Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter

Photos from a site journal for the removal of an “obstruction” encampment inside a small forested area in MLK Memorial Park

A presentation by the Human Services Department on the latest quarterly report from the Navigation Team, which showed that 96 percent of encampment removals are now occurring with no advance notice or outreach, was derailed almost immediately this afternoon, as city council members objected to the premise of a presentation touting the team’s success. The Navigation Team is a 38-member group of police and Human Services Department staffers that removes encampments.

No sooner had Navigation Team director Tara Beck told the council, cheerfully, that “every person the Navigation Team engages with is offered shelter,” than council member Kshama Sawant interrupted, saying, “I just cannot wrap my head around how out of touch this sort of bureaucratic presentation is.” Her colleague Teresa Mosqueda chimed in: “We’re having a hard time accepting that statement” that everyone is offered shelter. As the Navigation Team’s own report makes clear, just 24 percent of people the Navigation Team speaks to, or “contacts,” during encampment removals receive shelter referrals.

Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Navigation Team director Tara Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been working with encampment residents told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients.”

As I reported yesterday, the number of those people who actually go to shelter (as opposed to verbally accepting a referral in the middle of a chaotic and traumatic situation), fewer than 23 percent actually report to shelter within two days—a number that works out to just 6 percent of those contacted by the Navigation Team, or 45 people over a three-month period. Johnson suggested that the number would be higher if the people who went to shelter after 7 or 14 days elapsed were included, prompting Sawant to remark that the point of referring people somewhere when their encampment is removed is to get them sheltered right away, not weeks later. “What happens in… those [48] hours could be devastating to them. I feel like we have to at least make an attempt to not have a cavalier approach to this,” Sawant said.

The presenters—who, in addition to Johnson and Beck, included Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson—seemed to be caught flat-footed by the council’s barrage of questions, attempting to stick to a presentation that painted a sunny picture of the Navigation Team’s work. Beck referred repeatedly to efforts by Navigation Team field coordinators and system navigators (the two in-house outreach workers who took over when the city’s outreach partner, REACH, disengaged from the team last year) to “get to yes” with people living in encampments who were reluctant to “accept” offers of shelter, suggesting a level of sustained outreach that homeless service providers, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly said the team is not providing.

As it happens, that sweep in Martin Luther King Memorial Park occurred on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a day that the Navigation Team takes off. On the team’s internal encampment removal schedule, the holiday is notated with an inspirational quote: “Injustice anywhere is an injustice to people everywhere.”

Again and again, council members questioned the staffers’ claim that the Navigation Team offers shelter, storage, and assistance to everyone living in encampments—pointing out, for example, that the team often removes encampments that are obviously occupied without recording any “contacts” with any of the people living there at all. “How can you say that you are offering people shelter when 96 percent of encampment removals are exempt from prior notice?,” Mosqueda said. In response, Beck clarified: When she said that the Navigation Team offers shelter and services to everyone, she was only referring to traditional, 72-hour removals—which now make up just 4 percent of the Navigation Team’s work.

During one such removal—the clearing of a large encampment at South Dearborn Street and I-5—Beck said that all 40 or so encampment residents were offered shelter, but just 10 accepted. “Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been connecting people living there with emergency clothing, food, and medical care told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients,” according to an email obtained through a records request.

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“Case workers from various organizations have poured their energy into working together to provide assistance for folks living in that space,” the letter, from a case worker who is no longer with REACH, said. “All of this effort, all of the progress (however minimal it may appear) clients at [the Dearborn] Cloverleaf have made will be lost.”

here is a perverse incentive for HSD to continue calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, in the commonly understood meaning of that term, and to keep clearing encampments where they know people will either be absent or will not accept their offers of shelter. If the Navigation Team had a higher success rate, the system would quickly run out of beds to accept all their referrals. On an average night, according to the Navigation Team’s report, there are about 12 beds available among the ones set aside for Navigation Team referrals. (This point was not clear in the presentation or report, but a spokesman for HSD said this is what the number represents.) Half of these are in basic shelters where people sleep crowded together in bunks or on the floor—the type of shelter people who live in tents are the least likely to accept. Fundamentally, the system only “works” because most people don’t take shelter; if they did, the system would break down.

