Tag: Tiny house villages

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”

As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain

Via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. 

Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.

Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.

“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.

UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”

Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”

This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.

Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”

Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”

City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”

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While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'” 

But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain”

Maskless Cop Gets One-Day Suspension, Stalled Tiny House Village Moves Forward

1. The Seattle police officer whose refusal to wear a mask inside Harborview Medical Center in January prompted public outcry and a misconduct investigation received a one-day suspension for the incident.

According to a investigation report released by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) on Tuesday, Officer Eric Whitehead violated SPD’s professionalism policies when he brushed off requests that he put on a face mask. Whitehead was part of a team of officers stationed at the hospital to escort a person who had been detained.

But because Whitehead believed he had obtained an exemption from SPD’s mask mandate, the OPA did not determine that his refusal to wear a mask constituted a violation of department policy.

In a letter sent to SPD’s Human Resources division last June, Whitehead requested an exemption on medical grounds, including “mental and physical strain, as well as increased respiratory distress”; he added that requiring him to wear a mask violated his civil liberties. Though Whitehead did not include medical records in his request for an exemption, he later provided OPA investigators with letters from two medical practitioners detailing a “dermatological condition in and around his face that was exacerbated by facemask wearing and shaving.” Whitehead did not, however, object to wearing other types of masks—during last summer’s protests, for instance, Whitehead confirmed that he wore a gas mask.

Though SPD’s Human Resources lieutenant never expressly approved or denied Whitehead’s request, OPA investigators concluded that he could have reasonably believed that he was exempt based on an email from the lieutenant confirming that SPD allowed for medical exemptions to the mask mandate.

However, the investigators also pointed out inconsistencies in Whitehead’s stated reasons for refusing to put on a mask. While at the hospital, Whitehead told nurses that he could not wear a face covering because it would present a safety risk if the detainee attacked him—”I don’t want to be choked with this fucking thing,” he told a nurse after she handed him a mask. He did not mention his medical condition to hospital staff, though he later told OPA investigators that his initial confrontation with the nurse left him “less willing” to explain his behavior. Investigators also pointed out that the letters from Whitehead’s medical providers don’t mention any mask-related respiratory problems, contrary to his claims in the letter to SPD’s human resources lieutenant.

OPS Director Andrew Myerberg wrote in the investigative report that the case demonstrated the risks of SPD’s lax approach to medical exemptions for its mask mandate. “While SPD is required to approve exemptions when supported by evidence and when warranted,” he wrote, “this does not mean that SPD must continue to allow officers to engage in duties where they have close contact with the public.”

As a remedy, Myerberg recommended that the department keep records of any officers who request exemptions from the mask policy, as well as department supervisors’ reasoning for approving or denying the request. He added that SPD should not allow officers with exemptions to work in close proximity with members of the public, which would involve re-assigning officers to non-patrol positions. The department has already moved Whitehead to a non-patrol position.

2. A long-delayed tiny house village in the University District that was originally supposed to open in April could start moving forward again this month, city council members said this week. Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis walked on legislation Monday approving a lease between Sound Transit, which owns the land where the village will go, and the city, which will hold the lease. The council had to pass legislation approving the lease because Sound Transit increased the size of the property the city will take over. Both Sound Transit and the city still have to sign the lease.

For months, Sound Transit and the city have been mired in negotiations over the extent of the city’s legal liability if anything goes wrong at the site. Sound Transit (which has declined to discuss the negotiations and didn’t immediately return a call for comment Tuesday) sought and received indemnity from any injury, death, or property damage that takes place at the encampment, which is basically what the lease provides.

Although Seattle is supposed to hand all its homeless service contracts over to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority at the end of 2021, the lease is for up to three years, meaning that the city could be responsible for a tiny house village even when it no longer has a homelessness division.

As we reported last week, KCRHA director Marc Dones has expressed hesitation about funding tiny house villages as part of a comprehensive solution to homelessness.

The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday afternoon, the city council’s homelessness committee will get a long-awaited update from the city’s homelessness division about what the division, and the homeless service providers the city funds, have done over the past seven months to move people into shelter and housing—including a report on the two hotel-based shelters the city belatedly funded as part of its pandemic response earlier this year.

