From Jail to Homeless Shelter

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

The third floor of the west wing of the King County Corrections Center in downtown Seattle is accessed through a series of heavy metal doors, each one closing with a loud “ka-THUNK” behind visitors as they enter. Walk through a disused lobby, onto an elevator, and up a flight of institutional-looking stairs and you’ll find yourself in the old minimum-security living quarters, where a series of rooms—cells, really—look down on a central staffing station; you can imagine guards sitting behind the semicircular counter, keeping a wary eye on the large security mirrors that overlook the ward. In the rooms, rows of narrow metal bunks beds with chipping blue paint and fake wood-grain headboards are scattered haphazardly, each labeled with a different number. The views from the narrow windows are blocked by bars and glazing that makes it impossible to look outside.

The place feels, unsurprisingly, like a jail—which is just one of many hurdles that King County, and its future, still-unnamed nonprofit partner, will have to surmount before the former jail wing, which has been closed since 2012, can reopen as a 24/7, low-barrier shelter.  Last week, staffers from the county’s Community and Health Services department took reporters on a tour of the building, followed by a press briefing with King County Executive Dow Constantine. Here’s what we currently know about the county’s plans for the shelter, as well as a few questions that remain unanswered.

The Basics

The new shelter, which Constantine said he hopes will open sometime before this coming winter, will include dormitories, storage space, case management, showers, and laundry facilities for up to 150 people. The county hasn’t chosen a partner to operate the facility, which county officials said would cost about $2 million to renovate and $2 million a year to operate. (That funding is included in Constantine’s proposed 2019-2020 budget, which the King County Council is considering now.) The shelter will be open 24/7, allowing people to leave some of their stuff on site during the day and giving those without daytime jobs a place to be during the daytime hours other than on the street.

“As I look around and I see the number of people who are continuing to be out on the streets… and then I see a vacant building right here in the middle of downtown Seattle., it seems to me that we really have a moral obligation to open that up and provide the opportunity for people to get out of the weather and to get the services they need,” Constantine said Thursday. “This is an element of what we need to do. This is not the solution. The solution is the heavy lifting we’ve been doing on root causes, on housing, on behavioral health treatment, on job connectedness, on all of these other root causes. But meanwhile there are people on the streets and that is a humanitarian crisis that we absolutely must deal with.”

Jurors and county court employees have complained about people congregating in parks and on sidewalks near the downtown courthouse, which sits in close proximity to several shelters that require people to leave first thing in the morning. King King County Housing and Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook said the new shelter will include indoor areas and a courtyard where clients will be able to spend time during the day, and will be connected to a new day center just a block away, at a county-owned building on Fourth and Jefferson that currently serves as a winter shelter.

A recent City of Seattle report on homeless services found that enhanced shelter is several times more effective at getting people  into permanent housing than basic shelters that only offer mats on the floor, which are mostly a basic survival tool for people who would otherwise be sleeping out in the elements. “There’s no real opportunity to connect folks with services in that environment,” Ellerbrook said.

The Optics

Opening a shelter inside a jail building presents what a political consultant might call some challenging optics—and not just because homelessness is not a crime. People experiencing homelessness are more likely than other groups to have past experience in the criminal justice system, and to want to avoid any place that feels like jail. Asked how the county planned to overcome the obvious association between the jail and the shelter, which will not connect directly but will share an emergency stairwell, Constantine responded, “Clearly, this is not ideal … for people who have been incarcerated and may have been traumatized by that experience. This would not be the ideal choice for them to go to, and they don’t have to. Nobody’s going to make them. But for others, it is a very good alternative to being out on the street, to be able to be in a place that is well built, that’s warm and dry and has all of the facilities they need.”

On the flip side, many people who leave jail depart directly into homelessness; prior incarceration is one of many factors that make it difficult for people to find a place to live or a job to lift them out of homelessness, according to the county’s most one-night homeless count. Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose organization is one of several in the running to operate the shelter, said, “I certainly can see it as sort of a swords to plowshares situation, where you could repurpose a facility that previously had really negative connotations into something much more positive for people’s lives, but that said, I think there remains some work to be done that would really examine, will people who would be the intended recipients of the help use it in a facility like that?”

Constantine said he sees the new shelter as an opportunity to divert people leaving jail directly to services and “interrupt that process when people are coming out of the jail and to be able to bring them next door to a, set them up with the services they need to be able to be successful. … It gives us a unique opportunity for those who have been justice involved to help them get their lives back on track and not fall into homelessness and then be another person who ends up back in the justice system.”

The Unknowns

Constantine said he wants to open the new shelter before this winter. That leaves a lot of details to be hammered out in a short period of time, including who will run the shelter and who it will serve. Constantine said last week that the new facility will house “primarily men,” but Ellerbrook said the county would try to allow partners, possessions, and pets to the extent possible, which means—among other things—that parts of it might be coed. The shelter will be low-barrier—meaning, as Constantine put it, that “this is not going to be a situation where you have to solve life’s problems before you’re offered a safe place to sleep—but to what extent people with major mental health and addiction issues will be targeted is unclear.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone, whose group runs the Morrison Hotel on Third Avenue across the street from the King County Courthouse, says DESC will be most interested in running the new shelter if it “prioritizes people with longer-term homelessness and more complicated types of situations that would [require] the more robust set of services that we would like to deliver. Ideally,” he adds, you’d want to build in as few barriers as possible, so making it coed would be in support of that.”

Morning Crank: “Housing First, Indeed.”

1. Unified Seattle, a group that has created a series of  slick videos opposing “tiny house villages” (authorized encampments where residents sleep in small eight-by-12-foot buildings with locks on the doors, electric light, and heat) has spent between $10,000 and t $50,000 putting those ads on Facebook and targeting them at Seattle residents. However, since the aim of these ads isn’t explicitly related to an upcoming election—the latest ad vaguely blames the “mayor and city council” for “forests of needle caps,” “drug shacks,” and  “rampant prostitution” to—the people funding them don’t have to report their activities to the state and local election authorities. The Freedom Foundation, the libertarian-leaning think tank that funded a lawsuit to stop a temporary tiny house encampment on a piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union, has declined to comment on whether they’re funding the ads, but the rhetoric is certainly consistent with the argument the Freedom Foundation makes in their lawsuit against the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute, which claims that allowing the encampment will “encourag[e] loitering and substandard living conditions” in the area.

2. Speaking of the Freedom Foundation lawsuit: Since the group filed their lawsuit back in June, the original four-week permit for the tiny house village has expired. That, the city of Seattle argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed earlier this month, renders the original lawsuit moot, and they filed a motion to dismiss it earlier this month. LIHI still plans to open the encampment, on Eighth and Aloha, in late October.

3. In other news about unofficial campaigns: Saul Spady, the grandson of Dick’s Burgers founder Dick Spady and one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat the head tax, doesn’t have to file election-year paperwork with the city and state elections commissions, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Spady, who runs an ad agency called Cre8tive Empowerment, has been soliciting money for a campaign to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy and take on several city council incumbents; has has also reportedly been meeting with council candidates and taking them around to potential donors. Ordinarily, that kind of electioneering would be considered campaigning. However, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, Spady hasn’t managed to raise a single dime since September 11, when he sent out an email seeking to raise “$100,000+ in the next month” to defeat the education levy and  “shift the Seattle City council in much needed moderate direction in 2019.” If he does start raising money to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures this year or next, Spady will be required to register his campaign at the state and local levels.

