Tag: shelter

2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs

By Erica C. Barnett

Throughout 2020, PubliCola provided ongoing coverage of the year’s top stories, including the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to shelter and house the region’s homeless population, budget battles between the mayor and city council, and efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department and invest in community-based public safety programs.

Still, there are a number of stories we didn’t follow up on, because of time constraints, lack of information, or the nonstop firehose of news that was 2020. So if you’re wondering what became of efforts to shelter people in some of the city’s thousands of empty hotel rooms, the closure of public restrooms during the COVID pandemic, or the delayed transition of city homelessness services to a new regional agency, read on.

City OKs Hotel Shelter

After staunchly resisting requests from advocates and service providers to fund and facilitate non-congregate shelter in hotels, the city reversed course this fall, agreeing to use federal dollars to fund a 10-month pilot program that will place several hundred people in hotel rooms. The plan, shepherded through by deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller earlier this year, is to move people through the hotel rooms and into regular apartments through short-term “rapid rehousing” subsidies.

The Public Defender Association, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services will be the service providers at the hotels the city will soon announce it is renting as part of its 10-month hotel-to-housing program, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown.

The city has not announced which nonprofit agencies will receive the contracts or which hotels they’ll be renting with federal relief dollars, but PubliCola has learned the names of the three agencies and one of the hotels. The Public Defender Association, which provides hotel rooms and case management to unsheltered people through its existing Co-LEAD and JustCares programs, and the Chief Seattle Club will provide services at the hotels, which will reportedly include the 155-room Executive Pacific Hotel downtown and at least one smaller motel.

Catholic Community Services will serve as the rapid rehousing provider, connecting shelter residents to housing in market-rate (non-subsidized) apartments by providing short-term (up to one year) housing assistance.

Restroom closures

At the beginning of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population faced an elevated risk of exposure not just to COVID-19, but to other communicable diseases such as hepatitis A, because the closure of public buildings and retail businesses greatly diminished their access to restrooms and running water. According to the city auditor, the number of public restrooms available to people experiencing homelessness was already inadequate before the pandemic.

As we documented throughout the spring, the city itself exacerbated the problem by shutting down or failing to reopen dozens of public restrooms, then claiming that they were actually open and providing a map directing people to restrooms that weren’t actually available. In our review of 27 restrooms the city claimed were open to the public at the end of March, eight were closed and locked.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Eventually, the city did reopen many of the restrooms it shut down (although most library and community center restrooms remain closed), and it slowed down the barrage of press releases touting wide availability of restrooms for unsheltered people. Restroom access after hours remains a major problem, as does access to potable water, but things are better now than they were in the chaotic early days of the pandemic.

As winter approaches, many public restrooms will be shut down again, although many that were subject to “seasonal closures” last year (those at beaches and parks that don’t get much winter traffic) will stay open. According to Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, many of the city’s park restrooms were built more than 70 years ago and have pipes that can’t withstand winter weather. Schulkin provided a list of nearly 30 parks restrooms that will be closed for the winter, including Alki Playground, Greenwood Park, Little Brook Park, and others across the city. Continue reading “2020 In Review: Following Up on Restroom Closures, Hotel Shelters, and City Layoffs”

Sinclair-Owned KOMO’s Latest Exploitation Film Ignores Causes of Homelessness—and Solutions

By Ashley Archibald

A 90-minute KOMO special, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” debuted on Dec. 13, prompting alarm among homeless advocates. The program, a sequel to the infamous (and viral) “Seattle is Dying” special, presents Seattle as a seedy den of iniquity fostered by elected officials with lenient policies toward drugs and crime.

Since 2013, KOMO has been owned by the right-leaning Sinclair media conglomerate. Much of its recent programming, including “Seattle Is Dying,” seems aimed at painting a misleading portrait of a city in chaos for a national audience primed to believe the worst about progressive West Coast cities.

“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” aims to reveal a city held hostage by a few thousand people experiencing homelessness caught in the thrall of addiction, propped up by lenient harm reduction policies, and never facing the consequences of their actions—unlike the upstanding (housed) citizens who suffer at their hands. It throws in references to the uprising against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as further evidence of social unraveling.

In reality, it is 90 minutes of tape exploiting the most vulnerable people in Seattle, shoved through a sepia filter and tailor-made to confirm the preexisting beliefs of people who wish they never had to see a poor person again.

To be clear, Seattle has issues. Homelessness and drug use are real. The human suffering on the streets cannot be swept away. But the weakness in “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” stem from the fact that it fails to grapple with root causes, instead using homelessness as a wedge issue.

Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions

“I’m going to start by saying this,” reporter Eric Johnson intones at the top of the piece. “Seattle no longer feels the need to stop anyone from doing anything for any reason at any time.” The words land over images of homeless people asleep on the ground, exposed to the elements, evidence of the city’s culture of permissiveness.

Much like its prequel “Seattle is Dying,” which ran in March 2019, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” takes real problems — homelessness, drug addiction and the ensuing impacts on the city — and magnifies them into a force that is destroying the Emerald City without engaging with solutions like affordable housing, access to mental health services, provision of appropriate shelter space and the ability to raise funds through equitable taxation.

As though housed people do not commit crimes. As though they do not suffer from addiction. As though homelessness was some kind of moral failing.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

If there is any kind of failing here, it is one of journalism.

“The Fight for the Soul of Seattle” is replete with long-distance shots of people experiencing homelessness at the nadir of their lives, including some who Johnson alleges are using drugs right on camera. But there is no evidence that Johnson spoke to the people whose lives he trots out on screen as proof of Seattle’s decline. This is bad practice, but it’s also perilous. In Johnson’s previous work, “Seattle is Dying,” he included long-distance shots of a man rolling on the ground, insinuating that he was homeless.

Crosscut reporter David Kroman found Robert Champagne, who hadn’t been homeless in more than three years by the time “Seattle is Dying” aired.

And, while he insinuates that the block in front of the Morrison Hotel—site of the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main shelter—is the most dangerous area of Seattle, Johnson did not bother to contact the shelter itself.

I know this because I did.

Daniel Malone is the executive director of DESC, Seattle’s largest shelter provider. In the nine months since the coronavirus pandemic began, DESC decamped from its main shelter to the Red Lion hotel in Renton, although it still offers housing at the Morrison and behavioral health services in the vicinity.

“It’s not like we picked up and left,” Malone said.

Had KOMO contacted him for the piece, Malone said, he would have shared the stark reality. He would have explained the efforts that DESC goes through to provide help to people dealing with serious mental health challenges. He would have explained the limitations of what they are able to provide.

“But I didn’t have that opportunity,” Malone said.

Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor to Mayor Ed Murray, did.

“Let’s be super clear,” Lindsay says. “It is the drugs.”

In a follow-up interview via email, Lindsay clarified that he objects to the way that the city handles homelessness and crime. Continue reading “Sinclair-Owned KOMO’s Latest Exploitation Film Ignores Causes of Homelessness—and Solutions”

Renton City Council to Homeless: No Room at the Inn

The Renton City Council, plus Mayor Armondo Pavone (upper left), City Clerk Jason Seth (third row, middle) and Sr. Assistant City Attorney Leslie Clark (bottom)

By Erica C. Barnett

Tonight, the Renton City Council voted 5-2, with council members Kim-Khanh Van and Ryan McIrvin casting the dissenting votes, to adopt a sweeping new law that will evict about 235 homeless people from the city’s Red Lion hotel, where they have been staying since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in two stages. The first will come at the end of May, when the shelter provider, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, will have to reduce the total population in the hotel to 125. The second will come next New Year’s Eve, when the remaining residents must also vacate the premises.

The new law, which was passed as “emergency” legislation, also creates a special zoning designation for homeless services, and imposes restrictions on service providers that will, advocates and providers say, have the effect of banning all homeless services from the city. Among other new regulations—imposed, supporters on the council said, because the city needs to have some way to restrict land uses with negative impacts—the law bars any homeless service provider from helping more than 100 people, imposes a half-mile buffer between any two homeless service providers, and requires service providers to monitor and regulate the behavior of their guests.

I described the impacts of the legislation last week, along with some of the changes the council made to the bill since its first introduction in November and; those included a number of new “whereas” clauses that emphasized the supposed violent nature of some of the Red Lion’s residents and the negative impact they have supposedly had on the surrounding community, which consists—in the Red Lion’s immediate vicinity—of a Walmart Supercenter, several car lots, and the South Renton Park and Ride.

I also covered the blow this vote represents to the hope for a “regional approach to homelessness,” on which many King County leaders, including County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have placed all their bets.

And I live-tweeted the public comment, both hateful and heartfelt, on both sides of the debate—from homeowners furious that “the activist class” has a right to speak in public meetings to formerly homeless people who spoke movingly about how access to a private room and shower could have changed their lives and gotten them on the path to housing and stability years before they found a way out.

