Tag: shelters

County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended”

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who served in the state legislature and on the King County Council before beating eight other candidates for county executive in 2009, was supposed to run for governor—until the current governor, Jay Inslee, decided he wanted to keep the job. With a bid for higher office thwarted until at least 2024, many political observers expected Constantine to step down this year rather than seek a fourth term.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, all eyes were on King County and its public health department, whose capable response to a fast-moving, ever-evolving crisis made the county a model for the nation. Constantine decided to run again, and for the first time in 12 years, drew a credible opponent—Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents the same West Seattle district Constantine did in the state House and Senate. (In a further twist of internecine West Seattle politics, Nguyen defeated Shannon Braddock, who’s now Constantine’s deputy chief of staff.)

I sat down with Constantine over Zoom last week, and started out by asking him why he decided to seek another term.

Dow Constantine: I mean, I was thinking about running for governor, but then the governor ran for governor. And because I’m a good Democrat, and I want to ensure that we have Democratic leadership in Olympia, I chose not to run for governor along with all the other potential candidates.

I have lots of options in life. But the best opportunity right now coming out of this crisis is to advance the work we’ve been doing. I think this is a unique, exciting moment where the status quo has been upended. And a lot of the things that we have been dutifully building toward in equity and social justice and environmental restoration and police transformation and so forth become dramatically more possible. So, you know, once the, the COVID crisis started, we’ve been in it, and there’s really been no looking back.

PubliCola: Looking back over the last 14, 15 months of the pandemic, is there anything that you would have done differently in the early months, if you had known kind of how things would turn out?

With hindsight being 20/20, instead of trying to distance people in a congregate setting, like in shelters, we would know that having people just farther apart but all in the same room, was still going to be problematic. We [eventually] moved to the hotel model, which immediately and dramatically slowed the spread of the disease. Obviously, if we had more knowledge at the time, we might have made different choices about requiring mask use early on, or getting people into hotels and single-room settings rather than shelters. But in general, I think that the people responded well to a crisis with a lot of unknowns.

“Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.”

PC: One of the things [Downtown Emergency Service Center director] Daniel Malone has said since early in the pandemic, when DESC moved people from their downtown shelter to the Red Lion in Renton, is that they’re never going to go back to the way things were, with people staying in overcrowded, congregate shelters. And yet it feels like that’s kind of what’s happening at the city level. Do you think that in a year or two years, we’re going to be right back where we were?

DC: That is not what the county is doing. Other than in isolated cases, for an immediate overnight emergency, we’re not going to be investing in mats-on-the-floor, get-kicked-out-in-the-morning shelters, because we have seen what having a room of your own, a place of your own, even just space of your own, can do for people.

It used to be that people were very focused on long-term, purpose-built, supportive housing, and it was sort of, we’ll just wait and let people rotate through these congregate shelters until those things are ready. With some exceptions, I think we’re moving much more toward a model where we try to get everyone a place that is genuinely a better alternative to the streets or a tent—a place that has a lock on the door with their own bathroom and some dignity and the ability to get rested and cleaned and centered. And that seems like kind of an obvious thing. But the pandemic created the opportunity to demonstrate how much better that works than a congregate shelter setting.

“I do think it’s likely that we want to find [a new sheriff] who is an outsider, someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything and is not beholden to people so that they can make difficult decisions and see things with clear eyes.”

PC: The opiate task force came out with its recommendations almost five years ago, and I remember at the time thinking that, in particular, the [supervised consumption site] recommendation was never going to happen. And sure enough, it hasn’t. Why do you think that is? And do you think the county has come through as promised on the remaining recommendations, including access to treatment on demand?

DC: I do think that the task force was correct that a safe, monitored place would save lives. And we’re seeing continued deaths from heroin that’s tainted with fentanyl, for example. And for the parents, for the families who’ve lost their children, the moralizing that I come across in the media about not facilitating drug use rings kind of hollow. Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.

Will we, as a practical matter, be able to get one of these things up and running? I don’t think, unless there’s a significant political change, that it’s going to be possible to do. But I will say this. The advances in both treatment and the drugs to reverse overdose mean that it’s absolutely imperative that people not be in basements and alleys and other places where they don’t have eyes on and them can’t get help, because we can save lives in the short run. And we can save people from addiction over time. And we have much better mechanisms that we had even a decade ago to do that.