4. One campaign that isn’t having any trouble raising money (besides the pro-Families and Education Levy campaign, which has raised almost $425,000) is Neighbors for Safe Streets, the group that formed in opposition to a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE between the Wedgwood and Ravenna neighborhoods. The PAC, led by attorney Gabe Galanda and Pacific Merchant Shipping Association government affairs director Jordan Royer, has raised more than $15,000 so far for its effort to, as the Save 35th Ave. NE newsletter put it last month, “mobilize around transportation-related causes like Save 35th and candidates for local office who are not ideologues when it comes to local transportation planning.” Galanda has argued that people of color don’t need bike lanes, which only  “serve Seattle’s white privileged communities, and further displace historically marginalized communities.”

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(Meanwhile, far away from the North Seattle enclaves that make up Save 35th Avenue NE,  neighborhood-based bike groups in the Rainier Valley have spent years begging the city to provide safe bike routes for people who live and work in the area—even holding protests to demand modest traffic-calming measures on Rainier Ave. S., the deadliest street in the city). Neighborhoods for Smart Streets has not identified which council candidates it will support next year, when seven seats will be up; so far, only a handful of contenders—including, as of last Friday, former (2013) mayoral candidate Kate Martin, who also headed up a 2016 effort to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct intact and turn it into a park. Martin joins Discovery Institute researcher Christopher Rufo in the competition for the District 6 council seat currently held by Mike O’Brien.

5. As I reported on Twitter, George Scarola—the city’s key outreach person on homelessness, even after an effective demotion from homelessness director to an obscure position in the Department of Finance and Administrative Services—resigned on October 9. In an email to city staff, Scarola praised the city’s Navigation Teams, groups like LIHI that are working on tiny house villages, and “the outreach teams, shelter operators, meal providers and the folks who develop and manage permanent supportive housing.” He concluded the email by noting that the one area where everyone, including opponents of what the city is doing to ameliorate homelessness, agree is that  “we will not solve the crisis of chronic homelessness without more mental health and drug treatment services, coupled with safe housing. Housing First, indeed.”

In a statement, Durkan said Scarola’s knowledge on homelessness was “key to the continuity of the City’s efforts and helped ensure strong connections throughout the community. Altogether, George participated in hundreds of discussions around homelessness – from public meetings to living room chats – and took countless phone calls and emails, always willing to engage with anyone who had a concern, a complaint or a suggested solution.”

Away from the watchful eye of the mayor’s office, which he usually was, Scarola could be surprisingly candid—once asking me, apparently rhetorically, whether people protesting the removal of a specific encampment were “protesting for the right of people to live in filthy, disgusting, dangerous conditions.” On another occasion, Scarola pushed back on the idea, very prevalent at the time, that money spent on emergency shelter and short-term interventions was money wasted, because—according to homeless consultant Barb Poppe—every available resource should go toward permanent housing.  “Her overall view is absolutely right—she wants stable housing,” he said. “I just don’t know how you get there without going through steps A, B, C, and D”—meaning solutions like tiny house villages, authorized tent encampments, and services that address the problems that are keeping people from being able to hang on to housing in the first place.

Homelessness Funding Could Be Flash Point in Upcoming City Budget Discussions

Things are fairly quiet on the city budget front this week as council members draft their first-found wish lists—ideas that may or may not see the light of day as full-fledged “green sheets,” proposed budget changes that require two co-sponsors and proposed cuts to balance any new expenditures—but council members did give a preview of their thinking on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s stay-the-course budget for homelessness last week. Meanwhile, advocates for homeless Seattle residents have presented a list of requests for the council’s consideration that includes $33 million in additional spending on housing, front-line workers’ pay, and SHARE’S basic indoor shelters, which the mayor’s budget assumes will close in June.

At briefings on the proposed budget for homelessness and the expansion of the city’s Navigation Team (which removes encampments and provides information about services to people living outdoors) last week, council members appeared concerned by the fact that Durkan’s budget proposal does not increase funding for actual housing production, focusing primarily on emergency shelter instead. The issue, council members said, is that when there is no housing for people to go to, the city ends up just shuffling them around and around—either from illegal encampment to illegal encampment (as Navigation Team leader Fred Podesta openly acknowledged the city is doing already) or in and out of the shelter system.

“[The budget] really places an emphasis on enhanced funding for immediate day to day assistance vs. those longer-term housing needs,” council member Teresa Mosqueda said last week, addressing her comments at Office of Housing director Steve Walker. “I don’t understand how we are goimg to be able to serve the number of people we have talked about today unless we provide housing [for them].” Durkan’s 2019 budget includes $24.9 million for all “housing” programs, including diversion (which usually involves helping a person identify somewhere they can stay for the time being, such as a relative’s house, rather than permanent housing); emergency services, which includes temporary transitional housing, totals $46.4 million, or more than half of Durkan’s proposed budget for homelessness.

Durkan’s proposal quietly extends a “rental housing assistance” program, originally begun as a pilot in 2017, which provides vouchers for up to three months for people on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority. Noting that a high percentage of households that receive Section 8 vouchers end up having to return them because they can’t find an affordable rental unit with their voucher, Mosqueda asked why the Human Services Department would still consider it a “success” when “people maintain housing until they receive their Housing Choice voucher.” Would the city still consider the program a success if people stayed in their apartment for three months, got their voucher, and still ended up homeless because they couldn’t find a place to use it? HSD deputy director Tiffany Washington said the city was using a HUD standard for defining success and added that the city has “seen an improved rate of exits to permanent housing in 2018 compared to the same time last year, and an increase in households served”—something Durkan also touted in her budget speech.

Council members also zeroed in on the fact that the mayor’s proposed budget doesn’t increase funding for preventing homelessness in the first place, which is generally a much cheaper and less daunting prospect than helping people find housing once they’ve lost it. (What looks like a significant cut to prevention programs in 2019—from $6.5 million to $4.4 million— is actually an accounting quirk that reflects the fact that a program to move people off SHA’s waitlists was funded in 2018, but spent over two years. However, that program will expire in 2020, when the city will have to decide whether to fund it again.) Pointing to a recent report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project that faulted the city’s lack of any integrated system for people facing eviction to get rent assistance, council member Lisa Herbold said, “We need some kind of collaboration or cooperation between [assistance] programs, because it happens so quickly. The reality is that your landlord is not under any requirement to accept rent from you after three days even if you have the total amount and the ability to pay.”

Two other sticking points were the future of the Seattle Housing And Resource Effort and Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (SHARE/WHEEL) shelters that were defunded, then re-funded on a temporary basis, last year. SHARE’s high-barrier, nighttime-only shelters ranked dead last among shelter applications during last year’s competitive bidding process for HSD contracts, and the groups were given a grace period to come up with a plan to transition their shelter clients to other service providers or into housing. Herbold and her colleagues Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien pressed Washington on SHARE’s rate of success in getting people into housing (which is a matter of much dispute; SHARE claims a rate four times higher than the city average, which HSD says is not correct), as well as what the plan is to help its clients find other living or sleeping arrangements.

“I just want to make sure we remember why SHARE and WHEEL are not provided funding,” Washington said. “It’s actually not a cut—it was bridge funding from the mayor’s office to continue them through this year and for six months next year. … We asked all the agencies who weren’t funded to submit a transition plan to us. All of the agencies did except for SHARE and WHEEL,” who said they weren’t planning to close down. This issue of SHARE’s shelter funding, like the issue of whether the city will keep paying for bus tickets for its clients, has become something of an annual ritual—and every year, the council finds a few hundred thousand dollars to keep them going. If this year is any different, it will be a notable departure from tradition.