This would seem to suggest that the city needs to build more of the kinds of shelter people are likely to accept, such as tiny house villages, but Johnson said this would create another problem: “If we built enough shelter, we would then have another bottleneck, which would be at the front door of housing. You will never hear me say ‘let’s not build enough shelter,'” he continued, but it does move the goalposts in a way.” If we believe that shelter is better than living on the street, however, “moving the goalposts” even a little would still mean fewer people living, and dying, on sidewalks and in parks across the city. Continue reading “Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter”

Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever

1. Seattle Police Department Lt. Sina Ebinger, the Navigation Team leader who ordered a private trash contractor to haul away items from her house earlier this month, has reportedly been reassigned to other duties while the Office of Police Accountability conducts an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Sili Kalepo, the field coordinator who reportedly oversaw the trash pickup at Ebinger’s house, has reportedly been put on administrative leave by the Human Services Department.

SPD spokesman Patrick Michaud said the department isn’t “going to have any further comment on this investigation until it is complete” and suggested I could find out Lt. Ebinger’s current employment status with the department by filing a public disclosure request, which I have done. A spokesman for HSD said he couldn’t provide any details on an ongoing investigation but confirmed that Kalepo’s conduct is under review.

2. The Navigation Team’s encampment removal practices will come under scrutiny from the council’s special committee on homelessness Wednesday, when HSD director Jason Johnson and team director Tara Beck present a report responding to a number of council questions, including how the Navigation Team determines that an encampment is an “obstruction” that must be removed right away and how the team plans to increase the number of displaced encampment residents who actually show up to shelter. (These quarterly reports, which always cover a different set of questions, are required under a budget proviso adopted several years back.)

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has moved away from providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments—the “navigation” part of the equation—to a model where encampments are routinely designated as “obstructions” and removed without warning.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way.

The latest quarterly report confirms the continued escalation of this trend, noting that in the last three months of 2019, the team provided the once-standard 72 hours’ notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. Put another way, the Navigation Team deemed 96 percent of the encampments it removed in 2019 to be exempt from the once-standard outreach and notification rules adopted in 2017. At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier.

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These numbers only account for encampments removed by the Navigation Team; as I’ve reported, some police officers have also been trained to remove encampments directly, without providing outreach or shelter referrals; during a three-month period last year, police authorized to remove encampments reported 515 “interactions” with people living in unsanctioned encampments, and made just nine referrals to shelter.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way. Citing the definition of “obstruction” from the city’s rules on unauthorized encampments, which includes “people, tents, personal property, garbage, debris or other objects related to an encampment that: are in a City park or on a public sidewalk,” the Navigation Team’s report argues: “Each of the items in the list above stand independently from one another, meaning only one statement needs to be true for an encampment to qualify as an obstruction.” As I’ve reported, this rule has already been interpreted broadly; for example, one encampment slated for removal last year was located down a steep, dangerous slope inside a grove of trees far away from any public path.

Only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter.

The Navigation Team did not respond to the council’s request for detailed information about each “obstruction” that justified an encampment removal. Instead, it provided a list of locations where “obstruction” encampments were removed, along with the number of “contacts” the team made at each encampment in the weeks before removing it. What’s most notable about this list is that the “contacts” column is a sea of “N/A”s—”not applicable,” meaning that the team removed tents, trash and personal property without talking to anyone who lived on-site at all.

