monitor how contracts were being written as well as how human service providers were spending grant money.

The city auditor did not report on specific errors that had escaped contract reviewers’ attention, but did note that many large contracts were being reviewed through “desk reviews” that do not involve on-site visits, meetings with program staff, or reviews of client files.

The auditor also highlighted an issue homeless advocates have been pointing out since before the city implemented “performance-based contracting,” which allows the city to withhold funding from providers if they fail to meet certain milestones: Requiring homeless service providers to produce a high number of “exits to permanent housing” in order to get full funding is unrealistic in a city that is not building enough of this type of housing to serve the need, and ignores other types of success stories that do not involve, say, a person leaving emergency shelter and moving directly into permanent housing.

For example, the city’s performance metrics penalize programs that move clients into “foster care, nursing homes, hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing and transitional living programs for youth” by counting those as “negative” rather than positive exits from the programs. In its response to this criticism, included in the audit, HSD said that it chose exits to permanent housing as a performance metric “because the goal of the homeless response system is to end an individual’s experience of homelessness and HSD is committed to ensuring investments work towards this goal”—a response that ignores the fact that the city’s homeless population far outnumbers the number of units that are available to house it.

Additionally, the audit found that the fact that the city has no way of tracking how many shelter beds are available in real time “creates inefficiencies for overworked shelter staff” who are forced to call around to other shelters when clients show up at shelters that are full. And it concluded that the current system for tracking client’s “vulnerability,” which puts some people on track for housing while leaving others in limbo indefinitely, exacerbates the existing racial inequities in the homeless service system, particularly for undocumented people.

Temporary Sobering Center Opens, Private Security Firm Paid $30,000 a Week to Patrol Two Shelters, Sawant Loses Battle Over the Narrative, and More

New portable toilets and hand-washing station at Ballard Commons park.

1. Recovery Cafe, an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless people recover from trauma and addiction, has  found a new purpose during the COVID epidemic: Serving as a temporary sobering center for people experiencing homelessness who have significant drug or alcohol issues who have no safe place to “sleep it off.” The organization’s building in SoDo, which has been closed since mid-March, reopened with 20 beds last night, and will expand to 40 beds, and 24/7 operations, later this month. Pioneer Human Services will operate the center.

Sherry Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Human and Community Services, emphasized that new location will not be a permanent replacement for the SoDo facility that closed last year and has only partially been replaced, by a temporary, nighttime-only facility with limited medical services in a county-owned building at Fourth and Jefferson. Opening up space in that location will allow the county to “further deintensify” the shelter it runs in the same building, Hamilton says.

A proposed replacement in Georgetown was shot down after neighbors sued, and the county still has not located a site for a permanent new facility.

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job.

Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Sobering centers are meant to reduce pressure on local emergency rooms—a role that’s more critical now than at any time in recent history. Hamilton says that once the Recovery Cafe space ramps up, the operator, Pioneer Human Services, will be able to “engage them in services” in a way that isn’t possible when people have to leave at 7am. “The hard part about it being night-only is that they come in, they’re inebriated, they wake up in the morning, and they leave,” Hamilton says. “You haven’t had the time to work with them and engage them in buprenorphine [a medication that treats opiate addiction] or detox and treatment.”

The Seattle region is experiencing a shortage of available behavioral health care workers equipped to treat people with severe mental health and substance use disorders in shelters and COVID isolation, quarantine, and recovery units. I’ll be posting an update on what the county is doing to staff these facilities with behavioral health care workers (and ensure that people engaged in medication-assisted treatment can access their methadone or buprenorphine) later this week.

The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at both shelters around the clock. The shelters each serve 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from existing shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. I’ve been hammering away for weeks at the fact that the city does not have sufficient restrooms and handwashing facilities for the thousands of homeless people who live on its streets. As I’ve documented in story after story (and on a crowdsourced map I created last month), many of the restrooms that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office initially claimed are open are actually closed, including restrooms in parks, at community centers, and at playgrounds in every corner of the city. 

This may be finally be changing, however. Durkan’s office reportedly directed the Parks department to open most of the dozens of restrooms that had been locked by yesterday, April 6. Over the weekend, I visited a few parks restrooms in my neighborhood and found that one that had been closed the last time I visited was open, although a “closed” sign was still taped to the door and the restroom itself was filthy and covered with standing water. Readers reported that several other restrooms on the map that had been marked as “closed” were now open.

The mayor’s office is also working to create an interactive map with the locations of restrooms that are currently open. It’s unclear how this will differ from the interactive map the city rolled out in 2018, which showed a much smaller number of restrooms than the 128 the mayor’s office initially claimed were open.

The council’s special committee on homelessness will hold a special, previously unannounced meeting this Wednesday at 10am. The only item on the agenda: “Presentation on the City’s efforts to provide additional hygiene facilities.”

3. Two restrooms on the city’s map that are not currently open are the ones at Garfield Community Center and Miller Community Center, which are serving as “de-intensification” sites for 100 existing shelter beds. Both sites are staffed by Parks Department employees and are patrolled around the clock by private security officers. The city is paying Spokane-based Phoenix Security about $30,000 a week to have a guard at each building 24/7, or $90 an hour. Each shelter serves 50 clients who have been temporarily relocated from other shelters during the pandemic. 

According to Parks spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, “staffing for these centers is a mixture of shelter staff and recreation staff—with many working in a shelter setting for the first time. Providing security at these facilities through a trained and prepared contractor, supports our ability to stand up a shelter in relatively short order and through reassignment of City employees.”

“I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant.” -Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold

4. City council members squabbled Monday over two efforts by council member Kshama Sawant to control the narrative in the council’s virtual chambers—a harder task than usual, now that she is unable to organize physical “Pack City Hall!” rallies at city hall. First, Sawant tried and failed to introduce a proposal that would allow people to give virtual public testimony on any subject related to the COVID-19 epidemic, a sharp departure from standing council rules that require public commenters to speak to items on the agenda.

After that effort failed—”we need to have some semblance of order when it comes to council business,” council president Lorena Gonzalez said—Sawant tried to introduce her “Tax Amazon” legislation, which would now provide direct monthly payments to 100,000 Seattle residents, into the sustainability and renters’ rights committee, which she chairs and which her co-sponsor Tammy Morales co-chairs. Bills about taxation typically go through the council’s finance committee, which, unlike the smaller standing committees, includes all nine council members.

“If we really support the movement that has been fighting for this, I believe that it should be a committee that is chaired by me and Council Member Morales or a select committee that is being chaired by me,” Sawant said. “The only entity that is being undercut by all this is the movement itself.” Sawant then questioned Gonzalez’ motivation in wanting the bill to go through the finance committee.

Lisa Herbold, a Sawant ally on some issues, responded that the council had passed both the previous head tax and the 2017 high earners’ income tax through the finance committee, under former council members Sally Bagshaw and Tim Burgess, respectively. “I’m sort of bristling at this concept that the only way that we will pass a strong, progressive revenue bill is if it’s heard in the committee of Council Member Sawant,” she said. “Particularly in this crisis, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote that divisive approach to how the council does its business.”

Sawant’s proposal died for lack of a second, and Morales made a proposal to move the tax plan into the finance committee, which passed.