A few final quick-hit observations:

• The plan for the growing number of people living in their vehicles—a group that now makes up more than half the people living unsheltered in Seattle grew 46 percent this year, according to King County’s annual count—appears to be … well, it isn’t actually clear. The budget adds a mere $250,000 a year for a vaguely defined “new program” that “is still under development and will be informed by a workgroup made up of people with lived experience, a racial equity analysis using the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) strategy chart, as well as service providers, the City’s Navigation Team, other outreach workers, the Seattle Police Department and Parking Enforcement Officers, and officials working on similar programs in other jurisdictions.” Whatever the new program is, it will have to split that funding with yet another new pilot for a safe parking lot for people living in their cars, this one aimed specifically at “individuals living in vehicles who are largely self-sufficient and require a relatively low level of services.” The city budget adopted last year included $50,000 specifically to conduct “a needs assessment to identify programs and services most likely to help individuals living in their vehicles find permanent housing”; when O’Brien asked if that money had been spent, Washington replied, “Yes and no… how much of the $50,000 we’ll spend we don’t know, but we’ll definitely satisfy the intent.”

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• Low-barrier encampments like the one at Licton Springs, which is closing after months of complaints from neighbors about drug use on the premises (and drug dealers in the vicinity), may be too much of a hassle for the city, which is working to “reassess” the residents of that encampment and move them “to the top of the [housing prioritization] list,” according to Washington. Washington insisted that the encampment isn’t “closing”—”‘closing’ is not reflective, so what we’ve come up with is ‘shifting capacity'”—but the SHARE-managed encampment is in fact going away, thanks largely to neighbors who considered it an unwelcome or menacing presence. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Magnolia, appeared last week to agree. “One of the keys that I have heard over and over again is that the drug dealers have got to be arrested,” she said—a position that actually represents a departure from the city’s support for the LEAD arrest-diversion program, which focuses on low-level drug offenders and just expanded to North Seattle.

• As I mentioned above, the head of the Navigation Team himself acknowledged that the team is often reduced to moving encampments around and around—and that “there are more encampments that we’re not engaging with than we are engaging with; that’s just a fact”—reflecting the reality that as long as the city has a shortage of affordable housing, some people are going to prefer even the tenuous community and safety of an unauthorized encampment to a shelter system that can be chaotic and dehumanizing. Enhanced shelters—those that allow people to keep their possessions, offer case management, and don’t enforce sobriety requirements at the door—do a better job of getting people to come in off the streets, but there aren’t enough, and the city is creating more homeless people every day. (The eviction cases on the King County Superior Court’s weekly docket represent a steady drip-drip-drip of people being kicked out of homes and onto the streets.) “The team is no more interested in moving people around than anybody else,” Podesta said. “There are cases where we’ve had apartments [available] and they haven’t chosen to accept that”; however, he added, “no one should interpret that as anything but an exception.”

Morning Crank: Fort Lawton Drags On, Spady Drags His Feet, and Enhanced Shelter Shortage Drags Out Homelessness

1. The wait for affordable housing at the Fort Lawton military base in Magnolia—on which, as I noted last week, the city is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for security —will continue to drag on at least until the end of this year, after a city hearing examiner agreed to delay a hearing in an appeal challenging the environmental impact statement on the project until the end of October so that the complainant, Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, can secure a lawyer. The appeal process has already been delayed once, until the end of September, to accommodate Campbell’s lengthy vacation to Europe. Campbell said that she was requesting this second delay because of health concerns that have prevented her from participating in the appeal process.

The motion granting Campbell’s request for a delay, which also denied the city of Seattle’s request to dismiss the six-month-old case, includes a salty dismissal of Campbell’s claim that the hearing examiner, Ryan Vancil, should not be allowed to hear the appeal because he once served on the board of Futurewise, a conservation group with no stake in the Fort Lawton debate, and because he has represented the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which works to prevent the demolition of existing affordable housing, in the past.

The city’s rules, Vancil noted, require anyone who files an appeal before the hearing examiner to file any motions to disqualify a particular hearing examiner quite early in the process, typically at least 7 days before the first hearing. That hearing was in May.  “As explained at the prehearing conference [on May 15] the Hearing Examiner has not been a board member or officer of Futurewise for two years, and is not currently a member as alleged by Ms. Campbell. Ms. Campbell identified no specific interest in this appeal by either Futurewise, or the Seattle Displacement Coalition. … Ms. Campbell was clearly aware of these facts [and] raised [them] in the context of a response to the Hearing Examiner’s disfavorable order as a form of retaliation.” In other words, Campbell only decided Vancil’s past association with Futurewise was a problem after he ruled against her on an unrelated issue—specifically, the fact that Campbell hadn’t filed her list of witnesses and exhibits by a mid-September deadline.

(Side note: Vancil may not be on the Futurewise board anymore, but the group’s current board includes two attorneys, Jeff Eustis and Dave Bricklin, who have both fought against proposals to allow more density and housing, including Mandatory Housing Affordability, which allows developers to build more densely in exchange for funding affordable housing; a proposed 12-story building in Pioneer Square that would have replaced a “historic” parking garage; a proposed three-story apartment building in Phinney Ridge, which nearby homeowners opposed because they didn’t want to lose parking in front of their houses; and a proposal to make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units on their property. Given that track record among Futurewise board members, serving on the group’s board could be seen as an indication that Vancil is sympathetic to housing opponents like Campbell. The Displacement Coalition, meanwhile, often fights against density and development on the grounds that it displaces people and drives up the cost of housing.)

Campbell claimed that she was unable to file a list of witnesses because of her poor health. But Vancil was skeptical about that claim, noting that Campbell had managed to  five no fewer than separate, lengthy motions over a period of about two weeks in September, Vancil said, which “demonstrate[s] Appellants’ capacity to draft documents and work on this case, and/or the ability to have communicated at an earlier date that Appellants did not have the capacity to identify exhibits and witnesses within the time required.”

The next hearing on the Fort Lawton appeal will be at 9:30am on October 29.

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2. A city audit of the Navigation Team—a team  of police officers and outreach workers that removes encampments and offers services to people living unsheltered in Seattle—concluded that the city has not done enough to provide the kind of “enhanced shelter” that people living outdoors are most likely to accept, and should consider increasing the use of diversion strategies like “reunification”—that is, connecting people to family,  and sending them on their way. The idea of reunification is popular in California, where cities like San Francisco provide bus tickets out of town to homeless people who are able to find a friend or family member who will tell the city they are willing to take the person in. Such programs are controversial because, while they do relocate some chronically homeless people outside city limits, little is known about how people in such programs fare at the end of what are often cross-country journeys, and horror stories abound.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Human Services Department notes that enhanced shelters, which provide case management, a place to store possessions, and a place to be during the day, result in significantly more exits to permanent housing than stripped-down, mats-on-the-floor, in-at-9-out-at-7 basic shelters. According to the Human Services Department, 21 percent of people who entered enhanced shelters, like the Navigation Center operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, exited into some form of permanent housing. (Permanent housing can include everything from supportive housing in facilities with case management and other services, or a “rapid rehousing” voucher for an apartment on the private market.) In comparison, just 4 percent of those entering basic shelters exited directly into permanent housing.