Both hotels—the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, and the 139-room Executive Pacific, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute—are nearing the halfway mark on their 10-month leases. Yet neither has made much visible progress toward a key goal of their contracts: Moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness and into permanent housing, using short-term rapid rehousing subsidies to help fund apartments on the private market.

While both rapid rehousing programs have enrolled a similar percentage of clients into rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually identified housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments.

After resisting calls to open hotels to shelter people living outdoors during the COVID pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announced it was signing short-term leases on the two hotels in February. The plan, announced by then-deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller (who quit to run for mayor) and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis last October, was to take people directly off the streets, stabilize them and assess their needs, and move most of them quickly into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies administered through separate contracts with the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, respectively. By cycling most clients quickly through the hotels and into private-market apartments, proponents said, the hotels could serve hundreds of people.

The reality, however, hasn’t lived up to the initial promise. While both Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services have signed up a similar percentage of clients for their rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually found housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments. (Although the online presentation says the Chief Seattle Club has enrolled no households in its rapid rehousing program, its executive director, Derrick Belgarde, says the current number is 38). At the Executive Pacific, 17 people have moved into apartments with rapid rehousing subsidies—seven more than the total three weeks ago. At King’s Inn, not a single person has moved out using a rapid rehousing voucher. Several people have exited both programs into other types of housing—moving in with relatives, for example—and some simply left the hotels and didn’t return.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly. “It’s going to be hard to find them a place they can afford with little to no income,” Belgarde said. “With their underlying conditions, they’re going to need permanent supportive housing.”

One option, Belgarde said, would be moving some of the people currently at King’s Inn into ?ál?al, a Club-owned 80-unit studio apartment building that’s opening in Pioneer Square in October. Some of those living at King’s Inn could use rapid rehousing vouchers to live at ?ál?al, for a year, Belgarde said, and then, if they couldn’t afford market-rate housing, they could apply to move into Sacred Medicine House, a 125-unit permanent supportive housing development in Lake City that’s supposed to open in October 2022. Both buildings, which are designed to cater specifically to Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, are subject to fair housing law, so ensuring that their residents are by and large Native is a matter of getting people’s applications in quickly.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, said he initially hoped that the hotels would enable the city to “rapidly house hundreds of people … but that does not seem to be where we are at right now.” Instead, he said, the hotels have turned into a “bottleneck” while the subsidies go unused.

One option, Lewis said, might be to “open up” access to the subsidies to other providers, such as the Public Defender Association and its JustCare program, whose clients might be a better fit for rapid rehousing. Rapid rehousing programs typically best for people who can return to full employment before the subsidy ends—people facing temporary setbacks, not permanent disability. Continue reading “The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check”

Mayor’s Office Defends Hotel Shelter Plan as Council Pushes for Tiny Houses: UPDATED

Yep, this hotel again.

By Erica C. Barnett

UPDATE Thursday, Jan. 28, 6:30pm: The city has reportedly rejected the Public Defender Association’s plan to operate hotel rooms using the model established through its county-funded JustCare program after yesterday suggesting that the model was too expensive. The PDA’s application for the hotel-based shelter contract, which we first reported on last November, requested around $28,000 per room to pay for food, case management, and behavioral health services. That number was similar to the amount requested by another applicant for the same program, the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

According to providers, the city is seeking to cap expenditures on services at $17,000 per room, or about $5 million—a little over half what the city plans to spend on rapid rehousing subsidies for hotel-based shelter clients, many of whom will likely be people with disabling physical or behavioral health conditions. This is a developing story.

On Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller assured city council members that the mayor’s office was moving forward on schedule with plans to open 300 new hotel rooms, 125 enhanced shelter beds, and new tiny house village spaces as part of a “shelter surge” proposal announced last fall.

But the details he provided, in response to council questions about issues with the program that PubliCola reported exclusively yesterday, largely confirmed that the city is at an impasse with the providers it has chosen to run its two hotel-based shelters. The issues are financial—as we reported, at least one of the two providers has informed the city that they can’t serve high-needs homeless clients for the amount the city is willing to pay—and logistical: The hotels, the Executive Pacific downtown and King’s Inn near South Lake Union, have small rooms that lack kitchenettes, microwaves, and other amenities that would make them better suited to serve as long-term living spaces.