When the Navigation Team did make contacts, the report shows, fewer than one in four accepted referrals to shelter, and of those, fewer than one in four actually showed up at the shelter to which they were referred. Put another way, only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter. This contrasts sharply with HSD’s own “performance-based contracting” standards for other outreach providers, who must refer at least 60 percent of their clients to shelter. According to the central staff memo, “There is no data to indicate that the Navigation Team’s effectiveness in connecting people with shelter improved” in the past quarter. Continue reading “Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever”

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

Trash piled up for pickup at an encampment next to I-5.

Seattle Police Department Lieutenant Sina Ebinger, the SPD lead for the city’s encampment-clearing Navigation Team, directed Cascadia Cleaning and Removal, a city contractor that removes trash from encampment sites, to haul away bulky items from her house over the weekend of February 8-9, the C Is for Crank has learned. According to several sources, Lt. Ebinger asked Cascadia staffers to pick up some large items from her house because it was “on the way” to where they were going.

In a statement, the Human Services Department said, “The Human Services Department (HSD) and Navigation Team leadership are aware of an alleged incident involving two HSD and SPD Navigation Team members. Within hours of becoming aware of the incident, HSD notified SPD, which forwarded the matter to the Office of Police Accountability to review. In addition, HSD Human Resources will be reviewing the matter to ensure all proper protocols and policies are in place.”

“The OPA will be responsible for determining if any policy violations occurred and will provide any disciplinary recommendations to Chief Best.”—SPD

Separately, an SPD spokesman said that “following Seattle Police Department policy, we have forwarded the alleged incident to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for further review. The OPA will be responsible for determining if any policy violations occurred and will provide any disciplinary recommendations to Chief Best. Until that time we will not have further comment.”

OPA has confirmed that a complaint was filed about the incident. Anne Bettesworth, OPA’s deputy director of public affairs, says the police-accountability agency is “conducting a preliminary investigation” into the incident, but said she couldn’t comment further on the open case.

Last year, the Navigation Team expanded to seven-day operations, allowing the team to post 72-hour removal notices and clear trash on weekends. The amount of trash the Navigation Team picks up each quarter is one of the performance metrics it reports to the city council; more “tonnage,” under this metric, means better performance.

HSD would not say whether Lt. Ebinger remained on the Navigation Team, and did not specify what items Ebinger had Cascadia haul away from her home.

Cascadia is one of eight companies the city contracts with to pick up garbage, bulky items, and hazardous materials at homeless encampments throughout the city; according to their most recent contract, the city pays Cascadia $80 per worker, per hour, for encampment trash removal.

The Navigation Team’s work does not include picking up personal household trash from the homes of team members. Lt. Ebinger’s alleged improper use of city encampment cleanup resources could fuel criticism that the Navigation Team is insensitive to the gravity of its work, which involves removing homeless encampments, disposing of trash and personal items, and informing encampment residents about available shelter beds. Mayor Jenny Durkan has expanded the Navigation Team every year she has been in office, often over the objections of homeless advocates, who say the team does little more than move homeless people from place to place without providing viable alternatives to sleeping outdoors.

HSD would not say whether Lt. Ebinger remained on the Navigation Team, and did not specify what items Ebinger had Cascadia haul away from her home. Cascadia did not respond to a request for comment.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

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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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

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”

Biometric Scans for Homeless Shelter Clients Out, Digital IDs In?

Visual representations of blockchain are hard, OK? At least it’s not an image of a Bitcoin. Photo via Pixabay

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office confirms that the city will not move forward with biometric scanning of homeless clients seeking shelter and services, after the Human Services Department recommended against the idea in an internal memo. Durkan first asked HSD to look at tracking homeless “customers” using their unique biometric markers, such as fingerprints, last year, as a way of creating “efficiencies” and eliminating the need for clients to keep track of personal documents or scan cards.

“Mayor Durkan believes that streamlining ways for our neighbors experiencing homelessness to securely maintain their personal documents needed to access services is one of the ways we can better serve this vulnerable population, so she asked HSD to evaluate ways to accomplish these goals,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says. “With her extensive background working on privacy and security issues, Mayor Durkan understands the need for deep collaboration before crafting policies that will impact communities.