Despite their higher success rate, the audit found that enhanced shelters are often full, making it impossible for the Navigation Team to refer many, if any, unsheltered people to them. Between March and December of 2017, the report says, there was an average of 18 beds available for all Navigation Team referrals—an average that includes 27 days when fewer than 10 beds were available, and four months in which the average daily vacancy was less than one bed, citywide. This was during a period when the Navigation Team contacted more than 1,800 individual people, many of them more than once.

Finally, the auditor recommended that the city consider “bridge to housing” strategies like the ones in place in San Diego and Sacramento, which employ large, semi-permanent tentlike structures that can house tens or hundreds of people in dormitory-style or more private rooms. The structures are similar to enhanced shelter—24/7 and low-barrier, they allow singles and couples to bring pets and possessions with them—but are less expensive because the buildings aren’t permanent.

The idea, which council members Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda brought up yesterday, elicited a testy back-and-forth between Mosqueda and Navigation Team director Fred Podesta, who interrupted Mosqueda’s question about the bridge-to-housing strategy by saying, “We need to carefully think about, are people going to accept an enormous, 150-person dormitory that’s in a tent? Before we get too bound up in the efficiency of a particular structure type, we have to think about how our clients are going to respond to it.” When Mosqueda picked up her line of question, Podesta interrupted her again, interjecting, “I just think it’s worth asking the question—if our approach is going to be to offer [housing in that type of structure to] people—’Would you go or not?’ We need to ask those questions before we spend $2 million on a tent.” The city of Sacramento estimates that a 300-bed shelter of this type would cost between $3 million and $4 million a year.

3. Saul Spady, the Dick’s Burgers scion and political consultant last seen soliciting money to defeat the upcoming Families and Education Levy renewal and to fill the seven city council seats that will be up for grabs next year with “common sense civic leaders,” may be improperly raising funds for an election campaign without registering with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the Public Disclosure Commission.

As I reported, Spady sent an email to supporters in September seeking $100,000 in contributions for a campaign to “educate” voters on why they should oppose the Families and Education Levy ballot measure and support “common sense civic leaders” against incumbent council members next year. The email says that Spady hosted a meeting the previous week—that is, the week of September 3—of “potential 2019 Seattle City Council candidates focused on common sense, fiscally responsible & acountable [sic] government mixed with active citizens who are concerned about the continuing slide of Seattle into the ‘corruption of incompetence’ that we’re witnessing across all sectors of city hall.” The goal of the meeting, Spady continued, “was to engage likely candidates & political donors.”

This kind of unofficial campaigning could put Spady, who owns the ad firm Cre8tive Empowerment, in violation of state campaign finance law as well as the city’s own campaign finance rules. According to the Public Disclosure Commission,  new campaigns for or against ballot measures must register with the PDC “within two weeks of forming a committee or expecting to receive or spend funds (whichever occurs first).” The Seattle Municipal Code, similarly, requires campaigns to file with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission as soon as they’ve raised or spent any money, announced that they plan to support or oppose a candidate or an upcoming ballot measure, bought an ad or reserved ad space, or put a survey in the field about a candidate or ballot measure. Filing involves paying a fee (about $1,300), setting up a campaign office, opening a bank account, and designating campaign officers. All of this, again, must be done within two weeks of soliciting money or engaging in any other campaign activities. Spady’s email went out on Tuesday, September 11—more than three weeks ago. As of midnight last night, Spady had not filed any campaign paperwork with either agency.

Durkan’s Proposed Budget Adds Funding for Cops, Congestion Pricing, and Buses, But Not for Safe Consumption or New Spending on Homelessness

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget proposes hiring 40 net new police officers, funds shelter and rental-assistance programs that had been at risk of being cut while keeping overall homeless funding basically flat, and dramatically increases transportation spending, at least on paper—the $130 million in new funding consists primarily of unspent funds from the Move Seattle levy, which is currently undergoing a “reset” because the city can’t pay for everything it promised when voters passed the levy in 2015. The new transportation funding includes funding 100,000 new Metro service hours, including “microtransit” shuttles to bring riders to the ends of the existing RapidRide lines and to the water taxi in West Seattle. Those additional hours will require Metro to  work overtime to add buses, drivers, and bus parking capacity, but Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the 100,000 hours were also included in the King County budget that County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted yesterday, as part of a total increase of 177,000 hours of bus service over the next two years.

City budget director Ben Noble said that if the city wanted to significantly increase spending on homelessness, “that is going to have to happen through reprioritizing [funding] or some as-yet-unidentified source of revenues.” Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, says that, given the ongoing homelessness crisis, “it is unconscionable to put forward a biennial budget … without additional resources for housing.”

The budget would also eliminate about 150 mostly vacant positions, eliminate funding for 217 basic shelter beds provided by the group SHARE after June of next year, fund a new city “ombud” independent from the Human Resources Department, to help employees in city department navigate the process of filing harassment or discrimination claims, and pay police officers $65 million in retroactive pay and benefits from the four years when they were working without a union contract. Officers, Durkan said, have “gone without even a raise but also [without] a [cost of living adjustment]. There hasn’t been pay raise since the beginning of 2014, so that’s four years of pay increases. …  You can get to seemingly large sums really quickly.”

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In contrast, the budget proposes making an “inflationary increase adjustment” to what it pays front-line homeless service providers of just 2 percent—less than the actual inflation rate.. Earlier this year, the Downtown Emergency Center sought more than $6 million for salaries and benefits—enough to raise an entry-level counselor’s wages from $15.45 an hour to $19.53 and to boost case managers’ salaries from a high of about $38,000 to $44,550 a year. (Currently, the lowest-paying job listed on DESC’s job board pays $16.32 an hour.) “Even a non-police officer, just a clerical position in a city department, is earning more money in salary—let alone salary plus benefits—than somebody whom we are asking to go out under bridges and work with people who have had years of being brutalized in this world,” Eisinger says.

I’ll have a lot more to say about specific budget proposals over the coming weeks as the city council digs into the details in a series of budget briefings that start on Wednesday, but for now, here are a few more highlights from the mayor’s proposal:

• Durkan’s proposed budget does not include any additional funding for a supervised consumption site (mobile or permanent); instead, it simply pushes $1.3 million that was supposed to fund a place for users to consume their drug of choice under medical supervision, with access to wound care, treatment, and case management forward into this year’s budget. Durkan said Monday that the city would not move forward with supervised consumption site until Durkan is “sure [that King County is] still willing to step up and fund the treatment portion of” a supervised consumption site. Activists, including at least one mother who had lost her son to a heroin overdose, stood outside the Pioneer Square fire station, where Durkan delivered her budget speech, protesting the fact that Durkan’s budget calls for continued inaction on safe consumption sites. It has been more than two years now since a King County task force unanimously recommended supervised consumption as part of a holistic strategy for tackling addiction to heroin and other drugs, the rest of which is slowly being implemented and funded. 

Marlys McConnell, whose son Andrew died of an accidental heroin overdose in January 2015, was wearing a “Silence=Death” t-shirt and holding up the right side of a large banner that read, “Overdose is killing a generation. Is it time to act yet, Mayor Durkan?” She said a safe consumption site could have helped diminish the shame her son felt about his own addiction, which he tried to hide from his family. “Had there been a space available for him, I would very much hope that he could have gone and taken advantage of it and been treated with love and respect and dignity. That could have been a bridge to treatment and other services early on.” McConnell is aware of the argument that safe consumption sites enable drug users to continue in their active addiction, but says, “You don’t get [recovery] ’til you get it.”