This week, I’ll just note what happens next, now that Renton has said emphatically: We don’t want those people here. Currently, King County, DESC, and the Red Lion owners are locked in litigation over a separate zoning case, in which Renton says they are violating the city’s zoning laws by giving homeless people literal room at the inn. (That inn, they say, is a hotel, which is supposed to charge people for rooms, not shelter people displaced by a pandemic.) That litigation is ongoing, and more could follow soon now that the council has taken its vote.

In the meantime, the 235 men and women living at the Red Lion, including many for whom access to a private room and shower made health, stability, and recovery possible, are on a six-month timeline. Come June 1, about half of them will be selected to leave. Some of them, perhaps most, will have nowhere to go. Six months later, in the middle of winter, the rest will be forced to leave as well. Some at tonight’s council meeting, including Renton Mayor Armondo Pavone, seemed unwilling to acknowledge that their action constituted an eviction. The council, Pavone insisted, had “no intent” of “kicking anyone out” of the Red Lion. Moments later, he watched as the council voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill that does just that.

The C Is for Crank: No, Danny Westneat, Building 1,000 Tiny Houses Won’t Solve Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

This week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote a piece arguing that the solution to homelessness in Seattle is simple: Build 1,000 “huts” in tiny house villages and move homeless people through them into permanent housing, then sweep the streets of all their human and physical detritus.

Five years ago, Westneat writes, he made this same proposal to “spread the huts across the city in camps located in all seven council districts. …In return, the city would begin enforcing the no-camping law and start cleaning up the garbage-strewn sites around freeways and greenbelts.”

The solution, he concludes, is just as clear today. “Five years in to this intractable emergency, I’d like to propose, again, that building a thousand tiny homes is still it.”

Here are some reasons that, contrary to Westneat’s tidy argument, building 1,000 tiny house villages is not, in fact, “it.”

First, Westneat’s argument rests on a single statistic: “Last year, 34% of the people who went into tiny houses eventually moved to permanent housing, versus 23% for enhanced shelters and only 6% for basic shelters.”

Citing the low rate of exits from basic shelter is like complaining that hand-washing stations don’t move people into housing. It’s completely beside the point.

Westneat doesn’t define permanent housing, so his readers might be left believing that this means people have this housing permanently. In reality, the term “permanent” is used by officials and advocates to distinguish housing meant to be occupied on a long-term basis from impermanent living situations like shelter, transitional housing, and tiny houses. All the apartments in Washington state from which people are at risk of being evicted once the COVID-19 eviction ban is lifted, for example, are “permanent housing.”

Moreover, he gets both the percentage of exits to permanent housing from basic shelter (actually 3 percent, not the 6 percent he cites) and, more importantly, the purpose of basic shelter, wrong. The point of basic shelter isn’t to move people into permanent housing. It’s to give people a place to stay on a nightly or emergency basis. Citing the low rate of exits from basic shelter is like complaining that hand-washing stations don’t transition people into housing. It’s completely beside the point.

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This omission almost has to be deliberate, because this fact is right next to the stats Westneat (inaccurately) cites: “The primary focus of basic shelter is not moving people from homelessness to housing because it lacks the necessary services and amenities to support stabilization.”

Westneat goes on, citing a 34 percent success rate for tiny house villages at moving people into permanent supportive housing, compared to 23 percent for enhanced shelter—which, unlike basic shelter, is aimed at getting people housed. But, again, he omits several extremely relevant details about this impressive-seeming stat—details that disprove his argument  that 1,000 tiny houses will solve (or even make a dent in) homelessness on their own.

All these facts, again, are in the report Westneat cites and links.

First, the total number of exits from tiny house villages is extremely small compared to other solutions—108 (duplicated) households moved on from 275 tiny houses in 2019, compared to 1,563 for enhanced shelter. That’s pretty important when you’re claiming that a single solution can meaningfully make a dent in an immense, region-wide crisis. 

None of this is a knock on tiny house villages, which are an important part of Seattle’s approach to addressing homelessness. It’s a knock on influential people like Westneat who use their massive platforms to make arguments that suggest there’s a simple solution to homelessness.

Second, people tend to stay in tiny house villages for an extremely long time—almost a year, on average—which is contrary to the city’s goal of making homelessness brief and one of the reasons the number of exits is so low. On average, people stayed in tiny house villages 317 days, compared to 75 for enhanced shelter. That’s more than three times longer than the minimum performance standard of 90 days for tiny house villages adopted by the city’s Human Services Department when it began performance-based contracting in 2017. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: No, Danny Westneat, Building 1,000 Tiny Houses Won’t Solve Homelessness”

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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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. I’m truly grateful for your support.

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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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. I’m truly grateful for your support.

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.