With that decision made, Durkan’s office also released the full memo, which her office previously refused to provide in response to a records request I filed last year. The memo pushes back (gently) against the idea that biometrics are a superior alternative to scan cards—noting, for example, that people don’t actually lose scan cards nearly as often as the city assumed they would. “While there was concern that lost cards would be an issue, most programs have reported that it is not a significant barrier to utilizing the system and loss does not occur as often as anticipated,” the memo says.

More details that were not previously available:

Switching from scan cards to biometric scanners, such as fingerprint readers, would be expensive. According to the memo, “the cost to switch to biometric finger imaging would include upfront costs of about $100,000 for the server, about $2,000- $5,000 per shelter for hardware and an annual maintenance fee,” compared to the $84,500 it cost to set up the scan card system, plus about $1,200 in one-time costs borne by programs that use the scan cards.

“Conversion to biometrics would require a significant up-front cost as well as ongoing maintenance fees, while the scan card technology has already been paid for and the on-going costs are minimal,” the memo says.

Biometric technology requires partnering with private companies that may not always cooperate with the city’s demands. San Francisco, the memo says, is about to discontinue fingerprint scanning and end its partnership with a company called Bitfocus because of the company’s “refusal to adapt their [Homeless Management Information System] platform to interface with the scan technology. SF’s workaround was to link the finger imaging data to a separate data base, which is extremely cumbersome and prone to errors leading to minimal use of the technology in most programs,” the memo says. HMIS is the system the county uses to keep track of who clients are and which services they are using; one of the justifications for biometrics is that it helps cities eliminate problems with duplicate data.

Instead of biometrics, the city may consider non-biometric digital IDs, which allow homeless service providers to access all of a person’s documents at once using a password provided by the person.

An earlier memo on biometrics produced by HSD staff recommended that the city consider low-tech solutions such as expanding the amount of space available for check-in at shelters, remove or reduce ID requirements, and asking shelter workers and clients for their suggestions to improve the check-in process before.

Instead, the final memo recommends that the city look into other high-tech tracking solutions such as digital IDs secured with blockchain technology. The city of Austin, the memo notes, has been experimenting with digital IDs for homeless clients.

The final memo to the mayor’s office also omits some of the concerns included in the earlier memo, such as the fact that “Some people regard biometrics as unnecessary surveillance tools and oversimplified, automated methods that objectify and separate groups of already marginalized people,” and that “use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people.'”

The early memo raised similar concerns about digital IDs, saying that Austin appears to be moving away from this technology. “Early reports have stated that use of this technology has resulted in significant barriers and specifically deters undocumented clients and clients with psychosis from using those services associated with the technology,” the document says.

The newly released memo identifies just two “challenges” with implementing digital IDs, as opposed to biometrics: “Authenticating identity for someone with no existing ID is time consuming to obtain initial records to load into the system,” and “The technological and human capacity to develop, implement, and maintain a digital solution will require resources.” The “challenges” listed for biometrics include the fact that “[a]dvocates may fight implementation” and the potential that fingerprint scans could require a review under the city’s surveillance ordinance.

“Lateral Transfers” at HSD, Nextdoor Comes to Cops’ Phones, Council Staff Unionizes, and More

1. Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson told the council last week that the existing Homelessness Strategy and Investments Division, which runs the city’s day-to-day work on homelessness and will mostly be subsumed into the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority next year, is “a division of a little over 30 people.”

But a comparison of the agency’s organizational chart—which, indeed, includes more than 30 positions—and a separately compiled list of employees currently on staff shows that the true number is much smaller because people are leaving and not being replaced. In reality, the division appears to have fewer than two dozen employees left, and many of those are on loan from other divisions or departments, are temporary employees, or have given their notice.

The department has been slow to give staffers in the homelessness division clear direction on whether they will have jobs in the new regional authority, or elsewhere in the city, which could be contributing to the high rate of departures.