• Durkan said she would not support selling off more public land to pay for city budget priorities, as the city has done in the past. (The sale of land in South Lake Union funded new shelter beds and “tiny house village” encampments, as well as a rental-assistance program—all part of the nearly $20 million in services that this year’s budget proposal makes permanent.) The city has put its largest remaining property in South Lake Union, the so-called “Mercer Megablock,” on the market, but Durkan said the city would strongly prefer leasing the property long-term under a master lease to selling it outright. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and use it to build high-rise affordable housing. Noble told me that nothing technically bars the city from using at least some of the land for affordable housing (either city-owned or built by a nonprofit housing provider); however, he noted that because the Seattle Department of Transportation used restricted gas-tax funds to pay for some of the Mercer Corridor Project, which used part of the megablock for construction staging, the city has to pay back SDOT (a cost that could account for about 40 percent of the proceeds from the property) before it can start building anything or funding other projects on the property. The city also has taken out significant debt on the future proceeds from the sale of the megablock site, which would also have to be repaid. Finally, high-rise housing is generally much more expensive (and therefore less appropriate for affordable housing) than low-rise, because it involves glass and steel, although advances in technology are slowly making high-rise affordable housing more feasible.

• Durkan’s budget is mostly silent on the question of the over-budget Center City Streetcar (currently stalled so city consultants can determine whether the city should finish building the downtown connector or cut its losses), but it does include about $9 million in funds over two years to help operate the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. Previously, the city had backfilled streetcar revenue shortfalls periodically as revenues consistently fell short of projections. The new budget pays for those anticipated shortfalls up front. “We’re trying to be more upfront and honest about what it’s costing for the streetcar so that we won’t continue to run in the red and having to incur the debts that we’ve seen” in the past, Durkan said.

• The transportation budget is otherwise a mixed bag for transit proponents. It includes $1 million to pay for an expanded study of congestion pricing (as currently conceived, a toll for people who want to drive into the center city during certain hours); funds new investments in adaptive signal technology, which Durkan touted as a solution for slow and delayed buses but which the National Association of City Transportation Officials says “can result in a longer cycle length that degrades multi-modal conditions” and is best for moving cars in suburban areas; and proposes asking the legislature to change state law barring the city from using traffic cameras to enforce rules against blocking bike and bus lanes. “Right now, you have to have an actual officer come over and pull them over,” Durkan said—an expensive proposition. The budget also eliminates funding for the “Play Streets” pilot program, which permanently activated some street right-of-way for active (non-car) use, and cuts funding for any new “Pavement to Parks” projects, “takes underused streets and creates public spaces for community use on a year-round, daily basis,” according to the budget.

• The proposed budget moves almost half a million dollars from parks department spending on the city’s four golf courses into the separate capital budget as a “bridge solution” for an ongoing revenue shortfall. Although the city recently invested in improvements to its golf courses—hoping that better facilities, along with higher fees, would bring in more revenue—that hasn’t panned out, and the city has hired a consultant to evaluate the program. Asked why the golf courses aren’t penciling out the way the city had hoped, Noble said that it may be that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least some of the city’s golf courses and using them as sites for affordable housing.

The city council begins hearings on the mayor’s budget this week; a full schedule of budget meetings is available on the city’s website.

Morning Crank: An Even Bigger Table

1. At the inaugural meeting of her “innovation advisory council”—a group of local tech leaders brought together to suggest tech- and data-based approaches to addressing problems such as homelessness and traffic—Mayor Jenny Durkan lavished praise on Seattle’s tech community, calling them “some of the most brilliant talent anywhere,” and noted that there has already been “an outpouring of interest” among other tech leaders in joining the group. “As big as this table is, it’s going to get bigger,” Durkan said, before leaving leaving the group to their discussion about how to help the city address its most vexing issues.

Yesterday meeting was mostly introductory—officials from the city’s human services and transportation departments gave presentations and answered questions from the group, which included representatives from Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and Tableau—but it still revealed some of the challenges this very large group will face in coming up with “innovative” solutions. The first is precisely what Durkan highlighted—the “table” already includes dozens of people, with more, apparently, to come; One Table, the last “table” effort in which Durkan was involved, met a few times, fizzled for a while, and then came back with a tepid set of recommendations for addressing the root causes of homelessness that could be summarized, basically, as “build more housing, and also treatment.” Without a targeted mission in mind—say, creating a new system to give the city’s Navigation Team instant access to a list of available shelter beds so they don’t have to call around when removing people from encampments—it’s easy to see this council meeting a few times, releasing a list of half-conceived ideas, and disbanding without any commitment to spend more time and, importantly, money on actually implementing their own suggestions. Michael Schutzler, head of the Washington Technology Industry Association, alluded to this concern, noting that “we can’t boil the ocean.”

The other issue that was immediately apparent yesterday was the fact that the advisory council would have benefited from the inclusion of someone who works full-time on homelessness and can quickly get other members up to speed on basic facts about the issue. Like many such councils, members come to the table with varying levels of baseline knowledge; nonetheless, it was somewhat jarring to hear Steve McChesney, VP of global marketing for F5, say, “I don’t understand, personally, what the behaviors are leading up to” homelessness. The city and county have done numerous studies, surveys, and presentations on the causes of homelessness, and “behavior” (such as having a substance use disorder) falls far behind high housing costs on the list of the root causes of homelessness.

The group will hold two more meetings to come up with a list of ideas, which will then be narrowed down for further discussion. City council president Bruce Harrell suggested that future meetings might not be open to the public or the press, and should include a “strong facilitator,” noting that the negotiations that got the city a $15 minimum wage didn’t happen in the public eye.

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2. One data point that jumped out at me from the city’s latest report on race and gender equity in city employment was the fact that the overwhelming majority of city employees who took advantage of paid parental leave last year—73 percent—were men. (Meanwhile, 64 percent of those who took family leave, which is provided for employees to care for children and other family members, were women.) These numbers can be accounted for, in part, by what the report calls the “very imbalanced” nature of the city’s workforce: Just 38.6 percent of the city’s workers are women, so if men and women took parental leave at equal rates, you would expect men to make up about 61 percent of those taking parental leave. However, men have not historically been the ones taking parental leave, and even assuming that they do so at the same rate as women doesn’t account for the entire gender divide.

So what’s going on here? A deeper look at the numbers reveals that the departments where men are far more likely than women to take time off for a new baby are also the ones that are most heavily dominated by men—City Light (where 78 percent of those taking parental leave since a new 12-week leave policy went into effect were men, and men make up 70 percent of the workforce), Police (where 88 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 72 percent of the workforce), and Fire (where 94 percent of leave-takers were men, and men make up 88 percent of the workforce). Deborah Jaquith, a spokeswoman for the city’s human resources department, says, “We can’t say specifically why there’s a higher proportion of male PPL takers, but you can see how that figure isn’t so surprising in the context of the city’s overall gender imbalances and the imbalances in these departments specifically.”

Some additional theories: Perhaps men in mostly male environments feel that they are unlikely to suffer workplace penalties for taking time off; after all, everyone else is doing it. Conversely, perhaps women in those environments are less likely to take time off precisely because they fear they will be penalized for pregnancy and childbirth in a male-dominated environment. The data don’t say, and the report does not include a survey to find out the specific stories behind the demographics.