Asked why the city budget office (which reports to the mayor) capped the total cost of services for each hotel unit so low—at $17,000 a year, although Sixkiller erroneously cited a slightly higher number—Sixkiller said that the service providers knew what they were getting into when they responded to the request for qualifications with proposals. Besides, he added, the Downtown Emergency Service Center has been running a hotel in Renton (a hotel, he hastened to add, that the city has supported financially) for less than $19,000 per bed, and that hotel serves some of the highest-need clients in the region.

“I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than [$17,000 per room], but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” — Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller

“When we just look at the services column, we have been able to really zero in on what works,” Sixkiller said. “I realize that there may be other service providers that have been providing a service that, in some cases, is three or four times higher than that, but when we look at the longest-serving organization [DESC], that was our ballpark.” Getting more specific, he cited costs of “$100,000 a room” for another, unnamed hotel shelter provider.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda countered that one reason DESC’s costs are lower is that they aren’t able to pay staffers a living wage, resulting in high turnover. “I don’t want to use as a benchmark something that is too low due to the city outsourcing and under resourcing these services for far too long,” Mosqueda said. Mosqueda also noted that the city rejected DESC’s proposal because it was “nonresponsive,” in that it would have moved people already in shelter at Exhibition Hall to a hotel, freeing up more shelter space at Exhibition Hall.

Sixkiller’s reference was clearly to the Public Defender Association, which since last year has run a King County-funded program called JustCare that moves people from encampments to rooms in hotels around the region. The PDA’s proposal for the shelter surge program, which is one of two the city accepted (the other was from Chief Seattle Club), is for an expansion of JustCare, which includes behavioral health care and 24/7 wraparound services for its high-needs clients.

And the high figure Sixkiller cited was apparently extrapolated from just the second month of the program, when it was ramping up, hiring new staff, and moving people indoors on an emergency basis; the program includes intensive wraparound services similar to what clients would receive in permanent supportive housing, which is beyond the scope of the city’s proposed hotel program.

The PDA’s actual proposal requested around $28,000 per bed—not the “$100,000 a room” Sixkiller cited.

As it turns out, DESC submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year.

As for DESC’s purported ability to provide hotel services on a much tighter budget of around $18,000 a year (still higher than the city’s $17,000 cap? As it turns out, DESC actually submitted its own application for the hotel-based shelter program. The application, according to DESC director Daniel Malone, priced each hotel room at around $25,500 a year, right in line with what other providers such as the PDA said they needed to operate hotel-based shelters in the city.

“The thing about the Renton situation is that there are a number of costs involved with that operation that the county has picked up directly” that DESC doesn’t have to factor into its contract, such as meals and utilities, Malone said. “I’m guessing that the city is relying on… a cost profile for what we’re doing at the Red Lion that is not reflective of all the costs involved” in running the Renton shelter.

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates eight tiny-house villages around the city, also applied for the hotel contract. LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, said she never heard back from the city on that application or LIHI’s application to provide the 125 enhanced shelter beds.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, the city’s plan is to invest about twice as much—$9 million—in short-term rapid rehousing subsidies as they are on services at the hotels.

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Council members asked for a progress update on tiny house villages. Sixkiller said the city added 95 tiny house units last year, and hopes to add another 120 this year, although only one site, on Sound Transit-owned land in the University District, has been identified. (Sixkiller said the mayor’s office was “doing a deep analysis” of two additional sites “that I’m not prepared to talk about right now.”) When Durkan’s became mayor, she vowed to build 1,000 new tiny houses in her first year. More than three years later, there are fewer than 300.

Andrew Lewis, the chair of the homelessness committee, rolled out a plan this week, which he’s calling “It Takes A Village,” to create up to 12 new tiny house villages citywide, using a combination of funding the council allocated for tiny houses last year (about $4 million) and another $7.2 million in private funding, some of which the city has already secured. The private dollars would pay for one-time capital costs to set up the new villages; the rest of the money, and additional ongoing funds from the city budget, would pay for operations.

Image via LIHI.

Tiny house villages provide temporary, non-congregate shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and are one of the most sought-after forms of shelter, in large part because they provide more privacy than dormitory-style shelters.

Lewis told PubliCola he hopes to use the villages to fill a gap or serve a “niche” that isn’t captured by the hotel-based shelters or enhanced shelters the city hopes to add this year. “I don’t know if I’d be leaning into them quite this hard if the situation wasn’t as bad as it is,” Lewis said. “What it really comes down to for me is, it is going to be years—it is going to be years!— until we have the types of housing options at the scale required to have a measurable impact on what we’re seeing on the street, and in the meantime we need to do something” about encampments.

