Some Questions for the City About its Progress on Homelessness

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After spending two hours listening to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray discuss homelessness with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at Seattle U last week, I came away impressed by Murray’s obvious evolution on some key issues related homelessness, including encampment sweeps, drug addiction, and the need for shelter that accommodates substance users.

After watching several of Murray’s department heads brief the council on the progress the city is making on several key issues related to homelessness, including encampment sweeps, needle disposal, and shelter that accommodates substance users, I just came away with a lot of questions.

Murray, who was joined onstage by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, journalist Joni Balter, and SU Master of Public Administration Director Larry Hubbell, expressed frustration at the state and federal government for “fail[ing] to come forward” to supplement the tens of millions the city spends on homelessness every year, and expressed frustration at the kind of complaints he hears from Seattle residents about homeless people in their neighborhoods. “I have heard from so many people that they know exactly who the homeless are and what their problem is and how to solve it,” Murray said. “The conversation [in Seattle] is so polarized, it worries me about our ability to [be a] model for our nation for how you deal with issues of poverty and inequality, and in particular, homelessness.”

Two days later, at a meeting of the council’s human services committee, representatives from several city departments delivered an update on the city’s progress toward building low-barrier shelters and dealing with unauthorized encampments that illustrated some of the challenges Murray was talking about. A 24/7 low-barrier shelter that was supposed to open last month still lacks a location and opening date; new, more humane encampment cleanup protocols remain a work in progress; and the city’s most visible response to the heroin epidemic so far has been the wholly inadequate placement of six needle collection boxes around the city.

Officials from the Human Services Department, Seattle Public Utilities, Finance and Administrative Services, and Murray’s office described the progress they’ve made responding to neighbors’ complaints about trash and needles, touting, among other initiatives, an “on-call” needle response system to ensure that when a neighbor calls to report a needle on public property, SPU will arrive to dispose of the needle within 24 hours. They also touted the work they’ve done to expedite trash pickup in and around encampments, which SPU deputy director Ken Snipes said has led neighbors to say things like “This is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it.”

But they left many questions unanswered—about the schedule for delayed initiatives, about what the city is doing to ensure that it doesn’t discard important belongings when it sweeps occupied encampments, and about what the city plans to do to improve safety not just for neighborhood residents upset by needles, but for people shooting up on park benches and in public bathrooms. Here are a few of the questions I would like to have heard Murray’s staffers address.

Why can’t the city force the state to pick up garbage on state-owned property?

As council member Tim Burgess pointed out, despite SPU’s best efforts to clean up trash and provide Dumpsters around encampments, there are still huge piles of trash and debris under bridges and beside overpasses around the city. “It’s frustrating that we have this accumulation of garbage and trash all over Seattle. … It’s not healthy, it’s not good for the city, and it certainly sends the wrong signals to the taxpayers as to how we spend their money,” Burgess said. Typically, the city responds to questions about trash under bridges by pointing out that most of those sites are owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and that was Snipes’ response yesterday, but Burgess wasn’t having it. “I’ve been hearing this for years: ‘Well, that’s WSDOT property,’  therefore we think we’re somehow paralyzed and can’t act.” If WSDOT won’t clean up messes on its property, Burgess said, then “we should issue citations to WSDOT.  It’s inside the city of Seattle. Our ordinances apply. Why do we take so long?”

Snipes’ response: A familiar refrain. “We’re reaching out and we’ve connected with them and we’re making some headway on a plan to address those areas.

Now that the Seattle Office for Civil Rights no longer oversees each encampment sweep, what is the city doing to ensure that the civil rights of people living outdoors aren’t being violated? 

Back in December, city council members learned that under the mayor’s (still unreleased but, according to Potter, “imminent”) new protocols for encampment sweeps, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights would no longer be monitoring encampment removals and making sure workers were complying with rules about notice and disposal of people’s possessions. A Seattle Times report last month detailed many apparent violations of existing protocols for encampment removal, and described several sweeps that were shut down after SOCR monitors observed violations of the rules.