As for the fact that women are far more likely than men to take time off to take their kids to the doctor, stay home when a child is sick, or take care of an ailing family member?  Well, women have always borne most of the burden of household responsibilities, and—despite progress in other areas, such as men’s increasing willingness to take paternal leave, which is an important advance toward gender progress—they’re still doing so today.

As City Moves Away from Eviction Prevention, Report Highlights Inequities in Who Gets Evicted, and Why

A new report from the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project* on who gets evicted in Seattle, and why, concludes that not only are women and people of color more likely to get evicted than white men, but that they often lose their homes over very small amounts of money—just a few hundred dollars in late rent, which is usually compounded by the addition of court and attorney’s fees. Among all the people evicted for failure to pay rent on time, more than half (52.3 percent) owed one month’s rent or less, and more than three-quarters (76.6 percent) owed less than $2,500 ($1,236 on average.) Because evicted tenants are generally required to pay additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other non-rent charges on top of the rent they owe, the median court judgment was $3,129.

Sarah Stewart, a longtime Seattle resident who has been living in her car since she was evicted this past March, said at a press conference today that she lost her apartment, in a low-income building, because her landlord miscalculated her income, which varies from month to month based on her ability to work. Stewart has a degenerative illness that causes pain and fatigue. Despite her family’s efforts to help her pay “the enormous amounts they demanded,” she eventually ended up in eviction court. “In the end,” she said, “the landlord had all the power, and not only were they able to evict me, but they also burdened me with over $2,000 in late fees, attorneys’ fees and non-rent fees. In my current situation, there is no way I will ever be able to pay that back.”

The report, “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle,” describes a system heavily weighted in favor of landlords and against tenants, particularly tenants who lack attorneys. The vast majority of people who get evicted (87.5 percent) in Seattle ended up homeless (a category that includes couch surfing or living in shelters in addition to unsheltered homelessness) for the exact reason you might expect: Once you’ve got an eviction on your record, it can be nearly impossible to find someone willing to rent to you. 

Eviction prevention programs in Seattle are virtually nonexistent—in sharp contrast to other cities such as New York, where the Bronx Housing Court, which offers a one-stop shop for rental assistance programs, has helped prevent evictions in 86 percent of cases. (Other cities also give tenants sore time to pay what they owe—in Seattle, the eviction process can begin as soon as you’re three days late on your rent—and offer more discretion to judges to work out deals between landlords and tenants that allow people to stay in their homes). This can be traced, in part, to a 2016 report that recommended diverting funds away from eviction prevention and into programs to help people who are already homeless; that report ended up being the basis of the city’s “Pathways Home” strategy for addressing homelessness.

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According to the report, “The Focus Strategies report acknowledged that ‘[t]raditional prevention generally targets households who have their own rental unit and have received an eviction notice,’ but then discouraged such an approach without providing any support for their recommendation. The Focus Strategies report claimed that ‘since most people do not become homeless straight from an eviction, it does not make sense to prioritize sheltering that group of people who are facing eviction; however, this overlooks the collateral consequences of eviction such as poor health, family instability, and higher financial strain on the shelter system.

The problem with ignoring people until they get evicted, Housing Justice Project attorney Ed Witter said today, is that it costs far more—between $15,000 and $17,000—to put someone up in a shelter for a year than it does to pay the $100 or $1,200 or $2,000 that separates them from eviction.  “We don’t help [people] until they’ve lost their housing, and we know this isn’t the most efficient way,” Witter said. A client who lived in low-income housing had just been evicted over $15.67 in late rent, Witter continued. “How did we get to the point that tenants are losing their housing over 15 dollars and 67 cents?”

Read the whole report, which includes detailed demographic data on who gets evicted and why as well as policy recommendations, here.

Host Homes: Helping Young People At Risk of Homelessness

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Chalaia Smith was running out of options.

At 24, she had spent years bouncing from one relative’s house to another, sleeping on couches and in spare rooms for as long as she felt comfortable, then moving on. Eventually, she says, “I ran out of relatives.” Minimum-wage jobs didn’t pay enough for her to come up with first and last month’s rent and a deposit on a Seattle-area apartment. “It was becoming a burden on my family.”

That’s when she turned to the YMCA Accelerator’s Host Home program, which links homeowners (or even renters) whose homes have space to spare with young adults who need a place to live and are either homeless or at risk of falling into homelessness.

The goal of the program is to provide temporary housing and mentorship to young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who need a little extra support while they finish school, look for a job, or work to save money to put down a deposit on an apartment.

“I was hoping for a stable place to live and somewhere where I’d feel comfortable enough to start saving money and go back to school and start reaching my goals,” Smith says.

Through the program, Smith was connected to Diane Hilmo, a Wedgwood homeowner and civil engineer who got interested in hosting a young adult when she read about a program started by community volunteers on Whidbey Island.  “I thought, ‘I have a perfectly nice guest room and two bathrooms, and it’s a waste for it to just sit there except for a couple of visits [from friends and family] a year,” Hilmo says.

After signing up for the program, going through the mandatory training, and filling out a survey about her interests, Hilmo waited about six months before getting the call. As soon as she met Smith, though, Hilmo says she knew it would be a good fit. “I met Chalaia, I said, ‘Sure, move on in,’ and I think it was about three days later that she did,” Hilmo says.

Host Home coordinator Scott Schubert says the program tries to link people with similar interests. For Hilmo and Smith, it was their mutual fondness for animals; Smith wants to become a veterinarian and work with farm animals, and Hilmo is an animal lover who has two cats.

“All the matches [between hosts and young adult guests] have moved forward, because I think we do a great job of vetting both parties beforehand,” Schubert says. “We make sure we understand who that the host is and who the young adult is.”

Smith’s goal was to go back to school and get a job that pays more than the minimum-wage retail jobs she had been doing. So far, she’s checked one item off that list: Within about a week of moving in to Hilmo’s spare bedroom, Smith had scored a job at a kennel in Bothell, which gives her the opportunity to work with animals. Hilmo drove Smith to her interview—an example, Smith says, of the kind of assistance most stably housed young adults take for granted.

“People don’t realize how much help they get from their parents,” Hilmo says. “I’ve been around a lot of parents who just are helicopter parents, but a little of that is good. They’re checking out stuff, they’re making contacts for people. You might not realize all the benefits you got from that stuff.”

“Diane and I are really a good powerhouse team,” Smith chimes in. “She’s really good at finding resources and really good at pushing me to get into school, which is where I want to be.”

Smith, who was raised by her grandmother (she declined to elaborate on why her parents were not in the picture), says having a place to stay has also helped her relationship with her family, including her brothers, who live in the Seattle area. “Not having to ask, ‘Can I sleep on your couch tonight?’ just really alleviates the tension. It’s nice being able to just have a social relationship with my family, and not a dependent relationship—like being their child that they never asked for.”

Although the Host Home program technically lasts up to six months, many hosts invite young adults to stay for longer. Hilmo says she thinks six months isn’t long enough for a young person to get on their feet and save up enough money to find an apartment in the pricey Seattle market.

Smith hopes to start college in September; Hilmo says she’s determined to help her get there. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry about leaving. You worry about getting into school.’ … I think that energy that is spent on trying to find a place to live is energy that isn’t spent on whatever else they should be doing.”

Smith says having a stable place to stay, one where she doesn’t have to worry about “the basic things, like whether it’s going to rain on your head or … whether you can afford your next dinner,” has given her the ability to focus on her own future in a way she couldn’t when she was bouncing from couch to couch.

“The stress just impacts you so tremendously,” she says. “Having that boulder of stress taken off by just having a room—it’s tremendous.”