Right now, just two of LIHI’s tiny house villages operate on a “harm reduction” model that allows residents who are in active addiction, but “we know that HSD wants the next few villages to be for adults and couples (no minors) operated with a harm reduction model,” Lee, from LIHI, said said. The median length of time a client stays at a LIHI village is seven and a half months, according to Lee, which is more than twice as long as the 90-day “performance minimum” the city sets for authorized encampments.

Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces

L-R: The Gateway Park North site, the Georgetown Tiny House Village, and the future dog park site at the Georgetown Flume

by Erica C. Barnett

This is a story about a new park for people, a proposed park for dogs, and how confusion among at least four city departments has left more than a dozen people living in RVs and trailers in a state of limbo, living on disputed territory amid neighbors—including a permitted tiny house village—who want them gone.

It’s also, inevitably, a story about homelessness: A reminder, in a city where people without permanent places to live are routinely swept from place to place, that even the urgency of a global pandemic has not produced lasting solutions to a problem that is currently more visible than it has ever been. Because while the city’s policy of removing people from public spaces based largely on neighborhood complaints has subsided in the past year, that short-term reprieve hasn’t been coupled with enough new shelter or housing to get more than a few hundred of Seattle’s growing homeless population indoors on even a temporary basis.”

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land.” Greg Ramirez, board chair, Georgetown Community Council

The story begins, as a lot of stories about homelessness seem to, in the Georgetown neighborhood, where the Seattle Parks Department is just starting construction on a new park facing the Duwamish River across from Boeing Field. The Gateway Park North project will improve and provide better access to a tiny piece of riverfront land that’s partly occupied by the out-of-commission Georgetown Pumping Station.

Since March, the city tacitly allowed people living in RVs, cars, and trailers to occupy the site, which is owned by the Seattle Parks Department. In early December, however, the department put  up signs announcing it was about to start work on the new park and warning RV residents that they needed to be gone by the following week. REACH, the nonprofit that had been doing outreach to the vehicle residents for the last eight months, worked quickly to figure out where the residents wanted to go and how to get them there; since many of the RVs had been sitting in place for longer than usual, 11 of them no longer ran.

“We talked about who needed to move and asked them, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’,” said Dawn Whitson, a REACH case manager who works in Georgetown. “They had already identified the site—the Georgetown Flume.”

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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.

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The Georgetown Flume—so named because it was the site of a flume that transported water from the Duwamish to the Georgetown Steam Plant, which closed in 1975—is another disused property a few blocks north of the pumping station site. Seattle City Light owns the land, but plans to give it to the Parks Department in exchange for a street vacation (the permanent closure of a public street) on property it owns in SoDo. Street vacations require some kind of public benefit; hence the trade to Parks. The plan is for the property to become a dog park for the surrounding neighborhood.

“We’ve been working very hard to try to transform that area into an off-leash dog park, and things can’t move forward on that when we have RVs on that plot of land,” Greg Ramirez, the board chair for the Georgetown Community Council, said. “We want to assist these individuals to find a better location, but this is not it. The flume is not that spot. Gateway Park North is not that spot.”

“If the city is going to pay for [RVs] to be towed to the impound yard, why won’t they pay for people to have places to go?”—Dawn Whitson, REACH

Georgetown is already the site of one longstanding tiny house village run by the Low Income Housing Institute, which the community council and other local groups initially opposed but which, according to Georgetown Tiny House Village Community Advisory Council chair Barbara Grace Hill, has since become “a big part of the neighborhood.” (According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, “we are on record supporting the dog park.”)

The issue, Georgetown residents say is that nobody at the city asked them what they thought of the idea. This, they say, is part of a pattern that has included not just the tiny house village but the proposed relocation of an overnight sobering center into a historic building in the neighborhood core—a proposal that would have put the sobering center far away from other city services. “It’s been a pattern with the city,” Hill said. After a neighborhood lawsuit helped sink the sobering center proposal, “it was like, again, ‘Would you please communicate with us? Would you please let us know what’s going on?'” Continue reading “Battle Over RVs in South Seattle Illustrates Need for Safe Spaces”

After LIHI Moves 15 Into Tiny Houses, City Accuses Agency of “Circumventing” Process Meant to Ensure Equitable Shelter Access

Image via Seattle.gov

By Erica C. Barnett

Over the weekend, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat argued that the solution to homelessness in Seattle—a problem that afflicts more than 12,000 people in King County—was to build 1,000 new tiny house villages and “enforce the laws” against “camping” in public areas by removing the people who remain.