Last week, Johnson told HSI staffers in a memo that “in no way should be considered a layoff notification” that they would be eligible for “lateral transfers” to other HSD divisions, a new option that does away with the usual byzantine seniority-based “bumping” process. (Basically, if you get a layoff notice but have seniority over someone else with your position in another division, you can “bump” that person out of their job.) Under the new process, any time a job comes open in HSD, it will be held open for people in the homelessness division who want to transfer, which will happen after January 1, 2021, when the RHA officially replaces HSI.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

By effectively promising jobs to every homelessness division worker who sticks around, HSD could theoretically stem the exodus from the department.

“The Lateral Transfer strategy does not guarantee a placement for every HSI permanent employee,” Johnson wrote. “However, after extensive and 1 on 1 conversations with existing staff and extensive analysis of current and future job opening across HSD, we believe most staff that are interested in staying at HSD will be placed—should they desire to pursue this option.”

Council members have expressed frustration publicly that HSD has not been forthcoming about how many employees will lose their jobs in the upcoming transfer. Judging from the number of people who have left the department or who have reportedly put in their notice in recent weeks, they aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

2. The city’s widely emulated Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, whose 2020 funding remains in limbo pending a consultant’s review of the program, is a law enforcement program that’s categorized by the city as a homelessness intervention, even though its main goal is reducing recidivism among low-level offenders, not getting its clients housed. Only about 70 percent of LEAD’s clients are homeless, and most of them score low on the county’s standard housing assessment, making then virtually ineligible for most housing when units do become available.

The city has decided to address this issue, which LEAD has brought up year after year, by moving LEAD next year to the division of Youth and Family Empowerment, which “supports positive youth and family development through strategic investments in community safety, youth employment opportunities, mentoring and educational supports, affordable living, family support, food and nutrition, and behavioral and mental health programs.” Continue reading ““Lateral Transfers” at HSD, Nextdoor Comes to Cops’ Phones, Council Staff Unionizes, and More”

Involuntary Treatment Bill, Modeled on California Law, to be Resurrected Next Session

Rep. Steve O’Ban, R-28

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

A state senate bill aimed at taking people with severe behavioral health issues off the street and putting them into involuntary treatment is off the table for this year, but its sponsor, Tacoma Republican Steve O’Ban (R-28) says he plans to resurrect it next session, because the problem of untreated mental illness and addiction isn’t going away.

“The reason for this bill is really the parents who have these kids … who devolve into a worse and worse condition and by the nature of their condition, they don’t think they need care,” O’Ban says. Under current law, people can only be detained and put under guardianship if a court determines that they’re incapacitated by a “mental disorder” and pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

O’Ban’s proposal would allow judges in three counties—King, Pierce, and Snohomish—to appoint executors for people who have been involuntarily held for psychiatric evaluation five or more times in a 12-month period under the state Involuntary Treatment Act. That law allows people to be held in psychiatric hospitals (or emergency rooms if no psychiatric beds are available) for up to 180 days if a judge determines that they are incapacitated by mental illness. The proposed new involuntary guardianship, or “executorship,” would last one year unless the executor filed for an extension.

The program is modeled on a similar set of bills that passed in California in 2018 and 2019, which authorized three counties—San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—to create a new “conservatorship” program for people with both severe mental illness and addiction. California state senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who sponsored both bills, says his legislation is intended to address “a very small percentage of homeless people … who are severely debilitated and not capable of accepting voluntary services.”

“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services.” – State Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28)

Wiener says the new California laws create a “very narrow conservatorship to reach this small population so that we can save their lives. It is incredibly inhumane, and certainly not progressive, to allow people to die on the streets.” He estimates that the legislation would apply to as many as 100 people in San Francisco, but advocates who opposed the bill say the number is probably much smaller.

