Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City

The lens of crisis shifts so quickly now that it can be hard to keep everything in our heads at once. Last week, the city held a five-and-a-half-hour hearing on the injustice of our city’s policy toward its homeless residents, which includes pushing them from place to place if they do not “accept” a specific shelter bed on a specific day—a one-size-fits-all policy that is especially inept at responding to the conditions of vulnerable people in the middle of a nationwide public health crisis.

Over the weekend and today, and almost certainly tomorrow and the rest of the week as well, the city and nation have focused our attention on another crisis that, like the criminalization of homelessness, has racism and dehumanization at its core: Police violence against black and brown Americans.

The cameras don’t look away, even when political leaders do.

The protests against the murder of George Floyd are multifaceted and raise real questions about whether cities have the right to dictate the “proper” way to protest, as well as legitimate concerns that a movement for justice (“peaceful,” as that term is defined by law enforcement, or not) has been hijacked by outside forces on the right or left. But they also may be an inflection point (it seems far too optimistic to talk of turning points) in the debate over the role of police in Seattle and other cities, and to what extent cities should allow police to act with impunity, and unquestioned, for behavior that any rational person would consider unreasonable: Putting a knee on a young man’s neck, or spraying mace indiscriminately into a mostly peaceful crowd, or covering up badge numbers with rubber tape on the grounds that it is an inviolable “tradition.”

This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”

This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan and her police chief, Carmen Best (and fire chief Harold Scoggins, who always looks and sounds like he knows he isn’t going to be quoted at these things) stood up and intoned the same lines they have been reciting all weekend, repeated with a bit more fervor and flourish. A protest by “peaceful people” of color and allies got hijacked by outside forces, “young white men,” probably right-wing or perhaps left-wing, “bent on destruction and chaos,” with “nothing but ill intent” in their hearts. (The phrase “ill intent” was repeated so often that it started to sound more like a mantra than a talking point.) The nightly curfews, initially imposed with less than 15 minutes’ notice, are meant to “take the lawful people off the street” and are necessary, night after night, to “protect public health and safety.” Looting, rioting, fighting back when police throw tear gas canisters and flash bangs indiscriminately into crowds: “This is not what people trying to express their opinions do,” Best said. “This is what criminals do. So we have to differentiate between the two.”

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As the protests have stretched into their second week, the rhetoric from the mayor’s office and the police department has grown more pitched and baroque. This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”

Mourning bands, black bands that many officers placed over their badge numbers, making them harder to identify, had evolved from something people might not be aware of (“Google it,” Durkan said this weekend, helpfully spelling it out: “M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G bands”) to a tradition so hallowed and ingrained that it was actually offensive for the public to suggest that concealing badge numbers during a protest about police accountability might send the wrong message. Durkan, exasperated, insisted, “There was no attempt by anyone to cover badge numbers” and called the very existence of badge numbers on officers’ badges “a fallback and in some ways an unnecessary redundancy” to the first-initial, last name identification on officers’ name tags.

Herbold, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, was hardly the only council member who raised concerns about the behavior of police this week, or who will be demanding answers from the mayor and police chief about why police acted with such apparent indiscretion during protests against police violence. (One reasonable answer might be that they felt empowered to do so.)

Durkan even expressed surprise when a reporter asked about reports (described, videotaped and posted on social media by hundreds of witnesses for anyone to see) that officers had fired tear gas, flash grenades, and pepper spray indiscriminately into crowds that were mostly peaceful, saying that she would follow up with city council member Lisa Herbold, who had spoken earlier in the day about witnessing many such instances herself over the weekend. “I don’t know the facts of the case that she’s indicating… but we’ll reach out to the council member to find out what she’s concerned about,” Durkan said. Continue reading “Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City”

Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate

If you’re looking for a takeaway from this Wednesday’s nearly six-hour hearing on legislation that would place some limits on the city’s authority to displace homeless people from encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s this: Nothing is going to change. Representatives from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration made it abundantly clear, loudly and repeatedly, that the mayor does not consider policies governing encampment sweeps to be a matter that can be legislated under any circumstance, and that now is also not the time for discussing non-legislative solutions, such as changes to the administrative rules governing encampment sweeps in general.

Not that they would be likely to consider changes to those rules anyway—in the view of Durkan and her Human Services Department, the Multi-Disciplinary Administrative Rules, or MDARs, allow the Navigation Team to remove encampments without any prior notice, outreach, or offer of services in almost any circumstance involving one or more tents in a space that could theoretically be accessed by the public. Some of these encampments block sidewalks and entrances to public buildings; in non-pandemic times, these present a clear-cut case. But the Navigation Team also uses the “obstruction” exemption to remove tents tucked into remote areas of public parks, along unpaved, gravel-covered roadway shoulders, and in other areas that aren’t generally used by the public but are technically public spaces. In the fourth quarter of last year, 96 percent of encampment removals were exempt from notice requirements because the Navigation Team deemed them to be “obstructions.”