To demonstrate his point, Westneat used the example of John C. Little Park, Sr. in the New Holly mixed-income housing complex, where more than a dozen tents have occupied a space near the restroom and a playground used by the community. In Westneat’s telling, workers from the Low Income Housing Institute showed up at the camp and offered them spots in tiny house villages—encampments that offer case management, privacy, and a sense of safety and community—and within “15 minutes,” nearly everyone had agreed to leave.

All that is true. But there is much more to the story. And the debate over what happened at John C. Little, Sr. Park is a microcosm of the issues Seattle will face in transitioning city-led homeless outreach from a system led by the Navigation Team to one led primarily by providers but housed, as before, inside the city.

“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available. They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”—District 2 Council Member Tammy Morales

The first thing to know about the John C. Little encampment LIHI didn’t discover the encampment by accident—they were asked to go there by city council member Tammy Morales, who represents New Holly, at the behest of residents whose kids haven’t been able to use the playground in months. Morales said she saw her approach as a win-win: New Holly residents “got their playground back for their kids who are at home,” and 15 people, including one man who had just returned to the encampment from Harborview with a diagnosis of pneumonia, got safer places to stay.

“My office asked if LIHI was aware of any spaces where folks could, basically, safely camp and not be near playgrounds, and they offered to move them into some tiny houses that had become available,” Morales said. “They were very knowledgeable and treated everyone with dignity.”

The relocation of the people living in the park was a win for LIHI too: Proof that people prefer to move to tiny houses over traditional shelter, and that LIHI—although not authorized by the city to do outreach in encampments—is well-positioned to do so. After the move, LIHI director Sharon Lee sent a letter to HSD director Jason Johnson, deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and Seattle Parks Department director Jesús Aguirre touting their success at John C. Little as an example of “a new way of doing outreach.”

“LIHI failed to report and  bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources.”—Seattle Human Services Department

“LIHI staff includes people with lived experience and outreach skills who are effective at working directly with unsheltered homeless people,” Lee wrote. “We understand LIHI is not currently being paid by HSD for ‘outreach’ nor included by HSD staff in outreach planning, but we believe, as shown by last week’s example and our work at CHOP that we are particularly effective in the field.”

LIHI’s decision to move people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone directly into tiny house villages in July exasperated HSD, whose director, Jason Johnson, argued that LIHI was cherry-picking clients for tiny houses that should have been available to any outreach provider in the city, not just LIHI. LIHI countered that they had to act quickly because the Seattle Police Department had threatened to remove people from the park—people that, she said, the Navigation Team had failed to shelter before LIHI came along.

Lee’s letter touting a similar action at New Holly sparked a similarly frustrated response from HSD. In an email to city council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, an HSD staffer, speaking for the agency, wrote:

LIHI is required by contract to report vacancies at tiny house villages and the Lakefront Community House to HSD, so that folks living unsheltered in tough conditions across Seattle may access these sought-after public resources.  In this instance LIHI failed to report and  bypassed an intentionally designed shelter referral process, implemented to strive for equity of access and prioritize those most in need of the City’s limited shelter resources.  By circumventing this process, eleven individuals were prioritized for referrals as a result of a location-based outreach effort—potentially taking those highly sought after shelter resources away from other unsheltered individuals with higher needs in other parts of the city. …

It’s also worth mentioning that LIHI is not contracted by the City to do outreach, nor to decide who can or cannot access tiny houses and enhanced shelter. At times, LIHI has shied away from taking in more high-need individuals into their shelters, leaving very vulnerable people on the streets—which is one of the reasons why outreach is conducted by professionally trained outreach agencies like DESC’s HOST program, Chief Seattle Club, Urban League and REACH. This system-wide perspective is something contracted agencies on their own do not have, but would continue to be leveraged  by the Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team or HOPE team, in partnership with providers, this year and beyond.

The new HOPE program, which was part of a compromise between the mayor and council on homelessness outreach and engagement, is supposed to serve as a sort of governmental nerve center connecting outreach providers in the field with the most appropriate shelter and service referrals for unsheltered people they encounter in the field.