“It is the state of Washington that requires us to have a youth detention facility. And we would very much welcome the state legislature actually removing that legal obligation, and instead providing us with the funds and the mandate for alternatives.”

This is not your question, but this has been bugging me lately. There are a lot of people on the streets who have some level of opioid dependence. And some of them had it before they were homeless, and a lot of them developed it on the streets and are at grave risk because of tainted drugs that can come in to the community. And there have been plenty of suburban kids and parents who have died. But I continue, as I make calls, to hear this basic, moralistic perspective—like, they’ve just got to get off the junk, and then we can offer them all these services.

And we know that’s not how it works. Getting just some solid ground under people’s feet first is an almost indispensable prerequisite to people being able to succeed in treatment. When you’re fighting for survival every night, it’s very hard to adhere to some sort of program that’s going to help you get off of whatever you’re addicted to. Continue reading “County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended””

Seattle’s Public Restroom Crisis: Many “Comfort Stations That Remain Open” Are Closed

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is big into numbers—numbers that show continual improvement, numbers that get bigger (or smaller, if the number is the number of homeless people counted on one night in January), numbers that show that the city acts on the basis of data, not assumptions. The numbers out of the city, under the Durkan administration, bring to mind a graph that only goes up. The mayor has tried to maintain this aura of constant progress even during the COVID epidemic, a time when thousands of homeless people in Seattle are still crammed into congregate shelters (many of them overcrowded) or living in tents in the forest, hoping not to be noticed.

Last week, for example, the mayor’s office claimed that there were 180 public restrooms in the city—a number the mayor’s office later amended to 133, then “more than 128 Seattle Parks comfort stations that remain open for hygiene needs.” Because every previous map produced by the city showed fewer than 100 public restrooms in city parks and community centers combined, I was skeptical about the new numbers and asked for a list. The mayor’s office provided a spreadsheet, and I started checking.

I started by eliminating the redundancies—parks with multiple restrooms, for example, that were previously counted as single restroom sites but that the mayor’s office is now counting two, three, or five times, such as Judkins, Woodland, and Seward Parks.  Removing these “extra” facilities and restoring the city’s previous standard lowers the total number to around 100.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that despite the city’s insistence that all of these restrooms “remain open” to the public, many of them are actually locked or sit, inaccessible, behind construction fencing. Of 27 of the locations on the city’s list (chosen by their geographic proximity rather than any characteristic common to the facilities), eight that I visited personally were closed. Those included restrooms in fairly large urban parks (Cal Anderson); restrooms serving play fields and playgrounds (Brighton Playfield; Madrona Playground); and smaller neighborhood parks (Dr. Blanche Lavizzo). Extrapolating to the rest of the city, it seems likely that far fewer than the 85 or so restrooms the city claimed prior to the COVID epidemic are actually open to the public.

The mayor engaged in a similar sleight of hand with homeless shelters last week, when she claimed that the city and county had opened 1,900 new “temporary housing” spots for “people experiencing homelessness.” I covered this magic trick already—in short, it involves counting existing shelter beds that have been relocated as “new”, counting beds in field hospitals and COVID isolation tents as “temporary housing,” and ignoring any shelter beds that have been lost as some smaller shelters close down—but I want to linger for a moment on why these faulty numbers matter.

It isn’t just that the mayor’s cheerful press releases—the graphs with lines that only go up—paint an inaccurately rosy picture of what’s happening to homeless and unstably housed people during the pandemic. It’s also that the numbers obscure the fact that the city has promised just 95 actual new shelter beds (none of which are “housing”), all of them announced back in early March.  In this way, the displacement of 85 people from the Harborview Hall shelter to make way for a 45-bed COVID recovery site becomes 130 new “temporary housing” units that are counted as part of the 1,900 total.The mayor’s graphs only go up, and her calculator only has a “plus” sign.

The mayor’s office doesn’t just play fast and loose with numbers. They also use words to mislead and obfuscate. Take, for example, the word “options”—as in, “1,900 New Temporary Housing Options,” from the headline of last week’s press release. Field hospitals, emergency isolation tents in suburban parking lots, and shelter beds relocated from downtown Seattle to the King County Airport are not “options.” They are desperate measures appropriate to an increasingly desperate time.