The mayor holds the cards here; because the proposal is emergency legislation, it requires not only seven council votes but her signature to go into effect.

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Senior deputy mayor Mike Fong began the executive branch’s assault on the legislation Wednesday by expressing incredulity that the city council was trying to prohibit the police from responding to crime in encampments, to prevent the public health department from addressing COVID outbreaks, and to make it impossible for private property owners to report people for trespassing. In fact, the legislation still allows sweeps in many circumstances, including threats to public health and public safety, and trespassing remains illegal.

Specifically, the bill, sponsored by council member Tammy Morales, defines the “extreme circumstances” the Durkan Administration alluded to when it “suspended” encampment removals in March, allowing sweeps when encampments are blocking sidewalk access or access to a building, when an encampment poses a public health or safety threat, or when an encampment poses a threat to infrastructure (for example, if people were lighting fires at the base of a bridge). The restrictions would end when Durkan declares the COVID-19 state of emergencybover, or at the end of the year, whichever comes first.

Deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller  followed up by claiming that since the beginning of the pandemic, t the Navigation Team had placed hundreds of people “into shelter.” In fact, by the Navigation Team’s own admission, only 29 percent of encampment residents who “accepted” referrals actually spent a night in shelter in the fourth quarter of last year. The Navigation Team says this percentage has increased dramatically during the pandemic, but the city has not provided information about how many people actually ended up in shelters after the last two sweeps in the International District, despite multiple requests.  While the Navigation Team gets exclusive access to some beds, shelters have been fuller than usual because of the pandemic, and the reason “new” beds become available is because people leave, not because they are housed.

Finally, police chief Carmen Best recited a litany of the worst things that SPD has ever uncovered at encampments, going back to 2017, including sex trafficking, a man eating a sandwich full of maggots, and a laundry list of illegal items, including “meth, heroin, pills, machetes, swords, stolen property, guns,” and knives. If we allow encampments to exist, Best was arguing, all these horrors will continue “under cover, so to speak, the cover of the tents.” If we sweep the encampments out of existence, those crimes will disappear. Get rid of the tents, and the people sitting around exhibiting grotesque signs of mental illness will be cured or disappear.

None of these arguments hold water. Most of the crimes Best was describing, including drug dealing, gun and knife violence, and sex trafficking, happen more frequently in homes and inside buildings than they do in encampments; it is not the type of structure or kind of community a person lives in that causes crime, and Best presented no evidence that people living in tents are either inherently more criminal or more likely to commit the kinds of crimes she listed than people living in houses, apartments, or yurts.

Moreover, as council members pointed out, displacing an entire community because a few people living in that community are committing crimes, including serious ones, does not make any of those people safer. In general, sweeping encampments leads to people being dispersed into the community, which is what happened last week And removing dozens of people over the crimes of a few is not an approach police take to crimes that occur in any other setting. Police carried out a drug sting earlier this month that involved arrests at four tents, an apartment, and a house. Notably, no one called for removing all the other tenants from the apartment building, or for demolishing the house and tossing its contents in a dump truck. But that is routinely what happens at encampments, and the city argues‚ as Best did on Wednesday, that it’s for the good of their “vulnerable” residents. Continue reading “Mayor’s Office Refuses to Budge on Encampment Removals as Nearly Six-Hour Meeting Ends in Stalemate”

COVID-19 Has Sparked Interest In Car-Free Streets. Will It Last?

This excerpt originally appeared at Huffington Post, where you can read the full version of this story.

Gordon Padelford, the founder and director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, can barely finish a thought without pointing out a toddler on a balance bike or a couple walking their dog in the middle of the road.

“I’ve never seen that before!” he exclaims as we take a walking tour of one of Seattle’s new “Stay Healthy Streets,” which the city has closed to most vehicle traffic so people can be outside while maintaining a safe social distance. One of the streets just happens to run right by his house.

“Three hours after it went in,” Padelford said, “two kids and a dad biked by, and I had never seen kids that young biking in the street. As soon as people were invited to use the street, they did.”

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All over the country, cities are closing down streets to car traffic and opening them up to people. It started with Oakland, where Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the city would close 74 miles to through traffic on April 10, and has spread across the country— to Portland, Oregon, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York and beyond.

While the details vary slightly, the basic idea is the same: Block off a street to everything other than local traffic with removable barriers, and hope that people walking, biking or rolling will show up.