O’Ban’s bill, in contrast, would initially be limited to 10 people in each county.  Patients placed under executorship would cede most of their legal rights to a “court appointed resource officer,” or CARE officer, including the right to refuse treatment or choose their own medical providers, the right to decide where to live, and the right “to make decisions regarding social aspects of life,” according to a staff analysis of the legislation.

“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services,” O’Ban says.

At a hearing on the bill earlier this month, parents whose kids had died on the streets due to lack of housing and treatment testified that if the law had been in place when they were trying to get help for their children, they might still be alive today. Jerri Clark, the founder of Mothers of the Mentally Ill, told the committee that her son, who died last year at the age of 23, “cycled through hospitals that kept him just long enough that he wasn’t dangerous anymore” before releasing him.

“If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars.” – Jen Flory, Western Center on Law and Poverty

But critics of the legislation, including advocates for people with disabilities and people who have struggled with mental illness themselves, say that taking away people’s civil rights is inhumane and doesn’t solve the underlying issues: An acute lack of funding for treatment, housing, and intensive case management.

“We do have concerns that adding another layer of legal process to compel people into care, rather than adding new treatment or housing resources, will mainly restrict civil liberties while not actually getting to the desired outcomes,” the Department of Community and Health Services said in a statement about the bill. “Instead of adding another layer of court involvement, we think a middle of the road approach – focusing on expanding flexible, community-based intensive services and added supportive housing resources – will more effectively meet the needs of this population.”

Laura Van Tosh, a behavioral health care advocate who testified against the bill, says the fact that people are involuntarily committed again and again “points to a problem that has nothing to do with people’s mental health. How can people be committed that many times in one year and nobody has ever talked about why the system didn’t work well enough the first time?” She says the current involuntary commitment system “is like going to a restaurant and getting E. coli over and over again, and never figuring out that you should go to a different restaurant.”

California’s conservatorship law requires treatment and housing to be available before people can be placed under conservatorship, although opponents say cities may meet this requirement by simply putting people in the new program at the front of the line for scarce treatment and services. “San Francisco will not conserve people unless they have somewhere to place them,” Wiener says. “In San Francisco, we’re expanding our mental health bed capacity and our shelter bed capacity, we’re building more supportive housing, but it’s definitely a challenge.”

Similarly, O’Ban’s bill says that a county could only implement the program if there are sufficient resources, including mental health treatment and housing, to serve potential clients. The loopholes will likely be the same, if a version of O’Ban’s bill passes in the future, as those in places like San Francisco. There are always beds in Seattle for some people—the question is who gets priority.

Jen Flory, a policy analyst at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, says that by putting people in involuntary treatment and stripping them of their rights, “we’re kind of skipping from A to Z. If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars being brought to psych emergency [wards]. And at the end of this journey, they’re like, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong with you and we need to force this care on you.’”

David Lord, the public policy director for Disability Rights Washington, says that before the state authorizes counties to appoint guardians for people struggling with mental illness and addiction, they should actually fund the services O’Ban’s bill enumerates, which include supportive community housing, outpatient counseling and treatment, peer support services, and substance use treatment.

“If you provide services, make them available, and do it in a way that is attractive to people, they’re much more likely to accept those services than if you try to force them,” Lord says.

Neither California’s law, nor O’Ban’s proposal, specifically focuses on people experiencing homelessness. But the subtext of both bills is that they will help put people exhibiting visible symptoms of severe mental illness and addiction—shouting, acting out, and behaving in ways that make other people uncomfortable—out of sight.

In our conversation, O’Ban referred to the 100 “prolific offenders” identified in a report by former Seattle City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay as a group that might be eligible for executorships under his proposal. And he acknowledged that while his bill is “not exclusively for those who are homeless, I think many of the people who are eligible would be” homeless.

“I can tell you that there are familiar faces, frequent flyers, people who are well-known to the law enforcement community and in emergency rooms,” O’Ban says. “If you start focusing on that population, by identifying the top 100 who are heavily utilizing all those …. you would save the system literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” And “clean up” downtown streets in the process.