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Whether it will work that way is an open question. Transitioning to a system where outreach providers use a city-run system to make referrals will require significant resources as well as major culture shifts within agencies accustomed to seeing the city as a roadblock. LIHI’s decision to go around the process the city is working to establish is just one example of how agencies may choose to circumvent a new centralized system that, in the interest of fairness to people living unsheltered, creates an extra layer of process.

Lee, who had been unaware of HSD’s response to her email touting LIHI’s success at moving the park residents into tiny houses, said she doesn’t understand why HSD doesn’t see LIHI’s actions at both John C. Little and in Cal Anderson Park—which, after all, result in fewer people sleeping in parks, regardless of which particular people they are—as a positive outcome. Continue reading “After LIHI Moves 15 Into Tiny Houses, City Accuses Agency of “Circumventing” Process Meant to Ensure Equitable Shelter Access”

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”

County Plans All-Gender “Potty Pilot,” Socialist Denounces Progressive, and Tiny House Villages Expand

Photo via LIHI.

1. The city council adopted legislation allowing up to 40 new “transitional encampments,” including so-called tiny house villages as well as tent encampments and safe parking lots for people living in their cars, but not without fireworks. The bill, sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant, also loosens several land-use restrictions that limit where encampments can be located and how long they can remain in place. Council freshman Alex Pedersen proposed several amendments that Sawant said would destroy the bill, including one that would reduce the number of permitted encampments from 40 to 15, one that would have limited permits to “tiny house villages,” rather than tent encampments, and one that would have reinstated a sunset date.

Pedersen’s amendments prompted a strong rebuke from Sawant, who called his proposal to reduce the number of permitted encampments “a no vote in disguise.”

“Since council member Pedersen obviously opposes expansion of tiny house villages, I would prefer that the was honest about it and voted no on the bill,” Sawant said. “It’s a sleight of hand that he’s engaging in. … I would urge the public to be aware of what is really going on.”

Sawant’s supporters, who had filled council chambers in response to one of her regular “PACK CITY HALL!” action alerts, applauded. After their cheers died down, council member Lisa Herbold implored Sawant to stop “impugning the motives of [her] colleagues” and noted that Sawant did not similarly denounce council member Andrew Lewis, who proposed a similar amendment limiting the number of encampments to 20 last week. “I would just like us to show a little grace for each other up on this dais,” Herbold said, to boos.

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Sawant responded that she answered only to “ordinary people,” not politicians, and reiterated that Pedersen did not have “good intentions,” to more applause. Council member Debora Juarez, who was running the meeting, reminded the audience, “this is not a rally,” and said that the council agrees with each other “95 percent of the time.” When that comment was met with derisive laughter, Juarez gave up, muttering “Jesus” into the hot mic and moving on with the vote. The bill ultimately passed, without Pedersen’s amendments or support, 6-1.

2. Sawant also had harsh words for state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43), the sponsor of legislation that would enable King County to pass a business payroll tax to pay for homeless services. Sawant’s beef with Macri is that, according to Sawant, she hasn’t done enough to ensure that the bill won’t contain language preempting the city from passing its own “big business” tax, which would derail Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” campaign.

Sawant proposed a resolution “oppos[ing] opposes the passage of any legislation which preempts the city from taxing big business” and denouncing Macri’s proposal for capping the county’s taxing authority at 0.2 percent of a business’s total payroll.

Macri, Sawant said, should not be viewed as a “progressive hero,” because “you only get to be called a progressive if you are absolutely fighting for a progressive agenda.” She then recounted a conversation with Macri, in which Macri supposedly told her that “‘as a fellow progressive, our lives are hard.'”

“I don’t think progressive politicians can complain that their lives are hard, because the lives of ordinary people are a thousand times harder,” Sawant said.

In her day job, Macri is deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides direct services, low-barrier shelter, and housing to some of the “hardest to house” people in Seattle. As a legislator, she passed a major eviction reform bill last year, and has championed funding for housing, health care, and services for people experiencing homelessness. By denouncing Macri as a tool of the ruling elite, Sawant is walking out on a very thin limb. There are Democrats in the legislature who are actually arguing for preemption. Macri isn’t one of them. Trashing her as a sellout may win applause (it certainly did at Monday’s meeting) but rallies don’t always pass legislation. That’s something Sawant learned again on Monday, when her resolution failed 5-2.