In Seattle, where more than one-quarter of city streets lack sidewalks, roadways can double as battlegrounds. Mayor Jenny Durkan got off on the wrong foot with bike and pedestrian activists when she dramatically scaled back the city’s ambitious bike plan in 2019, leaving Seattle’s traditionally underserved south end without any direct bike connections to downtown. Durkan initially seemed tentative about the idea of street closures, starting off by temporarily closing just 2.5 miles of streets in April and adding a few miles over the next few weeks.

But by early May, Durkan announced that the city would restrict 20 miles permanently, winning praise from groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club.

As soon as people were invited to use the street, they did.”—Gordon Padelford, founder and director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Car traffic on major streets in Seattle declined 60% after Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued his stay-at-home order in mid-March. But the gradual end of pandemic restrictions, combined with new anti-crowding measures on buses and trains, could bring that number skyrocketing back. King County’s public transit agency, for example, recently limited its bus capacity to a maximum of 12 to 18 riders.

At the same time, the city is facing massive budget cuts exacerbated by the April discovery that the West Seattle Bridge connecting West Seattle to the rest of the city had suffered major damage and would be shut down. A replacement will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Finding other ways to get people around cheaply could soften the blow.

“Making aggressive investments in active transportation and walking and biking— that is going to be part of the city’s overall recovery strategy,” Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe said in an interview. “The type of investments we need to make are going to look different as people start to travel more. We need to look at every possible way to keep the city moving, and that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to jump in a car.”

Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps

Bundling up items to drag outside the police barricades during an encampment removal on South Weller Street last week.

More than six weeks after the Seattle-based Public Defender Association launched its Co-LEAD program in Burien, the diversion program has come home to Seattle and began serving five homeless clients last week. Co-LEAD provides hotel rooms, case management, and other basic supports to people experiencing homelessness who have been in the criminal justice system and lack legal options for making money during the COVID-19 pandemic. After launching the program in Burien in April, the PDA had hoped to enroll some of the people who were dispersed throughout the city during several recent encampment sweeps, but were unable to do so because the city moved ahead with the removals before Co-LEAD case workers could identify and enroll new participants.

Since announcing the “suspension” of encampment removals except in the most “extreme” circumstances, Mayor Jenny Durkan has overseen three major encampment sweeps, removing dozens of tents from three locations in Ballard and the International District. The latest two removals were last week.

The city says it did weeks of prior outreach at every encampment it has removed during the pandemic, a claim that some people living in the encampments contradicted. On its blog and in a series of bellicose Twitter posts, HSD said that 63 people were referred to shelter during two encampment removals last week, and claimed that “some campers admitted” to showing up from somewhere else on the morning of the sweep just to get shelter referrals. HSD has not responded to questions about how many of those people actually showed up at shelter, how many people simply dispersed before the morning of each sweep, and how many people who showed up at shelter are still indoors.

“Programs such as Co-Lead should be provided two weeks to offer motels to the homeless at South King; consequently, we are willing to allow the South King encampment removal to be delayed until Sunday, May 31st.” —Letter from Interim CDA, Chinese Information and Service Center, Friends of Little Saigon, SCIDPDA, CIDBIA, The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, APICAT, Kin On, and Helping Link/Mot Dau Noi to Mayor Jenny Durkan before two encampment removals in the Chinatown International District last week

Despite calls from advocates and the city council to move people living outdoors into individual rooms, as the CDC recommends, the Durkan Administration has continued moving people into mass shelters and tiny house villages, saying that people are more at risk living outdoors than they are living in congregate settings. (Generally speaking, the CDC disagrees.) People living at the Ballard Commons were removed on May 4; the camps on South King and South Weller Streets, in the International District, followed on May 20 and May 21, respectively.

Twice in a row, Co-LEAD has hoped to move at least some displaced encampment residents into blocks of hotel rooms it has reserved around the Seattle area, but has been unsuccessful.

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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.

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In Ballard, the PDA was unable to work out a deal with the city before the camp was swept.

In the International District, where LEAD again offered to enroll people in Co-LEAD and move them to hotels, the program actually had the support of neighbors who wanted the two encampments gone. In a letter to Durkan, nine organizations in the Chinatown International District, including Interim Community Development Association, asked the mayor to “bring all possible resources to bear to serve the needs of the people living unhoused on South King and South Weller, preferably sheltering these individuals in permanent or transitional housing, which includes motel/hotel/quarantine sites” before doing the sweeps.

Continue reading “Co-LEAD Allowed to Start Moving People from Seattle Streets Into Hotels, Too Late to Help Those Removed In Last Three Sweeps”

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.

Found: One City Shower Trailer, Not Quite Open, In Secluded Location With Minimal Foot Traffic

UPDATE: Seattle Public Utilities got in touch to say that, at some point between Friday (when I took and posted photos of the King Street trailer) and today, “SPU evaluated the trailer’s lower level location at King Street Station and determined that the upper plaza is a better location. It has since been moved and is serving clients.” A spokeswoman for the utility also said that the trailer was open and served five clients on Friday. The trailer was not open at 3:30pm, when the photo above was taken, despite the fact that its official hours of operation are 10am to 4pm. I’ve asked SPU which hours the trailer was open and will update this post when I heard back.