I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees

Trees currently cover between 28 and 33 percent of Seattle’s land, making us one of the nation’s greenest cities. But advocates for a new, stronger tree protection ordinance believe the city should go further to protect its canopy, by restricting tree removal in ways that could prevent new housing development in the single-family neighborhoods where most of Seattle’s large trees are located. In doing so, they have insisted that the only way to mitigate climate change is to take actions that prevent development in their exclusive neighborhoods—a literal example of failing to see the forest for the trees.

The city is currently considering amendments to the city’s existing tree protection ordinance that would add new protections for significant trees, create a “fee in lieu” of preserving specific trees that would fund new tree plantings elsewhere, and require property owners to replace any tree they remove that’s more than six inches in diameter, among other new rules. Advocates want the city to go further, by reducing the maximum size and number of trees that can be removed from vacant lots, for redevelopment, and by individual homeowners.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

One impact of greater tree protections would likely be less development in areas where density is allowed, including both urban villages (which were just modestly expanded under the Mandatory Housing Affordability act) and single-family areas where homeowners just gained the ability to build auxiliary units, including backyard cottages. Trees, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in areas of Seattle that are wealthy and white, and scarce in areas that are not; a 2016 city analysis found that in “census tracts with high numbers of people of color, tree canopy is as low as 11% while in areas with not many people of color there is 55% canopy cover.”

Given that disparity, it was hardly surprising that the people who showed up at city hall this morning to advocate for more stringent tree protections/development restrictions were people who identified themselves as residents of neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Ballard, and North Seattle. One by one, they came up to make their case. A group was given extra time to sing a song decrying development, and then a member of that group, dressed up as a tree, shouted “I am a magnificent tree! … Every tree counts, especially us mature trees!” into the microphone. A man said developers who were building “million-dollar townhouses and large apartment buildings” in his neighborhood probably go home to neighborhoods with “very nice trees.” A woman said that development and the resultant tree removal is destroying “opportunities for tire swings, hammocks, tree climbing, playing with sticks, cool spots to place your picnic blanket [and] piles of leaves to jump into.” And a man asked the council if they had thought about drivers, asking rhetorically, “When it’s hot, where do you want to park?” and argued that “you need the trees” to keep cars cool.

Seattle could mandate that every tree removed from a single-family lot be replaced by one in public right-of-way currently used for parking, greening the streets that are used by everybody rather than just private backyards.

All this absurdity was just the precursor for what will likely be a lengthy debate over the proposed new tree protections. None of the proposals are especially unreasonable on their face. But it would be a shame if, taken together, they made it harder to build housing for the people that are moving here, the people who already live here, and the people who are being driven out by housing scarcity. Continue reading “I Am a Homeowner, I Speak for the Trees”

Morning Crank: “Please Be Respectful of the Art”

Photo by Tim Harris

1. The recent shooting at Third and Pine in downtown Seattle was a tragedy, but it has also served as an opportunity: For right-wing radio hosts chasing the latest inflammatory headline, for TV newscasters eager to keep frightened viewers in their chairs, and for law-and-order advocates, who used the violence as a justification to renew calls for more “active” policing of people suspected of low-level criminal activity downtown.

Late last October, the Downtown Seattle Association, which is responsible for managing Westlake Park, put up signs instructing people not to sit or lie on the stairs, pink granite slabs, fountain, and other sculptures that make up the “Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills” installation that spreads across the triangular park.

The sculptures were never intended to be static objects for reverence and observation from a distance.

The signs read: “Maki’s Art: Do not sit or lay on sculptures. Created by Robert Maki with landscape architect Robert Hanna in 1988, Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills is a series of sculptures made specifically for Westlake Park. The seven works include a granite column and six rectangular structures meant to represent the geography of Seattle. … Please be respectful of the art and do not sit or lay on the structures.” 