How Backyard Cottages Could Help Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

Photo by Hayley Young, Seattle magazine.

Of all the proposed solutions to Seattle’s homelessness problem, the Block Project is surely one of the most audacious. But one Seattle family is giving it a try, opening its heart—and backyard—to a homeless man. And more than 100 families are waiting in the wings.

In most respects, Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum are the owners of an ordinary Seattle home: a modest green bungalow with a small garden in the planting strip, on a quiet street of single-family homes on Beacon Hill. Walking by, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about it.

The surprise is in the backyard: a tiny, ultramodern wood-frame home occupied by a formerly homeless man named Robert “Bobby” Desjarlais. It represents one organization’s utopian vision of how Seattle can make a dent in its homeless problem.

The story of how this small structure came to be in the owners’ backyard, and how Desjarlais came to live here, begins about two years ago. That was when architect and activist Rex Hohlbein began pitching a new idea: What if one person on every block in Seattle built a tiny house in their backyard to house a single homeless neighbor?

Hohlbein’s organization, Facing Homelessness, works to break down the boundaries between housed and homeless people in Seattle; its slogan, “Just Say Hello,” exemplifies its belief that the first step toward fixing homelessness is decreasing the social distance between people who have housing and people who don’t. Last year, he pitched his plan to a group of about 30 Seattleites at the Cloud Room, a bar and coworking space on Capitol Hill. At the end of his presentation, Hohlbein asked how many of those in the room would consider volunteering for his experiment. Not a single hand went up.

But Hohlbein didn’t give up, and today, the project he started with his daughter Jenn LaFreniere, also an architect—now known as the Block Project—has more than 100 homeowners on its waiting list.

It has taken time for the Block Project to get off the ground—so far, just the Beacon Hill home is complete, and another is under construction in Greenwood. But Hohlbein hopes that once the project starts to gain acceptance, it will be possible to expedite the construction process so that those 100 homeowners can host Block homes of their own, and be followed by another 100, and another.

Currently, each home is funded by contributions from Facing Homelessness donors and built with volunteer labor and materials. For the future, Hohlbein envisions the basic components of each tiny home—essentially, four walls, a roof and a large window—being constructed off-site and then trucked in for quick assembly. For now, though, construction can take many weeks.

The homes themselves are all designed to be energy-independent and eventually water-independent as well, with composting toilets and subsurface irrigation. “We’re not just giving people shelter; we’re also putting them into the most advanced home on the block,” Hohlbein says.

Hohlbein predicts that as neighbors and the city become aware of the project and its potential, the psychological barriers to taking the program citywide will start to fall, much as they did for other sharing concepts, like Airbnb.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue. We don’t have to create compassion—I believe that’s there already in each and every one of us. We have to create a connection.”

For the Block Project, creating that connection starts with involving the surrounding community in the process.

Hohlbein has designed the Block Project process to begin well before the construction of a home. One of the early steps is for potential hosts to reach out to every neighbor on their block to let them know about the project, address concerns and answer questions.

Does the Block Project allow residents to use illegal drugs? No. Participants sign a legally binding contract that prohibits illegal drug use in the houses. Will a violent felon or sex offender be moving in next door? No. Insurance requirements prohibit it. What happens if there’s a problem? Each resident will have a case manager through a local service provider, and if an issue becomes truly intractable, the resident can be asked to leave. Do they pay rent? No. Facing Homelessness owns the homes and does not charge rent.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think government is going to solve the [homelessness] issue,” Hohlbein says. “That’s never going to happen. So, the answer is, we all have to make space in our hearts, and literally make space in our communities, to solve this issue.

After a series of one-on-one conversations and a community meeting, neighbors have an opportunity to formally object to the project; if even one person on the block objects, the Block home won’t be built. The idea isn’t just to get community buy-in, Hohlbein says, but to turn “NIMBYs” into “YIMBYs”—people who say, “Yes in My Backyard” and actively pitch in to make the Block Project work. A psychiatric nurse, for example, might agree to be a contact in case a resident who suffers from mental illness has a crisis, or a neighbor who owns a masonry shop might offer a part-time job to someone who always wanted to become a mason.

By creating contacts between formerly homeless people and neighborhood residents, the thinking goes, the Block Project will inspire people to think about homelessness in a different way—as a challenge they can do something to address, rather than someone else’s problem to solve.

“People need to have their lens corrected,” Hohlbein says. “Whenever someone who initially voiced fear or concern learns about the larger social good, or they learn the actual answers to the questions that they have, almost across the board, every time, it goes away.”

Bobby Desjarlais’ 125-square-foot home includes a small porch.

The first volunteers who stepped up to test this utopian vision were Sherman and Tenenbaum. They had spent years walking past tent encampments on their way to work and wondering what they could do to help. The backdrop was the 2016 election and news that hate crimes were on the rise.

“We were feeling like this was just not the world we wanted to live in,” Sherman says. Then she heard a presentation by Hohlbein about the Block Project at the firm where she works, FSi consulting engineers. “This [seemed] like an opportunity to push back against that a little bit and support something that makes the city more compassionate and caring—all those things that felt like they were in short supply,” Sherman says. (FSi now provides pro bono support to the Block Project.)

Sherman still remembers rehearsing how she would talk her husband into hosting the first Block home in their backyard. “Dan and I are pretty private, and sharing space is kind of a big deal for people who are introverted, so I was preparing the speech in my head,” Sherman says.

Colleen Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.” 

As it turned out, she didn’t have to do much convincing. “I got about two sentences into my spiel, and Dan said, ‘Oh. We should do that!’ That was the entire conversation.”

Getting from that initial conversation to move-in day turned out to be a slower process. To find its first resident—and in recognition of the fact that Native Americans experience homelessness at rates that vastly exceed their representation in the population—the Block Project turned to the Chief Seattle Club, an organization that provides culturally appropriate services and assistance to homeless and low-income Native Americans. (All Block Project residents must come to the project through an organization that provides case management. Besides the Chief Seattle Club, Hohlbein says, the project is working with Mary’s Place, The Sophia Way and the Community Psychiatric Clinic.) Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk says the group vetted a number of people, but decided that Desjarlais—a member of the Cree Tribe and a Canadian native who had been homeless for more than a decade—would be an ideal fit.

“He’s just one of the most wonderful people, with crazy amounts of joy and love for people,” Echohawk says. Tenenbaum and Sherman clicked with the 76-year-old Desjarlais right away. “I remember saying to Kim that I had a really good feeling about him,” Tenenbaum says. Echohawk, who was present when the three first met at the Chief Seattle Club, recalls that “it was like introducing family to each other who didn’t know they were family.”

Desjarlais did not want to be interviewed for this story—the couple says he has been overwhelmed by media attention—but he did allow a tour of his house, which is tidy and feels much larger than its 125-square-foot footprint. Inside, a tiny bathroom is separated by a curtain from a cleverly designed living area with a cooktop and refrigerator, built-in shelves, and a pull-out bed and desk. Outside, there’s a locked storage space and a small covered porch that looks out on the couple’s compact backyard—a peaceful space filled with sunlight, flowers and one slightly grumpy cat.

Sherman says one of the biggest things she’s learned in the six months or so of sharing their space with Desjarlais is how many things people with stable housing take for granted. “When Bobby first went into his house, we’d taken all this time to make everything perfect and all cute and arranged and homey, and he walked in and the first thing he said was, ‘Wow, pillows! I haven’t had pillows in 10 years! I’ve had to sleep with my coat and my shoes as a pillow,’” Sherman recalls. “And for some reason, I guess because that’s something that I completely take for granted, that really got to me emotionally—the idea that something as simple as a pillow can really impact the quality of your life.”