In the future, FAS director Chris Potter said, SOCR will “continue to monitor the [sweeps] in an auditing capacity—they’ll come out in the field from time to time, and have access, like everyone else to all the information [about specific sweeps] on our external website,” including photos of specific encampments before and after the city enters, conditions at sites chosen for sweeps, and a general sense of what happened to the people living there. (When council member Sally Bagshaw asked specifically if the city’s new encampment information website would include details about outcomes for the individual people displaced by sweeps, Potter demurred, saying only that there would be a “ramp-up period” to get the new protocols in place before the city could attempt to provide more detailed information about the people being swept up in the sweeps.)

The departments’ vague answers about what role the civil rights office will play in monitoring encampment sweeps in the future prompted council member Mike O’Brien to say, “It is going to require a certain level of independence [for the civil rights office] and a willingness to highlight where there’s room to improvement.

“These departments all report to the mayor, and so—not to put words in the mayor’s mouth, but none of us want to be embarrassed. So I want to make sure that the civil rights department will be able to be somewhat independent and make clear statements when the city makes mistakes.”

needle-disposal-map

Why doesn’t the city put sharps containers in more public places, particularly places that are actually convenient to injection-drug users?

It’s been three months since the mayor announced plans to place ten new needle-disposal boxes around the city. To date, the city has added a total of six new sharps containers, distributed across the city from Mineral Springs Park in far North Seattle to the center median at 27th and Cheasty in Beacon Hill. This model requires injection-drug users (who, let’s be clear, cluster in places like Ballard, Capitol Hill, and Belltown that are nowhere near the new disposal sites) to schlep to one of the six designated locations to dispose of dirty needles. If the goal is to get drug users to stop leaving their needles in restroom trash cans and public parks, wouldn’t it make more sense to make sharps containers ubiquitous, at least in places (like libraries and parks) where drug users tend to congregate?

Granted, the sharps containers are getting used—Snipes said the  SPU contractors who pick up the boxes report that they’re “almost full”—but the demand for safe disposal sites clearly exceeds the supply. (For example, Snipes said SPU’s rapid-response needle team had picked up 1,243 individual needles over the last two months.)  On balance, it seems that giving drug users an easy way to safely dispose of needles on site would be a saner approach than the current model, which is to deny users a place to dispose of sharps and then deploy an army of on-call SPU workers to drive  around the city plucking individual needles off the ground.

But seriously, what’s the holdup with the Navigation Center?

The Navigation Center—a 24/7 low-barrier shelter that will not bar people for being intoxicated or high and will allow partners, possessions, and pets—was supposed to open in December. A month later, the city has yet to even announce where the center will be, and officials at the table Thursday cited unspecified ongoing “negotiations” as the reason for the holdup. “I won’t be able to say when the site negotiations will be complete, nor do I have a timeline about when that site will be open,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said. “What I did want to share today is that we’re working with [the Downtown Emergency Services Center, which will run the Navigation Center] to set up some interim services” to replicate the services that will be centralized at the Navigation Center.

Part of the problem with providing people access to a bunch of services while they’re still living on the streets, as I reported earlier this month, is that it’s much harder to navigate a complicated system when you’re living out of a shopping cart and fighting every day for physical survival. Having DESC serve as a clearinghouse for services may be a step in the right direction, but it’s a long way from the Navigation Center model, which recognizes that people need a sense of stability before they can start jumping through the hoops that lead to housing.

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2 thoughts on “Some Questions for the City About its Progress on Homelessness

  1. Pingback: Field of Dreams: A Missed Opportunity To Change Course On Homeless Sweeps » The Urbanist

  2. Too long
    I suggest you put the essence of your story in the first paragraph. I got bored with the rest of it – – all I really would like to know your take on how to solve the problem.
    But you went on and on. So I left.

    Like

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