However, the sculptures were never intended to be static objects for reverence and observation from a distance. The seven sculptural elements, which include the “water wall” fountain at the northwest corner of the park, symbolize the seven hills of Seattle. According to a 1995 Seattle Times article praising the sculpture as a great example of public art, “Tourists, pamphleteers, chess-players, downtown workers and homeless folks share the space, and on a sunny afternoon you can almost feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s clubhouse or living room. A 24-foot-high rectangular arch at the north end of the square has become Seattle’s de facto Speaker’s Corner, while the pink granite cubes/columns at the south end — representing Seattle’s seven hills — serve as seats for other activities.”

In a statement, the DSA said that they had “taken action to update the language on our signage about the Seven Hills sculpture in Westlake Park, asking that park patrons be respectful of the art. … We provide ample seating within Westlake Park for all to use, as our goal with this space is to ensure it’s a park for everyone to enjoy.”

Photo by Tim Harris

Last week, the DSA wrote a letter asserting that Third Avenue “has been taken over by criminal activity, including drug dealing, gang warfare, rampant retail theft, daily overdoses, acts of violence, sexual assaults and robberies” and demanding “an aggressive safety strategy for downtown.” The shooting apparently occurred after a dispute outside the McDonald’s at Third and Pine, an area that is frequently described as an “open air drug market:; however, there is no specific evidence yet that it was related to “gang warfare” or drug dealing. 

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

At a meeting of the city council’s transportation committee last week, DSA transportation policy director Emily Mannetti suggested that people will no longer “try transit or choose walking and biking if they feel like they could be a victim of violent crime just by coming and going” through downtown Seattle.

Maki’s daughter, the artist Andrea Maki, denounced the DSA’s directive on Facebook as “absolutely unacceptable and antithetical to the artwork, space, design and intent of Westlake Park” and “utterly disrespectful of the art and sculptor. … Interaction with the public and functionality are inherent, hence this signage, the garbage cans and fencing speak to absolute ignorance.” (Andrea Maki did not respond to a message seeking comment.)

The city of Seattle bans people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks or camping in downtown parks, but Real Change director Tim Harris, who posted about the signs on Facebook, said “it would be a reach” to interpret the ordinance as banning people from sitting on the bench-height granite sculptures.

2. A CityClub “Civic Cocktail” event last Wednesday featuring the four new city council focused primarily on downtown safety, with a majority of the questions from moderator Joni Balter and one of her two co-moderators, KING 5 reporter Chris Daniels, centering on whether there are enough police downtown and whether the city is doing enough to eliminate drugs and crime in the area. (As Crosscut has reported, the Seattle Police Department increased patrols in downtown Seattle by thousands of hours in the past year—one reason police were able to get to the scene of the shooting almost immediately.)

Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, said “we do need more police officers” to make people feel safe downtown, and added that the city is failing to prosecute enough people for misdemeanor crimes. (Felony crimes are handled by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg). Tammy Morales, who represents southeast Seattle, said the city needs to look upstream at “underinvest[ment] in neighborhoods” like those in District 2, which are more diverse and less wealthy than other parts of the city. And Lewis, who has already suggested opening a new storefront mini-precinct near Third and Pine, elaborated on the idea, saying that the area is “an ecosystem that has a McDonald’s, a check cashing place, and a smoke shop, so we need to provide into this ecosystem… more options for folks at Third and Pine who need services.”

3. At the full council meeting this afternoon, Lewis plans to propose an amendment to council member Kshama Sawant’s that could ameliorate concerns from landlords who say they can’t afford to go without income from nonpaying tenants five months out of the year. (The legislation would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants between November 1 through April 1, or nearly half the year.) The amendment would create a mitigation fund that low-income tenants and providers of low-income housing could access to pay rent during those months if the tenant would otherwise be evicted. Pedersen has also proposed an amendment to the bill, which would limit the eviction ban to landlords who own more than four units of housing.