I get the political impulse to “look on the bright side,” create cutesy hashtags and encourage people to meaninglessly bang pots and pans to show their appreciation for the health care workers left vulnerable and unprotected by federal failures to provide protective equipment and tests  But no one would blame the mayor if she provided an honest assessment of the crisis in Seattle, shorn of platitudes and flowery appeals to the Seattle spirit. Some voters might even applaud her for it.

Human Services Department Opposes Biometric Screening for Homeless, But Refuses to Hand Over Memo Saying So

Staffers for the city’s Human Services Department who looked into “biometric” screening of homeless shelter clients last year strongly recommended that the city not move forward with the idea, emails obtained through a public disclosure request reveal. The emails also show that HSD staffers asked the mayor’s office to include their recommendations in the official response to questions I asked about biometrics in December, but they did not..

Last year, as I reported, Durkan directed HSD to look into the possibility of requiring homeless Seattleites to undergo biometric screening—for example, a fingerprint scan—to access shelter. The mayor’s office said mandatory screening was one possible solution to data duplication in the Homeless Management Information System, a database that keeps track of what services people experiencing homelessness are using, and that it would create “efficiencies” as well as better “customer service” for people staying in shelters. Opponents of such screening argue that collecting homeless people’s fingerprints or other biometric data raises significant privacy concerns, and that it will discourage vulnerable people from accessing services.

The Human Services Department does not recommend converting to biometrics in shelters.  The cultural, social, and legal considerations have not been explored among relevant departments … nor with any potential clients who would use any biometric systems to access shelters.”

Several of the emails the city provided in response to my records request originally included a memo (titled “Shelter Memo”) containing HSD’s rationale for recommending that the city abandon the idea of biometric screening. However, an HSD public disclosure officer removed this memo from the records, claiming it is exempt from disclosure because it “reflects the expression of opinions, recommendations, and possible policy formulations that make up the pre-decisional free flow of opinions and ideas to policymakers, the disclosure of which would harm the ongoing decision making process.” This “deliberative process” exemption is the same exemption HSD used to justify heavily redacting documents about a proposed safe parking lot for people living in their cars. Typically, this exemption is used to withhold early drafts of legislation.

However, the agency did, perhaps inadvertently, provide an email that included a draft memo outlining the reasons HSD opposes biometric screening of homeless clients. It’s unclear how much, if any, of this early memo ended up in HSD’s final shelter memo. The memo begins, “The Human Services Department does not recommend converting to biometrics in shelters.  The cultural, social, and legal considerations have not been explored among relevant departments … nor with any potential clients who would use any biometric systems to access shelters.”

It continues: “Resources indicate that using biometrics at shelters (i.e. fingerprint scans or facial recognition software) will alienate people living outside and/or potentially seeking shelter. This may result in a lower percentage of people using shelter and increase the percentage of people who live outside as opposed to using available indoor shelter.”

“From our perspective at [HSD], we do not consider the loss of scan cards to be such a substantial issue that we believe they outweigh our concerns with the use of biometrics.”

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“Shelter staff will be needed at entry to facilitate fingerprint scans and enroll anyone with cold, burned or otherwise damaged hands or any other struggles or refusal to fingerprint scanning—a potentially higher or increasing percentage of users than anticipated by policy makers,” the memo says.

“Some people regard biometrics as unnecessary surveillance tools and oversimplified, automated methods that objectify and separate groups of already marginalized people. Use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people.'” For example, “[t]he finger scanning method could trigger traumatic memories of people who have previously been fingerprinted.”

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Emails from HSD staffers show a department frustrated by Durkan’s request to quickly study and make recommendations on an idea that many at HSD viewed as highly problematic from the start.

“[F]or everyone’s clarity purposes, we at HSD aren’t advocating for this,” strategic advisor Dusty Olson wrote in a December 11 email asking staffers to come up with information about biometrics at the mayor’s request. “It will be our recommendation in the memo that it not be pursued for multiple reasons. But we have to answer the question that was asked of us which is what would it take to do it.”