As I reported last week, the city has been renting two hygiene trailers from a California-based company called VIP restrooms for the last two months without deploying them to provide showers to people experiencing homelessness. The city’s estimated cost to operate both trailers is just under $500,000 a month, which would work out to around $500 a shower if the trailers were providing 16 showers a day (the city’s estimate for a trailer operating for eight hours, once cleanings and pump-out periods are factored in), seven days a week.

The day after my story ran, the city announced the trailers would start providing showers on Friday, May 22, at King Street station and, on a “roving” basis, at the Lake City Community Center and Seattle Center. Instead of the full-time schedule the city initially proposed, the King Street trailer will be open from 10-4, Monday to Friday, and the Lake City/Seattle Center “roving” trailer will be at Seattle Center “typically on Tuesdays and Wednesdays” and at Lake City on Saturdays and Sundays, also from 10 to 4. Cutting hours by one-quarter will also reduce the number of showers the trailers, which will be operated by Seattle Public Utilities, by a similar percentage each day.

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On Friday, I walked down to King Street Station to see the trailer in operation. Initially, I thought it wasn’t there. But after some searching, I found it, fenced off and not in operation, in a parking cul-de-sac down a set of stairs from the station entrance and not visible from any street. There was no signage at the station to indicate that showers were or would be available in the area.

In an March 20 memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan about the location of the trailers, SPU director Mami Hara and deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller wrote that the city had chosen Occidental Park for the Pioneer Square trailer “based on trends of where unsheltered people congregate in the downtown core.” Now it’s in an area that gets no foot traffic. Much like the four library restrooms that the city reopened earlier this month, these trailers may see low use without concerted efforts to advertise their existence.

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

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” Meeting May Be a Solo Affair

Council member Kshama Sawant’s rule-violating council committee meeting/online rally Thursday evening is looking more and more like it will be a solo affair: Tammy Morales, the co-sponsor of Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” legislation, will not attend.

Sawant decided to take up the legislation in her Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee in violation of council rules that say legislation can only be heard in the committee to which it was referred. (In this case, that’s the budget committee). She’s holding an online meeting on Thursday, which attorneys for the city and state say is a violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order barring online meetings on non-COVID matters. And her meeting will not have a quorum, which is a third violation: Council rules adopted this year require a minimum of three committee members to hold any committee meeting.

On Monday, Sawant rejected all these arguments, telling colleagues during the council’s weekly briefing that she considered them “legally unsupportable” and in violation of “common sense.”

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Sawant’s proposal would increase payroll taxes on the top-grossing 800 businesses in the city, raising an estimated $500 million a year for low-income housing. By borrowing from existing funds that are dedicated to other purposes, it would have also provided $200 million up front to pay for COVID-19 stimulus checks to low-income people. 

Although an emergency declaration by Gov. Jay Inslee’s bars online meetings on non-COVID matters, Sawant argued that her bill qualified as a response to the pandemic, because of the up-front payments and the fact that housing is an ongoing emergency. The city attorney and state attorney general disagreed, as did council president Lorena González, who took it off the council agenda until the governor lifts the order, budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, former assistant city attorney-turned-council member Andrew Lewis, and renters’ rights committee member Debora Juarez.

Morales’ office did not provide a reason for her decision not to participate in the hearing in Sawant’s committee, although the city attorney’s office has reportedly advised council members that participating in meetings that violate Inslee’s order could open them up to personal legal liability. Lewis and Mosqueda have both said publicly that they will not attend, and Juarez confirmed today that she won’t be there, either. Pedersen did not immediately respond to an email asking whether he will join the meeting, but even if he did—a long shot, since he opposes the underlying legislation—the committee would not have a quorum.

Sawant could decide to limit the legislation to the part that responds directly to the COVID emergency—the $200 million fund for immediate direct payments to low-income people, which would be funded by borrowing from the city against future tax proceeds. However, that would not allow for an ongoing tax after the crisis is over, which is the main point of the “tax Amazon” legislation.

There are two other plausible endgames. First, the council could take it up through the normal process once the governor lifts his order. Sawant is busy burning bridges left and right, accusing colleagues who are allies on this issue, like Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold, of worshiping at the altar of “big business,” so that possibility is dimming. Second, tax supporters could put the proposal up to a citywide vote. That would require them to gather signatures in person—or, as Kevin Schofield has pointed out, rewrite the city charter to allow online signatures, a move that would itself require a public vote.

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

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In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”