3. After an internal survey, numerous meetings, and the creation of an alliterative shorthand—#PottyPilotProject—King County and the city have abandoned plans to replace single-gender restrooms with gender-inclusive ones at the new Regional Homelessness Authority headquarters at the county-owned Yesler Building downtown. According to a July 27 memo obtained through a records request, the plan to retrofit existing restrooms as all-gender facilities “is not moving forward.” However, the “potty pilot” is still on track for other county departments.

Continue reading “County Plans All-Gender “Potty Pilot,” Socialist Denounces Progressive, and Tiny House Villages Expand”

A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More

Acting HSD director Jason Johnson and mayoral advisor on homelessness Tess Colby

1. City council member Lisa Herbold struggled Wednesday to get Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson to answer her question about future layoffs from HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment (HSI) division, which is merging with King County’s homelessness division as part of the creation of a new regional homelessness authority. At a meeting of the council’s special committee on homelessness, Herbold asked Johnson repeatedly how many HSI employees would be moving to new offices in the county-owned Yesler Building as part of a temporary “co-location” of city and county staff, and how many are expected to have jobs with the new authority. “I’m hearing a lot of speculation about which positions are going to be eliminated,” Herbold said. “Given that the entire HSI division is being relocated [in March and we aren’t making final decisions about who will stay at the regional authority until much later, is there something happening that we should be aware of?”

Johnson responded first by describing the history that led to the current organizational structure of HSI, then talked at length about the successive organizational structures that will be put in place over the next year. “What is going to occur is colocation in March 2020, then after the hiring of the CEO, we will begin what is termed a loan period where day to day decisions are made by the CEO, but there will also be existing lines of authority back to the city and the county…”

“I’m frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”—Council member Lisa Herbold

His explanation—which did not include an answer to Herbold’s question about layoffs—went on for so long that council member Kshama Sawant jumped in to say that she hoped the council could wrap up talking about the regional authority quickly so that the committee could move on to “the most substantive issue” on the agenda, her proposal to vastly expand tiny house villages in the city, since she had somewhere else to be. (Council member Debora Juarez said that while she appreciated Sawant’s desire to move on to her own item, “I want to point out that we spent 90 minutes on a resolution that we didn’t even pass”—Sawant’s resolution condemning India’s National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act—and “I, for one, want to hear how this is going to get implemented.”)

After the meeting, Herbold told me that she never did get answer to her question: “If the entirety of HSI staff are colocating and layoff decisions aren’t being made final until either a 2020 supplemental or 2021 proposed budget, when exactly between those two points in time will HSI staff learn their jobs are proposed to be eliminated?” Herbold says she was “frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”

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2. Juarez was hardly the only council member casting shade on Sawant’s nonbinding resolution on India, which—along with a resolution opposing war in Iran—took up most of the council’s two-hour-plus regular meeting on Monday. Freshman council member Alex Pedersen said he would propose a resolution condemning all forms of oppression everywhere, just to cover all possible bases. “There’s many disturbing issues going on today for which we do not have resolutions, and my resolution is broad enough to capture instances of oppression that we might be missing,” Pedersen said. “Allow me to ask that we try to not craft a city council council resolution for every horrible thing that our president or any world leader does.”

Pedersen’s resolution, if it ever does see the light of day, is unlikely to find traction among his colleagues, who seemed to consider it a stunt designed to embarrass Sawant. Sawant, for her part, immediately used the proposal as an opportunity to drag her colleagues for lacking the “moral and political courage” to address housing and homelessness. “Passing resolutions is not the barrier. The barrier is lack of courage,” she said.

3. Tomorrow afternoon, Beyonce St. James—the formerly homeless drag artist who spoke and performed at All Home King County’s annual conference last year—will appear in court to seek an injunction against the release of public records that include her legal name and other identifying information. I received a notice of the hearing because I requested St. James’ invoice for the event, for which she charged $500. (Attendees reported that they were told St. James was volunteering her time and performing for tips; video of the event shows attendees tossing and handing her cash.) St. James (not her legal name) is asking that all her personal information be kept private because she has already been threatened and harassed over her performance and fears further harassment if her address and other details are made public.

Continue reading “A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More”