Although all their neighbors supported their plan to host a formerly homeless resident in their backyard, Sherman and Tenenbaum say that the Block Project’s vision—a network of neighbors pitching in to welcome Desjarlais and help him be a part of the community—hasn’t quite panned out. “Most people on our block haven’t been super involved,” Tenenbaum says.

Nor has Desjarlais drastically changed his routine; he still goes to the Chief Seattle Club in the morning and hangs out with his friends downtown during the day. In other ways, though, his life is completely different. He quit drinking and has gotten his diabetes under control. He gets to sleep in past 6 in the morning. And, of course, he has a home—one where, Tenenbaum and Sherman say, he is welcome to live “forever” if he chooses. Unlike many programs that offer housing to the homeless, there is no expectation that participants in this program move on to other housing.

Even after six months, Sherman says, “Bobby will send us a little text message every morning saying, ‘I can’t believe I slept so well—I slept until 7 a.m. and now I’m having cornflakes for breakfast.’ After living in a shelter where he was in a room full of 150 snoring men for so many years, just being able to sleep well has been a real luxury for him.”

At press time, the second Block home was still under construction, in the backyard of a house in Greenwood owned by Dave and Visala Hohlbein, Rex Hohlbein’s sister. On a recent weekend, volunteers swarmed the property, hand-digging a trench for a sewer line and stapling VaproShield to the exterior of the structure. When it’s complete, it will house a formerly homeless man named C’zar Carter, who is currently staying in Sherman and Tenenbaum’s basement.

It will, of course, take more than two Block homes to make this project a success, and more than one of these small houses on every block in Seattle to house the estimated 12,000 people in King County who lack a permanent place to call home. But elected officials who have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the homelessness crisis welcome all potential solutions—particularly those, like the Block Project, that rely on donations rather than government subsidies.

City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who has advocated for the Block Project and calls Hohlbein a visionary, says she sees the project as part of a “silver buckshot”—rather than a “silver bullet”—strategy for addressing homelessness. But she’s realistic about the financial and psychological challenges the project will face in scaling up to anything approaching Hohlbein’s vision.

Homeowners across the city will have to accept the idea of having formerly homeless people as neighbors; the Block Project will have to figure out how to pay for dozens or hundreds of tiny homes, which cost about $40,000 each for materials alone (though some materials are likely to be donated). “The fact is that we’ve got to work within a system and with neighbors who are saying, ‘We don’t want those people in our neighborhood,’ which is very discouraging,” Bagshaw says. “And that is what Rex is changing.”

Sherman and Tenenbaum have more modest goals—to house one person, and “put the idea in people’s heads to think of different solutions,” as Sherman puts it. Tenenbaum adds: “A lot of people want to help. They want to do good things. And I’m all for huge amounts of spending and government assistance. But there also need to be ways for people to express their need to help.”

“It feels better to be doing something than doing nothing,” Sherman says.

 

Morning Crank: Potential for Conflicts

1. The Seattle Times ran a story this weekend about the Move Seattle Levy shortfall, including the latest on “recalibrated expectations” for what the $930 million, voter-approved plan will cover. (I broke the news about the Move Seattle Levy “reset” at the beginning of April.) The story, by David Gutman, includes the news that the firm Cocker Fennessy will be paid about $34,000 to do an assessment of SDOT, on top of about $30,000 to “coordinate the city’s next steps” on the streetcar project. Anne Fennessy, one of two partners in the firm, has known Durkan for decades.

There are a few details about Fennessy that Gutman didn’t mention. First: Fennessy is married to David Moseley, one of Durkan’s three deputy mayors . The contracts thus constitute a potential conflict of interest: Not only is Fennessy an old friend and colleague of Durkan’s, she is married to Durkan’s second-in-command. (Both Cocker Fennessy and Moseley maxed out to Durkan’s campaign last year, giving $500 each.)

There are ways to address this kind of potential conflict. Previously, when Moseley was director of Washington State Ferries, Cocker Fennessy simply agreed not to represent the ferry system. However, as deputy mayor, Moseley’s duties are broader than they were at WSF, making potential conflicts of interest harder to track. Moseley has taken the lead for the mayor’s office on a few specific issues—homelessness and issues related to utilities, such as the appointment of a new City Light director—but has met with city council members about other issues, including transportation. (And, of course, utilities make up a huge part of the streetcar construction project, which is already underway on First Avenue).

Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s spokeswoman, says Moseley “has not participated in any aspect of the streetcar review nor the broader review of SDOT. Deputy Mayor Moseley and Anne Fennessy have also previously consulted with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.”

Second: Fennessy is a board member at the Transportation Choices Coalition, whose former director, Shefali Ranganathan, is another one of Durkan’s deputy mayors. Transportation for Washington, TCC’s political arm, maxed out to Durkan last year and endorsed her over her opponent Cary Moon. (TCC signed a letter supporting the streetcar earlier this year.) Ranganathan is the key point of contact for the streetcar project, according to Formas.

And third: Fennessy and Moseley live directly on the streetcar route, where the street has already been ripped up for construction.

None of these connections, on its own, necessarily constitutes an insurmountable ethical issue. But the fact that the mayor has given two high-profile contracts to an old friend and colleague who also has deep ties to two of her deputy mayors—an old friend who happens to live right next one of the projects she is being paid to help review, a project of which Durkan herself has been critical—certainly reads like a throwback to the cozy, insular governance of old Seattle. Tim Ceis, anyone?

2. The Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library—which, as I reported last week, excludes a larger number of people for sleeping or lying down on library property than most other branches—has installed a series of bent metal pipes to deter people from sitting on flat surfaces outside the library. The pipes, according to library spokeswoman Andra Addison, cost about $10,000 for “fabrication and installation” and were installed after “patrons and neighbors …  expressed concern about security and hygiene issues, citing unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles, which fall through the grates into the parking garage below.

“The purpose of the metal work is to limit access to those areas to ensure an outdoor environment that is safe, clean and welcoming to patrons and passersby,” Addison said.

Hostile architecture is a type of urban design in which public spaces are constructed or altered to make them uncomfortable or unpleasant places for people to sit, lie down, or linger. It includes things like armrests in the middle of benches, spikes on windowsills, bike racks where homeless people used to camp, and “metalwork” that prevents anyone, homeless and housed alike, from perching on flat surfaces outside public buildings.

3. The search to find a permanent replacement for former Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who resigned last December, continues to creak forward, with the appointment earlier this month of a panel of experts to help Mayor Jenny Durkan select a new SDOT leader. The committee reportedly includes: Former Washington State Department of Transportation director Paula Hammond, Transportation Choices Coalition policy director Hester Serebrin, Seattle Metro Chamber director Marilyn Strickland, King County Metro general manager Rob Gannon, and Port of Seattle regional transportation manager Geri Poor.

Durkan has not announced a new interim director to replace Sparrman, who will leave at the end of August to take a job at HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large engineering contract with Sound Transit as well as numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Meanwhile, Andrew Glass Hastings—who, as SDOT’s transit and mobility director, has been an advocate for multimodal transportation, including pedestrian and bike infrastructure as well as the controversial downtown streetcar—is out. His deputy, Christina Van Valkenburgh, will reportedly replace him.