The preliminary memo identifies a number of other potential “unintended consequences” and potential “harms” of biometric scanning and tracking of people experiencing homelessness. Among them: The  likelihood that a large number of people (particularly those with paranoia or psychosis) would refuse to submit to fingerprinting and scanning, and the fact that advocates would likely decry biometrics as an “oversimplified” method of tracking people that “objectif[ies] and separate[s] groups of already marginalized people.”

“Use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people,'” the memo continues. “The finger scanning method could trigger traumatic memories of people who have previously been fingerprinted.” Continue reading “Human Services Department Opposes Biometric Screening for Homeless, But Refuses to Hand Over Memo Saying So”

Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers”

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license

At the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city’s Human Services Department is studying the possibility of mandatory biometric screening of homeless shelter and service clients, using fingerprints or other biometric markers to track the city’s homeless population as they move through the homelessness system. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says that the use of biometrics or a “digital ID” would create “efficiencies” that improve on the scan cards currently used by some Seattle shelters. “Different cities and states have explored solutions including digital IDs and biometrics, so the City has been gathering information on how to improve services,” she says.

The city also maintains that there is currently widespread duplication of data from shelters and service providers—redundant information that makes it hard for the city to track how many people are using services and which services are most effective.

Hightower says the new technology may provide “new ways to better serve persons experiencing homelessness… allow[ing] people to access services without having to maintain hardcopy documents” or hang on to scan cards.

“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing [biometrics]. Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”—Email from Deputy Mayor David Moseley to HSD director Jason Johnson

“One clear challenge [with scan cards] is that individuals can lose their cards,” Hightower says. But critics, and some HSD staffers, are skeptical that the benefits of better data outweigh privacy and other concerns raised by biometric tracking. And homeless advocates point out that  people often lose their IDs and other documents when the city sweeps their encampment and removes or throws away their stuff, a policy that has accelerated under Durkan.

In an email on November 4, which I obtained through a records request, deputy mayor David Moseley directed HSD director Jason Johnson to look into “how would we convert to biometrics for folks entering … shelter?”

“Apparently this is something San Francisco does and that Mark Dones”—the consultant whose firm received $637,000 over the past year for their work on the new regional homelessness authority—”advocates for,” Moseley wrote.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

In a 2018 report to the city and county, Dones  recommended “explor[ing] opportunities to create radically accessible, customer-driven services through digital identification” for people experiencing homelessness in King County. A digital ID is an encrypted file containing medical information and other personal data that is typically accessed through the use of fingerprints or other biometric markers rather than a scan card or physical documents. Advocates for digital IDs and fingerprinting say that it helps homeless shelters provide service to clients faster; detractors call it “dangerous” technology that is “ripe for abuse.”

“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing,” Moseley continued. “Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”

The task of looking into biometrics, along with several other research projects, fell to HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, who expressed her concerns in an email to Diana Salazar, the director of HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division. “The one we would need to do the most work on would be the biometrics. That will be incredibly unpopular with Council and some advocates, who were concerned about the invasive elements of using scan cards,” Olson wrote. Some large shelter providers distribute scan cards to clients; these cards are linked to the Homeless Management Information System, which contains information about everyone who enters the homelessness system.

“I am not sure they are trying to solve a specific problem. [Durkan] probably just heard about a cool thing. …. I think we need to just research biometrics and make a recommendation.” — HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, internal email

Privacy and homeless advocates contacted by The C Is for Crank were not aware of the city’s behind-the-scenes work on biometrics, but raised a number of objections to the concept. Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project for the Washington state ACLU, says the use of biometrics seems like a high-tech solution in search of a problem, and points out that local data collection can have unintended consequences; Seattle shares data from its automated license plate readers with the state Department of Transportation, for example, but has no control over how WSDOT uses that data or whether they share it with federal agencies such as ICE.

“Why is it so difficult for them to identify people through a means other than putting everyone’s biometrics in a database?” Narayan asks. “What problem is your shiny tech doo-dad the solution to? And if you’re going to force people to give up their biometrics, it had better be for a really really good reason. But we haven’t had the chance to have that conversation because they’re jumping ahead to the shiny new thing.”

Continue reading “Durkan Pushes City to Study Biometric Tracking of Homeless “Customers””